bonding with brothers (the hk-shenzhen trip)

For the past three years, I’ve only been home for a total of three weeks so I thought it would be great if this time my brothers and I could hangout somewhere outside the country and just chill. Can’t complain about the sunshine and beaches in Cebu but 42 degrees is just insane. I’ll trade this for snowstorms anytime of day. 

I’ve never really explored HK, the longest I’ve stayed there was when I had a 12 hour layover for a connecting flight. I figured it’s time to pay a visit to the land of of the laser lights, and who knows, maybe see Disneyland. But of course, my two burly brothers were not the least bit interested to see Mickey Mouse so instead we bought octopus train cards at the airport and went on to chart the best course to see the city.

At first we joined a tour group that took us to all the shopping places we didn’t really want to go to, so we bailed out on that, took the MTR and double deck buses, and explored the city on our own. I must admit, a map is important in this type of quest, but the only map I got was the train stops for the red line. Fortunately, we met someone who used to work in the city some years back. She decided to go back and revisit HK now that she has enough money saved. Among other things, she showed us where Jollibee was =) now, we know where to score all the chicken joy.

After a visit to the massive building where they sell all the electronics stuff, we walked down Nathan road to the Avenue of the Stars so we could watch the symphony of lights show, but before that we decided to stop by a restaurant that serves BBQ duck. Twas great that the menu came with pictures, coz the guy at the counter didn’t speak any English and we knew no Chinese. I sincerely hope that was duck we ordered ^_^, it looked like it.

The trek to Victoria Peak is probably the highlight of the trip. Although it was drizzling and foggy, we did manage to get a good view of the downtown Hong Kong skyline, Kowloon, and Victoria Harbour. Kuya was also able to buy some souvenirs to take back home.

We spent two nights in HK then proceeded to Shenzhen via train. The bus tour guide asked us if we were picky about food and if we eat anything. Some people said they eat everything and the guide warned us that we shouldn’t order hot dog in that city, because that meant real dog, eww! I think that was when we decided to stick to McDonald’s and KFC for this leg of the trip =)

There was really not much to see here, it was also the same time when the flash floods were happening and it was all over the news – so there was an overcast of gloom on the city. We did see the Windows of the World and more night markets, jewelry shops and car factories – I guess those tour buses are shopping traps in disguise. Good thing we weren’t really into buying stuff, but more into eating so that’s where all our HKD and RMB went to.

The whole adventure was a great opportunity to bond with my brothers. It was their first passport stamp, their first trip outside the country, and I’m glad we survived it despite our constant petty quarrels. We laugh when people say that we look like we get along really well ^_^ Hopefully we can do this again next year.

kawasan weekend

Last Friday I got an email asking me for hotel recommendations in Cebu and as I was typing my reply, I also outlined a sample itinerary: ShangriLa, check. Waterfront, check. Olango Island hopping, check. Kawasan waterfalls, check. Moalboal, check. Bantayan Island, check. Hmmm, what else? Bohol? Boracay? Palawan?

While I was browsing over the places to see in the island, I realized that it’s been a while since we last went to the falls. Ever since I first visited the site back in 1997, it’s been a yearly event to just go to Badian, rent a cottage at La Playa or Kawasan then trek to the top of the waterfalls. So that evening I packed my stuff and invited the fam to escape the city’s sweltering 35 degrees.

We left for Matutinao at 6AM the next morning, it was a three-hour drive along winding roads that overlook the sea and the mountains. Good thing there were vacant rooms at the resort and the rate was $20 per night, we got the second-floor suite with a balcony that looks out to the coastline. After a quick trip to the public market to buy food for lunch, we proceeded to hike up the falls. Entrance fee was $2.5.

Going up there brought back lots of memories for my older brother and I teased him about the songs he used to sing way back when.. He said he loved too much then and he won’t be as stupid this time around. When we finally reached the top, we sat and watched as throngs of people dove into the cold clear blue waters. Somehow the magic of the place has been broken for me, it doesn’t remind me of people or feelings anymore, it was like an empty exercise that one does to commemorate a long forgotten ideal.

On the way down, rain greeted our every stride as we navigated through the slippery stone footholds. I wonder how many pairs of sneakers and flip flops have gone through these same leaf-covered steps before mine did, and I wonder how many more will pass this way after I do. 

Back at comforts of our room, we watched the sunset from the veranda and listened as the waves broke the shore. After everything’s been said and done, this is still one of my favorite nooks, a place where one can just hide away from the world. Next year I’ll be back here again.

balamban bites

So we finally decided to try this famous Balamban liempo – roasted herb-encrusted pork that comes from this mountain town in the northern part of Cebu – talk about food trip! We drove two hours to the mountain tops just to visit this place where they make this special dish.

We took the Transcentral highway and the view going there was amazing, a true photographer’s haven, we even saw a couple having their prenuptial photos taken at this wooden bridge connecting two tall cliffs overlooking the ocean – I wanted to stop and take photos too but we were in a bit of a hurry so that we’ll reach the place before the fog comes down.

After a dozen more twists and turns and more magnificent views, we finally reached our destination and had lunch at the only place that serves food in that small town. I must say their roasted pork is indeed worth the long drive, but man, two hours?! I’d be hungry again by the time we head back home.

On the way back, we took the SRP road, I like the tunnels and ocean view here, it looks like that race track from need for speed, they say some people do midnight drag races there. Looks a lot has changed in this city since I was last here six years ago. Well, greater things are yet to come here =)

surviving caramoan

After spending the night at a friend’s place, we caught the first plane out to Naga, which has now become a major tourist spot because of the development of the CamSur Wakeboarding Complex (CWC). We rented a cabana and waited in line under the scorching sun just to try wakeboarding. The good thing about this sport compared to snowboarding is you fall on water, so it’s always soft landing. The bad thing is you get pulled by a line, so your arms get overstretched and its a totally different thing to balance on a board while holding on to a moving thing.

I like the facilities at CWC, the shuttle gives visitors rides to and from the mall, airport and bus depots, which is very convenient for people in transit. It would be better though if they have lots of bikes for rent so people don’t have to wait for the vans before they can move around the compound. Everything is walking distance but that heat is unbearable.

The next morning, we checked out at 4AM and proceeded to Sabang port. It was a two-hour van ride from the terminal. From the port, we took the boat to Caramoan. Because the tide was low, the boat couldn’t dock on the port, actually, I don’t even remember if there was a port there. I just saw porters lifting passengers on their shoulders so they wouldn’t get wet as they board the boat. Drei and I decided to walk instead, it wasn’t that bad, the water was only four feet deep.

The boat ride took another two hours, and we were greeted by the staff of WestPen when we got there. I just found this accommodation on the web, and it is by far the most expensive leg of the trip. It set us back a total of $350 for three days and two nights, including board, lodging and boat tours.

The villa itself is nestled on a secluded private compound with evenly spaced nipa huts on the sides and a pool table and outdoors seating in the middle. Since they didn’t have any formal website, I offered to develop one for them. After a quick shower and a game of pool, we grabbed a quick lunch and headed back to the pier to start our first island hopping trip.

We met some people from the boat who joined the tour with us and offered to split the cost. First stop was a beach where we could go snorkeling. According to the travel agent who was with us, it also had a spring at the top but it was hard to get to so we skipped the hike and just went swimming. We passed by Gota and checked out the other beachfront developments on the next island. After more snorkeling and island hopping, we headed back home and played another round of pool before dinner.

The next day we woke up early to go on yet another boat ride to the grotto. It was like a quarter of the grouse grind but the view was spectacular. It was drizzling when our boat docked on the island so the hike up was a bit slippery, but it was better than being burnt and baked while walking.

After the grotto, we proceeded to another island to have a picnic lunch. I like the concept of the tables and chairs setup a few meters from the shore and almost half submerged in water. That was probably the best part of that trip, aside from the time when we had to walk over a line of fishing boats just to get to our ride – reminded me of the obstacle courses at Takeshi’s castle.

We went to more islands than I could name, hiked around, swam a bit then headed back to the villa. We had crabs and laing for dinner, which was the best meal yet, except for the allergies that came after it. 

Recently popularized by the Survivor French Edition, Caramoan Islands, especially Gota village is a bit overpriced, but then if you know how to get around, it would be cheaper to skip all the tour packages and just go there, rent a room at the dorms near the pier then hire a fishing boat to take you to the islands. There’s also a market and food stalls that you can ask to cook for you. We could have probably saved half of what we spent at WestPen if we had taken that route but it was our first time so we didn’t know how to get around. As a consolation, Gota Village rates were twice as expensive as what we paid for at WestPen, so we got the mid-range budget package.

On our last morning, we took the boat back to Sabang and had to be carried off the vessel because the water was almost six foot deep and we didn’t want to be soaking wet while on a two hour bus ride to Naga. This is the worst part of this trip, we lost a day traveling and I couldn’t bring myself to sit on another van again.

the heritage town of vigan

To get to this historic town in Ilocos Sur, we had to take two bus rides – a two-hour commute from Pagudpud to Laoag, a trike ride from one terminal to the next and finally a two-hour bus ride from Laoag to Vigan. According to one of the signs painted on a building, the city got its name from the Bigaa plant which thrives abundantly in that region.

We arrived at around 5pm and checked in at Grandpa’s Inn, we got two fan-cooled rooms, one with tv, private bath and complimentary breakfast for $23 and another one with a common bath, no tv and no breakfast for $18. The best thing about this place was the wireless Internet connectivity albeit a little flaky.

After a quick shower, we went out to buy souvenir shirts and walk along the famous brick roads of Calle Crisologo. Vigan has more than a hundred ancestral houses and historical landmarks making it a UNESCO heritage site. The gas lights, sliding capiz windows and azoteas were like a scene right out of Rizal’s novels, they bring you back to the 17th century colonial era. Our stroll ended up at Plaza Burgos, a landmark dedicated to Padre Jose Burgos, a Catholic priest native to the place, who was accused of sedition and executed by Spanish authorities in 1872. Currently, the plaza sits next to a church and has a massive park with palyground and picnic area. Beside it, there are dozens of stalls selling empanada and okoy, a well-known snack in the area. We ordered one of each and decided that it would be our dinner. On the way back to the hotel, we saw the charming Cafe Uno right beside our inn and opted to try their tea, however, when we skimmed through their menu, we ordered bagnet instead and had a second dinner.

The following morning, we hired calesas and went on a city tour aboard horse-drawn carriages. The rate for the tour was $8 per hour and included several area attractions. It was pre-arranged by one of the inn attendants and was promptly waiting for us by 8AM.

The first stop was the famous belfry at St. Paul’s Church. It’s the site of this local TV show about a blacksmith turned reluctant hero during the Spanish era. After climbing the rickety wooden stairs to where the bell sits, we took pictures and proceeded to our next stop.

The Crisoogo Mansion is the house of a famed political family, which was now converted into a private museum. They have an interesting collection of antique cars, old photographs, clothes, memorabilla and hats from different islands in the country. That’s where I got to see the pig system toilet, eww!

The next destination was the Pagburnayan, where jars made from clay are made by hand using the potter’s wheel. Pottery making was introduced in the city by early Chinese settlers and has been a well-known industry in Vigan because of its abundance in good quality clay that are used to make earthen jars.

Armed with a collection of ref magnets and other souvenirs that we bought from the pagburnayan, we proceeded to the Hidden Garden, a landscaped showroom of plants that has an onsite restaurant where we ordered halo halo and bibingka for snacks. They have this cool washroom that has a one way mirror overlooking a garden with a pond.

The higlight of this tour was the visit to Baluarte, a zoo owned by a politician that is open to the public for free. The place was huge, there was a bird and butterfly sanctuary, an ostrich farm, a horse ranch, several reptiles and a collection of tigers. For $4 we got to go up close to take pictures and sit with the tiger.

Before heading to the final stop, which was Calle Crisologo, we bought bagnet and longganisa, another present that we will be taking to Romblon. We plan to buy some native delicacy from each place we visit and bring them to our grandma.

Calle Crisologo looks different in the morning, it was more enchanting at night, but it exudes the same colonial town feel especially when you’re traversing it on a calesa. We went back to our inn and checked out, I was not too happy about the late check-out fee per hour, of which we were not informed about earlier, I will definitely opt for other lodging places next time I drop by for a visit.

We took a trike to the bus station, had lunch of local cuisine at the nearby carenderia and proceeded to wait at the station for a bus to La Union. I was planning to go surfing and already reserved a room at Surfer’s Inn but we missed two buses because of the ill organized system that they have in that terminal. No lineups, no posted bus schedules, just throngs of masses suddenly converging and running towards the bus once it enters the terminal, definitely not my style. Some people got squished, some kids were crying, some got pushed back and stepped on, wow, is this how they do stuff in this part of town or is Partas just the worst bus service ever? Anyway, such is the life of public commuters.

Finally, a bus to Manila came by and I was pushed inside by the excited people waiting to get home. I stood on the middle aisle of the bus for more than an hour, which is probably is good for my back but not for my varicose veins. Annoyed at the whole commuter experience, I decided to cancel the La Union leg of the trip and headed back to my friend’s place in Greenhills.

Someday I will be able to buy my own ride and I’ll visit all 7,107 islands while on it.

on the shores of pagudpud

Pagudpud is on the northwest part of the Philippines facing the South China Sea and a 12-hour bus ride from Manila. Known for its big waves and strong winds that cater to both local and international surfing and sailboarding communities, this town is lined up with beach resorts that offer ample and relatively affordable accommodations. Peak season is from March to June so we got off peak rates when we visited.

We arrived at Jun and Carol’s beach resort at 5 AM, it was a coin toss between this and Polaris but the latter took much longer to respond to my SMS so I opted for JCBC. We were assigned a room on the second floor. it had air conditioning, two double beds, a cable TV and a huge bathroom that’s like half the size of the room; the rate was $35 for four persons.

After an hour of trying to sleep, we decided to go out and explore the city. We took the tricycle and checked out the market in the hopes of having a breakfast of local cuisine. Wednesday is market day at this place, we saw live curacha and other sea creatures.

We hired the same trike to take us on a city tour and our first stop was the lighthouse at Cape Bojeador in Burgos. Built in 1892, Faro Cabo is still fully operational and sits on the top of the Vigia de Nagparitan hill, 530 feet off the ground. One of the rooms has been converted into a mini museum which reminded me of the lighthouses that we visited at Oregon coast two years ago. The caretaker was kind enough to unlock the bolted gates of the lighthouse so we could go up the rust covered steel stairs to the creeky wooden platform where the light and mirrors sit. The top offered a 360 degree view of Ilocos Norte and the surrounding sea.

Next stop was the Bangui Wind Farm, a lineup of 15 wind mills facing the sea that supplies the town’s electricity. The view here was spectacular, we walked on the fine sand and met the waves crushing the shore as we took photos of the area. We also bought Bugnay wine from a local seller by the beach, a present for our grandma in Romblon.

We proceeded to the Patapat Viaduct, Agua Grande River Park and Paraiso ni Anton, which were all just a few meters away from each other. The road going there was lonely and winding, not a lot of vehicles pass by and if they do, they’re like a scene from fast and the furious, everyone ignoring the speed limit.

Constructed to prevent landslides in the area, Patapat Viaduct is an elevated highway with one side overlooking the Pasaleng Bay and the other guarding tall rocky mountains. We sat on the middle of the road and took pictures here.

Owned by Villa Del Mar, Agua Grande is a brook that runs over pebbles and stones to meet the sea and gray sandy beach. right on the front of this  park, there is a grotto facing the street. The El Nino was taking its toll on this part of town when we were there, we were surprised to see the river almost dried up.

We then proceeded to Sitio Gaoa in Balaoi for the Timmangtang Rock and the Bantay Abot Cave, the two are collectively called Lover’s Rock by locals.

Timmangtang lies on the seacoast and got its name from its bell-shaped form while Bantay Abot is a few meters away from the shore and literally means a mountain with a hole in the dialect. To get to the cave, we had to go down the side of the street and climb up the slippery rocks to the summit. We went spelunking and took photos from the other side.

The last stop for the day was the crescent shaped cove at Sitio Malingay on the Maira-ira Point, it is more commonly known as the Blue Lagoon. This beach is around three kilometers away from the main road and one has to go through mountain forest paths to get there. It was near Hannah’s Beach Resort and Kapuluan, two of the more expensive places to stay in this town. Tired from our hikes and rough road trike ride, we sat on the shore and buried our feet on the sand. The clear blue water and white sands of this place has convinced me that it is the highlight of our trip. Next time I just might try those two resorts so I could be nearer to this part of Pagudpud.

We ended the day with a hearty meal at one of the roadside carinderia and tried the local cuisine that included pinakbet and imbalictad. After dinner, we retired back to our resort to catch the sunset and walk along the beach.

The next morning, we took the same trike and went to Kabigan Falls. I didn’t know that we had to cross rice fields and walk across rivers to get to the falls so I wore sneakers. Good thing the store near the place where we had to register our names and give donation to had flip flops for sale. We got a tour guide who led us through the thicket of trees and shrubs.

After coaxing a water buffalo to get out the way, we navigated the first stream, which was rather narrow. The next one had slippery rocks and strong currents, while the third one destroyed my brother’s slippers. Finally, we got to the foot of the falls and took some pictures. It was rather disappointing compared to Kawasan, still one of my favorites, but is comparable to Oregon’s Multnomah. The hike back seemed shorter and we treated ourselves to a refreshing drink – juice from freshly picked coconuts.

We were debating if we should stay another night at Pagudpud and spend a day swimming but we still had lots of beaches to go to in the next couple of days so we decided to head to the next destination and take the bus to Vigan.

Five years ago, my friends went on a Pagudpud-Vigan trip that I couldn’t join because of other responsibilities, they brought me back souvenirs and lots of stories. Today I went to see the place for myself and am happy that despite everything in the background, I’m finally able to enjoy the scenery of my country.

chasing the desert sun

For a lot of people, Thanksgiving is a time for family. After getting an invite to meet up with my cousins in LA and counting my free miles, I decided to skip Vancouver’s rain in favor of the desert sun.

Ging picked me up from the Van Nuys fly away and we went straight to Jollibee to sample the chicken joy meal I missed, then to her mom’s place for beef sinigang. The vacation was proving to be a gastronomic treat.

The next day, we braved two and a half hours on the freeway to Palm Springs. It almost felt like we were chasing the sun. Palm canyon is a nice getaway equipped with all the distractions to keep any vacation fun. I enjoyed hanging out at the pool and playing hoops at the gym.

Our turkey less thanksgiving dinner was a hit. I missed reconnecting with family, and being surrounded with a rowdy bunch chased my blues away. The morning after, we hiked the calories off and explored the quaint downtown scene. We got lost looking for Cabazon and found ourselves on the Morongo wind mills. It didn’t really look like people were hardly hit by recession when we visited the outlet malls to witness the Black Friday madness, the store lineups were crazy long.

Aerial tramway – that was the highlight of the trip. Imagine being on a rotating gondola that was going up to 8000 feet of elevation, 5 towers, and 4 different kinds of climate in 15 minutes – sensory overload for sure. The scene change from desert to snow capped peaks was truly breath taking. At the top, you can do cross country skiing and snow shoeing, there’s also a restaurant, and a theater. For 20 bucks, I could do this every week, if only Grouse was that cheap.

Too short – that’s what I thought, but then again that’s what makes vacations more valuable, something to look forward to. I guess if everyday was like this, we would appreciate it less, that’s the tragedy of being human, sooner or later we get bored of utopia and want something new.

For now I am intoxicated by the blur of the past 5 days – I hope the buzz stays..

island retreat

Weekends are for getaways, and Galiano island was the next dot that had to be pinned. My mom just left and I’m still trying my best to avoid bad habits by hanging out with the right people, so I said yes to this excursion.

The heavens looked dark and impenetrable on the ferry ride but soon a ray of light forced its way through the thick clouds and we saw a hint of blue skies. The cottage where we stayed was very cozy and the rocky beach surrounding it was conducive for soul searching.

We hiked a lot during the trip, exploring all the nooks, walking along shorelines, climbing mountain tops and checking out the local art scene. It was nature overload in the mornings and lots of sharing and bonding moments in the evenings.

Everything would have been just perfect if not for the mishap on the afternoon when we were supposed to leave. Coming back from Serenity by the Sea to check out some art work, we realized the battery on our car keys died. We tried to open the door manually but the lock was broken – we were trapped in the middle of nowhere. Amidst debates on whether we should break the window or just leave some people with the car while the rest find the way back to the cottage, we decided to go seek shelter from the cold.

We did find serenity by the sea despite the stress brought about by our misadveture. We found things to play with while waiting for someone to slim jim their way into our van. I napped a bit and dreamt the keys were working and when I woke I felt better.

First weekend trip this year with people who speak my language, I’ve been out of touch with them for so long, it feels different hanging out – but different in a good way – like somehow I belong.

easter weekend

I feel most alive when the road changes and moves beneath me, but I feel most at home when I am flying above the clouds or riding the waves in the middle of the ocean.

Two decades ago, my holy week would have been spent fasting, doing the stations of the cross, going to confession, communion and church. A decade ago, I would have been going home from university for summer vacation, spending time with family, going to memorial to commemorate the last supper on nissan 14.

In between then and now, my disappointment and disillusionment with people and institutions hardened my heart. God does not reside only in the church of the pious but also in the hearts of the lonely and the passionate.

As I stood on the fishing boat watching the waves of the open sea crash onto its sides and almost tip it over, I gazed up at the vast gray clouds and thanked God for lending me this life, for sending his son Jesus Christ to die for my sins so that I may be redeemed, for showering me with blessings and showing me miracles everyday, then I asked for forgiveness for all my trespasses and once again I prayed for Him to take me away.

I felt the raindrops like needle pricks against my face while I held on to the bars to keep myself from falling overboard. It’s moments like these that give me clarity – when I feel like I’m a tiny insignificant dot in the universe, that in the blink of an eye I could be gone and would cease to exist. Feels so different compared to sitting in front of the computer in an antiseptic cube.

It reminded me of my childhood spent on small boats and the big waves of Romblon. I have come a long way from home, and when I talked to my family last Wednesday I felt so far away and so lost. Why did I grow up too fast, too soon..

I still feel out of place sometimes, like I just woke up from a dream and I’m suddenly surrounded by all these grown ups, only to realize that I am a grown up myself with no clue on how to proceed. And yet an epiphany came to me as the sea swallowed my uncertainties. I know what to do now.

If only I can keep myself from being sad and restless in between now and that time.. I hope I can survive.