Saturday, December 05, 2009
The 'Cool Docks', colloquially known as "Lao Ma Tou", was supposed to be the new, exciting, "in" place in Shanghai, a worthy successor and worthwhile competitor to Xintiandi, a wildly popular entertainment/resto/live band complex with restored "Shikumen"-style architecture, where thousands of locals and foreigners converge every night to eat and party and let their hair loose while in Shanghai.
Hence, yours truly braved the extreme cold and ventured forth to this night spot. Surprisingly, the staff at the hotel and the taxi driver were not familiar with the place, and it took a bit of persistent questioning before someone produced the name of the Cool Docks in Chinese characters.
Which should really have been a tip-off for me. Why?
After alighting from the cab, and entering the complex, one is greeted with absolute silence, and lack of any human crowd whatsoever.
I mentally calculated the number of people present whilst talking a walk around the complex. Let me see, maybe 20 paying customers in total? Not quite the numbers the people who conceptualized this place had in mind, that's for sure!
The array of restos is not so bad. Cuisines represented are Greek, Indian, Chinese, American (steakhouse), etc. with some coffee shops and tea houses (even Starbucks is here).
I finally settled on Mythos (Greek resto), where the staff saw fit to put me on the 3rd floor. Strange, because only one table was occupied on the 1st floor (2 persons at that!), and the 2nd floor was totally empty. So, i was the only patron on the 3rd floor!
(see below pic of Mythos interiors)
And while the food wasn't bad (expensive, though), it was a rather weird experience with 3 wait-staff hanging on to your every bite of food you eat and every sip of juice you take. :D
Oh, and that ubiquitous Starbucks branch? TOTALLY EMPTY!
You might say the Cool Docks is totally un-cool at the moment (pun intended). Which is a bit puzzling, really. Lest one thinks the people in Shanghai were opting to stay at home due to the cold weather, i went to Xintiandi the night after, and the place was packed to the rafters. Go figure.
So, if you happen to be in Shanghai, check this place out. . .before it closes down! :D
(The 'Cool Docks' is located at 505 Zhongshan Nan Lu, Shanghai, a stone's throw from the Bund)
Saturday, August 29, 2009
WOULD YOU PAY TO BE ON FACEBOOK?
It's insidious. It's addictive. It's the productivity-sapping bane of offices worldwide.
On October 24, 2007, Microsoft announced that it had purchased a 1.6% share of Facebook for US$240 million, giving Facebook a total implied value of around US$15 billion. Knowing Bill Gates, Facebook must be rolling in dough, right?
Apparently not, it seems.
A. How does Facebook make money?
How many people are on Facebook? No one knows exactly, but latest estimates range from 175 million to 250 million users.
A cursory internet search showed the following: According to founder Mark Zuckerberg, revenues of US$300 - 350 million are projected for 2009 [Feb. '09].
FB is supposed to be breaking even, but they plan to spend US$200 million on servers next year, which might land them in the RED.
Sources of revenues are essentially the ff:
i. Advertising (brand ads, deal with Microsoft)
Apparently, companies pay Facebook a hefty sum of money to place their ads on the right-hand side of the screen. These ads are supposedly customized based on your stated interests in your profile, so that there is a higher likelihood they would be of interest to you.
But really, when was the last time you actually clicked on a banner ad? Enough said.
ii. Virtual goods
Facebook launched Gifts on February 8, 2007, which allowed users to send virtual gifts to their friends that appear on the recipient's profile. Gifts cost US$1.00 each to purchase, and a personalized message can be attached to each gift.
But can this be a major revenue driver in the coming years? I would think that people are more interested in answering quizzes, and tagging friends on countless party photos, and coming up with feeling-profound status updates (ex., "Chubbs thinks happiness is optional. Que sera sera."), than in giving each other virtual gifts.
Facebook's database on its users is a veritable goldmine, and there have been plans to sell the information to other companies, but these have been hindered by protests from users about invasion of privacy.
B. Alternative revenue-generating scheme for Facebook
Well, here's my suggestion: Stop making Facebook a free site, and START CHARGING USERS.
Of course, the idea of pay-as-you-go subscriptions for internet content is not entirely new. Stanley Bing, columnist of Fortune magazine, is skeptical of this approach. In his August 17th column, he barked, "How about Facebook? Would millions of lonely, homebound losers be encapsulating their lives in all their digital splendor if they had to whip out a credit card to do so?"
Hey, don't discount it entirely, Bing-O! I believe it's worth a shot.
Let us discuss the arguments then:
No. 1 : "If Facebook is going to start charging me for using its site, i'll just delete my account." (or not bother to log in anymore)
This is obviously a valid concern. How many people would be so disgusted / dejected / disappointed /
Not everyone, I think.
In fact, I would bet that "heavy" Facebook u
Let's do the math. For example, if 75 million users drop out and you collect US$5.00/year from the remaining 125 million or so users, that's easily US$625 million in revenue.
The key here is to make the payments as unobtrusive as possible, and reasonable enough so as not to make a significant dent on the individual user's wallet.
How can it possibly be done?
a) "Micropayments" on selected actions
Off the top of my mind (this is not an exhaustive list) :
Logging in to view friends' pics and profiles - FREE
Updating your status / profile - FREE
Posting comments on friends' pics and "likes"- FREE
Taking quizzes - hmm....okay, FREE
Adding friends - say, FREE for first 300 friends, and you get charged something like 1 US cent for each friend exceeding this number
Uploading pics - can be FREE for first 50 pics, and then a 2-cent charge on each pic thereafter (hey, bandwidth does cost money)
SuperPoke! - definitely 1 cent for each
Playing games - perhaps FREE at first, but if you keep on playing Yoville or Typing Maniac for hours on end, it will cost you.
The total amount you spend each month would then be charged to your credit card bill.
Of course, the general level of activity would likely slow down, as people think twice about taking certain actions, etc. You might even argue it makes it so much less fun!
b) Purchase of stored-value units
Taking off from the prepaid cellphone card industry, one can opt to buy a certain amount of units (say US$10.00) online from Facebook, which would be debited as you play games, give gifts, upload pics, etc.
This would work for users who fear they would be unable to control their "spending" on Facebook actions.
Meanwhile, Facebook management can allay advertisers' concerns, by pointing out that the members who dropped out tend to be those people who likely didn't log in too much; didn't update their profiles; only had a few friends, etc. (in general, those people who never got into the spirit of things, as it were). Hence the remaining membership are the "quality" ones, who are more receptive to ads.
Further, they can continue to beef up content and features, to prevent the drop-out rate from becoming too high. To convince non-users to sign up under the new pay-as-you-go scheme, they can make an online ad campaign that goes something like, "Facebook is where the fun is." or "Facebook: Where all your friends are talking about everything, except you."
No. 2 : "If Facebook is going to start charging me for using its site, i'll just move to other social networking sites."
Again, this is certainly a valid response. But which site(s) offer a viable alternative to Facebook?
Friendster is passe and full of scammers. Multiply and MySpace's features are lacking in comparison.
One might make the following riposte, "Well, i'm sure someone will create a new social networking site, with even better features, and everyone will go there."
True, this is very possible. But would this hypothetical new site's business plan be based on advertising revenues only? How then would it go about making a positive return on investment?
So, dear reader, what do you think? Is the above analysis actually worth contemplating about? Or is it pure hogwash?
Hence, I'm asking you (yes, you) this question: Would you pay to be on Facebook?
Hit the comment button NOW.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
COBRATOX cream with snake venom
(Bonus Post, Saigon-Siem Reap-Hanoi-Halong vacation)
I guess i had ended my series on Vietnam and Cambodia too soon. Given my love for weird, oddball stuff, i couldn't resist posting about this new discovery below.
While browsing at one of the numerous souvenir shops at the Cu Chi Tunnels, my interest was piqued by this product:
Yes, you had read the box correctly, "Cream with Snake Venom". It is intended to provide relief for arthritis, rheumatism and similar ailments.
While other creams / ointments / liniments such as Bengay (from USA), Salonpas (from Japan), White Flower (from HK), Counterpain (from Thailand), Omega (from Phils.) and Tiger Balm (from Singapore) are basically combinations of Menthol / Methyl Salicylate (Oil of Wintergreen) / Camphor with other essential oils, Cobratox does them all one better with its unique ingredient.
It says right there on the side of the box, "Dried venom of cobra 0.0005 g".
Cobratox is produced by the formal-sounding Center for Rearing, Planting, Researching & Manufacturing Pharmaceutical Products of Military Zone IX.
I don't know about you, but what comes to my mind is a bunch of grim-faced men wearing combat fatigues slitting open the throats of writhing cobras and extracting their venom before stitching their insides back again before putting them on these big glass jars filled with water, which men are supposed to buy to increase their stamina in making . . . ahh, "Boom Boom". [A Vietnamese euphemism for . . . but let's not go there, shall we? ;D]
It was kinda cheap at 20,000 VND (around US$1.15) for a 20 gram tube, so i figured there was nothing much to lose if it didn't prove effective in relieving the pain from my tennis elbow.
The accompanying piece of paper inside the box wasn't of much help (see above pic), being in Vietnamese, but there are simple instructions to "apply to painful area with massage 2 times daily" on the box.
I am not so sure about the science behind using dried cobra venom as a painkiller ingredient; i have this vague notion that cobra venom kills you by paralyzing you, so i guess tiny quantities will just deaden your nerves a bit (thereby providing pain relief), no? :D
So, the 500,000 VND question is, is Cobratox more effective than Bengay, Tiger Balm and the like?
I've used it for a week so far, and here is how Cobratox performs based on the ff. criteria:
Heat - packs a bit of a wallop in giving that warm, burning feeling to temporarily relieve joint pain
Odor - neutral, meaning no discernable "snaky" smell, haha :D Would be nice if it had some sort of scent.
Feel - non-greasy, easy to rub into the skin. Not slimy, thank God!
Bottomline, it performs about the same as other pain relief ointments, so perhaps the REAL reason to use Cobratox is to be able to stretch the truth a bit and brag to your gymmates / sports teammates / etc. as such:
"My doctor has prescribed alternative therapy for my tennis elbow. We are applying dried cobra venom on it, which will eliminate the pain, AND as a side effect, increase my agility and quickness on the courts, AND increase my stamina to make Boom Boom. Unfortunately, the ointment is highly toxic and highly limited, so it is not available to the public."
Thursday, April 30, 2009
(Conclusion, Saigon-Siem Reap-Hanoi-Halong vacation)
Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located at Halong City at the northeastern part of Vietnam. Going to Halong City from Hanoi takes around 3 hours by van, on surprisingly well-paved roads.
Halong City itself is a singularly charmless place, with the usual mix of hotels, casinos and shopping places. Located just 90 minutes away from Vietnam's border with China, i'm willing to bet that most of these developments in the city were funded by Chinese investors. Some establishments seem to cater primarily to Chinese clients,
being fronted by Mandarin-speaking staff and quoting prices in RMB.
Halong Bay is also known by the more dramatic name [drumroll, please] "Bay of the Descending Dragon." Legend has it that dragons once descended from heaven and spouted streams of jade droplets that fell into the waters of Halong Bay, forming thousands of islands and islets, and helping defend Vietnam against attacking armies.
Of course, the truth is a bit more prosaic. The islands are limestone rock formations, with caves, lakes, etc. for exploring in the bigger ones.
Truth be told, this was the part of the trip i was looking forward to the most, and was quite happy as we boarded the Chinese-style "junk" for our tour. I had heard instances wherein the junks and sampans are not allowed to depart for the Halong Bay cruise, due to fog and inclement weather. Thankfully, the sky was all clear today.
The view from the upper deck of the junk was lovely. It was quite a sight to see the various shapes and sizes of the limestone karsts and isles, with the sails of the boats silhouetted against the horizon. We dropped by a cave (for some fairly rigorous spelunking), and checked out a 'typical' fishing boat as well.
Of course, the preferred (in)activity of a certain grumpy slacker i know is just to stretch back and relax, like so:
On board, we partook of an excellent seafood lunch, before turning back to return to shore.
Aside from the daytrip cruise we took, there are tour operators offering overnight and even 3D/2N Halong Bay cruises, on board junks which are fitted with cabins and other amenities.
Halong Bay is one of the candidates for the New 7 Wonders of Nature campaign. Click here if you want to check the official site and vote for it.
SCENES FROM A 'XICH LO'
(Part Four, Saigon-Siem Reap-Hanoi-Halong vacation)
Hanoi is the cultural capital of Vietnam, and one must not fail to tour around the Old Quarter area, basically a collection of narrow and bustling streets with tube houses selling all sorts of goods right on the pavement.
Hanoi's Old Quarter was originally arranged with each street selling one category of goods, so you have Silk Street, Silver Street, Paper Street and the like. But at present, this is no longer strictly followed.
We took a tour of the Old Quarter, while riding a contraption called the 'Xich Lo' (cyclo). As can be seen from the pics, it is a semi-open carriage, with the passenger seated in front, and the driver at the back.
At first, we were a bit hesitant to take the tour. J.N.'s mom thought it would be dangerous, since the cyclo did look flimsy. Nevertheless, our daredevil spirits prevailed, and J.N., R.T. and i were soon off, with our respective cyclo drivers pedalling leisurely.
The operative word here being "leisurely", as the cyclo drivers pedal at a glacial pace. It is much quicker to walk on your own! The ride becomes enjoyable once you get over the (very real) possibility that you will get hit by a motorcycle or car.
As it is, we were honked at lots of times by impatient motorcycle drivers, who were probably cursing underneath their breath at our cyclos for partially blocking their path.
Navigating the narrow streets of the Old Quarter proved to be a delightful experience. We passed by hotels, travel agencies, art galleries, restaurants, bars, music clubs, stores selling clothes, toys, groceries, fruits, etc., even one or two stores selling propaganda art posters; sidewalk cafes; rows and rows of motorcycles parked at the curbs.
One can really see and feel the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, at full blast. I realized, this tour by cyclo was actually a perfect springboard if one wanted to walk around and explore on one's own, at a later occasion.
After going around for some 30 minutes, we were dropped off by the cyclo drivers with all limbs intact, happy yet somewhat relieved.
So, my advice to people who are wary about the cyclo, go! Laugh in the face of danger and get on that cyclo!
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
THE 'WINDOW SILL' PHOTO SERIES AMIDST THE TEMPLES
(Part Three, Saigon-Siem Reap-Hanoi-Halong vacation)
Around a week before the trip, i was enthusiastically telling a friend about our itinerary in Siem Reap, with stops to the various temples such as Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei, Angkor Thom, and the world-famous Angkor Wat.
"That's funny, i've never thought of you as a 'temple' person," she mused.
I just laughed, and gave her remark no further thought.
My friend turned out to be quite prescient.
It was 9:30 AM, the sun was shining its warm, radiant rays cheerfully over the hordes of tourists arriving at Banteay Srei, our tour group included.
Our guide, a rather funny-looking fellow named Chay, was extremely professional and well-versed in the intricacies of ancient Khmer history. He waxed eloquently on the gods Shiva, Vishnu and Rama, amongst other things.
Unfortunately, after twenty minutes or so of standing under the sweltering heat, i was already suffering from 'temple fatigue', and wanted nothing more than to pour a cold bottle of water over my head.
So it went with our visits to the other temples. I could barely remember any of the historical tidbits narrated by Chay!
But of course, to keep myself interested, i resorted to taking my usual 'trick' camera shots and enlisted tour groupmates R.T. and J.N.
"Let's take some artsy, meticulously-arranged yet supposedly 'candid' photos, just like they do in most travel magazines," i suggested.
Hence, our visits to the temples degenerated into horsing around, making weird poses. Here are some of the 'artsy' photos we took, which i henceforth dub the "Window Sill at the Temples" series:
This one above is me, leaning against the wall while thinking despondently of my stock portfolio.
This pic above is of J.N., grinning like a cat who just devoured a whole saucer of condensed milk (instead of mixing it with his iced Vietnamese coffee ;D). He's probably thinking of his latest painting.
Due to the overwhelming, insistent clamor from my readers [i can imagine my friend, amazonic R., muttering scornfully, "yeah, right!"], i've included a face pic of myself. Haha.
Seriously now, this one was taken at Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom. I really like the contrast of this one, the dark foreground hiding the subject (me) in the shadows while the smiling image of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara looks down benignly on me, as he gets a suntan.
Bye for now, folks! Stay tuned for posts regarding Halong Bay and the cyclos of Hanoi.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
THE GUS GUIDE TO ENJOYING A FEW DAYS IN SAIGON & HANOI, VIETNAM
((Part Two, Saigon-Siem Reap-Hanoi-Halong vacation)
Part of what makes travelling to other countries fun and not-so-fun are the different customs, beliefs and practices one encounters, which leave one either open-mouthed with amazement, or shaking one's head in disgust, or exasperated by the absurdity of the locals, or all of the above.
I've come up with a partial list of stuff to expect in Saigon and Hanoi, so future first-timers to these wonderful cities have an equally wonderful experience. Here goes:
1. Money exchange
When changing money upon arrival at the airport, some banks offer a more favourable US$-VND exchange rate, but with a 3% service charge written in the fine print.
Better choose a bank which clearly states "No service charge", even if their exchange rate is less. You will come out ahead.
2. Crossing the streets
In these cities, the motorcycles rule the streets by sheer number. It constantly amazed me that there were hardly any accidents involving these vehicles.
Crossing the main streets can be problematic. Make slow, firm steps, while putting out your hand to signal "Stop!" to the onrushing motorcycles. Under NO circumstances is it advisable to do the cha-cha ("double-double-single"), as this is a surefire way to get hit.
While the motorcycles seem like ready to run you over, just stay rooted on your spot, and they will part like the Red Sea and weave around you. Take my word for it.
Bargain hard, but always with a smile. The old trick of walking away when the vendor doesn't agree to your price works surprisingly well, but do not squeeze the last VND from them. Hey, they probably need the money a lot more than you do.
The lady vendors at Ben Thanh market in Saigon are particularly aggressive, to the point of pulling at your shirt and whacking you on the shoulder if you inquire about prices, but fail to buy.
Surprisingly, English comprehension is not that good. It is best to learn some basic phrases, such as: "Xin chao" (hello), "Cam on" (thank you), "Bao nhieu" (how much?), "Mac qua" (too expensive!), and "Co dep qua" (you're beautiful).
According to Frommers, "any show of anger is a definite no-no", as this causes the locals to lose face.
Of course, if the taxi drivers are taking the long route to your destination; or the coffee shop waitress forgets the condensed milk when you ordered the "Iced Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk"; or they tell you a can of bottled water costs 15,000 VND when it is clearly stated as costing 10,000 VND on the menu (all of which happened to us), then go ahead by all means and raise your voice a bit.
6. Food & Drink
Speaking of which, not to try the "Iced Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk" (Ca phe sua dac) even once during your visit is borderline criminal!
When visiting the Cu Chi tunnels in Saigon (a must-see, in my opinion), bring insect repellant.
I repeat, bring insect repellant.
8. Money matters
Be extremely careful when buying stuff and getting change, especially if you pay in US Dollars and the store will give change in VND.
The various denominations of the VND notes tend to look alike (the green-colored 10,000 VND and 100,000 VND notes are deceptively similar-looking), given that they all have Uncle Ho beaming at you, making them prone to mistakes (intentional or otherwise) on the part of the seller.
After all, one must not give up one's millionaire status by being careless, right?
(Many thanks to May Ibalio and Diederick Helder for the lovely photos)
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
HOW TO BECOME A MILLIONAIRE IN ONE EASY STEP
(Part One, Saigon-Siem Reap-Hanoi-Halong vacation)
Forget all those 'Rich Dad, Poor Dad' books, and their ilk.
All you have to do is board a plane and fly to Vietnam, where one US Dollar gets you the equivalent of 17,700 VND [Vietnam Dong].
So, when i exchanged US$100 at the airport upon arrival in Ho Chi Minh (also known as Saigon) city, i was handed more or less 1.7 million VND. Woohoo!
As can be seen from the pic below, the VND notes come in big denominations, most commonly 100,000, 50,000 and 10,000 VND.
The largest note is 500,000 VND [not in photo].
The smaller ones, such as the 500 VND and 1000 VND notes, also come in coins and are pretty much useless, since most prices seem to start at 10,000 VND.
Of course, it took a while to get used to seeing and hearing prices quoted at such huge amounts. And even more difficult was mentally converting prices into US dollars (and then on to PHPs).
While at the Ben Thanh market, i inquired how much a box of coffee was.
"50,000 VND," stated the rotund vendor.
"What?! Mac Qua! [Too expensive!]" i cried, only to realize a few seconds later that this amount was something like US$3.00 only. Well, it was still expensive, and we eventually bargained her to a more reasonable level.
A sampling of other typical prices include:
Paper fan at Ben Thanh market = 15,000 VND
Pho [noodle soup] at a Pho 24 outlet = 34,000 VND
N & M [local upscale brand] men's pants = 499,000 VND
Of course, the astute reader will point out that there is a catch to my millionaire status in Vietnam. After all, it is not the amount of money per se that matters, but the amount of goods and services one can purchase or exchange for it.
As my college thesis partner-turned-financial whiz MonT. will probably put it, "You may be a millionaire on paper, but you have the purchasing power of a pauper. Olats ka pa rin! [Loser!]"
Thursday, April 02, 2009
COLORFUL TIBET IN SHANGHAI
It's March. Yup, the time of the year to fly again to Shanghai for work.
It was also another chance to have dinner with my friend JPL, and the friendly couple, Mary and Looi, who had chosen a Tibetan resto this time. (We had eaten at a Xinjiang resto the last time 2 years ago)
After some walking around in circles, we finally found the resto. The exteriors are nothing much to write about, and i had a huge feeling at the back of my mind that this resto would be a stinker. Tibetan cuisine wasn't exactly setting the world on fire, was it?
But once one stepped inside, everything suddenly changed. To say this resto was bursting with color was an understatement; it was breathng and exploding with vivid colors any where one looked!
And should one feel compelled to dine inside a tent, just like they do in Tibet (?), there's a colorful tent waiting:
The staff, who are dressed in colorful costumes, go around table to table, offering toasts in their native tongue.
We had absolutely no clue what they were saying. Hopefully, it wasn't in colorful language. :D
Onwards to the food.
The menu featured a one-page ad on their whole roasted sheep (complete with a ribbon tied around its head!). It looked tempting; alas, it has to be pre-ordered a day ahead.
Mary and Looi took charge of ordering, so i didn't have an opportunity to write down the exact names of the dishes. Below is a run-through of most of the dishes we ate:
First up, a dish of Alfafa sprouts, which proved to be chewy and tasty.
Second, lamb ribs. Lip-smacking good! A tad too oily, though. Nonetheless, I could have eaten another order of this all by myself.
Third, yak meat. When i tasted this dish, i asked JPL, "Why does it taste so much like eggplant?"
Well, that's because it WAS eggplant mostly. Turns out the yak meat was those little bits and pieces ground up.
Up next, the Tibetan baked macaroni. :D
It was actually a tomato stew, with cheese, potato, etc. Looked a bit yucky at first, but it was actually pretty good. The tomato was intensely sweet, but perfectly balanced by the potatoes.
Then, it got more exotic. The picture below is of the quail egg/veggies/dates/chili/hotdog/fishball soup with Tibetan ants.
Yes, you read correctly. Ants. These were supposed to be good for one's health.
With some trepidation, i scooped a bowl of the soup, turned to JPL, and solemnly stated, "I hereby appoint you as executor of my last will and testament", to everyone's hearty laughter.
Here's a close-up view of the ants:
They're pretty big and horrific-looking, but you won't really taste them at all. Everyone agreed the soup was good, and got second helpings, myself included.
Then, spinach soup, with naan bread. More like pureed spinach, sort of a goop. It tasted like, well, spinach.
Yak tea [not pictured] was also served, which in my opinion, tasted like regular tea mixed with low-fat/skim milk powder.
Throughout dinner, we watched the cultural program being performed by the staff, which consisted mainly of dancing and singing. At the end, guests were "invited" to join in a group native dance.
To our amusement, JPL was roped in to go up the stage and partake of this audience participation segment. He proceeded to do the Tibetan tap dance and Tibetan two-step shuffle with much gusto. (No pics here though, lest his reputation take a permanent beating ;-D)
There was a raffle as well, and i won a coupon entitling me to the lamb ribs dish (worth RMB 80.00) during my next visit!
Yak!! (Tibetan word for "Yes!!!", or so i think :D)
(The resto is located at the ground floor of the Shanghai Stadium)
Thursday, March 19, 2009
BOHOLANO CACAO FARMER OUT TO USE THE TARSIER FOR HIS OWN NEFARIOUS ENDS
(Bohol vacation, Conclusion)
Most visitors to Bohol go to the Chocolate Hills Complex, ooh and ahh over these unique formations (there are 1,268 of them, in case you're counting), crack a few jokes about their resemblance to female mammaries and take 'trick digicam shots showing them jumping over the hills, etc.
Most are unaware that there is another side to the Chocolate Hills. I found this out quite by accident myself. Having mentioned casually to our tour guide, whom we shall call Gulliver (for that is his name), about the extremely delicious cups of hot local chocolate i had been drinking at breakfast for the last couple of days, he quickly realized he was in the presence of a fellow chocoholic.
"Did you know that cacao trees are grown at the base of the Hills in the municipality of Sagbayan?" he queried. "That's where the cocoa beans that go into our local chocolate come from."
"Really? I didn't know that at all!" i replied enthusiastically. "So REAL chocolate comes from the Chocolate Hills? How cool is that!! Do you think we could visit the farmers' plantation?"
Thus, the day after saw me and Gulliver taking a 2-hour van ride to Sagbayan, where he had arranged for an interview with Mang Bokbok, one of the 80 or so farmers active in the cultivation of the cacao tree in Bohol.
Mang Bokbok turned out to be a wiry, quiet man in his late fifties, with a weather-beaten face from too much sun exposure. He gave us a brief overview of the cultivation of the cacao tree, and the harvest, processing and production into chocolate. At present, they were growing trees at some 200 out of the 1,200+ Chocolate Hills, all in the remote parts of the municipality, so as not to spoil tourists' camera shots.
According to Mang Bokbok, the rich, fertile soil, coupled with the shade provided by the Hills, were ideal conditions for the cacao tree to flourish and bear much fruit.
Rather skeptical, i asked him, "How come the government has not promoted Bohol chocolate at all? Or your plantations as tourist spots?"
Mang Bokbok frowned slightly, and he launched into a furious tirade. Gulliver took some time to translate his words. Turned out there was a dispute between two opposite factions of the cacao farmers. It went like this:
The Bohol International Industrial Klan (BIIK), being composed of farmers whose sons and daughters were disinclined to carry on with the business, was lobbying for their farmlands to be converted into housing subdivisions.
Meanwhile, the Bohol Underground Land Owners Klan (BULOK), of which Mang Bokbok was the president, believed it was only a matter of time before the world would discover the fantastic qualities of Boholano chocolate. So, they wanted the government to give tax incentives and subsidies to their production, to make it more competitive.
With the two groups warring with each other, the Department of Tourism (DOT) was wary of promoting their cacao plantations as 'eco-nature' destinations.
Besides, to get to their location would require at least 2 hours of driving through dusty, unpaved and winding roads, not necessarily any tourist's cup of hot choco (pun intended).
Mang Bokbok had no love lost for the local government. He described the mayor as "corrupt", who hadn't yet fulfilled his campaign promise to provide the farmers with a new, automated roasting machine for their beans.
The sun was setting, and Gulliver and i were preparing to get back to Panglao.
As we thanked Mang Bokbok for his time, he slyly smiled, and confided the "secret" project he was working on right now. He had heard of the "Alamid coffee", reputedly the most expensive coffee in the world.
This is what made it unique: It is made from the beans found in the droppings (yes, we also know it as 'feces', 'poop' or 'shit') of the Philippine Civet, a cat-like nocturnal mammal closely similar to the mongoose.
The civets eat coffee berries, but the beans inside are swallowed and passed out whole (undigested) by the animal. These beans are gathered from droppings found at the farm. Then, these are filtered, dried under the sun for several days and then roasted for 7 hours.
This inspired a brain wave in Mang Bokbok. He then set about obtaining (through dubious means, i must say) three dozen tarsiers from the sanctuary in Corella, and had been force feeding cacao beans on these poor creatures. Since the tarsiers' diet was composed of crickets and other insects, they were unable to process the beans properly, and said beans go through their digestive tracts undigested.
Further, to ramp up production quickly, Mang Bokbok had installed bright compact fluourescent lights inside his tarsiers' cages, thus depriving them of sleep and raising their stress levels. This had the effect of increasing their poop production threefold.
Quite ingenious, and devious, at the same time.
I asked, "Err....how does the chocolate from the tarsiers' shit taste like?"
Mang Bokbok closed his eyes, and started waxing rhapsodically about the intense, full-bodied aroma and creamy, vanilla-like flavour with a hint of lemony after-taste of the chocolate produced from the tarsiers' droppings. He even offered us a taste, which Gulliver and i quickly declined.
Apparently, he had no qualms about exploiting an endangered animal like the tarsier at all.
"The government is shit. The DOT is full of shit," he opined. With a bemused half-smile on his lined, weary face, he added, "So why not make money from the tarsiers' shit?"
[This story is a product of my imagination, and is pure nonsense]