The French Connection in Tagaytay-Alfonso-Nasugbu

Spontaneity won the day!  It was a three-day weekend, and we had guests from France to take around. My niece and goddaughter Sam who lives in Sallanches in front of Mont Blanc came visiting with her French beau Sylvain Aubry. As my girls had a birthday party to attend Saturday and Niccolo was vacationing in Bacolod with his girlfriend Sam and her family, Andre and I agreed to take our guests around Tagaytay and Alfonso.  My mom Dada joined us.

Since it was a long weekend and traffic Saturday morning would be horrendous, Andre suggested we leave Friday night. And so we did. The trip was a breeze.

Roadtrip to Tagaytay
On Sam and Sylvain’s  bucket list were mountain climbing and swimming. Our two guests wanted to trek to the Taal Volcano.  We had planned to stay in Alfonso overnight but while chatting in the car, we realized that Andre’s house in Tagaytay was closer to the jump off point to Taal than my Alfonso farm. And just like that we decided to stay at Tagaytay, knowing full well that the house had not been lived in for two years. Being a meticulous planner, poor Andre was apprehensive that there would be no running hot water, and that the air conditioners and ref would not work. We assured him that we were all Cowboys, and would adjust. Voila! Everything worked just fine.

Early the next morning, I checked the kitchen to cook breakfast.  I got the gas burners working, and was puttering around when I spied two hideous looking ceramic chickens on the countertop glaring at me. I let out a huge scream, being deathly afraid of chickens. Sam kindly moved the offending chickens and covered them with a cloth.

Beautiful but deadly Taal Volcano
After a sumptuous breakfast of piping hot coffee, corned beef, eggs and toasted pan de monay with guava and orange jams, we left for the Taal Yacht Club where we could arrange for a boat to bring our guests to Taal volcano.  The second most active volcano in the Philippines and considered the smallest volcano in the world, Taal Volcano is a geologic wonder as it features a lake within an island within a lake within a larger island. It is part of the deadly Pacific Ring of Fire.

Sam and Sylvain’s Taal Volcano Adventure
Accompanied by a guide, Sam and Sylvain took off on a motorized outrigger to take the secret trail to the volcano on horseback, and to go swimming in the lake within the volcano.  As their trip would take four hours, we arranged lunch for them at the Yacht Club. Meanwhile, the oldies (Dada, Andre and I) went to Tagaytay Highlands where we had a delicious Chinese lunch of assorted dimsum, crispy seafood noodles, and a hotpot of eggplant and dried fish.

Naughty Dada and the Lion
While waiting for Andre to park the car, ever impish Dada had fun posing with the huge lion at the entrance of Dynasty Restaurant, acting as if the lion bit her.  Oh, Dada!

In the afternoon, we visited Alfonso.  I planned to prepare a paella pobre for dinner, but since I did not have lemon and chicken, I convinced  Andre to pass by Mahogany Market. Well, the promised five minutes stopover took much longer with the variety of fruits that were being sold. Spotting some ripe langka, I bought some, intending to make our favorite turon with saba.   We loaded up on lemons, mangoes, and lanzones which were so sweet that Dada and Andre quickly finished it off.

Plants were on sale beside the fruit market, and I couldn’t help myself from approaching them. I went gaga over the potted herbs on sale, and picked up tarragon, basil, dill, mint, sevia, and thyme to plant in Alfonso. I also bought a lovely smelling creeper called yesterday, today and tomorrow because of its tri-colored flowers. Hopefully, this plant would thrive in SouthBay.

We then went to the meat section so I could buy the chicken. Normally, I buy only deboned and skinless chicken thighs and breasts at the supermarket, but this being the wet market, they only had whole chickens. Luckily, I didn’t have to hold the chicken myself.  I remembered that we didn’t have lumpia wrappers for the turon so I had to run back to the vegetable section to get some.

Alfonso, almost at dusk
Finally, we arrived at Alfonso just as the sun was beginning to set. I felt peace settle in my soul as I always do coming home to this retreat. The rambutan trees were in full bloom.  I asked our caretaker to harvest rambutan and coconuts to bring home to SouthBay. After a quick walk around the farm, I started preparing the aioli and cooking the paella, while Dada taught Sam and Sylvain how to make turon.  As I had to get an entire chicken at the market, it was left to our farm caretaker Bleng to cut the chicken into pieces and debone it for my paella and an adobo.

Paella pobre, simple but filling
Our simple dinner of chistorras al ajillo, paella pobre, and chicken adobo paired with a Vin d’Alsace was superb. Even Andre announced that it was my best paella so far.  From such a discerning gourmet, that was one great compliment. The turon, mangoes and pineapples were a sweet finale to the dinner.

The lake within Taal Volcano. From afar, it looks serene, but close to it, it’s hot enough to boil an egg on one side, yet warm enough to swim in on another side.
During dinner, Sam and Sylvain regaled us with their adventures at Taal. The horses were tiny, she said, just like ponies and they were worried the horses would not be able to carry them up the mountain, and then down into the inside rim of the crater where the lake was.  Apparently, no living thing, even bacteria, can thrive in the lake inside the Taal volcano because of its high sulfuric content. Besides, the water is too hot as evidenced by the steam rising from the lake. The guide explained that an egg could be boiled if left on the rocks to one side of the lake. The water on the lake’s other side, however, was not boiling, and Sam and Sylvain swam in it.

As we were eating, the skies opened up and cried a river.  The sound of the heavy downpour was lulling us to sleep on the veranda, but we decided to drive back to Tagaytay while it was still early enough. Good thing we did because there was zero visibility on the road. The fog was so thick we could hardly see in front of us.  Andre followed the white lines on the road but would be dazzled by oncoming cars using high beams. Our guardian angels must be working overtime as we got home safely.

Sunday morning, we enjoyed a breakfast of steamed rice, Connie’s Best tuyo with capers, scrambled organic eggs and chicken adobo. We then got into the car and drove to Terrazas de Punta Fuego in Nasugbu.  Between weekenders going to the various destination restaurants along the Tagaytay Ridge and the faithful attending mass, traffic was heavy.  It was almost noon by the time we arrived at Terrazas.  Driving down to the beach, we were transported to the French Riviera. The view of the sea sparkling in the sun was simply spectacular.


Chilling and swimming at Terrazas de Punta Fuego
Andre had reserved a cabana so we could go swimming. We agreed on a late lunch as breakfast had been heavy. After a refreshingly cold lychee shake, Dada, Sam and Sylvain headed for the beach to swim. The strong waves crashing on the shore got the better of them, and the young ones transferred to the swimming pool, while the not-so-young ones lounged at the cabana. Ravenous after the swim, we transferred to the clubhouse for lunch.

img_6644Soon, Pablum Lobregat, Eddie and Lita Legarda showed up to join us. Pablum is the cousin of Andre’s late wife Ito, and Eddie her younger brother.  Conversation revolved around the best beaches that Sam and Sylvain could go to, like Honda Bay, Coron, Puerto Princesa and Mindoro.

Pablum and Andre started kidding each other, sharing funny stories. We learned about this hilarious incident involving what turned out to be a very expensive cheese pimiento sandwich which Pablum offered to Andre. Transferring from one boat named Cocoa to Pablum’s other boat where the sandwich was waiting, Andre had one foot on Cocoa and the other on the second boat when the two boats started to move away, forcing Andre to do an impromptu split. The boats drifted farther than farther apart until Andre fell into the water, and lost a brand new slipper. The next day, he was black and blue and had to go for a full check-up.  He never forgot that pimiento sandwich.

After lunch, we all got onto Pablum’s sailboat. We got drenched walking to the boat and getting on to it as the waves kept beating us up.  The waves carried off my hat when a huge wave washed over me. Luckily, Eddie saved it for me.  My 81-year old mom climbed onto the boat, little knowing that it would be a turbulent ride. Poor Dada! She ended up with a severe case of seasickness.  Except for Dada, we all had a wonderful time on the boat, with the wind in our hair, the sun warm on our skin, and the warm water splashing all over us.

Sailing in Nasugbu
It was my first time to go sailing, and I was curious about the unfurling of the sails. I clambered to the side and sat on the blue tarpaulin to the side of the boat. Lita kindly explained what was happening on the boat, as the crew got it working. I kept my head down for fear of being decapitated by the mast, and held on tight to the ropes for fear of sliding off.  All my fears melted away as I marveled at the beauty of the sea from my perch. It was a glorious feeling! No wonder so many people love to sail. I understand now how they could fall in love with the sea.

The trip back to Tagaytay was tiring. Dada was asleep in the car, spent from the afternoon’s excursion. The fog was back in full force and so was traffic. Waze though helped us find a detour through the back roads of Tagaytay and Alfonso.   Back in Tagaytay, I quickly prepared a capellini pasta with bottarga, anchovy, dried chilies, parsley, olive oil and lemon.  It was our last night in Tagaytay and the sound of the rains was music to our ears as we chatted over dinner.

My farmer and me
After breakfast Monday morning, we packed up everything and left for the farm so Sam and Sylvain could see what a hydroponic farm was. They were thoroughly impressed by the healthy produce at the farm. Andre gifted me with a giant yellow gumamela flower, along with a special message. Sam commented that the plants were all on steroids, seeing how large and healthy they all looked.

On the way home, we bought lanzones and more rambutan. We also stopped by LZM, which Andre swears has the best boneless bangus in town.  I was relegated to going in to order the bangus, and as I write this blog, the delicious aroma of the fried bangus permeating the car Is tantalizing our senses.  We’re all looking forward to lunch and being reunited with Bea and Niccolo.

All in, it was a most marvelous weekend spent with people I love.  Special thanks to the warm hospitality of Pablum, Eddie and Lita for bringing us for a spin in the sailboat. I enjoyed meeting such wonderful friends and family of Andre.  And I believe Andre enjoyed the time spent with my family as well. I am sure Sam and Sylvain will treasure the fun they had this weekend. After all, it is more fun in the Philippines.

Balesin Adventure

All this talk about Balesin being the utmost resort had me excited about going there with Andre and his friends. We had gone to a concert of Friends of Distinction at the Arena Friday night and arrived home way past midnight because of the rains and flooded roads. Call time at the hangar was 7:30am, which meant I had to be up by 5:00 am to prepare for it.   Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, I stumbled out of bed and got dressed.

It was a long weekend, and my children all had their own trips scheduled. Bea and Cara hied off for a weekend of surfing at Flotsam and Jetsam in La Union, while Niccolo went to Punta Fuego with his girlfriend Sam and some friends.   We hugged and kissed each other good-bye and went our separate ways. Andre came to pick me up. After a quick healthy breakfast of oatmeal, we were off to our Balesin adventure.  We were so excited, we were the first to arrive at the hangar. Soon though, the place began to fill up.

At Nusa Dua
We were a big group: our hosts Poch and Pam Zamora with their children Katrina and Javier, their friends Mickey and Maya Colayco and their 7-year old daughter Katie, and Rob de Leon and his girlfriend Tina Tividad. Poch and Pam are the founders of the Moonwalkers, the famed Alabang walking group, which Andre joins.

Enjoying the Balesin welcome drink
The flight on the propeller plane was much shorter than the wait to get on to it. It seemed we had just taken off, and the pilot was already announcing the descent. We were a bit worried about the weather as it had been raining for two weeks in Manila, and more rains were forecasted due to Habagat. We were in for a wonderful surprise, though, as the sun was beaming when we landed. Nary a raindrop was felt during our entire stay.

Our deck
Poch said Balesin was full, but we hardly saw anyone. Balesin is half the size of Boracay, and twice the size of BGC. We were billeted at a villa in the Filipino-inspired Balesin Village. Quite spacious and comfortable, the villa had its very own outdoor Jacuzzi, a day bed, and two loungers on a deck.

Chauffering Andre around Balesin
We rented golf carts to bring us around the island and its various attractions. It was surprisingly easy to drive, and I was assigned chauffer for most of our stay.

The mask of Nusa Dua. I don’t know who sported the more infectious smile: the mask or Andre.
Ever the gracious host, Poch kindly toured us around the resort. We marveled at the distinct character of each village. Bali was interesting with its colorful masks, and the villas built on top of the water. Mykonos with its startling stark blue and white theme was invigorating. Phuket, where we had dinner, was on the other end of the island and appeared laid back.

Poch and Andre
We also visited Rico’s Hideaway, which looked like a great drinking spot, as well as, the Sports Center, where they had courts from basketball to badminton, to yoga studios, an archery, a football field, and even a firing range. Poch pointed out the Balesin Seafood Shack, where you could enjoy fat crabs and seafood to your heart’s content. We made a mental note to try it out during our stay.

Refreshed after the Balesin Spa experience.

The Balesin Spa
After lunch at Mykonos on the first day, we decided to relax and go to the spa. Were we in for a treat! As soon as I lay on the massage bed, I promptly dozed off and only woke up when the masseuse asked me to turn over and then again when she said we were done, and that I could rest five more minutes. Bitin! Truth to tell, I can vouch for Balesin being one great place for rest and relaxation. The first night, I slept 9.5 hours straight. Unheard of! The second night, I had eight hours sleep, and the third night, nine hours. Still surprising as I would be lucky to have six hours of sleep a night. I’ve never felt so relaxed. I guess, the Kyani Sunset, which Andre brought with him, helped as well.

The Balesin Chapel
Saturday afternoon, Andre and I decided to attend anticipated mass at the Balesin Chapel. We were thoroughly impressed with the children’s choir, the lectors who spoke in perfect English, and the heartfelt homily of the priest. Now, if only there were less mosquitoes that feasted on us. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful mass, and we were happy to give thanks to the Lord for all His many blessings.

Andre, dwarfed by the centuries-old banyan tree.
Andre and I decided to explore the island on our own on the second morning. We stopped by the enormous banyan tree that must be at least 200 years old as it dwarfed us beside it. Moving on, we discovered the Ifugao Village which had a display store surrounded by native Ifugao huts. Always curious, I climbed up one to check it out.   Andre cautioned me not to fall, but being the monkey that I am, I climbed up with alacrity. The store was replete with interesting hand-carved wooden decor. There were a few items we wanted to buy, but there was no one around to sell. Everyone must be at Sunday mass, we surmised.

14089159_10209024056172882_6711263245234017024_nIMG_5845We ended up at the Italian-inspired Toscana where we were to meet up with our friends for lunch. From a distance, it appeared like a dream. The long driveway led to a country palace with a fountain in front. We just had to stop and admire the view. Walking to the side and then to the back, we were greeted by an expanse of sea and sky.


Inspired to paint at Toscana
The stone-walled architecture with red bricks juxtaposed against the white-washed walls was surrounded by the deep green of forest foliage on one side and the sea on the other. The place was deserted, and we had the pool all to ourselves. The air was cool, the deep blue water refreshing, the green grass soft on our feet, and the sun warm against our skin.  A flock of birds began to chirp in harmony, inviting us to stay. It was so inspiring I took out my watercolors and started to paint. We learned later from Poch that there were actually three pools: two freshwater and the middle one salt water.

Happy campers

Pam had made reservations at different outlets for our meals, and it felt like we were whizzing around the world to dine at all the best resorts: Greek lunch at Mykonos, Thai curry dinner at Sawasdee in Phuket, Filipino breakfast at the Balesin Sala, Italian lunch at Toscana, and Spanish dinner at Costa del Sol. All our meals were delicious and filling. Kudos to the chefs that prepared them!

We enjoyed Asturian fabada and lengua estofado at Costa del Sol, but it was the crunchy cochinillo that stole the night, especially coupled with Moscat, sparkling wine and Sangria. And since the boys had earlier filled themselves up with appetizers, it was left to the ladies to polish off the cochinillo.

IMG_5888Lunch at the Taverna in Toscana was for me the best. For appetizers, we shared an arugula-topped crispy pizza, then Andre and I split a seafood cacciucco and a bistecca di manz, o ai funghi porcini, ending the meal with a delightful tiramisu. We enjoyed the meal with wine, which Rob shared with us.

IMG_5816Balesin is great not just for adults but for children as well. The children enjoyed swimming at the various pools of Balesin, and began to sport a nice tan. One morning, Poch arranged for a horse for the children to ride while we were having breakfast. Unlike the gaunt ones at Tagaytay, this was a strapping healthy stallion. No wonder since Poch said that retiring polo horses were brought over to Balesin for the guests to enjoy riding.

All three children got along famously, with Katrina acting as the ate. Sunday night, Javier and Katie treated us to a musical performance. The two had composed their own song entitled ‘Five Days of Fatties,’ had written down the lyrics on a notebook and then performed it for us. Their exuberance and creativity was infectious. What a lovely end to the evening!

14199699_10209032708629188_8609219303066881447_nBirds chirping and cicadas singing formed part of Balesin’s charm. We enjoyed watching different colored birds fly around. There was the blue bird, similar to the one that would fly around Alfonso. Another we didn’t spot had a strong cackle that startled us as we drove by on the golf cart. Black birds sang an opera of lilting music. Yellow birds cavorted in the sky. Balesin’s Aviary featured multi-colored macaws, red parrots, silver birds, and peacocks galore, among others. Why, there was even a huge black bat with a gigantic wingspan that greeted us one dusk.

With my very own DJ, 99.5RT’s Tiny Andy
Not to be outdone by the music of the feathered flock, Andre brought his iPod containing a library of 19,000 songs and his latest gadget, a water-resistant JBL Charge 3 speaker. We enjoyed listening to the top 200 love songs, followed by a mixture of light classical music, and finally his selection of disco music dating from the 70s. I had my very own Tiny Andy DJ of 99.5 RT fame.

On the third day, our friends had all gone back to Manila, and we decided to tour the island and discover the rest of it, which for the most part was deserted. It seems everyone else had left as well.

The dazzling colors of St. Tropez
Being French, Andre was excited to have crepes for lunch, but was crestfallen when we were told by the reception that only the clubhouse and Mykonos outlets were open. We headed off in the direction of Mykonos, but first decided to visit St. Tropez.   What a breathtakingly beautiful sight! The colors were so vibrant, and the blue of the water seemed extraordinarily bright. 14218354_1194809033873816_1726760128_nThe multi-colored glass bottles lined up on the windowsill sparkled from the sunlight spilling into the room. We wanted to go swimming but realized that we had lunch reservations for Mykonos. After being assured that we could come back to St. Tropez to swim, we left for Mykonos.

IMG_5793Like everywhere else, Mykonos was deserted. We were the only ones in the restaurant. As we had been eating a lot and adding on the pounds in the past few days, we decided on a light lunch of Greek salad and appetizers: hummus, tzatziki, flaming cheese saganaki complete with Ooompah, soutzoukakia, Greek salad, and for dessert, baklava generously doused with honey. Pairing the meal with Vina Maipo Chardonnay, we were all set and mellow. We sat by a statue of the Goddess of 14067672_10209032707749166_4442751403839336051_nHealth, and Andre playfully perched his Kahn cap on of its head.  The goddess must have been annoyed, as the cap kept falling off. I enjoyed taking photos of the Mykonos plates that decorated the walls of the restaurant.

Inspired painting at Mykonos
Since we had not yet toured Mykonos, we asked to be shown a villa. We were quite impressed with the blue and white villa that opened right into the Poseidon pool. Once again, we had the place all to ourselves. We enjoyed the Jacuzzi, then Andre transferred to the deep pool to do laps while I started to paint. When Andre swam over and began to chat, I took the opportunity to sketch him using my charcoal pencil.

Korean lunch at Balesin
Our last lunch was at the Korean restaurant, where we had Angus beef short ribs cooked right at our table. The succulent, melt-in-your-mouth ribs were to die for. Naturally, no Korean meal would be complete without the attendant side dishes of kimchi, sweet dilis, sautéed togue, lettuce salad, blanched spinach, sticky rice and clear beef broth. We washed this down with an ice-cold Chamisul Soju rice wine, and ended the meal with a marvelous green melon popsicle. What Andre could not comprehend was that there were two of each dish, but only one popsicle to share. I let him enjoy most of it.

Overall, the Balesin adventure delivered more than what I had expected. It was a great time for letting go of stress, enjoying the company of friends, both new and old, and re-assessing what is truly important in life. I am deeply grateful to Poch, Pam and Andre for inviting me to the paradise that is called Balesin, and hope, one day, to return and explore the rest of the island.




Brewing@AIM with VP Leni Robredo

Yesterday morning, I attended the launch of Brewing@AIM: Conversations with Thought Leaders with VP Leni Robredo as its very first guest speaker. Truth to tell, I was a bit miffed when I arrived at 8:45 am only to learn that the keynote speaker was scheduled to arrive at 10:30 am. It was nice though that there were some early birds like me, and so I joined the table of my friend, Yoling Sevilla, CEO of The Leather Collection, Inc.  Yoling and I are both board members of the Women’s Business Council (WomenBizPH). Yoling invited me to her company’s 25th anniversary celebration at AIM on September 16, and reminded me that my late husband Mike who was then VP for External Affairs at AIM had given The Leather Collection its first big break with the AIM diary.

Yoling is one admirable woman, an entrepreneur par excellence, and is currently doing wonderful work with the GREAT Women project. She kidded me about her being the youngest graduate at our table, having finished the 18-month part-time program, Master in Entrepreneurship (ME). A relatively new offering of the Asian Institute of Management, ME is designed to help busy entrepreneurs grow their business, develop practical skills and realistic approaches to value creation and growth, and balance both personal and business goals.

Yoling and I were seated with AIM’s first MBM graduates from 1970 and 1971: Rene Sunico, Butch Bautista, Jun Orobia, and Chito Francisco.  The talk around the table revolved around giving back to the community, particularly those who were devastated by super typhoon Yolanda.  Rene shared that Republic Cement had built 25-sqm hyperbolic paraboloid houses in partnership with Habitat for Humanity in Daanbantayan, Cebu. These houses were made to deflect the fiercest winds and withstand strong earthquakes, he said. Curious, I tried to remember my highschool geometry lessons and imagine how a hyperbolic paraboloid house would look. Rene tried to explain that the outside was pointed and the inside was round. Aha! So, it’s an igloo on the inside and a pyramid on the outside, I said aloud.  To satisfy my curiosity, I asked him to send me photos of the houses, which he kindly did.

Promptly at 10:30am, Vice President Leni Robredo arrived. VP Leni also holds the office of chair of Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC). She spoke quite passionately about her mission to eradicate poverty. Promising to make HUDCC a listening office, VP Leni shared her experience of traveling to the poorest and farthest barangays to meet and listen to Filipinos at the fringes of society. She admitted that working at the grassroots level was not the happy field trips and photo opportunities people thought them to be, but actually tense situations, mostly humid and tiring, where she met people who are angry, hungry and desperate for lack of opportunity. It was interesting that VP Leni called them partners in development rather than mere beneficiaries, giving them a more active role in improving their situation.

Citing the economic results posted two weeks ago where the Philippines hit 7% GDP growth, besting China’s 6%, VP Leni observed that this top line growth has put the country on the global map, and that now all eyes are trained on the Philippines. And yet, despite this economic boom, the inequality is startling with 52% of the national income belonging to the Richest, the top 20% Filipinos, while only a miniscule 4.45% of national income goes to the Poorest, the bottom 20% of Filipinos.

VP Leni pointed out that while inclusive growth is critical for the poor, it was also necessary so that businesses could grow sustainably. Admitting that government cannot do it alone, and that her office has a miniscule budget, she asked the AIM alumni to lend their support and help eradicate poverty through five main areas: 1) housing, 2) public health and hunger, 3) rural development and food security, 4) education, and women economic empowerment.

I was surprised to learn that there is a 5.7M total housing backlog, which translates to building 2,602 houses per day in the next six years. I nudged Rene Sunico and said this was right up his alley. But building houses alone will not solve the problem, VP Leni stressed. A whole eco-system must be built with livelihood opportunites, proper sewerage and drainage, security of tenure, schools, hospitals, parks, children’s playgrounds. HUDCC is also making it easier for people to have homes, by reducing paperwork for socialized housing from 27 to 9, and reducing processing time from two years to 15-30 days.

On the health front, VP Leni said there are 3.5M Filipino children suffering from stunting. Unless children are given better nutrition, a decade from now, the workforce will be weak and unfit for work. The objective is to improve nutritional intake of children in first 1,000 days of life from womb to two years. She cited the work that the Zuellig Foundation is undertaking to help address hunger and proper nutrition, and that of Seaoil in creating an Information Management System tool that allows data gathering of where the need is.

Rural development and food security can be addressed with Impact Investment. VP Leni cited the example of Jollibee Foundation that is helping small farming communities become entrepreneurs by teaching them to grow onions and sell them. This being a transition year in education with the K to12, the focus should be on career planning, skills development, and job matching. VP Leni shared that the aspiration of most high school seniors is to learn baking. Obviously, there is a great Disconnect as graduates need to have the right skills to enter the workforce. She urged LGUs to created a database of existing jobs that could be accessed to fight underemployment.

Women economic empowerment, VP Leni’s last initiative, is exactly what the Women’s Business Council (WomenBizPH) is advocating for, from livelihood training to mentoring, micro-finance and access to market. WomenBizPH has been in the forefront of organizing or collaborating with likeminded stakeholders in policy advocacy for women economic empowerment. For example, WomenBizPH served as the private sector representative during the last APEC Women in the Economy Forum held in Manila, as well as the lead partner of the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP) in the Inclusive Lending Window for Aspiring Women Entrepreneurs (ILAW) program that seeks to provide access to finance for women entrepreneurs. Other regular programs include quarterly WomenBizPH talks and bi-annual conferences, network and business matching, mentorship for entrepreneurial development and research on entrepreneurship.

VP Leni summed up her speech with three important takeaways learned during HUDCC’s listening and environmental scanning stage. First, the voices of communities must be heard; we must listen and find out what they need. Second, LGUs have a huge role to play to make poverty reduction a reality. Finally, there must be metrics that measure outcomes and not activities. She urged the private sector to work hand in hand with government to ensure inclusiveness for all.  I trust that her words fell on fertile ears at AIM and that six years from now, poverty will be a thing of the past. One thing I am sure of, she can count on WomenBizH as a partner in development.


Hua Hin Adventure

You never really know someone until you travel with him. Last week, Andre and I traveled to Hua Hin, Thailand.   This was our first international trip together.  Andre had made all of the arrangements for the trip.  All I knew were the dates and that we were going to Thailand.

Leading up to the trip, I was busy with work and hence did not pay much attention to the itinerary, other than it was a summer trip by the beach and that it was going to be exceedingly hot. This meant I needed to load up on resort wear: shorts, swimsuits, sunglasses and sunblock lotion.  I thought I had everything packed up and ready until Andre picked me up and handed me a hat to shield me from the sun.  He also surprised me with matching bag tags with a yellow duck design to make it easier to spot the suitcases as they came off the baggage rack.  What a neat idea!

At the Mabuhay Lounge, we enjoyed Philippine Airlines’ famed arroz caldo, which we finished off with a banana-langka turon, both our favorites.  The night before I had taken my children and their cousins out to dinner at Vask Tapas Bar to welcome Patricia, my sister’s only daughter who was visiting from the U.S.  I woke up early the next day to prepare breakfast for the cousins who were going on a day trip to the beach.

With very little sleep the night before, I kept dozing off during the flight to Thailand and the three-hour drive from Bangkok to Hua Hin.  Andre had arranged for a private car to bring us to the Sheraton Hua Hin Resort & Spa, where we were billeted.  Because he is an SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest) member, we were upgraded to a Starwood Prestige Room with pool access.  We arrived late at night and couldn’t find our bearings at first.

Tired and hungry from traveling, we took a buggy back to the main building to search for a restaurant that was still open.  Vast as it was, the hotel seemed deserted, as all the outlets we passed were empty. We finally found Luna Lanai, an outlet by the beach serving authentic Thai dishes. The first night we had vegetable spring rolls and a mild scallop curry. It lacked a bit of flavor so we asked for condiments and chilli fish sauce to spice it up. Nevertheless, it was delicious!

The pool

We woke up to a beautiful sunny morning. Opening the curtains of the room, we saw that we had our very own lanai by the pool, as well as, a jacuzzi. Just beyond, there seemed to be a little island with a tower encircled by nine white elephant heads.   Ravenous, we walked to The Deck where a sumptuous breakfast buffet was laid out. The fresh fruits not only looked gorgeous, they were delicious too.

Trying to be superheroes and holding up the titled house
Trying to be superheroes and holding up the titled house

Walking back to our room, we spied a striking yellow, orange and green house with white windows. It was tilted on its side, seemingly about to fall down. Ever young at heart, we could not resist but take photos holding up the house, which was part of the Star Club for children. Soon, other adults followed suit and also had their photos taken.

Back in our room, the water beckoned invitingly, and we quickly changed into our swimwear and slipped into the pool. Exploring, we realized that the low-rise rooms were built surrounding the swimming pool, which wound around a central island. At one end was the Sheraton main building where the Deck was, and at the other end was the beach.


For lunch, we headed back to the Luna Lanai, where we enjoyed a delicious roasted duck red curry with baby eggplants, cherry tomatoes and lychees; fried red snapper fillet with sweet chilli sauce and mint leaves; and rum raisin ice cream for dessert. We spent the rest of the day swimming and then visited the Spa for a foot massage.

Thoroughly relaxed, we remembered that we had access to the Sheraton Starwood Lounge. We entered to be greeted by the cheerful and ever-smiling chubby receptionist Warisara with a “Happy hour closing in five minutes.” What followed next was a whirlwind of activity. Responding quickly to Andre’s “Here’s the drill, Monette; they’re closing in five minutes so load up,” we took two of each item they had on the buffet, bringing it to our little corner table. We were laughing so hard as we had taken identical items, which we then enjoyed leisurely over sparkling wine.

The next day, Andre had arranged for a day tour to Pretchaburi, which included a visit to the oldest temple, a cave and the king’s summer residence. Pretchaburi was an hour’s ride away, going back in the direction of Bangkok. Naan, our lady guide, was quite conversant with English and knowledgeable about the places we were to visit.

The royal temple

Our first stop was Wat Mahathat Woravihara, the oldest royal temple built over 700 years ago during the Sukhotai period. The Khmer-styled sanctuary consisted of five prangs, the tallest of which at 42m high was decorated in white stucco and housed relics of the Lord Buddha. Inside the royal temple, a Buddhist monk sat on a raised platform chanting aloud in a monotonous tone, while worshippers knelt bearing their offerings to Buddha. Offerings came in various forms, from incense, hard-boiled eggs, garlands of colorful flowers, and gold leaf, to live fish, frogs and snakes, and even performances by a traditional troupe of women singers and dancers.

Symmetry in Buddha

Touring us around, Naan explained that the hundreds of symmetrical Buddhas that lined the temple were actually donations by rich families in the olden days and served as tombs for the ashes of their ancestors. We learned that Buddha was portrayed in seven different positions, one representing each day of the week. I was born on a Tuesday, which meant my Buddha was a reclining one. Quite apt, Andre remarked since I would sleep all the time.  Born on a Friday, Andre’s was a standing Buddha with hands folded on his chest.

Bored monkeys
Bored monkeys

From the temple, we drove to the Khao Luang Cave, an ancient cave with stalactites and stalagmites where King Rama IV had worshipped and placed Buddhas. Monkeys could be seen roaming around in abundance, gazing at us nonchalantly and going about their daily routine.

At the caves

Naan warned us that there were 98 steps we had to traverse to visit the cave. She was not kidding! The steep stairs with worn steps seemed to go on forever. Andre decided to stay behind in the first chamber and told me to go on with Naan. The caves consisted of three chambers, the largest of which housed several Buddhas. At one end was a huge reclining Buddha, and on the other end a serene Buddha in sitting position.  A female monk tended to the candles, while devotees prayed and made their offerings. Sunlight filtered in from a gap in the cave’s ceiling, creating a dramatic effect. Naan pointed out the seven Buddha figures for each day of the week, with an eighth Buddha for special Wednesday nights.

Going back to the first chamber, I saw Andre at the top of the stairs. He had gone ahead and climbed the steps. From afar, he seemed like a small dot, highlighting the daunting task of having to climb back up those steps.  But then again, getting back to him was reward enough to keep on going even if my aching knees wanted to give up.

Our last stop was the Phra Nakhon Khiri, the summer palace of the Royal Family, which was constructed in 1858 by King Rama IV (remember King Mongkut from the King and I movie who was played by Yul Brynner?). The mountain rises 95 meters above sea level. Luckily, we rode a cable car to the top where the king’s residence was. Without it, we would have to walk up the mountain for several hours.

The king's step to mount his elephant
The king’s step to mount his elephant

The gardens were beautiful, especially the riotous fuchsia bougainvillea planted in huge Japanese ceramic vases. We noted a landing on steps that seemed to lead to nowhere, until we learned that it was where the king got on the elephant. Makes sense, I thought. Otherwise, he would have had to use a ladder to mount the elephant’s back, which wouldn’t have been to stately.

Andre, cooling down with the iced towel

The steep steps up to the palace were gruellingly difficult to climb, suffering as we were due to the blazingly hot weather and coming right after the cave visit. Naan kindly handed us frozen orange packets. Thinking they were ice-cream, we opened them eagerly to discover that they were instead frozen orange towels to soothe our fevered brows, and we rested awhile before proceeding on our way.

The king’s residence

There were three peaks to the mountain, but we decided to visit just the Eastern Peak where the king’s residence was. We were not allowed to take photographs of the house, which was heavily decorated in European, Chinese and Thai styles. There were bronze and brass sculptures around, and ceramic objects from England, China and Japan. Despite the luxurious furniture and décor, the house itself seemed small and relaxing, and I could almost imagine the king and his wife enjoying the fantastic view from the dining room.

After a rather disappointing lunch at the only hotel in Pretchaburi, we decided to return to the Sheraton for more swimming before visiting the Starwood Lounge, this time eating at a leisurely pace and enjoying their champagne.

The next day, I convinced Andre to take the shuttle into town instead of a private car for a shopping and foot massage expedition. Before going to Thailand, I had told Andre that I wanted to visit the Jim Thompson store to pick out some bags for me and my girls.  Ever the resourceful person, Andre had researched and found that there were two JT stores in Hua Hin, one at the Hilton Hotel and the other at Sendara Hotel.

Little did I realize that it was a long walk from the Clock Tower where we got off the shuttle to the Hilton Hotel, especially in the baking heat of the early afternoon sun.  Poor Andre! With each step, I felt more and more guilty making him walk, seeing how he was suffering from the heat. After buying the bags, we searched for a suitable foot massage place but the one we chose was fully booked till evening. We then walked some more in search of an air-conditioned restaurant but each one we passed was not air-conditioned. My heart sank with each step I took.  After buying a few items, we trekked back to the Clock Tower where we waited for the Sheraton shuttle. Andre looked exhausted and unhappy from the trip, and I made a mental note next time to follow his lead about shopping expeditions.

Back at the Sheraton, we enjoyed another late Thai dinner, packed our bags and slept early for the 7:30am pick up the next day.  It was a truly wonderful trip, and Andre and I look forward to our next one. One thing I know for sure is that I will let Andre take the lead when it comes to travel.  From planning the itinerary to choosing accommodations, making sure we had everything we would need for the trip bag tags and hats included, keeping me on schedule,  and ensuring we did not forget our pasalubong, Andre is the perfect traveling companion.  As for me, I need to rein in my spontaneity, trust him, relax and wait for his signal, “Here’s the drill, Monette” and dutifully follow him.





Bella Amarela

The moment we arrived at Amarela and wooden steps were put to help us alight the van, I knew we were in for some serious pampering. And we were not disappointed.

Seahorse Gargoyle

Everywhere I looked there was something interesting that caught my eye. It seemed a magical place where artists, sculptors and artisans were given free reign to create and do as they please. Whimsical creatures were carved on posts and repurposed old wood. Animals, birds, people, flowers, sea creatures were released from bondage in discarded tree branches, trunks and roots.

MIH_2Here was a tarsier, its big torchlight eyes oggling at me. There was a cat lazily reclining on a bench, a dog by its side. A newborn babe with its umbilical cord still connected to his spent mother was carved out of a huge root. A child nested contentedly in her mother’s warm embrace hung on the wall. A carabao seat served as a swing by the main entrance. Serving as a downspout, a huge wooden seahorse thrust its neck out on the balcony like a gargoyle, seeming to lunge out into the waters.

Old Bohol is Amarela’s theme, according to its owner, Atty. Lucas “Doy” Nunag whom I met the next day. He wanted to showcase Bohol’s unique culture, incorporating woodwork and woven textures into the place.


Gracing the wall along the stairs were “urnas” or personal saints, some done as triptychs, or three panelled paintings that were hinged together and could be closed. Doy said he wanted to revive this lost art, and encouraged local artists to paint them.   Prints and paintings of scenes from yesteryears lined the walls.

Kitchen mixer from yesteryears

Doy had a collection of antique kitchen utensils and equipment, including a large shell as nutcracker and a paddle board for mixing dough.  He also had an antique telephone, the kind that hangs from the wall.

The advent of Catholicism in the Philippines by Nene Borja-Lungay

Giving me a quick tour of the place, Doy pointed out several paintings that were done by Hermoginia “Nene” Borja-Lungay, an 85-year old Boholana who had studied under Amorsolo and was a contemporary of Joya and Abueva. Using her gift of art, Nene is a master storyteller. In Amarela’s museum was a painting that showed three scenes flowing into each other: first on the left is a friendly encounter between the Spanish conquistadores bearing gifts and Datu Sikatuna, then in the canter is a Spanish priest preaching to natives with the galleon anchored out at sea visible behind him, and then to the right is a scene of Filipinas dressed in Maria Claras apparently coming from a church. What an ingenious way of portraying the start of Catholicism in the Philippines!

Ravenous from the trip, we settled in the dining room with a breathtaking view of coconut treetops, lush greenery, beautifully landscaped gardens, and the brilliant sea. Brunch was filling and delicious, and the staff solicitous.  IMG_2498Exhausted, we retired to our rooms for siesta. The air-conditioned rooms were spacious and bright, the beds comfortable and inviting. I loved the little design accents scattered around the room.

The first night, Niccolo developed a high fever. Feeling light headed and wretched, he asked if we could bring him to the hospital. I approached Chef Nick Matias who quickly arranged for transportation to bring us to the Tagbilaran Community Hospital. Upon reading his test results, the doctor said it might be dengue, but it was too early to tell. He sent us off with a prescription for meds and instructions for Niccolo to rest and have lots of fluids. Learning that my 81-year old mother was sharing the room with us, the doctor recommended we keep her and Niccolo apart as she might catch what he had.

The ever-friendly staff who made tawa-tawa tea for Niccolo. The Filipino hospitality and warmth shines through brilliantly in Amarela.
The ever-friendly staff who made tawa-tawa tea for Niccolo. The Filipino hospitality and warmth shines through brilliantly in Amarela.

Luckily, the resort had one last room free which we quickly took. When the staff learned about what happened the next day, they searched for some tawa-tawa and made an herbal tea for Niccolo to take. What a thoughtful gesture!

We decided to stay in the resort on Good Friday. Ramon, Cara’s friend, arrived from Mindanao to take photos of Cara’s new bikini line for I took to writing, Dada to watching her Spanish telenovelas, Bea to reading by the beach, and Niccolo to resting in his room. Cara came back from her photoshoot giggling, looking like Princess Leia from Star Wars.

Hamming it up as Princess Leia.

She was wearing a yellow towel which Ramon had fashioned into a headgear that could serve as a travel head pillow. In stitches, we took turns wearing his invention. In the afternoon, we gathered to pray the “Siete Palabras” in a quiet little room to the side of Amarela’s art museum.

That night, we broke our fast and went to Giuseppi Pizzeria and Sicilian Roast on the recommendation of Ramon and Cara who had visited it before. We enjoyed a repast of pizza Siciliana, pizza quattro formaggi, rigatoni arabiata, and tagliolini limone e gamberi, washed down with a Montepulciano red wine. To complete the meal we had warm apple pie with vanilla ice cream and a tortino de cioccolato.

Saturday morning, the girls and Ramon decided to go to Balicasag to visit the marine sanctuary, swim and snorkel. Niccolo continued his staycation to recuperate.

Dada at the chocolate hills mirador
Dada at the chocolate hills mirador. One more site ticked on her bucket list.

Meanwhile, Dada and I decided to go off sight seeing. The chocolate hills and tarsiers were on her bucket list, and she intended to tick them off her list. I, on the other hand, wanted to see the churches of Bohol. I’ve been feeling guilty about going off on vacation with the family instead of serving at the parish for the Easter triduum, and not going to church Thursday and Friday. I also wanted to visit some markets and see if there were any nice handicraft I could bring home.
MIH_5Our driver cum tour guide Rey was very accommodating and would point out places of interest, like the manmade mahogany forest and the Shiphaus, a hotel made to look like a ship along the roadside with nary a drop of water around. He also made sure we went to senior-friendly places so that Dada would not have a difficult time getting around. We went to the Philippine Tarsier Foundation in Corella because the trails were easier for senior trekking. At the Chocolate Hills, we took photos at the roundabout as Dada would not have been able to climb the 200+ steps to the top of the lookout. I had been there before, so after snapping a few photos, we left for the rest of our tour.

Do you want to see a python, Rey asked, and when I said yes, he promptly stopped at Bilar Hill Park & Restaurant in Casumbol, Bilar. Conquer your fears, the sign outside said. After paying the entrance ticket, we entered the dimly lit hut.

The colorful kalaw

Inside, the first thing we saw was a large colorful bird perched on a branch. It looked menacing and squawked shrilly. I moved away quickly, but my intrepid mother approached the bird, a kalaw, and started to pet its head.

Dada petting the kalaw.
Dada petting the kalaw.

The bird appeared to be enjoying the petting it was receiving from my mom. Further on, I saw a bench where two women were posing gingerly with a large albino python draped across their laps. We were up next, and I was given the python to carry.

Do you want to carry the albino?
Do you want to carry the albino?

It seemed easy enough but quite heavy. Next up we were invited to enter the large cage where a dark Burmese python and another albino python slithered slowly. Don’t worry, the caretaker said, you’re safe; they have just eaten a chicken each. My stomach started to knot at the thought, and so we quickly posed for the souvenir photo and got out of there.


Rey then told us about the tug-of-war that was happening in Bohol. To seal their friendship on March 15, 1565, Bohol chieftain Sikatuna and Spanish explorer Miguel Lopez de Legazpi performed a blood compact or Sandugo, paving the way for the friendship between Filipinos and Spaniards and ultimately over 300 years of Spanish influence. This we learned in history books. The issue revolves around the actual site and date of the blood compact. Both Tagbilaran and Loay are laying claim that the Sandugo happened in their area. Loay’s marker says it happened on March 25, 1565 aboard the flagship San Pedro which was anchored off Hinawanan Bay, with the leaders drinking wine mixed with blood from cuts they had slashed on their chests. Tagbilaran’s version says the Sandugo happened ten days earlier on shore. Following the local custom, Datu Sikatuna and Lopez de Legazpi drew blood from a small cut on their arms, mixed this with wine, and drank from the goblet.   The National Historical Commission upholds the version of Loay. Whichever version is true, the fact is Sandugo happened in Bohol and Rey says he is happy about this.

We stopped at Bohol’s famous heritage churches along the way: Saint James the Apostle parish church in Batuan, Paroquia del Senor San Isidro Labrador in Bilar, Church of San Pedro Apostol in Loboc, Holy Trinity Church in Loay, the Sta. Monica Church of Albuquerque, the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Concepcion in Baclayon, and the Assumption of Our Lady Church in Dauis. We were unable to do the Visita Iglesia on Holy Thursday, and so I was happy we completed the seven church visits on Holy Saturday. The 2013 earthquake that shook Bohol had sadly destroyed most of its churches turning them into rubble, and reconstruction was ongoing for most of them, making it difficult to enter.

Albuquerque Church

Of the seven churches we visited, Albuquerque seemed the only one to have survived the earthquake intact, perhaps because of the massive tree trunks that supported its roof. Looking up at the ceiling, I saw the beautiful religious paintings and trompe l’oeil that covered it. The altars were made of intricately carved dark wood, decorated with saints, angels, flowers, and sea shells.

The risen Christ.
The risen Christ.

In front were two carrozas covered with colorful flowers — one of the risen Christ and the other of Mary – made ready for the salubong next day.

I felt saddest at Dauis, recalling how beautiful and vibrant the church was when I first visited it many years ago. It was empty now, with scaffolding covering the altar. Even the miraculous water well at the foot of the altar was covered. Outside, however, a temporary structure was set up, beautifully decorated with an angelic scene for the risen Christ.

Getting ready for the salubong
Getting ready for the salubong

At the patio behind the church, several carrozas bearing saints were being readied: San Juan Evangelista, San Pedro, Santa Maria Magdalena, Santa Cleofe, Santa Jacobe, Santa Salome, among others. As it was well past 1pm, we decided to have lunch at the Dawis Café, and sample their Ube Kinampay Souffle. It was divine, well worth waiting for.

Despite the sad state of the heritage churches we visited, I observed parishioners busy cleaning the temporary structures built for the celebration of masses and decorating carriages for the processions that would take place for Easter. In some of them, parishioners were practicing for the Easter Vigil Mass and the salubong that would follow. I realized that no matter what hardship Filipinos go through, they keep their faith steadfastly burning. I felt humbled, suddenly missing the Lenten services I would serve at back in our parish.

The beautiful expanse of sand and sea and sky.

Each afternoon Dada and I would walk along the beach, determined to complete our exercise goal of 10,000 steps per day target. We saw lovers embracing and frolicking on the beach, families sharing a meals, fisherfolk bringing their boats in, teenagers pitting their strength against each other in a tug-of-war, and children playing with their dogs. IMG_2967

Arm in arm, we walked, sharing family stories of days long past, loves gained and lost, highs and lows, always ending with the realization that no matter how far you travel away from home, you come back to the people you love.

Saturday night, we decided to go to the Bohol Bee Farm. As there was no van available, we went by tricycle, while Bea, Cara and Ramon rode the motorbike. Bea had always regaled us with stories of her vacation there after college graduation, how serene it was, and how good the food was. She was spot on. We enjoyed the delicious dinner, starting with crisp cassava chips paired with a pesto vinaigrette and warm squash bread with a duo of honey mango and malunggay jam. The organic flower salad, clear vegetable soup, honeyed ribs, red rice, and fresh cassava lumpia were all delicious, as was the homemade malunggay ice-cream in cassava cone that I had after. Before leaving the Bee Farm, we visited their little store for some pasalubong, and bought some honey for home.
MIH_10Easter morning, we spent cooling ourselves in the pool, and enjoying each other’s company.  At  last, Niccolo left his room and joined us.  Before we knew it, it was time to leave for the airport and return to Manila, but not before finally trying out the carabao swing by the entrance.

Once again, I was just a little girl having fun on the swing.
Once again, I was just a little girl having fun on the swing.

As I swung back and forth, I thanked the Lord for the long weekend spent with family. Often, we are too busy with the daily grind of work and school commitments to spend time catching up. It was indeed a lovely time to bond, not just with my children but with my mom.   Salamat, Lord!

Rodeo Masbateño: Philippines’ Wild Wild East

IMG_3880When I hear the word rodeo, I immediately think of Texas.  Mike, my late husband, hailed from Texas, and we had a chance to see a rodeo several years back.  When Maloli Espinosa-Supnet invited me to the Rodeo Masbateño, I readily agreed, curious to learn about the Filipino version of this Texan tradition.  Little did I know that I was in for an exciting experience.

My flight was to leave at 5:00 am Tuesday, which meant I had to be up by 2:30 am to get dressed for the airport.  And since I finished packing at 1:00 am, I literally had just an hour’s wink before my fellow-traveler Andrè Kahn picked me up with cowboys hats in tow. Having served for several decades on the Advertising Board of the Philippines and the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas in different capacities as chairman, vice-chairman, president and director, Andrè was close to Maloli who owned The Ranch 95.9, the Sound of Masbate.

BoyP and Andre at the rodeo grandstand.

With us on the plane ride to Masbate was another industry friend of Andrè’s, Boy Pangilinan.  A major sponsor of the Rodeo, BoyP took care of marketing and promotions for the event.  Listening to him talk passionately about the Rodeo, I could see his eyes light up.  Here was a man who loved Masbate and its Rodeo, despite the fact that he is not from there.  An independent media buyer/planner, BoyP has a travel blog called  BoyP’s passion is to travel to all the islands of the Philippines, even to the remotest barrios, and share the beauty of the country in his blog. Needless to say, is quite popular with nigh over 48,000 followers.

Andre and I together with Gidget and her children Lian and Marcus in front of a storefront.

Arriving at the airport, we were greeted by a group of cowboys and cowgirls line dancing at the arrival area. Waiting outside was Maloli who quickly whisked us to her home for breakfast and to get dressed for the rodeo opening and the grand parade.  There I met Maloli’s husband, General Mark Supnet, her brother Mark and his lovely wife Gidget Cabreza-Espinosa and their two younger children, Lian and Marcus. We hied off to witness the Grand Rodeo Festival Parade.

Hundreds of cowboys joined the parade, some mounted on horses and others walking.
General Mark Supnet rides by with a smile.
General Mark Supnet rides by with a smile.

Watching the parade, my excitement mounted as ranch owners, cowboys and cowgirls rode by on horses, followed by representatives from various organizations, all dressed to the nines in  western attire.  I noticed that many of the cowboys rode the horses confidently, using only blankets to cushion the ride. Mark Supnet and Mark Espinosa rode by on huge, stately horses.

The bull float bearing the RMI organizers.

Maloli, being part of the
festival organizers, Rodeo Masbateno, Inc. (RMI) rode with the other board members on a float designed like a bull. They were all wearing colorful Mexican hats.

There were cowboys displaying their prowess in whiplashing and lassoing, pretty ladies marching down the street, and smartly-dressed drum and bugle bands playing behind them. Storefronts along the main street were decorated in theme with the rodeo.


The day before the trip, Andrè had told me casually that we were guests of honor, and that we had to make a speech. I thought he was pulling my leg, but when I saw the empty chairs on the grandstand with our names on them as guests-of-honor, my heart sank.  A speech without sleep? Are you kidding? What do I say?


A cowboy on a horse bearing the Philippine flag signalled the singing of the Philippine national anthem. The organizers gave each of the VIP guests a pigeon to hold and release at the same time together with 100 other pigeons. Anxiety mounted as the person handing the pigeons got closer to me. Being deathly afraid of all feathered birds as a result of a childhood trauma, I whispered frantically to Andrè that I just couldn’t do it. He said it was OK and handed me the camera to document the release. It was a magnificent sight to behold.

Garbed in Western attire with Boy P, Andre, Mark and Gidget at the Rodeo.

We shared the VIP seats with the Rodeo Masbateño Inc. President Judge Manuel Sese; local government officials: the governor, his wife the vice-governor, the city mayor; two congresswomen; and three senatorial candidates: Roman Romulo, Rissa Hontiveros and Sherwin Gatchalian. Even Korina Sanchez-Roxas, wife of Liberal Party Standard bearer Mar Roxas, showed up. Evidently it was campaign season. I admired the organizers when I learned they had limited the politicians’ speeches to a minute each.  The rodeo festival was not meant to be a political rally, they stressed.

True enough, I was called to the podium to give a speech, and I decided to focus on the benefits tourism can bring to Masbate especially with regard to job creation and inclusive growth. I urged Masbateños to promote not just the Rodeo but the province’s other attractions like its marine sanctuaries and beautiful beaches, cautioned them to take care of the environment to ensure sustainability, and invited everyone to become ambassadors and promote the province by posting positive news daily about the Masbate on their social media networks like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Andre Kahn congratulates Masbatenos on putting their rodeo on the map and attracting international media attention

Up next was Andrè, and he congratulated the organizers on placing the Masbate Rodeo Festival not just on the Philippine map but on the international map of rodeos. When Andrè said that the Masbate Annual Rodeo has become as popular as the Sinulog of Cebu, the Maskara of Bacolod, and the Panagbenga of Baguio, the crowd cheered. Since Andrè had been visiting Masbate since the early 90s when there were still no hotels, he spoke from the heart when he observed that indeed Masbate has changed and that the Rodeo has branded Masbate as the cattle capital of the country. Strong words from a pillar of the advertising broadcasting industry!

The competing teams hailing from all over the Philippines were then called in and took their oath of sportsmanship. The teams consisted of professionals and vet med students who would compete in eight main events: cattle lassoing wrestling on foot, steer lassoing on horseback, steer wrestling from horseback, casting down, two-person carambola, four-person carambola, bull riding, and load carrying. It was interesting to note that teams included women. Inclusiveness and diversity was in force. Other events included bull riding for women, team penning and bronco riding.

Ladies first with Congresswoman Rissa Hontiveros and me branding the rodeo bull.

The opening ceremonies ended with the ceremonial branding of the rodeo bull. Praying that it would not be too painful for the bull, Rissa Hontiveros and I held the branding rod and pressed it in the bull’s haunch. It was Andrè’s turn next to brand the bull.

I learned that the Rodeo Festival upholds Republic Act 8485 or the Animal Welfare Act of 1998, which calls for the safety of animals. There is even a resident certified rodeo veterinarian, Hernando Durongon who looks after the safety of the participating animals. Participating cattle are lent by ranch owners and RMI is responsible for their well being during the festival.

Bronco Rider

Later that day, we were lucky to watch the rodeo from the media bleachers where we were closer to the action.  There were bronco rides where the rider had to stay eight seconds on the horse, waving his hand without touching his head. There was a team competition where cowboys on foot had to lasso a bull and bring it to the


ground, then tie up its legs. And another where cowboys on horseback had to do the same. There were heart thumping moments when the bulls were huge and mean, and the cowboys fell and were seemingly trampled or kicked by the bull. And other funny moments when the bull refused to play and just lay down by itself, prompting the cowboys to coax it up.

Wednesday at 9am was the cattle run. We went to the starting point in the midst of town where about 30 heads of cattle would be released with cowboys herding them. The streets were packed with Masbateños eager to watch the run. I asked if there was any risk to the spectators seeing how some of the bulls yesterday were pretty mad and charged the cowboys. The organizers told us the cowboys would make sure we were unharmed. Nevertheless, we marked a quick getaway path just in case a rogue bull went berserk. It was so exciting I forgot to take a picture of their release, intent on saving my hide. What a coward I was!

Waiting for the cattle run to come by, safely behind the grilled balcony.

We moved to another location for the second release where over a 100 heads of cattle would be released. This time, however, we were safely behind an elevated and grilled veranda with the doctors from the Department of Health. Best company to be with. Maloli, on the other hand, proved to be the real cowgirl as she clambered fearlessly over an open pick-up to better see the cattle run.

The Filipino sense of humor spilled out as people awaited the arrival of the cattle. Here was a cowboy galloping down the street as if a whole tribe of Indians were after him. There was another elderly man, possibly in his 80s, doing cartwheels on the street. Another cowhand sat on his haunches, rolling his lasso. We, on the other hand, took selfies with the doctors, another Filipino tradition.

And then the cattle arrived with cowboys. What a sight to behold!  I felt like I was in a Western movie, except this was the real thing.  The cattle run was over in a matter of minutes, but not before some decided to make a detour and enter the side streets, with the cowhands running after them to herd them back out into the street. We were laughing as they were brought back out. In one case, the cowhand came out riding the bull, drawing laughter from the crowd.  Maloli recounted how in one instance a bull entered a BIR office and refused to leave. It probably wanted to see Henares!

After the cattle run, we proceeded to the rodeo arena where the cattle were kept for the herding competition. It was interesting how there seemed to be leaders in the pack. When they moved, the rest followed. Most of the cattle stayed together as a herd, but there were one or two loners that stayed apart, and another lazy one that refused to stay under the sun, and kept close to the shaded area. Could be a senior citizen, we surmised.

A hut on stilts. Such a serene view of the sea
A hut on stilts. Such a serene view of the sea

IMG_4111Late afternoon, we decided to take a break from the rodeo and go swimming. Mark and Gidget brought us to Buntod Marine Sanctuary. Buntod is actually a powdery white sandbar on one end and a mangrove on the other. In the midst is a house on stilts where people could eat the picnic food they brought, and rent snorkelling and dive equipment.


The place was packed with people frolicking on the sandbar and swimming. Teenagers were playing patintero, fathers were teaching their young how to swim, and mothers were packing as the sun was setting soon. We noticed one mother scrubbing her caldero with sand while her little daugher watched. And because we are all Filipinos, most everyone had their mobile phones out taking photos of the fun they were having.

The view of the setting sun from the mangroves.

We swam in the crystal clear blue water, and walked along the mangroves. It was so peaceful by the mangroves, a popular date place for lovers according to Mark. A flock of birds flew in formation, momentarily disturbing the calm. We marvelled at the fruit of the mangrove tree, like a string bean growing out of a chico with horns, as Andrè described it.

Soon the other boats had departed and we were the only ones left. Except for the gentle lapping of the waves against the stilts, all was quiet. We feasted on turon with langka and cassava boiled in coconut milk while watching the sun set, and the colors of the sky change from blue to pink to grey. It was magical!

Thursday morning, we set off for the 500-ha ML Ranch in Punta Tigbao with Mark, Gidget and their children. ML stands for Moises and Ludivina, the parents of Mark and Maloli. Moises was the former governor of Masbate. His youngest son Mark now managed the ranch.

Mark and Gidget Espinosa with Lian and Marcus on the motorized banca as we headed for Sitio Punta Tigbao.

To get to Sitio Punta Tigbao, we first took a 45-minute car ride to Calasuche, then take another 45-minute boat ride on a banca with bamboo outriggers.  The waters at first were calm, but became rather choppy as we went further out to sea. White caps appeared on the waves, a sure sign that the waters were rough. Pretty soon, my denim pants and rubber shoes were drenched.

Disembarking at Sitio Pinta Tigbao, we toured the 100-families strong fishing community. Mark explained that his father had allowed the community to settle there. It was a self-sustaining community, with a small chapel, an elementary school from kinder to grade six, a basketball court, and a smaller plaza. Funds came from a project called ‘Piso sa Kilo’ which the Espinosas started. For every kilo of fish caught and sold, the fishermen donated P1 to the fund.

Bounty from the sea.

It was clear that Mark was respected and loved by the residents of the community. The men approached him for advice, guidance and orders, speaking to him in gentle voices, and the women smiled and greeted us. We walked to the fenced cattle corral and climbed the raised hut in its midst. There we enjoyed a sumptuous meal prepared by the villagers: freshly steamed crabs, stuffed crabs, crispy fried dried squid, and piping hot rice.

ML cattle in the corral.

Grateful to get out of the scorching hot sun, we watched as the cattle were herded into the corral. Soon the corral was full with about 400 head of cattle. It was interesting to watch them as there appeared to be some alpha males in the group that would lead the herd. Inside the corral, two bulls challenged each other. Calves followed their moms, while their moms showed their maternal instinct as they waited to ensure their calves were following them. Mark showed us a contraption shaped like a giant inverted forked tong that would keep the cattle still while they were branded or given vitamins. There were narrow walkways between fences that would allow cattle to pass one at a time. I caught myself counting the cattle as they passed out of the corral to pasture.

The children of Sitio Punta Tigbao, collecting candies brought by Mark Espinosa
That’s me throwing candies up in the air for the children.

The children garbed in colorful clothes followed us, just like they did in the fairytale, the Pied Piper of Hamlyn. They climbed trees and perched on the fence, watching from a distance and waiting patiently for us to leave the cattle corral. No wonder they appeared excited as we learned that each time he visited the ranch, Mark brought candies for the children. This time around, he had a carton full of assorted colorful candies, and he kindly asked his Lian, Marcus and me to throw the the candies in the air for the children to run after. Oh, were they happy! And so were we! I made a mental note to include the 350 children in our yearend My Dream in a Shoebox campaign that provides school supplies for children in shoeboxes wrapped in festive paper.

Soon it was time to board the motorized banca and return to Masbate City. This time around, the boatride was fast and uneventful. Andrè explained that this was because we were going with the tide.

Line Dancing

Back at the Rodeo Arena, we watched the Street Barn Dance Competition as 14 teams performed to the rolicking anthem of Rodeo Masbateño. The creativity of the teams was obvious in their costumes, props and dance moves.

We retired to the Espinosa home to have dinner with the family and pack for our early morning plane ride the next day.

With the Espinosas at their home. Behind is a beautiful painting of their father Governor Moises riding on a horse with the cattle behind.

I am so grateful for the warm hospitality of the Espinosa family, especially Maloli and her husband Mark, Mark and his wife Gidget, and Carmen, Maloli’s sister-in-law who prepared a delicious sansrival for dessert.  They all made our visit extra special and took such great care of us.  I enjoyed the friendly family repartee during meal times, their delicious spread at the long wooden dining table, and the serious discussions as to how tourism can be developed in Masbate.  I greatly admire them for the passion they have to improve the lives of Masbateños.

Looking back on the past three days, I can see clearly that Masbate has a lot of potential for tourism, especially with its beautiful beaches and its ranch life. While the Rodeo Festival brings in as many as 50,000 visitors as shared by the Department of Tourism representative I chatted with, Masbate can ensure a more sustainable tourism industry by developing more attractions. All it needs is a few enterprising people to package and promote the ranch experience and allow tourists to learn about the customs and lifestyle of ranchers, meet and talk to real-life cowboys, eat what they eat and live as they do.  And while they are at it, enjoy the pristine sand and clear blue waters of Masbate, and marvel at the rich marine life it harbours in its corals. And once a year, give everyone unforgettable memories of the Wild, Wild West. I vowed to go back next year, with my children in tow, so they too can experience the unique and authentic Rodeo Masbateño.










Godspeed, Laloy!

On the way to a meeting in Makati today, I was shocked to learn that a friend, Hilarion “Laloy” Guia had passed away early this morning due to cardiac arrest.  Memories began flooding in of how I first met Laloy.  I rued that I had not been able to catch up with him the few times he was in Manila.  He had called me a few times saying he was in Manila and asking if I could meet up, but this always happened while I was having an event.

I hear that his remains are in Palawan.  His granddaughter had planned to bring him to Manila for further medical attention, but unfortunately, he was not able to recover.

In his memory, I post a reflection I wrote in January 2012 after meeting him.  Here goes…

Overcoming the Biblical Disease

(Palawan. January 26, 2012)    I met a most extraordinary gentleman 405585_2854282590471_404131494_nat the First Leprosy Stakeholders Symposium we organized for the Department of Health and Novartis Sustainable Development Foundation on January 25 at the Legend Hotel in Palawan. Hilarion Guia, Laloy for short, was a quiet, unassuming man but when he spoke to the delegates, he exuded a powerful, larger than life figure.

Here was a man, orphaned at three, diagnosed with leprosy like five other siblings in a brood of nine. Because of his intense desire to study and the promise of a cure, he agreed to be separated from his family in Batangas and to go and live with other afflicted persons at the Culion Leprosarium in Palawan when he was but eight years of age.

Learn he did, under the tutelage of the Religious Congregation of the Society of Jesus, and the sisters of St. Paul. But the promise of a cure did not. Slowly but surely, he suffered the harrowing pains and the disfigurement of the dreaded Biblical disease. Open wounds and nodules made their appearance. But more than the intense physical suffering was the emotional and mental upheaval of its social stigma.

But Laloy was no ordinary person. He believed that everyone is born equal and can accomplish great achievements, given equal opportunities. After graduating from high school, he transferred to Tala in Caloocan where he pursued a college degree in education. He then returned to Culion and taught for the next four decades, helping children similarly afflicted expand their minds and believe in themselves.

Laloy dreamed of a day when Culion and its residents would no longer be spoken of as the Isle of the Living Dead.  He sought the help of local politicians such as the late Speaker of the House Ramon V. Mitra and worked tirelessly to have Culion recognized as a municipality, and for its residents to have the right to suffrage. His efforts were not in vain, and in May 1995, Culion became a municipality. He ran for mayor in the local elections against nine able-bodied healthy opponents, and bested them to become the first Mayor of Culion.

When Novartis introduced the drug MDT in the mid-80s, his physician Dr. Art Cunanan asked him to undergo the chemotherapy.  He refused at first, believing it was a just a waste of time. Over the years, he had undergone different treatments hoping to be cured of the dreaded disease, only to have his hopes dashed time and again.

Laloy was ecstatic when a year after taking MDT he was pronounced free of leprosy. If only it had been available when he was a child!  Then he would not have to bear the physical marks the disease has left.  But it was wonderful news for the residents of Culion.  Today, not a single case of leprosy exists on the island. Culion stands as a testament to the country’s success to eradicate the disease.

I feel blessed to have had this opportunity to meet Laloy, and to learn about the tireless efforts of the Department of Health, their selfless medical staff and health workers, and the generosity of Novartis which provides the MDT for free for leprosy patients, and who together with the World Health Organization leads the global drive towards a world without leprosy.

394085_2854286310564_1593000174_nThe symposium strove to get the different stakeholders, which includes the country’s sanitaria, NGOs, the church, DepEd, DOLE, DILG, media and the like, to address the burning issues in disease eradication and management. There is much to be done, and those present committed to join the drive to fight leprosy. I’m glad I had the chance to listen and learn, and contribute to the meeting.

425691_2854292750725_1825095908_nSome things stand out from that symposium. One, that this dreaded disease is curable with MDT.  Two, that education and information dissemination are necessary so that early detection and treatment are possible. Three, that the loss of dignity, and the pain of isolation and rejection inflicted on those affected are so much more than any physical pain. And that we all can contribute in our own way to erasing the social stigma of this disease, simply by getting the word out. I’m starting with this.

I salute Laloy for proving to all of us that “anyone with leprosy, even with severe deformities, can perform with excellence and unquestionable efficiency, just as good as or even better than those with sound health.” He said that “Charity begins at home, and that the initiative to overcome the disease must first come from the victim.” These words ring true for all of us, whenever we are faced with problems that seem insurmountable.

Thanks for the reminder, Laloy! God bless you always!


Seeing Baguio with a Different Lens

When our friend Elaine Mapa asked Andrè Kahn and me to give a talk to the Girl Scouts of the Philippines (GSP) on branding and the use of their new logo, we readily agreed. First of all, the prospect of visiting Baguio, the country’s summer capital, after more than 26 years was exciting. Second, I have always wanted to be a girl scout but there was no opportunity when I was a child. Instead, I had encouraged both my daughters to join the girl scouts at St. Scholastica’s College, especially since their great grandmother, Pilar Hidalgo Lim, was one of the founders of the GSP. This was my chance to be up and close to the GSP.

20160222_160223-2About 120 council executives representing 97 councils nationwide were gathered for the GSP’s National Meeting of Council Executives, with the theme, “Exceeding Possibilities: Facing Challenges Toward Excellence,” from February 21 to 24, 2016, at Ating Tahanan National Program and Training Center, in Baguio City.  Andre was a big hit as he talked on logo love and the importance of consistency in the use of the GSP’s logo, while I drilled down to their guidelines on the use and applications of their logo.

MIH_13 20160222_162941-1 MIH_14

We both enjoyed the presentation, and were pleasantly surprised when Ma. Dolores “Beng” Santiago, GSP’s National Executive Director suddenly announced that I was going to be inducted as an adult girl scout volunteer. I was so happy I actually jumped on stage. After being given the GSP kerchief and pin and reading aloud the Girl Scout Promise and pledging to abide by the Girl Scout Law, I was sworn in while the council executives sang the girl scout song in unison. Oh, it was a dream come true!

With February 25th declared a national holiday, we decided to stay on after the talk and do the tourist rounds. Armed with friends’ recommendations on what to see, where to go and what to eat, we looked forward to the trip. His gym friends highly recommended we eat pizza at Amare la Cucina at Albergo de Ferroca, Leonard Wood Road, even saying the pizza there was much better than any in Manila. Another suggestion was to eat at Ketchup Community opposite The Wright Park which supposedly had the best baby back ribs this side of the country. It helped that Andrè had spent many summers up in Baguio in his youth, and he was eager to show me his usual haunts.

We stayed at the Baguio Country Club, where the air was thick with the scent of pine. Memories of my childhood visits to Baguio came flooding back. After praying at the Cathedral, we walked down Session Road, hardly recognizable with the thick throng of people walking up and down, the modern fast food joints, the malls and the outdoor advertising screaming for attention, and yet here and there I could still spot the facade of edifices that spoke of my youth, like the Session Theater. We ducked into one of the small bookstores where it seemed that time stood still. I yearned to see the store where my dad had bought me my first comic book, the Chinese restaurant where we would eat, and the Pines Hotel where we would stay. Alas, they were no longer there.



We crossed over to Burnham Park traversing the dusty football field, and entered the walkway now lined with stalls selling various merchandise opposite a row of creative and attractive flower installations set up for the Panagbenga Flower Festival. Baguio is renowned for its beautiful and colorful flowers, and it was a special treat to see this flower exhibit.

20160224_124605Colorful bicycles for rent lined another part of the park, another blast from the past. Once again, I was transported to my youth, when my brothers and I would ride the bicycles around the park. The manmade lake was still there, but this time, the little boats sported figures from Sponge Bob to Micky Mouse. Andrè offered to rent one with a swan, provided I did the rowing, which I naturally refused with a smile.  20160224_124838We meandered through the park, enjoying the bright sunflowers, the warm sun on our skin, dispelling the coolness in the air.

Mines View Park was another destination, and we shopped for souvenirs at the little shops. Baguio fare was still the same as I remembered it: delicate silver trinkets, colorful ponchos and sweaters, native woven cloth, and wooden items from baskets to keychains with the ubiquitious Barrel Man still sitting proudly amongst the items on display. I settled for some thick brooms with “eight fingers,” a far cry from the thin ones available in Manila. I noticed that these days they sold brooms dyed in different colors, and I wondered if the dye would run off the wooden floors if the broom got wet. Of course, a visit to Baguio would not be complete without buying “pasalubong” from the Pink Sisters, a veritable institution. We loaded up on strawberry and mango jam, santol preserves, and their caramel alfajor.

At the Baguio City Market, we bought upland rice, Arabica coffee, vegetables, cut flowers, and fresh strawberries. I got throw rugs, soft white handwoven Ilocos blankets, and colorful kitchen handtowels. At the Easter Weaving Room, we viewed various native fabric from different tribes, and got some table linen. Naturally, we could not leave the Baguio Country Club without a dozen of its famous raisin bread, another standard pasalubong.

I had a great guide in Andrè as he pointed out landmarks like Mansion House, Casa Vallejo Hotel, The Wright Park, Teachers Camp, the Botanical Garden, the Crystal Caves, City Hall, the Convention Center where several Ad Congresses took place, the Baguio General Hospital & Medical Center, the hotels, the churches, with a running commentary on how it was when he was young, and the fun he and his siblings would have exploring and playing. We walked at Camp John Hay, enjoying the cool breeze, checking out the new stores, and chanced upon the Hill Station Bistro where I spied a Tajine, which I immediately bought. Ever since I sampled my Rome-based sister’s delicious dishes prepared using a Moroccan Tajine, I have been searching for one, and now I finally had one.

IMG_1557I had long wanted to visit the Ben Cab Museum, hearing about it from my daughters who would go up to Baguio, and so we made sure we checked it out.  The collection was beautiful, although there was much more of Ben Cab’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he has an ongoing exhibition.  Antique wood sculptures seem to be a favorite of Ben Cab, with bulols or “Ifugao rice gods” occupying a prominent wall.  A bulol is a carved human figurine which Ifugaos believe is inhabited by an anito or spirit, and is thus worshipped with rituals involving pig’s blood, wine and rice cakes. Carved from narra wood, the bulol usually comes in a pair, and represents happiness and riches.   unnamedI loved the gardens around the museum, the strawberry patch, the little manmade lake with the hut in the middle, the beautiful view of the mountainside, the lush greenery and the cool crisp air.  Ben Cab also had a whimsical cafe with vibrant colors.

20160223_161121It was interesting to see Baguio from Andrè’s lens. He rued the fact that the mountainside which was once a green expanse of verdant trees has been replaced by a myriad of houses that dotted the view. The scent of fragrant pine has been replaced by diesel fumes of vehicles gnarled in traffic. The horses at Mines View Park had beribboned manes dyed pink, and sad-eyed Saint Bernards lazed on the benches, waiting for tourists to have their photos taken with them. Despite these troubling changes, Baguio still had its charm.

Casa VallejoBeing the foodies that we are, eating was a natural high, and Baguio delivered handsomely on the promise. From Mario’s to Café by the Ruins to Hill Station in the historical Casa Vallejo Hotel established in 1909, the food experience was superb. IMG_1588The teppanyaki dinner at Hamada at the country club hit just the right spot, with our chef showing off his knife juggling skills, then forming the food into hearts with a whisper of “Para sa forever.” Even the daily breakfast buffet at the recently renovated Veranda was heartening, with the promise to become even better as we ran into celebrated Chef Myrna Segismundo who is now consulting with them.

Even the drive up to Baguio was a pleasant experience. We left the South at 4:45am, afraid we would be bogged down by the busy Monday EDSA traffic. The Triplex cut down traveling time to three hours from the start of NLEX.  We broke our fast at the S.O.U.L. Café, short for Spice of the Urban Life, another recommendation from his gym friends. IMG_1528SOUL Café featured an extensive menu, and I was eager to try their Dr. Seuss-inspired green eggs cheese omelette and ham for breakfast, while Andrè opted for their longganisa breakfast. The food was so good, we decided to eat there too on the way back to Manila.

Everywhere we went, we bumped into people Andrè knew. It was great meeting his friends, but even more wonderful was the chance to just be alone, talk, discover each other, walk hand-in-hand, and be with someone I love. I am learning to slow down from the hustle and bustle of work and smell the flowers, as they say. I will always remember Baguio for this idyllic adventure, and look forward to the next trip, and perhaps try that famous pizza one day.





2015, A Most Challenging Year

Bea, Cara, Niccolo and I are in the car driving to Tali where we will spend New Year’s Eve with the Lago family. Their daughter, Mandy is Cara’s best friend from St. Scholastica’s College, and they have invited us to their lovely beach home.

We’ve traditionally spent New Year’s Eve with family at home. After attending mass, we would gather the family and our househelp together in the dining room for Noche Buena, with the usual fare of chicken relleno, homemade ham, and queso de bola. Over dinner, we would play High-Low, where each one of us would share our high and low experiences for the year. We would then thank God for our many blessings, especially the gift of family and friends. After dinner, we would head for the balcony to watch the fireworks around us. At the stroke of midnight, we would toast to the New Year with champagne, hurriedly eat 12 grapes for good luck in the coming year, and hug and kiss each other. And then the children would go off to see their friends.

Two years ago, we did the usual New Yea’s Eve celebration, but it was so sad because Mike was no longer with us. We resolved then to have a different experience each year. Last year, we went to Palms Country Club, and this time we will be spending it at Tali.

Looking back at work, TeamAsia has had its best year in more than two decades under the able leadership of Bea as managing director, with the help of our committed and strong ManComm, and our growing family of enthusiastic, innovative, and young TeamAsians. We’ve organized several conferences like Arangkada, the 7th International IT-BPM Summit, the Zomato Restaurant Summit, the IMMAP Conference, and the Pacific Insurance Conference, as well as, supported various APEC events and the inaugural Madrid Fusion Manila. We’ve brought the delegate experience to a higher level with our event mobile apps, audience response system and B2B matching, and our digital and social media marketing. We’ve continued to work with stellar clients like Capital One, Globe, Pepsi, Chevron and Google. And we are so very thankful for staunch partners like Mart Miranda, Vince Feliciano, and Manolet Tobias who have been the wind behind our wings. It’s also been a year of strengthening operations and cleaning house.

On the family front, our Dada is just as beautiful and charming as ever, a rock for all of us, but more frail than usual. She is now 81 years old, and still threatens to travel to the US to visit her children and grandchildren and to Madrid to visit her sisters, already hatching travel plans.

My first born Bea has blossomed into a strong leader, inspiring everyone to do their best, working with each director to ensure everything is on track, gaining the confidence of clients, and bringing sunshine and sparkles to the office each day. She has attended the wedding of two of her best friends, one in Texas and the other in Hawaii, and will be going to another one in India next week. One day, a very lucky man will be able to win her heart, and I pray that he will take care of her and love her with all his heart.

Cara has left her beloved Boracay to come to Manila and work on slow food research for Chele Gonzalez of ArroZeria and Gallery Vask fame. This gives her the freedom to pursue her entrepreneurial dream. A week ago, she launched her online swimsuit line Diwata Swimwear, creating cheeky bikinis for young women who, like her, love to explore islands and oceans ( I remember scouring the streets of Trastevere in Rome two Decembers ago with Cara looking for a shop that sold Lycra fabric for her bikini line, and trying to communicate in Spanish to the Italian shopkeeper what she needed. Watching her doodle on her drawing book, contact possible suppliers, search for a suitable seamstress, and travel to different islands for inspiration with Ramon to take photos for her website, has revealed a whole new dimension of my once shy little girl.

Now a strapping young man and all of 20 years old, Niccolo is working through his double degree of Applied Economics, major in Financial Economics, and Marketing Management at De La Salle University. He is buffed from regular visits to the gym, and still goes biking sometimes, but spends most of his time with Sam, his girlfriend, who has gotten him interested in baking cookies and exploring the art world. While he’s grown to be a young man, Niccolo continues to be sweet and caring.

As for me, I started the first day of 2015 in Hong Kong with my then boyfriend Rollie Gosiengfiao. We talked about a future together, but it was not meant to be for by the third week of January, he was gone, taken suddenly by a massive heart attack. This came on the heels of a crisis in my professional life. Grief-stricken, I was once again thrown into deep depression, and escaped to Madrid and Rome to be with kin and lick my wounds. Coming back, I arrived too late to see my dear aunt Julia alive. I focused on work and my various commitments to associations. I’ve visited Bangladesh three times for a World Bank related project, and learned how life is in that part of the world. Visiting other places in the world and experiencing their cultures have made me appreciate life even more, and whetted my appetite for adventure.

This December, I’ve closed the chapter on my three-year stint at the Tourism Promotions Board (TPB) as director representing the Meeting, Incentives Travel, Conventions, Exhibitions & Events Services & Facilities Sector. I’ve also graduated from being president to chairman of the Philippine Association of Convention/Exhibition Organizers and Suppliers (PACEOS), and continue to be chairman of Hopkins International Partners, and trustee and board secretary of the League of Corporate Foundations (LCF). I’m very proud of the organizations I am part of as I believe these have a positive impact in the industries they represent.

I’m also very happy with our yearend CSR project, My Dream in a Shoebox Year 7, where we encourage volunteers to donate a used shoebox covered in festive Christmas wrapper and filled with school supplies. Jointly organized by TeamAsia and the Information Technology and Business Process Association of the Philippines (IBPAP), the annual project has helped thousands of children continue with their education. From 200 boxes collected in the first year, we’ve breached 35,000 so far this year, and with the help of volunteers from various BPM companies and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, have organized several outreach activities, distributing the shoeboxes where they are most needed. I’ve also done storytelling about the beauty of love, friendship and giving to 300 children at the Payatas Orione Foundation, to 1,000 children at the San Pedro Calungsod Quasi Parish, to 60 children at SOS Village, and to 500 children at the Ascension of Our Lord Parish. And through all of these, I realize that we actually gain more than the children, as we leave with hearts full of joy that we have made them smile.

Challenging times have a knack of revealing who your real friends are, the ones who stay with you through thick and thin. I am happy and grateful to learn who they are. I’ve also made new friends, like my Gee Whiz Girls and my L2C group, and my Bible Study Fellowship group that has kept me grounded in the Lord. And wonder of wonders, I’ve met a farmer who has turned out to be a great friend, bringing light and laughter into my life again. It’s been a challenging year, but as it turns out 2015 has been good overall, and I look forward to an awesome 2016.

As we close the year and greet 2016, I wish you all a long, happy, healthy, prosperous and wonderfully meaningful life.







Discovering Bacolod

October 19, 2015, Bacolod City, Negros Occidental.  When Atty. Jocelle Batapa-Sigue of Bacolod invited me to speak at the 2nd Trade and Tourism Expo and Conferences, entitled MassKaraCity 2015, I immediately agreed. I’ve long wanted to visit Bacolod, capital of the province of Negros Occidental. The only other time I’ve been there, I was just 17 years old and on a Goodwill Mission to Cebu, Bacolod and Iloilo together with the Most Outstanding Coeds of Metro Manila.

We stayed with foster parents in each city, paid courtesy visits to local government officials, and met with student leaders. To a city girl like me, Bacolod seemed laid back, especially when we were driving down roads lined with sugar plantations behind what seemed to be an endless string of trucks craning under the weight of sugarcane. What has changed, I wonder?

20151016_143714What hit me this time is that Bacolod seems to be booming. Perhaps it was because of the Masskara Festival that was happening at the same time as the conference. Arriving at the airport, we were greeted by dancers dressed in colorful garb, prancing to the beat of drums. The main streets in the center of town were brightly lit, festooned with decorative buntings. We passed several malls, a sure indication of prosperity.   The event itself was being held at the year-old SMX Convention Center Bacolod.

Cutting the ribbon to formally open the 2nd Bacolod Trade and Tourism Expo and Conferences, SMX Convention Center, Bacolod City

At the opening of MassKaraCity 2015, I listened intently to local government and business leaders speak of the city’s tourism and trade potential. I heard the passion in the voice of City Councilor Atty. Jocelle Batapa-Sigue as she spoke of the accomplishments in tourism and industry, especially in the IT-BPM sector, thanked all those who helped, and announced that she would no longer run for office in the upcoming elections. Jocelle chairs the Committee on Tourism, International and Local Cooperation and the Committee on Trade, Commerce and Industry of the Sangguniang Panlungsod of Bacolod.

I was happy to note that the IT-BPM industry is flourishing in Bacolod. Two years ago, Bacolod was recognized by the Department of Science and Technology as a center for excellence for information technology and business process outsourcing, joining the ranks of Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, and Metro Clark. That’s when I first met Jocelle, and was impressed by her fervor and efforts to develop the IT-BPM industry in Bacolod. Several locators have set up shop in Bacolod, like Teletech Philippines, Teleperformance Philippines, Data Solutions Outsourcing, Panasiatic Solutions-Bacolod, Interface Techno Philippines, A&E Global Fusion, Hit Rate Solutions, Alliance Call Centre, Solutionz Call Center, Magsaysay Global BPO, Transcom Philippines, BPO TeleQuest, Shorecloud Corp and Focus Direct Services. No wonder the place was booming!

Meeting the gracious and multi-faceted Atty. Juan N. Orola, Jr.

Tourism is definitely a strong pillar for Bacolod’s economy, what with its wildly successful Masskara Festival. I was fortunate to have met Atty. Juan V. Orola, Jr. (John)  who was intimately involved in starting and developing the Masskara Festival. Formerly a diplomat, John served as Tourism Attache of the Philippine Embassy in Tokyo, Japan and the Philippine Consulate in Losa Angelas, USA, North and Latin America. He is a lawyer as well as a Doctor of Ecclesiastical Law. I also found out that he was a member of the Lower House representing Bacolod from 1998-2001. But what struck me most was his enthusiasm and commitment to develop Bacolod’s tourism potential.

John recounted the festival’s beginnings in 1980 during a period of severe crisis and tragedy. The global price of sugar had just dropped with the introduction of sugar substitutes in the United States, hitting Bacolod, which relied on sugarcane exports as its main source of revenues, at its core. To make things worse, Bacolod was reeling from the death of 700 Negrenses in a mid-water collision of inter-island MV Don Juan and tanker Tacloban City, throwing the 20151016_143231city into gloom. To bring the people out of the doldrums, the local government, business and civic groups and local artisans banned together to launch a festival of smiles. They called it Masskara, taken from the words mass (people) and cara (face) and had revellers wear masks with smiling faces. In essence, Bacolod declared it would not allow itself to be vanquished. And the city has not looked back since.

Because it was festival season, all the hotels and flights were full. I was booked at Luxur Hotel, or what used to be the Bacolod Convention Plaza Hotel, now home for Teleperformance Bacolod. It was safe, Jocelle promised, being in front of the Bacolod Police Headquarters. And though it was not in the center of town, it was just 50 meters from the Negros Organic Market and 20 meters from Aboy’s, the best Bacolod restaurant.  I made a mental note to try out Aboy’s.

20151016_141931After the ribbon cutting on Friday, we toured the trade exhibition at SMX. I was impressed by the creativity of the local artists and the variety of products on display, from food to paintings and intricately woven baskets. Desserts appeared to be a strong point, with the abundance of sweets, a natural course given Bacolod is sugarland. All I remember from my first trip to Bacolod was piaya, but this time I was introduced to Napoleones, mango tarts, caramel tarts, barquillos, bizcocho, broas, and more. I kept getting suggestions to visit Calea and Felicia’s but didn’t have the time this trip.

Bacolod seems to be a paradise for foodies, and everyone I met urged me to try chicken inasal. But since I shy away from chicken, I opted for seafood instead. The first night in Bacolod, I toyed with the idea of having dinner at Aboy’s but was told not to walk there as it was already late and dark; instead I just stayed in the hotel and worked on my presentation.

Meeting Aboy’s founder, with Mrs. Josefina Puentevella.
Riches of the sea: oysters, angel clams, squid, blue marlin.

On my second night in Bacolod, the mayor’s wife Mrs. Josefina Puentevella (Tita Paching) brought me to Aboy’s and ordered a delicious repast of seafood. I was introduced to diwal (angel wing clams), squid fat, their version of laing, and I was hooked! We feasted on scallops, oysters and blue marlin. What made it more special was meeting its amiable owner. Tita Paching recounted how it grew from being a small eatery in 1992 catering to pharmaceutical reps to this big expansive restaurant we were eating in.  She pointed out the owner’s wife who was behind the till, still hard at work.

Early the next day, Tita Paching picked me up and we heard mass at the Cathedral of San Sebastian, originally built in 1876.  Seeing the familiar figure of San Sebastian tied to a tree with arrows sticking ut of him, I remembered my childhood.  Every Sunday, we would go to mass at the Basilica of San Sebastian behind which we lived.  I would stare at his statue at the main altar, and wonder how strong his faith was to be martyred for it.  After mass, we visited the Organic Market, picked up a refreshing dayap and cucumber juice and then had breakfast at Luxur.

Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips’ lifeboat behind us at the VMA Training Center.

After this, Atty. John Orola came to pick me up and show me his school, The VMA Global College and Training Centers where they prepare students for lifetime careers ranging from maritime to tourism. It was interesting touring the school’s facilities, especially the MV VMA, a full mission simulator where students can experience how to navigate a vessel using the Poseidon simulator, maneuvering under various conditions and situations and avoiding collision.   A group of students was then undergoing survival training, learning how to swim under difficult conditions and to jump from heights. There was an enclosed 28-foot lifeboat, which apparently had been used by Tom Hanks in the movie Captain Phillips that I wanted to enter, but we could not as survival training was ongoing. Next trip, I thought.

After VMA, we moved over to Sum-Ag, Bacolod City where we met Tomas “Tomiko” Claridad Casiano, a retired floral designer from Beverly Hills. When he decided to come back to the Philippines, Tomiko packed up his collection of over 2,000 vintage glass pieces in 66 crates, and built a two-story museum next door to his home to house his beloved collection. 20151017_115808Opened to the public on December 12, 2012, Laguerta, home of the Vintage Glass Museum has been recognized as the largest collection of depression glasses outside of the United States, and the first in Asia.

Tomiko’s love story with vintage glasses began when he searched for interesting vases for the floral creations he would use in the homes of the rich and famous. Attracted to vintage glass, particularly depression glasses manufactured in the Unites States from 1904 to 1940, Tomiko had his collection of dinnerware, decanters, commemorative plates and decorative objects arranged by color, from yellow to amber, pink, ruby, fire, green, aquamarine, cobalt blue and delphite which is an opaque blue glass.

20151017_115213He eagerly showed us the stars of his collection, explaining the difference between carnival glasses, which are pattern-molded iridescent glasses sprayed with metallic salts while the glass was hot, and opalescent glasses, which have two layers of glass: one colored and the other clear. He explained that washing the latter several times would wash away its color completely. He showed us his Vaseline collection, which is no longer being made because it requires uranium to produce its yellow to yellow green color; a Jadite collection that is milk green, a pearlized mustard collection that is milk yellow, and a milky white collection.

Tomiko pointing out the finer details of the glass bowl.
Tomiko pointing out the finer details of the glass bowl.

Tomiko held up some bowls to the sun so that we could appreciate the patterns. I was intrigued by a night lamp he held up that was etched all around with a ship, a spouting whale, a swimming whale and anchors. I imagined it lit by a candle, and a young mother during the depression telling her child a bedtime story of maritime adventure as the flickering light of the candle threw shadows on the wall. Another interesting item was a bedtime jar, whose cover was actually an upturned glass. Tomiko had two of those in his collection.

Listening to his stories and watching him as he toured us around, I was impressed with Tomiko.  Here was a man, totally unassuming, who loved what he did and was eager to share it with the world. When I asked when visiting hours for his museum was, he explained that we had to call ahead to make a reservation so he could be there. He did not have staff to manage the museum, and did everything himself, afraid that they would not take care of his collection as well as he did.

20151017_121300Tomiko then invited us to visit the church of San Juan Nepomuceno that he has been supporting. The church housed his Escayola Collection of Mutilated Religious Arts. Since many Catholic families in the Philippines have “santos” or images of saints made of escayola (plaster of Paris), owners are unsure what to do with them when they break. Missing limbs or heads, the “santos” are no longer displayed. As it is considered bad luck to throw them, they are instead buried.

One night, Tomiko dreamt that he was being asked by God to take care of broken religious icons made of escayola. The very next day, a neighbor came by and gave him a broken statue of a saint that he had unearthed while digging in his garden. This started his collection, as news spread and friends and even people he did not know would come up to him and gift him with their broken statues. I asked him if he knew who all these “santos” represented, and he admitted that he did not know all of them, but that a researcher was helping him identify the statues for proper labeling. I am sure that just like his vintage glass collection, Tomiko’s escayola collection will someday be recognized as unique and outstanding.

With John Orola and Atty. Danny Cruz of the VMA Global College

My last stop before going to the airport for my return trip to Manila was the stadium. I was adamant to catch even one Masskara dance, and was lucky to see the group that performed in Hong Kong. It was an amazing performance, and a fitting end to my quick trip to Bacolod City. I vowed to come back next year for the Masskara festival and stay the entire weekend.  Now to look for tickets and book a hotel.