Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Filipino Food

I'm not sure how Filipinos are so small - the food there is so unhealthy and heavy, albeit delicious! Meat is definitely a centerpiece of each meal, and it is cooked with liberal amounts of oil and seasoning. They like their strong flavors, that's for sure.

I tried to sample the most famous traditional Filipino dishes on my short trip. What is interesting is that there is such a strong influence of American fast food cuisine. I saw so many American chains, such as KFC, Krispy Kreme, Red Mango. There were also some unique Filipino chains, such as The House that Fried Chicken Built. Fast food and delivery is a big part of the culture, and there are cuisines from all over the world - Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Tex-Mex, Italian, Singaporean, European, Spanish, etc. It was sometimes difficult to find authentic Filipino food!

At the Sunday market we were able to sample many dishes. I saw these huge, juicy cumin prawns that I couldn't pass up, though they were relatively pricey. At a $1 a piece, it was one of the best decisions ever!

I also tried some whole wheat bao (Chinese steamed bun) filled with various veggies. This was probably the healthiest thing I ate all day.

We ate at the Tiendesitas, the place I mentioned in the last post. We got both grilled pork and grilled squid, with a side of rice and green mango salad. The mango was crunchy and sour, and we ate the salad with salty shrimp paste. Again, these people like their intense flavors!

Another signature dish - crisy pata. It is a huge fried pork knuckle. The meat on the bones was really tender.

Here is a dish of chop suey. I guess it is Chinese American? It was one of the only green things I ate during the whole trip.

This dish is sisig, a famous Filipino delicacy! It is fried scraps of meat from the pig's head. Not too bad - the bits of meat were really fatty but succulent! No part of the animal gets wasted, not the knuckle nor the head.

At the farmer's market, we saw this whole cow being roasted on a spit. It was absolutely massive and I can't imagine how long it took to cook all the way through. We asked for a portion and the man used a knife to carve off slices of meat. Also, I just noticed that the box that encloses the pit is colored like a dairy cow!

Overall, I think the food is really tasty, but one weekend was enough. I would not be able to eat like this on a normal basis, but I really admire the Filipinos who do. I'm glad I got to try all these new dishes. It was definitely a broadening of my culinary horizons.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Two Days in Manila

Our visit in Manila started out with a trip to the Intramuros, which is a walled historic city from the Spanish colonial times. There are museums, cathedrals, and overall beautiful architecture. Surprisingly, there are a lot of universities within the walls as well, and we saw lots of students and canteens where they can grab a quick and cheap meal.

We were able to walk around on top of the walls, which were once fortified with cannons.

It is the wet season for the Philippines, so on this morning it was raining on and off. The bright side was that the light drizzling fended off the hot weather. Below is a museum called the Manila House, which showcased a mansion in which a wealthy family would have lived, with traditional Spanish-influenced decor and opulent furniture.

The San Agustin Cathedral is the oldest in the Philippines. It is an absolutely gorgeous structure, and there are tons of portraits and sculptures which are placed a bit randomly in the hallways.

There was a wedding taking place in the cathedral, which we were able to observe from the upper balcony in the back. The ceremony was breathtaking, and we saw the bridal party walk up the aisle in pairs.

Then the bride arrived, and everyone started taking pictures. The train of her dress was very long. It was beautiful but seemed very awkward to handle, especially when she got up to the altar and needed 4 helpers to assist in arranging and managing the fabric. Both her mother and father accompanied her up the aisle and "gave her away" to the groom.

Later we visited Manila Bay to watch the famed sunset. There is a small amusement park located on the bay, with activities such as a zip line and merry-go-around. We rode the zip line - it was really scary but fun! The experience was a bit surreal, and I was screaming the whole way. No wonder everyone on the ground was staring up at me.

The sunset lasted a long time! It probably started around 5:30 and the last rays of the sun did not disappear until 7.

Apparently the Bay is popular with the locals too, because there were tons of people crowded along the sidewalks, just sitting around with friends and family to enjoy the beautiful view. We barely were able to find an opening on the wall alongside the water to sit.

Later that night we went to a shopping area called "Tiendesitas," translated as "little shops," from Spanish. There was a whole row of shops that sold animals, from tarantulas and rabbits to dogs and cats. It was really sad how cramped some of the conditions were. A large golden retriever shouldn't be living in a small cage. Here is an adorable chow chow that the shopkeeper took out to show us. It's fur was unbelievable puffy and soft.

Later that night we went to a karaoke place - my first time ever! The place offered American, Chinese, and Filipino songs. I mostly stuck to the American songs, though I did try part of a Filipino song, failing miserably.

On Sunday morning we visited the Legazpi Sunday Market, which is comparable to a farmer's market. Locals sell food, arts and crafts, jewelry, and fresh produce here. The food will be detailed in the next post! I also bought a cute hand-painted wrap dress.

Later during the day we went to Rizal Park, which is where many historical moments took place. The gaining of Filipino Independence took place here, as well as the execution of Rizal, who was a leader in the movement for Independence. It's a great place to relax on a Sunday - there were many families here walking around and enjoying the greenery. Tourists also are common, hence the many individuals who tried to sell us photos, tours, and rides on horse-drawn carriages.

We finally rode in a jeepney. You can really experience the exhaust fumes when riding on one - my lungs definitely did not enjoy the ride. The jeepneys run on a set route, and you can flag one down when you see one. People entering in from the back will pass the 8 peso fare up one by one until it reaches the driver, on the honor system. Whenever you want to jump off, you just tell the driver, "para ko!" and he will stop and let you down. In the photo below, here is a almost empty jeepney (a rare sight!), followed closely behind by another jeepney.

What a fantastic weekend - I felt like I was able to experience a very well-rounded view of Manila. I really like the city and the people, and two days was not long enough! Next time I'm in the region I am definitely visiting again.

Molly's Take on Manila

People have described Manila to me in various ways. Some adjectives include "dangerous," "squalid," "wretched." When I mentioned that I was traveling there for the weekend, the most common response I received was, "Why would you go there?"

I would respond, "Because I randomly found round trip tickets for $67 on Kayak and I couldn't pass up the opportunity."

Now I realize that those people were right, but they were not telling the whole story, just what they had read in the news. Manila is extremely crowded and polluted, and the poverty is heart-breaking. It also is dangerous, and the security guards posted all over the city are a constant reminder of the bombings and kidnappings that have occurred in recent years. Whenever you enter a hotel or mall, or similar edifice, there will be a guard who will either scan you with a metal detector or pat you down. However, the culture in Manila is amazing, and it stems from history, religion, and the kind hearts of the people.

In the next few posts I'm going to detail the things I saw and did, as well as the food I ate, but right now I just want to talk about my observations as a whole. There are a few factors that stuck out to me.

Manila is an amazing blend of Filipino, Spanish, and American influences. The Spanish colonized the islands for a few centuries, so it isn't surprising that they left their footprints. First, many people are Catholic. There are stunning ancient cathedrals that dot the city. Services are held in all sorts of odd places. We walked through a modern, high-end mall shopping complex, and came across a large group of people out in the gardens, attending a service. It was raining quite heavily and they still remained there devotedly, standing under the alcoves near the walls of the mall for shelter. The language also has bits of Spanish mixed in, which I was able to pick out. Obviously, a lot of the old buildings also are in the Spanish architectural style.

The American historical influence is best seen through the rickety old jeepneys that drive around the streets, picking up and dropping off passengers for only 8 pesos one way. (42 pesos is about $1). These old vehicles were left over by the Americans during the Second World War, and somehow are still able to function. The exhaust fumes are pretty ugly though.

The people here are the most gracious I have ever met. I think the kindness and generosity is embedded in the culture. Individuals will go out of their way to help a stranger out. People smile and say "excuse me, ma'am," or "thank you, ma'am." Guards will walk out into the middle of a busy street and stop traffic so that you can cross. Another guard held an umbrella over us while we rushed to a taxi in the middle of the rain. People are glad to give directions and they usually are good at it too! This kindness does make it difficult to turn down individuals offering tourism services, as well as those begging for money and food.

I had a really heart-wrenching experiencing, which made me understand the use of the word "wretched" to describe the city. Our taxi was stopped at a light at an intersection. It was pouring down rain in buckets - this is what the locals call typhoon rain during the wet season. Suddenly I hear a knock on the backseat window, and I see this woman, soaking wet, with her hair plastered to her face, big eyes pleading. She is holding a very small baby, and it is also drenched from the downpour. They have no type of cover against the weather. First I am just very shaken from the sight, then I get out some money and we fumble with the window to give it to her.

In similar situations I usually do not give money, because you never know what or who it will be used for. But this time I was helpless - the sight was so pitiful that I could not make myself ignore her. This was one of the moments of the trip that really will stick with me.

Don't worry - that was one of the only bad experiences of the trip - there were lots of fun ones, including watching a Filipino wedding in a beautiful cathedral, eating lots of fried food, going to the market, and riding a zipline along Manila bay during the sunset.

Monday, July 18, 2011


That's the most common adjective people have used to describe life in Singapore. Convenient, safe, comfortable, and easy.

It's true - I believe that Singapore is the most "livable" city in Asia. Some call it "Asia lite." This is the place to start if you've never traveled in this part of the world before, and want to ease into the culture shock. This is the place for businesses to move when they want to expand into the region, because infrastructure and set regulations. This is the place expats want to work because of the top rated schools and English-speaking population. This is the place you let your daughter take on her first internship away from home, because of the low crime rates (right, mom and dad?)

The public transportation could not be better. The metro system, buses, and taxis can take you anywhere you need to go. They are clean and run like clockwork. Taxis are strictly regulated, and no driver will try to rip you off. I don't believe it is possible to really get lost in Singapore - all you have to do is find the nearest passerby, who is certain to speak at least basic English, and ask them where the nearest taxi stand/bus stand/MRT stop is.

Sure, the weather could be improved, but most of the time I don't even realize it is so hot and humid. Every building, taxi, bus, subway, home, is air-conditioned, and many places are connected through underground malls or pathways. It is easy to get around without ever being outdoors for more than a few minutes.

It is easy to "experience" manageable bits of culture. Want to see what India is like? Just go down two MRT stops to Little India, where there are streets crammed full of small restaurants cooking fresh naan and curry, stands with incense and religious offerings, vendors selling tropical fruits, and boutiques and shops selling knick knacks and cloths of all sorts. There's also a Chinatown, with its own Chinese Heritage Center. The Arab District is also nearby, with mosques and delicious Middle-Eastern cuisine in all price categories. Everything is within easy reach.

Food is convenient here. There is everything from 5-star restaurants to vendors in hawker stands selling 90-cent roti prata and $1 bowls of beancurd. Every cuisine is within easy access - Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian, Middle-Eastern, French, Italian, Australian, American fast food, you name it.

And the shopping! I have never seen so many designer brands in one place. First of all, Singapore has a mall on every street, each bigger and newer than the previous one. There are stores that you would find in the states, such as Forever 21 and Guess, and then there are high end Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada, etc. If you have the money, this city is the shopper's paradise.

It's clean and safe. Singapore is the one place in Asia where I am not afraid to use a public restroom, because most likely it will be impeccably clean. It is also a place where I am not afraid to walk around by myself. People are so rule-abiding that they will not cross the street when the "walk" sign is not green, even if there are no cars on the road. Residents take their "queues" or lines very seriously - never try to cut in line! Rules and regulations run the city - no durians allowed on public transportation, for example.

Travel to nearby countries is cheap and fast. It is manageable to hop over to Vietnam, Malaysia, or Thailand for a weekend for under $200 (or even $100 if you snag a good deal). So if you get bored of the city state, you can quickly pop out for a small adventure.

But Singapore is also a place of transit for many expatriates. Many people I have talked to do not plan on staying here for more than a few years. Why is this, if the city is so comfortable? Maybe it gets boring after a few months. The community is also very small, and maybe it a little too small once you realize that everyone you know also knows each other in various ways. Or maybe people just get used to the comforts and start to take them for granted. After all, everything is relative.

I like this place a lot, after six weeks. Right now, I can see myself living here. But who knows what will happen in the future, and how my perspective will change?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Bullets, Bread, and Biases

Our weekend in Vietnam was incredible. I've learned that no matter where you travel, it helps to have a local friend who can host you, help you get around, and take you to all the worthwhile places. There is so much less hassle and anxiety.

Ho Chi Minh City moves at a frenetic pace. Many people still use motorbikes, which makes driving on the roads at bit unruly and chaotic. Additionally there are barely any streetlights or crosswalks, and pedestrians do not appear to have the right of way.

We tried to cram as much as possible into our two days, but I feel as if we barely scratched the surface of the culture and history of the city.

One of the destinations we visited was the Reunification Palace. The Vietnam war ended when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through these gates. Apparently, everything inside was left exactly as it was that day a few decades ago. All the technology and telephones were so old fashioned, and there was no air conditioning.

I've had the traditional Vietnamese pho in the U.S., but I knew I had to try the real deal here. We went to a popular pho joint that was three stories tall. The server used a dumbwaiter to lift the steaming bowls of noodles from the kitchen on the ground floor to our table on the second floor. It was quite an efficient process. I ordered the pho with rare beef, and the thin slices of meat were cooked by the hot, savory broth. The broth is the most important component of pho - in order to have the rich, meaty flavor, it has to be slowly simmered for at least a day.

Another traditional food that we tried was banh mi, a type of sandwich. Here you can really see the French influence, as the sandwiches are made on freshly baked baguettes. The roadside stands that sell banh mi are incredible. A person delivers huge baskets of hot, freshly baked baguettes. Then the vendor slices open the bread and prepares it with the topping of your choice. We all ordered the omelette banh mi, so she slathered the bread in some sort of pate, put on spicy cucumber relish, jalapenos, and freshly fried eggs. It was definitely one of the more delicious things I have tried in my life, and we had it both mornings. An added bonus - only $0.50 for a large sandwich!

The War Remnants Musuem was one of the more serious and somber parts of our travels. To give you an idea of the theme of the museum, it used to be called the "American War Crimes Museum" before relations between the U.S. and Vietnam warmed up. The museum has several exhibits which details the horrific effects of the Vietnam War on the civilian population. Though it was one-sided, not showing any of the offenses of the Viet Cong, it still was truthful in documenting the human suffering.

It was definitely not a child-friendly attraction. There were graphic photos of American soldiers mercilessly killing and torturing enemy soldiers as well as innocent people. The most disturbing exhibit was the room detailing the effects of Agent Orange, the chemical warfare component of the Vietnam War. Many people who encountered this toxin later had children who were deformed and handicapped in unimaginable ways. Some were missing limbs, some had no eyeballs - the photos were extremely hard to look at, and yet it was difficult not to look. The U.S. manufacturers of these chemicals were later sued, but I'm not sure what happened in the case.

After this museum, I could completely understand the perspective of pacifists. The impact of wartime experiences on civilians is so cruel and can last for generations. We are lucky to be so removed from actual war, even though our country is currently in one, that we can be blind to its effects. Military activity has become so mechanized and high-tech that it's become easier to justify and to ignore. Even though chemical and biological warfare is technically banned, war will never be fought completely cleanly, and without unnecessary victims.

Now I know I just finished talking about the consequences of war, but there's no harm in shooting guns at metal plates! We went to a shooting range, and there we had the opportunity to try out M16s and AK47s. The sound is deafening! It was really scary when we first heard shots go off.

It was quite a memorable weekend. This weekend I am staying in Singapore and trying to do some of the fun activities in the city. Today I got a haircut, then visited Little India, went to the Singapore Art Museum, and then at night, the night safari at the Zoo. Though we didn't do any traveling, I am pretty tired now!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Be Back Soon!

Sorry I haven't updated in a while - been busy with birthdays, work, dinner seminars, and a Fourth of July BBQ! This weekend I will not be traveling for once, so I hope to write about my trip to Ho Chi Minh City.

Just to give you a taste of what is coming up: In Vietnam this past weekend, some of the most memorable moments include:

  • Seeing the Cu Chi Tunnels, which is an underground network which was used during the Vietnam War as a transport and communications system
  • Shooting a real AK-47
  • Learning about the horrors of the war from the War Remnants Museum
  • Touring the Reunification Palace
  • Eating great Vietnamese food (Banh Mi and Pho)
  • Squeezing nine people into a car every time we took a taxi