North Luzon: Week 48

A blanket of fog rolled over the woodsy city of Baguio. As I meandered through the mist I was both offered a teaching job (Baguio’s also a popular destination for foreigners studying English) and a jeepney to the Tam-Awan Village. I chose the model village with Ifugao huts and Kalinga houses. The raised structures had thatched roofs and wood flooring smoothed over time by the patter of bare feet. Dirt paths connected the huts and ran amongst a beautiful green landscape.

Baguio is also an excellent city for dining. In the center of the city was a vegetarian café called Oh My Gulay. It is in a sunny atrium, overrun in the courtyard with plants. The décor is eclectic and the second level terrace, made with bits like ship hulls and found wood, resembles a child’s dream treehouse.

However, Café by the Ruins was the best food we had in the Philippines and the reason we detoured through Baguio a second time. The café’s name is a nod to the original building on the property-the house of the first governor of Baguio. All that remains today is a solitary wall that has been incorporated into the structure of the restaurant.

When the traditional tapuey wine began flowing by candlelight the mood became dangerously romantic. Though my senses were dulled, the ladyfinger curry I ordered cut through the alcoholic fog with warm coconut sauce infused with coriander, chutney and papadum. The lemongrass ice tea slowed my spinning world while the bibingka, a soft and spongy rice cake topped with brown sugar, coddled my sweet tooth. The price for a gourmet feast of local produce and homemade treats for two? $25. Amazing.

The road through the Cordillera Mountain Range was lined with small terraced gardens- where anything (including gardeners) could roll off a cliff and into a canyon. Halfway through the trip we stopped and ate hot sisig (grilled pig jowl) at the Alabama Café. While we waited for our meal we studied the raindrop patterns and cryptic messages generously burned into the table cloth.

Many of the rice terrace plots in Batad were in disuse because the owners had left to seek a living outside of the village. Those that were farmed looked like swimming pools crammed with soft clay. Walking along the stone walls we spent a long time talking with our guide about our hometown of Las Vegas, his dad’s rendition of Elvis and of course Manny Pacquiao.

After a bone jarring mototaxi ride, we made it back to the Las Vegas Restaurant for another round of homespun Elvis and dinner. The rice from the terraces is not sold or eaten in restaurants, but it is possible to get a taste of the local grain by drinking it. The tourist information office sells giant bottles of it. Of course.

How to get there:

Tam-Awan – catch a Tam-Awan jeepney from the corner of Shaghem & Kayang

Oh My Gulay- 5th floor La Azotea Building, 108 Session Rd, Baguio

Cafe by the Ruins – 25 Chuntug Rd, Baguio

Batad – From Banaue you can either catch one of the few daily jeepneys or split the cost of  a private jeepney or mototaxi with other travelers. Don’t be surprised if local students ask for a free hitch on your jeepney!

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Manila & Palawan: Week 47

Manila

Outside of the wealthy bubbles where people walk dogs in master planned communities and get massages after dinner, Manila is crowded and smoggy. Jeepneys and taxis jostled bumper to bumper, their engines expelling thick bursts of exhaust which coated the street-side food stalls like powdered sugar. Although the taxis offered an oasis of air-conditioned oxygen, there was the gamble of being stranded in the unending rush hour listening to “big radio, Big Radio, BIG RADIO. BIG BIG BIG RADIO!!!!”

Barret and I opted for a colorfully themed jeepney ride instead. While everyone warned us about theft and deceitful cab drivers, it seemed as if jeepneys fell outside of this realm. The passenger’s fares honestly flowed down a chain of hands to the driver and vice versa with the change.

It might sound oxymoronic to say I was surprised that the Chinese Cemetery was so quiet, but it isn’t when you consider the neighbors. The Manila North Cemetery, just next door, has a thriving population of several thousand living bodies. Families cook, children play, and a few entrepreneurs even operate businesses from within the mausoleums. So it was interesting that the tombs in the Chinese Cemetery, which resemble small apartments with their running water, AC, rooftop balconies and fenced gardens, would be unoccupied. I guess money does buy privacy, especially in the afterlife.

Intramuros was the original Spanish settlement in the Philippines during the 16th century. Before land reclamation it faced Manila Bay and was fronted by Fort Santiago, which protected it from invading foreigners. The settlement remained intact for several centuries until the battle for the liberation of Manila during WW2. Intramuros was the final stage in the fight against the Japanese- 100,000 Filipinos died in all and only one church remained upright inside the Spanish settlement. We learned this from our guide who cheerfully read all the plaques outside the buildings to us.

Palawan

Sabang is a small coastal town on the island of Palawan. Little bungalows lined the beach and the buko (coconut) juice was chopped off the palm trees in the morning hour. Aside from the lure of a lazy day, Barret and I wanted to see the underground river which was recently named one of the newest seven natural wonders. We boarded a canoe and paddled into the dark mouth of the cave. The roof was filled with sleeping bats and whenever our flashlights strayed too far from the guide’s itinerary, he herded us back together by pointing out a biblical rock formation.

The beach in El Nido is slim pickings, but the nearby islands are the reason this town north of Sabang is popular. At an eclectic hostel called The Alternative, we booked our island hopping tour. The naturally twisted and curvy ‘found’ wood that was incorporated into the construction lent a slight jungle-y atmosphere.  We waited for our boat from a crow’s nest  suspended over the beach and drank in the crashing waves with our jasmine tea.

Fifteen past the hour we boarded our bangka (outrigger canoe) and headed across the sapphire water for a small island with a secret cove. The sun was high and the sunscreen thick. After exploring the beach we pulled on snorkel equipment to float above sinister urchins and delicate coral. Being an inexperienced snorkler, I choked on the salty water every time I got too excited about cute fish.

“Look Barretschluush! It’sshish gurgle gurgle NEMO schloop gurgle!”

After swimming into jellyfish, the saltwater stung the wound on my butt cheek. So I was glad to be out of the ocean while lunch was cooking. The water was five shades of blue and the sand the color of gourmet vanilla bean ice cream. When the food was served, the fish was rich and flavorful, the roast succulent, the vegetables fresh, the potato salad creamy and the pineapple sweet and crisp. Paradise has a name and it is Tour A.

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