Philippines

The Philippines - Our Route & Numbers

 Alex & Madie’s travel route in the Philippines.

Alex & Madie’s travel route in the Philippines.

Some Final Thoughts

A few years ago in San Francisco two film students working on a video project stopped and asked me: “What is it like being a Filipino-American today?” I stood silent, not knowing how to answer. I was confused, only knowing what it’s like being “American,” and only using “Filipino” when describing my ethnicity and the food my family ate. I felt guilty for not having the words to reply pridefully. Today, I understand my puzzlement. It only took a third trip, an intense month, and an outsider’s perspective to get there (thank you Alex.) So, I would be remiss not to offer some final thoughts, along with graphics and numbers (for you Mui!). It is my motherland, after all.

The United States has been idealized by the Philippines for a very long time, and continues to be so today. Because the Western influence is so strong and the colonial mentality still exists (it’s the only Asian country that was colonized by the US), even the young generation does not have a full grasp of their own Filipino history and identity. As an American-born Filipino, where does that leave me? I had been immediately assimilated into American culture. I only knew José Rizal by name until a few months ago, and he is the brilliant national hero! Our identity crisis is a real thing! We are an invisible minority. I can write more about this, but E. J. R. David does it better. 

Anyway, after our time in the Philippines, I realized, for me, that being Filipino-American simply means to be from “a nation of giving, tolerance, hospitality” and resilience. I identify with the way of life I know, taught to me by my parents — to be kind and respectful, to care for each other, to give back, to make sure there is more than enough to eat, and most importantly, that everyone is an uncle, auntie, or cousin. Because that’s not confusing at all.

And now, for some fun numbers...
 

Numbers from the Philippines

  • Days in the Philippines: 25 days
  • Our daily average cost for lodging and food per person: 900 PHP ≈ $19.50
  • Cost of a 4L water: 75 PHP ≈ $1.50
  • Cost of a medium latte: 100 PHP ≈ $2.25
  • Cost of scuba diving: 3,500 PHP ≈ $75.00 for a three tank dive
  • Cost of island hopping: 1,050 PHP ≈ $23.00 for a full day
  • Cost of renting a scooter: 500 PHP ≈ $10.75 for 24 hours
     
  • Total time on an airplane: 17 hours and 45 minutes
  • Total time on a bus: 34 hours
  • Total time on a boat: 16 hours
     

How we got around

  Alex & Madie’s mode of transportation in the Philippines.

Alex & Madie’s mode of transportation in the Philippines.

The Philippines - Coron & The Last Days

 The beauty of Kayangan Lake, with its crystal clear turquoise waters and green hills.

The beauty of Kayangan Lake, with its crystal clear turquoise waters and green hills.

Ray LaMontagne - You Are the Best Thing

It is with eagerness and some anxiety that we fly to Coron, Palawan. Our feelings are troubled because this is when the real trip starts. Madie’s dad has been with us on the first leg of our year-long travel and it is now time to say good-bye to him. We split ways on an early morning after a 10-hour overnight bus from Vigan to Manila, 3-4 hours of sleep, and a breakfast at Jollibee (with surprisingly good pancakes). I watch them both and pleasantly bet on which one will tear up first - it might have been me.

The diving scene convinced us to go to Palawan, a province southwest of Manila and part of the Mimaropa region, stretching as far as Borneo on the west. The province is named after its biggest island (Palawan) and was recently elected one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Its capital, Puerto Princesa, is famous for the underground river, a UNESCO World Heritage site. El Nido, a now popular resort town for its beaches, is a 6-hour bus ride from Puerto Princesa. But as we learned in Sagada, Madie and I seem to have a knack for avoiding the UNESCO sites. No offense to what the organization is trying to accomplish, but we try our best to stay off the beaten path. We find that we’re much happier not surrounded by tourists in a small boat down a river (maybe we won’t be so lucky later, but we’ll see). So instead of the obvious, we decide to go to Busuanga, the province’s northernmost island, and its main town called Coron, known for shipwreck diving. No to El Nido, no to underground rivers and no to another 6-hour bus ride (maybe that was part of it).

  Our super rustic cottage at   Kaba Kaba in Coron, Palawan, Philippines.   We are down to the very very basics here, but for peace and quiet and monkeys... this is where to be.

Our super rustic cottage at Kaba Kaba in Coron, Palawan, Philippines. We are down to the very very basics here, but for peace and quiet and monkeys... this is where to be.

As we land in Coron, we get swept away by the sun and heat. I try pretending it doesn’t affect me, (very) white guy that I am, but the climb to the Kaba Kaba guesthouse in the noon sun is enough to give me away - and make me lose a good kilo in sweat. We arrive at the guesthouse and are warmly welcomed by its owner, who shows us our room. We realize quickly the conditions we will be traveling in for a year: a small room in a bungalow, a simple toilet/shower (Philippine-style, with a hand bucket), two twin beds and a fan. It’s not much, but what else would you want for 600 pesos ($12) a night? There’s no TV (of course), but instead a hologram image of dolphins jumping in a bay. The artwork could entertain me for a good minute, so I decide to keep it for later and not look at it too long. One more crucial component to our stay: the mosquito nets, which will protect us a couple nights later when our room is suddenly swarmed by flying ants for no good reason, apart from our own stupidity in turning on the light inside at sunset with the door open (we were saved then by repelling coil and our good friend the gecko, for what was probably his best meal of the year).

I have a half smile on my face; I'm a little giggly. That’s because I realize that this is more or less what we’ll have for a year. We left our apartment in Noe Valley, our jobs (or should I say mine since she could do her’s anywhere), our comfortable daily life in one of the best cities in the world, our car, Netflix - we left all of this for this humble roof and comfort. And I’m happy because I know we made the right choice (and I hope then, she is too) because it's just enough comfort to feel home. So we settle and I get a few minutes to look outside on the porch. A family of monkeys climbs the next tree, and I hear the song of the friendly gecko. 

We’ll understand later that Kaba Kaba is close to the perfect place for us: a little away from the town proper, up a hill overlooking the island. This place is owned by our lively hosts, Kevin & Grace, an English-Filipino couple, always happy to give us tips on where to go and what to do. The monkeys living up the tree, and the fresh home-baked bread finish to convince me that this is where we should be.

 Heading to the town proper in a Coron-style tricycle. It seems that every region has their own style.

Heading to the town proper in a Coron-style tricycle. It seems that every region has their own style.

To get into town and back, we have to try out our haggling skills with the passing tricycles, and quickly find that her’s are a lot better than mine (Mui would be proud). Coron is a simple port town much like the rest of the Philippines: good food everywhere (except I still can’t deal with the dried fish) and welcoming people all around, but still the lacking infrastructure, the open sewers and the unfinished buildings. It has its share of tourists, surprisingly many French ones (so I carefully hide), bars and restaurants (our two favorite ones are owned by Francophiles), multiple island tours and dive companies. And as the rest of the Philippines, it has its share of slums. We find ourselves entering one of them as we try to escape the tourists of the town proper; we’re a little too close for the comfort of its inhabitants. So we start heading back.

 Our dive banca parked on Sangat Island for the East Tangat Wreck.

Our dive banca parked on Sangat Island for the East Tangat Wreck.

On our second day, we take off to dive with Kevin. Our boat sails between many small islands, some occupied with a single tiny house likely set by passing fishermen, some completely bare. We learn that the province of Palawan already counts 700 islands (3000 total in the Philippines). After a simple refresher dive and a small shipwreck, we dive into a large WWII wreck (Taiei Maru), which we enter and traverse through, sometimes swimming sideways to not hit the tank on smaller doors. There are steel walls above me, and about 18m of water, but once I’m past the first few meters of nervousness, diving brings a settled tranquility. I relax in the exercise of focus on steady breathing and the loud noise of bubbles rushing past my ears. Unfortunately, our third dive of the day does not go as smoothly. We get a little scare, and I might have lost my diving buddy for some time. Hopefully, I get her under the surface again before this trip is over.

We decide on the mandatory island hopping for the next day. I try out my haggling skills again and find them underwhelming -- I’m starting to realize that she’s the one with them, not me (the very white guy). Nevertheless, we find one of the cheaper tours (1050 pesos) and go visit the breathtaking landscapes carved by the limestones (yes, the same ones as in Sagada). It’s otherworldly, blue as I’ve ever seen, with white sand as much as you need it. We snorkel and find Nemo, Dory, and multiple other characters. We visit the picturesque Kanyangan lake, quickly turning into a swimming pool for tourists, and the pride of Coron: the Twin Lagoon. This was a postcard day. Every picture we take is grander than the other. For me, this is the day my skin turns bright red.

 Bancas on Banol Beach, Coron, Palawan, Philippines.

Bancas on Banol Beach, Coron, Palawan, Philippines.

 500 pesos for a moto, and we’re off to the rural part of Coron. Had to bike under burning sun and pounding rain in the span of one hour.

500 pesos for a moto, and we’re off to the rural part of Coron. Had to bike under burning sun and pounding rain in the span of one hour.

We rent motorcycles from Kaba Kaba and adventure west of the proper Coron town. There we see what we were more accustomed to north of Manila: the rural Philippines. Small villages with a few houses, each house barely fitting more than one room; the numerous roaming dogs and chickens scavenging trash side-by-side; the poor roads, sometimes paved. We speed under the harsh sun, driving past large mangrove forests, and stopping for a kayak tour at the Kingfisher Park. A friend once told us: “There’s nothing like testing a couple more than being in the same kayak.” I’d say we did average. I hope to catch the bright red Ruddy Kingfisher to no avail. We hear monkeys and see what I think is a swamphen flying away, but the way through the mangrove was peaceful and seemed reserved to few lucky who adventure all the way here. Another hour of driving under the sun will finish cooking my skin; it is quickly followed by pouring rain cooling us down and bringing a smile to my face.

After a couple rest days at Coffee Kong, we already leave Coron, Kaba Kaba, Kevin & Grace. Coron will have that special place in our heart: the first real test, full of our own adventures; proper food budgets, ice cream treats, sunburns and mosquito bites; a heroic save from a spider, causing me to break a mug in a girlish yelp; and of course, just us two, already planning the next stop.

Before we  take off to Indonesia, we spend a few days in Manila with a familiar face, our best friend Joe. We stay at his parents’ house, in the hospitality of his Mom & Dad in Southwoods City, outside of Metro Manila. This is another expat town, full of CPK, Denny’s and Coffee Bean. We roam through their equivalent of Whole Foods to find strawberries imported from California. Sunscreen is unbearably expensive here, but I guess those who need it will pay for it (like me). We cook one last DemiPeche together before leaving the Philippines.

 With Joe at the José Rizal House in Calamba, Laguna, Philippines.

With Joe at the José Rizal House in Calamba, Laguna, Philippines.

As I reflect back on our trip in the Philippines, I keep thinking of a country somewhat in conflict with itself. It is a third-world country, according to the official definition. I can’t really argue against it considering the poverty and lack of infrastructure we witnessed. But as we drove the unpaved road and swerved around chickens, we also saw the people on their smartphone of choice, with fast LTE powering Facebook and the likes. They’re skipping decades of urban development in favor of integrating the latest technologies. The will to keep tradition is strong and seen in all families, but so is the constant American influence and exodus to other countries.The national language, Tagalog, is not taught in middle or high school -- everything is in English, to prepare the young generation to embrace Western (and especially American) culture. You can imagine what will happen of the local dialects. The careers of choice are still nursing and engineering, for those who will migrate later to the U.S., or work in the call centers of Metro Manila or Baguio.  As many developing countries, the Philippines is a victim of large corruption; it’s also home to terrorist groups supporters of Al Qaeda, such as in the island of Mindanao, where a beheading of a Canadian tourist happened just a couple weeks before we arrived. But the Philippines population wants a change. It just elected a new president, Duterte, son of a dictator, in favor of re-establishing Martial law. He says he wants to clean up the country of its corruption and shoot to kill anyone on the wanted list. Meanwhile, they also elected a vice president from a more moderate party (they elect president and vice separately), and their first transgender senator. Cultures clash in the Philippines.

But of my memories of the Philippines, the strongest one will be how blessed I felt amongst its people. The hospitality of the people we met will not be equaled anywhere else, maybe so because we spent time with her family. We were able to live the real Philippines, and I don’t think we’ll be so lucky in any other place. I’ll forever remember the stories of Dad F and Uncle F on the road, Dad F’s house in San Narciso and Auntie Jean’s house in Santa Catalina, the numerous cousins visiting us and gracing us with their food and smiles, and of course, the goat. What the Philippines lacks in infrastructure, economy or even art, it fills with the heart and compassion of its people. They take religion at heart and with it, giving back to anyone they encounter. Whether it be Madelene’s family driving us around, or the nicest restaurant waitress we’ve ever met, the Filipinos are at heart a nation of giving, tolerance and hospitality. 

And gosh, do they love to sing.

 

LINKS

  • Palawan Province
  • Busuanga
    • Coron
    • We stayed at Kaba Kaba.  
    • We dove with our gracious host Kevin, but were recommended by him two diving companies: Rocksteady and Corto Divers.
    • We saw a few of the Coron Shipwrecks (albeit not as many as we wished, make sure you have the Advanced Open Water certification to see most of them).
    • We went island hopping with Nice in Paradise Tours. They will take you to various islands for snorkeling, swimming and visiting beaches. Make sure you include the Kayangan Lake and the Twin Lagoon. Also noteworthy are Barracuda Lake, CYC Beach and Banana Beach. 
  • On our wish list for next time: Tao Philippines proposes a multi-day trip between El Nido and Coron, camping and living life on a boat. They were recommended by a few people there, but we did not have the time nor budget. Otherwise a trip from Coron to El Nido or Puerto Princesa will have to be via plane or a 10-12 hour overnight ferry (weekly or biweekly only). Bangka trips (small local boats) are universally not recommended.

The Philippines - The Food & Farmland of Santa Catalina

 Cousin John John. Driving the tricycle. Eyes on the road.

Cousin John John. Driving the tricycle. Eyes on the road.

alt-J - Lovely Day

After our long and winding Mountain Province adventure, we visit my mother’s town of Santa Catalina, Ilocos Sur in the northwest part of Luzon. We arrive in Vigan, and take a tricycle to her childhood home, where eight children were raised and worked in the farmland behind it. This place has history. Little has changed from my last visit in 2008. And back then, little had changed since 1998.

As we settle in and enjoy a meal prepared by my Auntie Jean (short for Regina), a wave of nostalgia comes over me. I’m suddenly compelled to share the experience about being back in my grandparents’ home, and the memories of flavors from my childhood. “I want to write,” I tell him.

Santa Catalina is situated by the South China Sea, so in addition to all the vegetable dishes (this region is known as the “Vegetable Bowl of the North”), there is a plethora of fresh seafood. We dine on fried fresh water fish called malaga, giant prawns known as padaw. We eat more Pinakbet, this time with a stronger bagoong base, and Bagnet (deep fried pork - yes, just what we need, another variation of pork!) with tomatoes and more bagoong.

 Bagnet, fried malaga, padaw, Pinakbet, and tomatoes with bagoong.

Bagnet, fried malaga, padaw, Pinakbet, and tomatoes with bagoong.

What is this bagoong, you ask? Pronounced “bah-goh-ong,” it is a fermented fish sauce that is the base of many Filipino soups and stews. It’s also a nice addition to sliced tomatoes, when served as a side to fish, pork, or Longganisa. When my grandfather lived with us, he would make a large batch and store it in our garage. Today, my dad does the same.

My Father’s Bagoong
Mix the ingredients together and ferment for at least three months.

  • Fresh whole anchovies or fresh filleted sardines
  • Sea salt
  • Purified water for consistency


Back to Auntie Jean’s house… I feel comfort eating this food. It’s familiar. It’s my mother’s cooking, my grandmother and grandfather’s cooking. This was the food I grew up with in Los Angeles. It’s funny that despite being in the place where this food is rooted, my memories of it were somewhere else. 

We end the night (and every meal, as it turns out) with fresh mangos. They’re golden yellow on the inside, and so so sweet. I eat only the halves, never the seed; my grandfather always ate that part. Then, we talk about the next day’s plans involving a baby goat -- kalding.

 A goat grazing on the farmland.

A goat grazing on the farmland.

NOTE: To see photographs of the goat being butchered, check out FARM TO TABLE: A GOAT STORY. Be foreWarned, the photo essay is graphic. viewer discretion is advised.

In the morning, my cousin John John (Auntie Jean’s oldest son) picks us up in a tricycle, and we speed down the 1.5 kilometers of road through the coastal croplands back to their house. This is where we watch our lunch being prepared from farm to fire to table, over the next three hours.

First, my cousin Brian unties the young animal, a mere two years in age and 40 kilograms in weight. The goat is laid on a makeshift wooden table, its mouth gently cupped shut. Without hesitation, my cousins and uncles puncture its carotid, draining all its blood as quickly as possible. The blood, of course, is saved for later. (We later learn that the main butcher we nicknamed “The Assassin” ironically has a PhD in Criminology.) I’m close to the action because I want to document it. Alex is about 30 feet away. I want to turn away, but I don’t, because I feel like I’m witnessing the animal leaving us peacefully. It’s okay to watch, I remind myself.

We follow the torching of the hair, the scrubbing and separating of the skin, the removing of the legs, horns, head, and innards, and then the cleaning of all the parts before they are made into proper dishes over bamboo fire pits and slow burning coals. The men take their time, gather over the fires, walk to the cornfields and back. There is no rush, nor is there waste. They honor the goat this way.

I don’t have pleasant memories of this as a child. One time I accompanied my father and grandfather to a goat farm somewhere in the hills an hour outside of Los Angeles. What I remember was not pretty: mature goat cries, bright bright bright red blood to blackened skin, bagged and set in the trunk of our car. From my bedroom window, I peered down into our backyard and watched as my grandfather butchered the goat himself. The flies, the smell. It was not pretty. (A kid shouldn’t be allowed to see this, right?)

This time I feel different. This day, strangely, was a beautiful experience, and for the second time I’m compelled to write about the food from this farmland. The goat had a good life. It roamed freely on the property, and ate as it pleased. He endured a very quick and (hopefully) painless death, all very different from the cows and chickens we see along California’s Interstate 5, and what we know of our mass-produced food in the U.S. This is why I made peace with witnessing the goat’s death. From its last breath, he was treated respectfully, and created into wonderful dishes that nourished many people over the next few days: Kilawin, Kaldereta, and Papaitan (which I did not have the courage to eat; it’s an offal soup that incorporates the goat blood).

  Kaldereta,  Kilawin, and Papaitan.

Kaldereta, Kilawin, and Papaitan.

 

Kilawin
Prepare all ingredients separately and mix together just before eating. 

  • Thinly sliced and lightly grilled (rare to mid-rare) goat meat marinated with salt
  • Thinly sliced young, tender goat skin
  • Calamansi juice, vinegar
  • Minced ginger, minced shallots (lasona)
  • Sifted and boiled goat bile to taste
  • Salt to taste

Kaldereta
Prepare all ingredients separately and slowly add ingredients over the course of an hour.

  • Tenderized bone-in goat meat
  • Anato seeds, pineapple chunks, tomato sauce, bay leaf, minced garlic
  • Cubed potatoes, sliced red peppers, sliced onions
  • Soy sauce to taste

All the dishes were prepared in the style of my grandfather’s; so there I was again, recounting memories of him, the food he taught my mother to make, and the food he brought with him to the US in the early 90s. It was bittersweet being at his house. He and my grandmother raised eight kids there, and sent all of them to college with the profits from their farmland. In the living room there is a portrait I took of him before he passed in 2008. So much has changed…

 Women farmers in the cornfield behind Auntie Jean’s house.

Women farmers in the cornfield behind Auntie Jean’s house.

 Husked corn waiting to be picked up.

Husked corn waiting to be picked up.

The land is still profitable. Crops are seasonally rotated and diversified. They are growing corn now, next will be cabbage then cauliflower; but not until after the corn has been husked, most of the husks have been eaten by the goats and then burned, letting the land rest and fertilize itself. It’s hard work, but the land gives back to the people that care for it. This symbiotic relationship with the earth appeals to me… to work hard, to work outside, to reap what you sow, to eat what you sow, and be free, in a way. 

The next day, we do a short obligatory tour through Vigan, the capital of Ilocos Sur. The city is a New7Wonders City and UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its preservation of the Spanish colonial architecture along the cobblestone Calle Crisologo. It’s early Sunday evening on a holiday weekend before elections; it’s busy. We don’t really want to be there, which is unfortunate, because I’ve been before, and without any people this place is beautiful. Anxious to escape the crowds, we leave and enjoy a peaceful dinner of Pork Dinuguan (meat and liver in a savory pig blood gravy) and Sinigang with malaga at Auntie Jean’s house. It’s delicious. 

As we leave Santa Catalina, I think about my mother and her childhood. I think about my grandparents. I think about the food I’ll prepare for my children. I’m motivated to learn more beyond Adobo and Longganisa, and hope to try making my own bagoong one day.

I also think about my Auntie Jean and her family. She is the only one of my mother’s siblings still here in the Philippines, and in just a week, she will travel with my Uncle Johnny and cousins, to Los Angeles to live indefinitely. 

“It’s going to be hard for them there,” Alex says to me. “They’re so free here.”