Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thankful Traveler

As I turn a year older and make a list of things to thank God for, I couldn’t miss the blessing of traveling. Hans Christian Andersen, Danish writer of fairy tales and travelogues once said, “To travel is to live.”  Another writer, Gustave Flaubert, explained it this way: “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”

It’s true. There are more than 190 countries in the world. Aside from my country, the Philippines, I have only been to seven other countries: France, Germany, Brazil, Kenya, Malaysia, Singapore, and Laos. Traveling to these places made me realize there is a big world out there and there is so  much to discover. Visiting these countries has enriched my life experience.

I’ve experienced autumn, spring, and summer. I have yet to experience how freezing it would be in winter.

Autumn in Bonn, Germany

To speak with the locals, I’ve spoken a phrase or two in German, Portuguese, Swahili, Bahasa, Lao, and of course, English.

Haggling at The Village Market in Nairobi

I’ve tasted French bread, Thuringian sausage from Germany, Brazilian churrasco,  laksa and nasi lemak of Malaysia, Hainanese chicken rice of Singapore and yes, sticky rice and fried insects from Laos.

Food trip in Malaysia

Free taste of Brazilian coffee

I flew by plane to reach all these countries. Rode the ICE (Inner City Express) train in Germany, saddled on a motorbike in Vientiane, toured via a safari van in Kenya, went from place to place through the MRTs of Singapore and Malaysia. Always rode the taxi in all these countries, and yes, walked some distance.

Walking in Vientiane

I’ve been to centuries-old castles, museums, churches, temples, monuments, and parks. I had close encounters with giraffes and saw hippopotamus from a safe distance in their habitat. I’ve posed with a tribesman for a souvenir photo, walked into the writing room of a famous historical figure, and met many interesting people from different culture.

At the Giraffe Center

Each time I travel, I learn something new about a country, its culture, its people. I also discover something about myself. And always, I see how God provides, protects, leads me to different places and brings me safely back home.

I’m aware that there will come a time when God would call me to that final destination. It’s going to be a glorious place incomparable to any place in this world. Seeing God’s providential hand in my journey on earth, I could trust my life to no another but to Him, my Lord Jesus Christ. I’m one thankful traveler on this earth but I’m certainly looking forward to that final trip to heaven someday.

Do you want to know more about heaven? Here's a short article about heaven

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lao Food? Love It!

One of the things I enjoyed in Laos was the food. On my first day, I had a taste of feu, or Lao beef noodle stew. This stew with rice noodles was served to us with herbs, bean sprouts, and string beans. I've never eaten uncooked string beans, but this time I took them raw. The crunchy uncooked string beans took on a spicy-sweet-nutty taste when dipped in peanut sauce.


At the recently opened Kap Khao Lao restaurant along Luang Prabang Road, our local host ordered traditional Lao food for us to savor. Of course, we had sticky rice served in bamboo containers. Just like the way it’s normally eaten in Laos, we shaped the sticky grains into small balls and ate them with our bare hands together with lab kai (minced chicken salad) and sin dat dyo (fried dried pork). We also had mok pa (steamed fish in banana leaves), keng som pa (sour fish soup), and keng nor mai (bamboo soup). For appetizer, we had tam mak hoong (papaya salad) topped with the familiar chicharon or pork rind. Lao papaya salad is seasoned with fish sauce and shrimp paste, or in Filipino, bagoong

Sin dat dyo, keng nor mai
and sticky rice (inside the bamboo container)

Lab kai

Keng som pa

Mok pa

My food experience in Laos was pleasurable. I’m not fond of spicy food but I came to enjoy the ones I ate because they were also flavored with refreshing herbs and spices like basil, lemon grass, mint, lime, tamarind, and galangal which looks a bit like ginger but not as strong as its taste. The fruits I tasted like dragon fruit, ripe papaya, and lanzones were very sweet, The French  bread we had for breakfast were superb. 

Sticky rice and spring rolls

I will also remember eating in Laos because for the first time, I was lured into trying kua tuk tan or fried insects. Actually, the small winged creatures didn't look distasteful. They even smelled like citrus and looked palatable because they were fried with herbs. I only chomped on a few pieces, just enough for a beginner's taste. 

Kua tuk tan

I gained a few pounds after almost a week of eating Lao food. I missed the papaya salad so much that as soon as I returned home, I made my own version of tam mak hoong. Looking forward to more Lao food!

My version of tam mak hoong

A Visit to Vientiane

Last month, when I visited Vientiane, the capital of Laos, I did not see any McDonald’s, Jollibee, or any other fast food restaurant that’s a staple in major cities of the world. What I noticed was the presence of Buddhist temples in every road, an obvious indication that majority of the people there are followers of Buddha.

Pha That Luang, the Buddhist monument
and national symbol of Laos

Aside from the temples, another famous landmark of Vientiane is the Patuxai Victory Gate or Monument in the middle of the Patuxai Park. The monument was built in honor of the people of Laos who fought against France for their independence. It is similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but the artwork is Laotian. My friend and I paid an entrance fee of 3,000 kip (about 40 US cents) to climb the tower where we had a spectacular view of the city.

Patuxai Victory Gate

View of Vientiane from the rooftop of Patuxai Victory Monument

A visit to Vientiane would not be complete without a stroll at the banks of Mekong River. We strolled at sunset and saw long rows of red tents for the night market. There are numerous food stalls where people can choose a variety of seafood (big tilapia, clams, squids, shrimps) and meat (beef, pork, chicken, frog) for dinner by the river. Plastic tables and chairs are set in the open air for dining. A few mats with pillows are laid on the floor for those who prefer a more relaxed dining. Next to the food stalls are the tents where locals sell clothes, bags, paintings, and other souvenir items. Further down, there was a group of people engaged in aerobic exercises.

Sunset at Mekong River

Dining at Mekong River

According to a friend who has been working in Vientiane for some years, tourists usually just pass through this city before going to the more popular destination Luang Prabang, the former royal capital. Vientiane is so small that it can be explored on foot, by tuk-tuk, or by bike. Food and accommodation are inexpensive. Local food is good, a bit spicy but flavorful.  

There are no direct flights going to Laos from the Philippines and I had to take a flight first to Bangkok before catching the plane to Vientiane. Though there are no direct flights going to Laos from the Philippines, once you’re in Vientiane, if you have the time and patience for long trips, you could cross-country to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand.

At Mekong River where you can see Thailand, which is
just across the river
This photo courtesy of B. Lee

Friday, May 2, 2014

Looking Forward to Lobo

When you hear the word Lobo, you probably think of a balloon or wolf. But as you read this, remember that Lobo is a third class municipality in the province of Batangas, about 145 kilometers from Manila.  It is bounded by Batangas City to the west, the municipalities of Taysan and Rosario to the north, the municipality of San Juan to the east, and Verde Island Passage to the south. If you are considering a quiet, charmingly simple vacation spot with beaches and underwater wonders as well as a side trip to a historical landmark, you might consider trekking to this place.

I went to Lobo last week with a companion primarily to take a look at the century-old Malabrigo Lighthouse built during the Spanish period. We first dropped by at the Tourism Office and Pasalubong Center at the heart of the town plaza to buy some local delicacies. 

We were glad we stopped by that office first because the tourism staff members were friendly and eager to help us get to our destination. We didn’t have a private vehicle so a staff member hailed a tricycle for us. One of their interns even accompanied us to the historical site. From the town plaza, we passed by the barangays of Olo-Olo, Mabilog na Bundok, Sawang, Soloc, and finally Malabrigo.

After an uphill ride, the 19th century lighthouse and pavilion came into view in the middle of a big lot. The grounds of Malabrigo Lighthouse is open to the public but visitors are not allowed inside the tower, adjacent pavilion, and machine room because the structures are already very fragile. But the cylindrical brick lighthouse still actively guides international and local seafarers passing through the Verde Island Passage. Solar panels provide power to the 56 ft Spanish lighthouse also known as Faro de Punta de Malabrigo. Locals call it the parola.

From the hill, we saw a panoramic view of the  Verde Island Passage with Isla Verde and the island of Mindoro on the background. Farther out into the sea, the island of Marinduque can also be seen. We went down to the beach  using the cemented stairs. According to our tricycle driver, the stairs were built by Olympic swimmer Akiko Thomson and her group which advocates the preservation of the lighthouse.

A view of  the Verde Island Passage

Compared to other beaches in Batangas, the beaches of Malabrigo are not sandy, but littered with pebbles.  Rock formations are also common. And the water is so clear. Underneath, one can also see colorful corals and different marine life. This makes Malabrigo and the surrounding areas a haven for scuba diving and snorkelling. We also visited a nearby resort which was chosen as the shooting site for a TV series.

When you visit Lobo, be ready to navigate through winding roads amidst mountains. At the moment, accommodations are limited to beach resorts. There are no hotels, inns, or pension houses. There are no fastfood restaurants but you can savor local food at any of the eateries in the market. The municipal  tourism officer, Mrs. Lota Manalo, has high hopes for tourism in this town. She shares to us of her department’s plan to actively promote Lobo’s other natural wonders like their water falls, mangrove swamp, peat forest, rice terraces, pawikan (sea turtle) nestling area, and of course, the historical Malabrigo Lighthouse. That is something we can all look forward to. 

To get to Lobo by private vehicle, head to the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX), straight to ACTEX then to the the Southern Tagalog Arterial Road (STAR) Tollway. Exit at the end of the expressway at Balagtas, Batangas City. Turn left onto National Road and follow the signs leading to SM Batangas. From that area, continue onto Gov. Antonio Carpio Road (14.7 km) then Taysan-Lobo Road (16.7 km).

By commute, take any bus from Manila going to Batangas City. Get off at the Grand Terminal, hop into a jeep going to Batangas City. Get into another jeep plying the Libjo-Batangas City route and ask the driver to drop you at the Lobo jeep terminal. Alternatively, from the poblacion, you can take a jeep going to SM Batangas and get off at the department store. From there you can walk a few meters to the Lobo jeep terminal. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Cuenca: Mountain, Lake, Volcano

Mt. Maculot in Cuenca, Batangas is one of the mountains close to Manila and its proximity to the city makes it a favorite among mountain climbers. People who want to climb Mt. Maculot are advised to register first  at registration sites in the town. A guide can also be hired to help you with the trek to the Rockies. The Rockies is a popular site of the mountain so called because of its rocky terrain. Once you reach the top, you can see a breathtaking view of the Taal Lake and Taal Volcano below.

But unlike mountaineers who follow the trail to the Rockies, I was led to a different route to see Mt. Maculot, the Taal Lake and Taal Volcano. I went to Brgy. Dita, Cuenca  to visit family friends. They live in the Dita side of Mt. Maculot, hundreds of meters above sea level. The air up in the mountain is so cool and the forest supplies fresh oxygen. Fruit-bearing and other kinds of trees abound in the forest but what fascinated me most was the lovely, colorful flowers and ornamental plants, some of which I saw for the first time.

A view of the towns of San Jose and Lipa City from Mt. Maculot

From Dita, our friends’ 78-year old father drove us to the next barangay, Balagbag, so I can have a view of the mountain peak from afar. Maculot is a wide mountain and we were on the other end of the Rockies, but they told me that I can also view Taal Lake and Taal Volcano from Balagbag. We found an elevated spot that gave us a panoramic view of the Taal Lake and the Taal Volcano. The lake was so placid. Some parts were blue, other parts were sparkling like emerald. From a distance Taal Volcano protrudes. From where we were, the place was framed in green foliage with birds flying into the scene, and chickens cackling in the background. A gentle, cool breeze brushed me. Inspired by the scene, I breathe in the fresh air. No pollution, no distraction. I felt at peace.

Philip Yancey said, “Wilderness announces to our senses the splendor of an invisible, untameable God…the world cannot contain the delight God inspires.”* After going up to Mt. Maculot, I begin to think that maybe mountaineers are drawn to the mountains because when they are up there, they sense the presence of God. And indeed, God displays His beauty and power in the mountains, in the volcano, and in the lake. Our appropriate response is awe and praise to Him.

“Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
    burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the Lord with the harp,
    with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
    shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
 Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it.
 Let the rivers clap their hand
 let the mountains sing together for joy.”  Psalm 98:4-8

Here’s an old gospel song about a mountaintop experience with God.

*Source of quotation by Philip Yancey: Our Daily Bread

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Change of Plan

The sky was dark, threatening to pour rain. The TV screen on the airport flashed the typhoon signal numbers hoisted over the different parts of the country. We were getting restless as we waited for our flight black to Manila. An airline crew has announced on the PA system that Cebu Pacific Flight 5J 654 would be delayed for a few minutes. A super typhoon was expected to directly hit Eastern Visayas in less than 24 hours.

My husband and I started talking about contingency plans. If our flight is cancelled, we, namely the two of us, our two teenagers, my sister-in-law and her husband would re-book our flight and go back to the hotel where we previously stayed overnight. We didn't really plan to stay in Tacloban, Leyte on November 6, 2013. Seven months earlier in April, I took advantage of a promo fare and booked a flight for our family to Tacloban. From there we would travel by land for three hours to Biliran Island. The island, located north of Tacloban, used to be part of Leyte but became independent in 1992. 

Biliran is not yet a popular tourist destination unlike Palawan, Boracay, or Bohol. But we became interested in this fourth smallest province in the Philippines when we saw it featured on a travel TV show. We were enticed by the host's lovely description of the volcanic island and shots after shots of its waterfalls, islets, sand bars, rock formation, hot springs, and white beaches. It has many natural attractions and accommodations are budget-friendly. Biliran seemed a perfect choice for our next vacation. We envisioned the trip to be a time for bonding, relaxation, fun, and adventure.

But on November 4, on our way to the airport, it drizzled. I uttered a prayer. Lord, we waited months for this trip. Would you please stop the rain? The rain stopped but when we reached Tacloban airport, it began to rain again. We were grateful that the following morning, November 5, the sky has cleared and we were able to chase three waterfalls--Tinago, Casiawan, and Casabangan. We were also able to dip our feet in the Mainit Hot Springs which is rich in sulfur and other minerals. Along the way, we saw rice stalks heavy with golden grains in rice fields and terraces. And the air was fresh and cool. Biliran offers such refreshing rural sights!

However, that night we heard the news that super typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) was gaining strength and expected to land in Leyte and Samar by Friday, November 8. Our family prayed for the storm to weaken and hoped that we can still enjoy another day tomorrow. We were planning an island hopping adventure to Higatangan and Dalutan the next day. Since we traveled all the way to Biliran, we wanted to make the most of our trip and see what other natural wonders the place has to offer. Before we slept, I suggested that instead of going to Dalutan Island, we just go to Agta Beach. At least, we could swim, walk along the beach, and take some pictures for our Facebook profile. But my more adventurous son and the husband of my sister-in-law tried to cheer us up. "Tomorrow will be a brighter day. The rain and wind will be gone by tomorrow," they said. "Let's go island hopping!"

The following morning, November 6, we were greeted by the sun when we woke up. Despite news of a coming storm, it seemed that this day wasn't going to be spoiled after all. But we were still cautious. The report said that it's gong to be a super typhoon and even the President warned the people to take all the necessary precaution. After discussion, we decided to spend only half the day in Dalutan Island and then leave Biliran for Tacloban in the afternoon. We would leave Biliran a day earlier and stay in Tacloban. Our return flight to Manila is on November 7. At least, if it rains harder, we would be in Tacloban already and closer to the airport, closer to home. 

But finding an accommodation in Tacloban at that time became a challenge for us. Because of last minute change in plans, we didn't have a reservation in any of the hotels or inns. If I had known about Wego back then, maybe our search would have been easier. We hurriedly moved from one hotel to another apartelle, from one pension house to another lodge in search of an affordable place we can stay in for the night. Finally, we checked-in at a hotel along J. Luna St. 

The rain began to pour intermittently on November 7. Anxious not to be caught in the storm, we went to the airport more than four hours before our flight. We waited along with the other passengers for our plane to arrive and when it finally did, we clapped and sighed in relief. It was the last Cebu Pacific plane out of Tacloban bound for Manila that day. The following morning, we were appalled when we saw how viciously Yolanda pounded on Tacloban. For weeks, I could not get over the thought of what could have happened to us if we were stranded there. 

I will never forget our family trip to Biliran Island via Tacloban that first week of November 2013. It's a reminder for me that whether we're on the road, in the air, at sea, at home or at work, we may plan and hope that all will go smoothly. But sometimes things happen beyond our control. We have to rely on God's help and change plans. There will be delays and calamities, surprises and revelations. Timing is critical and trusting God's leading is essential. These will help us move on to our next destination.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Casabangan Falls of Biliran

Biliran Island in Eastern Visayas is known for its many waterfalls. The last of the three waterfalls which we visited in November was Casabangan Falls in Brgy. Cabucgayan, Biliran. The falls we had earlier visited were Tinago Falls followed by Casiawan Falls

Unlike in Casiawan Falls where you have to descend first to get to the falls, in Casabangan, you have to ascend a very steep road. But our climb was made worthy by the view of the sea once we reached the top of the hill. 

Here's a video of Casabangan Falls.