The Gift of Sharing

If there is one thing that is totally satisfying, it is sharing one’s gift of time, talent and treasure to those who need it most.  I daresay that the volunteers and sponsors get more out of giving than the beneficiaries themselves.  We’ve been so blessed to have this opportunity yearly.  Little did we know that what we started in 2008 would snowball into a yearly tradition.

For the eighth consecutive year, the Information Technology and Business Process Association of the Philippines (IBPAP) and TeamAsia organized “My Dream in a Shoebox,” a beloved tradition of collecting and distributing shoeboxes filled with school supplies to less fortunate Filipino children.  With the increasing support of our compassionate industry friends, we’ve grown from 200 shoebox donations in 2009 to more than 50,000 in 2015. These shoeboxes were donated to public schools and foundations covering Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.   

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Digital campaign #ShoeboxChallengePH

This year, we set ourselves a goal of 75,000 shoeboxes, which we are still on the way to achieving.  So far, we’ve received over 60,000 shoeboxes, and pledges are still coming in.  Early December, we launched a digital campaign called #ShoeboxChallengePH, where volunteers take a short video of themselves pledging to donate shoeboxes, then nominate three friends to do the same.  Several people joined in the campaign, and this started the ball rolling.

A friend of mine, Bea Tan, vice president at Citibank, gathered her children and godchildren at her home one afternoon to stuff 50 shoeboxes and wrap them in festive paper.  They all had so much fun wrapping the gifts, and I am sure the children will remember this for a very long time. I am so proud of her effort to instill the values of generosity of heart in the young!   

Another friend, Joel Pascual of PEP Group, did a video on Facebook, and he says there were so many people interested to help, even some from overseas who contacted him through Facebook.  Friends of mine from San Francisco have also donated willingly to the cause, as have personal friends who learn about this project.  At TeamAsia, we rang the bell one day to signal the stop of work and the start of an afternoon of wrapping shoeboxes.  

Last December, I’ve helped out at three gift-giving days, and would like to share what happened then.

December 10, 2016

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Shoeboxes ready for distribution

Early that morning, we trooped to Barangay Payatas, Quezon City for our annual gift giving day of My Dream in a Shoebox at the Payatas Orione Foundation, Inc. (PAOFI). Run by the missions of the Sons of Divine Providence Congregation, PAOFI provides social welfare development programs and services to the poor,  vulnerable and disadvantaged persons/families relative to their health/medical, nutritional and educational needs.  

Fr. Julio welcomes us to Payatas.
Fr. Julio welcomes us to Payatas.

That day, however, Fr. Martin was in Lucena tending to their communities in Barangay Dalahican and Talao-Talao in Lucena City.  Instead, it was PAOFI’s executive director, the genial Fr. Julio who welcomed us at Payatas, together with Michelle and Shyla.  

We expected 500 scholars at PAOFI, but sadly only 300 of the kids  could attend the actual gift giving because of the National Achievement Test that was being administered that day.   However, 133 volunteers had signed up for that session, and we were a bit worried that we had too many volunteers.  This turned out to be a boon as the volunteers had more opportunity to interact with the children.  

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First, we grouped the children into tens and assigned each group three volunteers to serve as their big sisters/brothers, then had them come up with a group cheer.  This was a tremendous success as each group tried to outdo the other in their cheering prowess. Thanks to Bea Lim and Armo Armovit for serving as judges for the cheering competition.  The groupings also allowed the volunteers and the children to bond.

We had two games, the Newspaper Dance and The Boat is Sinking, with United Health Group (UHG)  volunteers serving as game masters with the help of FIS Global.  Emerson and UHG comprised the food distribution committee.  The big brothers and sisters took charge of distributing the shoeboxes to the kids in their care, as well as, getting them hotdog sandwiches, orange juice and Picnic shoestring potatoes.  

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We also had a storytelling session in Filipino, which I led based on a story of a young boy who was at a loss as to what to give to his teacher on Christmas.  He was sad because he could not afford to buy a gift because of his poor circumstances but was inspired when his mother told him a story about another young boy in a similar situation who drew on his creativity to come up with the best gift in the world.  I told them that the gift of love is the most important thing in the world.  

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And love it was that we experienced that day.  Hearty thanks to our selfless volunteers from Emerson, FIS Global, P&G, United Health Global, TeamAsia and IBPAP.  Thanks too to Emerson for sponsoring the food and drinks for the activity, to P&G for providing the prizes for the games, to Megaworld for the Picnic shoestring potatoes, to Asia Brewery for the yoghurt, and to all those who donated shoeboxes filled with school supplies!  And congratulations to TeamAsia’s Clah Salindato and Beverly Aguilar and to IBPAP’s Cholo Antonio for organizing this gift-giving day!  I daresay that the volunteers left PAOFI with hearts full of happiness and contentment for sharing themselves and their morning with the children.  And the smiles on the faces of the children were priceless!  

December 22, 2016

img_0194One thousand thirty-six children from sixteen damayan centers. That’s how many children awaited us at the covered courts of Parokya Pedro Calungsod in Southville 3, Muntinlupa.  This quasi-parish under the stewardship of Fr. Benjamin Molina, Jr., was established on October 14, 2012 to service the spiritual needs of the informal settlers that have located in the housing resettlement in a 50-hectare portion of the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) reservation.  

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Our family with Fr. Didoy.

Not one to be fazed by such a daunting task, Fr. Didoy organized two gift-giving days for the children of the community, each one with 1,000 children.  We were assigned to the second outreach.  Come to think about it, Fr. Didoy has always set big, hairy goals when it came to helping people lead better lives.  He was our parish priest at the Ascension of Our Lord Parish for three years, and he was (and still is) very much loved by the community.   Which is why there were volunteers from Southbay and Goodwill who came to help that day.

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Fr. Didoy telling the story of the first christmas tree during his homily.

But before the actual gift-giving, Fr. Didoy celebrated Holy Mass to remind everyone that we must first give thanks to the Lord for his many blessings.  During his sermon, Fr. Didoy recounted the story of the very first Christmas tree that wanted to give homage to the King.  The children were enthralled listening to his story, as they were, to my Filipino version of the “punong-kahoy na Pamasko.”

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The volunteers distributing shoeboxes to the children.

What is amazing is that despite the large number of children, they were all extremely well-behaved, following the instructions of the youthful volunteers.  Soon, the volunteers from the different companies began arriving: Henkel, Alorica, Infosys, Intelenet, Northern Trust, Asurion, DSM Manila, Serenitea and IBPAP and TeamAsia.  And just like the multiplication of bread, the blessings overflowed that day.  Earlier, we had sent over 1,000 shoeboxes filled with school supplies for the children.  On the day of the outreach, however, Henkel delivered an additional 1,500 shoeboxes, followed by Asurion with 150 boxes and Serenitea with 155 boxes.  The children were so happy, as they each brought home not one, but two shoeboxes, ensuring that that their siblings too would have supplies for school.

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The children sang, danced, and played games with the volunteers eagerly helping out, especially when it came to distributing food and beverages as well as the shoeboxes.  I noticed too that some of the volunteers brought along their own children, which is a great way to teach them the importance of sharing with those less fortunate.  

After the outreach was over, the volunteers gathered for a souvenir photo. There were so many that we could hardly fit them in the photo, and had to take it from the second floor of the gym.

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December 30

Once again, the gifts multiplied, this time at the Ascension of Our Lord Parish outreach.  Five hundred children from the developing communities of Estrada 1 and 2, Mangga, Aratiles, Silangan, Villonco, and Waterfun were gathered early in the morning at the parish church.  Outside the church, another hundred or so children waited in the hope of being allowed to join the festivities.  Earlier, we had delivered 600 shoeboxes to Ascension.  To our surprise, Alorica arrived with another 500 boxes.  This meant we could give more than one box to each child inside the church, as well as, to the children waiting outside.  Wonder of wonders!

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While the children were singing in the church, the parish commission and youth volunteers, the corporate volunteers from VXI, Alorica, TeamAsia and IBPAP, as well as, individual volunteers like Michelle Cruz, Olette Gonzalez, Lou Mercado, Juliet and Rene Cinco, Jun and Tess Latorre, the Liwanag family, and many more were busy preparing the games, food and drinks and shoeboxes that would be distributed that day. Everyone had a task to fulfill, some as game masters, others as marshals, gift coordinators, food coordinators, and so on.  There was even a clean up committee to pick up debris left by the event.

 

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That Jolly Bee surprised and delighted the children.

A surprise visit by the Jollibee mascot got all the children excited, as did the various games organized for the children, like the straw relay, balloon relay and Japanese walk.  Even my storytelling was listened to attentively by the children.  

After the children had their snacks provided by VXI, they lined up to get their shoeboxes and other gifts from the volunteers.  After this, they  had their photo taken at the belen together with Fr. Joseph Landero, parish priest of Ascension of Our Lord.

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Tired but happy volunteers at Ascension of Our Lord parish.

When the happy children had left, the volunteers broke bread and had souvenir photos taken at the parish. From the smiles on their faces, one could see that they were very pleased with themselves. And that’s the real blessing one gets from sharing.

Chapter Two: Florida Adventure

October 16

We spent the afternoon resting at home and getting ready for the flight out.  Andrè and I took the 10pm red eye flight to Miami, had an hour and half wait at the Atlanta airport, and arrived in Miami at 9:30am. We didn’t sleep at all on the plane, and so were bleary-eyed when we arrived. We took a taxi to the home of Douglas Kamm by the Coral Gables, where we met his friend Angela Younger from New Zealand who was visiting and was just about to leave for the airport. Douglas was delighted that his Australian contact had finally met his Filipino contact after all these years.

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Andre in Douglas’ kitchen

Douglas, Andrè’s best friend from his college days, lives in a nice, antiquated house. Feeling grungy from the long trip, I freshened up at his restroom, and was immediately brought back to my childhood days. It seemed that I was back in my grandmother’s house in San Sebastian as the furnishings were so similar. Douglas’ classic sense of style was evident in the blue and white ceramic collection he had in his kitchen, his paintings and his ivory pieces.

Douglas invited us out to his garden. A bit wild at the moment, his garden was the toast of the city back in its heyday, and was featured a number of times in magazines. You could still see what made it famous back then from the variety of foliage planted. Why, it even had a mango tree, which Andrè avers produces the sweetest mangoes. I hurried back to the house when I learned that a few days ago a crocodile had snatched a pet dog away from its master who was walking it by the creek, and that this had happened a few houses away from where we were. I certainly did not want to be croc breakfast.

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Douglas driving us around Miami

Douglas gave us a grand tour of the city in his car, driving up to South Beach lined with art deco hotels and restaurants on one side and on the other, Sunday strollers on the beach. He had worked in hotels in the strip, and gave a running commentary that was entertaining. He even pointed out the exact spot where celebrated designer Versace was gunned down by a Filipino named Cunanan. After that, we did a quick spin of Coral Gables, Miami’s version of Forbes Park where the wealthy live. I loved seeing the massive banyan trees. What character they had and what tales they could share if only they could talk, I wondered.

For lunch, we went to Bangkok City for their famous crispy duck. There were several options on the menu but we settled for the basil version, along with tom kha (i.e., chicken soup cooked in lemongrass and coconut milk.) and pad thai. Andrè and Douglas have been going to that Thai restaurant for well over 30 years. We then went to Gilbert’s Bakery to get key lime pie to bring to Cachito’s home, and we ended up getting pecan pie, Grand Marnier and tocino del cielo as well.

The two men enjoyed ribbing each other over lunch, recalling capers over the years. After lunch, we headed to West Palm Beach. Just before Exit 35, the car’s left rear tire blew out, and we had to wait for AAA to come help us. Just that morning, I learned that Douglas didn’t know how to use a mobile phone, much less owned one, and so it was interesting to observe him using Andrè’s mobile phone to call AAA’s customer service. We were told it would take 90 minutes for AAA to arrive. So I began writing this blog while we awaited our knight in shining armor. I kept hoping the aircon wouldn’t conk out before the rescue vehicle arrived, as it was sweltering hot outside.

After much anticipation, the AAA rescue vehicle arrives!
After much anticipation, the AAA rescue vehicle arrives!
Waiting for Uber
Waiting for Uber

When AAA’s rescue vehicle arrived though, we learned that they could not change the tire as the spare tire was riddled with holes. The only solution was for a tow truck to come and pick up the car. This would take another 90 minutes, we were told, but since only one person could ride in the car being towed, that meant Andrè and I needed to find some other way to get to West Palm Beach. And that’s when I called Uber to the rescue. I accessed my Uber app from the Philippines, and in 12 minutes an UberX came to pick us up. There we were, perspiring from the heat of the sun with our suitcases lined up on the shoulder, when a new Hyundai Sonata driven by a lovely Cuban young woman stopped to help us.

Zuy to the rescue!
Zuy to the rescue!

Zuy Alejo, our Uber driver, was making frijoles (black beans) at home when the Uber call came in, and when she saw that we were on the turnpike, she figured that we had an accident. Kind-hearted Zuy decided to get in her car and drive to us. She was truly heaven-sent!  Zuy drove us from the Turnpike all the way to West Palms Beach.

Charming Zuy shared her interesting story with us. At five years old, she and her family came to America from Cuba on a 21-footer boat with 22 other people. They were nine days at sea, without food or water. She said they had no choice but to drink their urine. What a life changing experience that must have been for her family! Now happily married and leading the parents-teachers association in her child’s school, she works at a restaurant, and started on Uber in the past two months.

And then Andrè popped the question: “Where can we get the best key lime pie in Miami?” And Zuy said, Key West of course! But the really good ones can be found in the airport, she added. Well, this we must try on the way to Seattle.

We arrived at the home of Cachito, Andrè’s younger brother, and were welcomed warmly. That night, Cachito and his wife Rocio hosted dinner at Hoes Asian Cuisine.   It was a big group, and I was a bit overwhelmed at first. I met Andrè’s mom, Tita Dolly, his cousin Margie, his sister-in-law Margarita, and his nieces Stephanie and Angeline, and their partners Andrèw and Chris. The food was nourishing after that long day of travel, but we were so tired as we had hardly slept the night before on the plane.

October 17, 2016

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Outside the Cracker Barrel with Andre, Dolly and Gerry

The next morning, we went to the 8am mass at St. Augustine Catholic Church with Tita Dolly and Gerry Humphries, who drove us. It was a beautiful mass, and I felt at peace with the world. We then had a hearty breakfast at Cracker Barrel, a quaint shop selling country items alongside a cafe. We enjoyed sunny side up farm fresh eggs, sausage links, grits with sawmill gravy, freshly baked homemade buttermilk biscuits, fluffy pancakes with old-fashioned maple syrup, jam and coffee. We didn’t know what to do with the grits, but after Gerry told us to mix it with butter, salt and pepper and gravy, the grits turned out delicious! I couldn’t help but explore the store and picked up some shirts. Just outside the store were some pretty rocking chairs, and so had some photos snapped there.

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Enjoying a meal at The White Elephant

We then went to a mall to check the Apple Store if they had the iPhone 7 Plus available. No luck. We went back home to rest, and went out to dinner that night at The White Elephant, on the invitation of Andrè’s Uncle Jess and his wife Benguet. There we met Jess’s children, Chris, a lawyer, and Michelle, a public prosecutor.

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Michelle and her Great Dane.

Beautiful Michelle had her Great Dane with here. What a stately dog it was, and extremely well behaved! The pizza was just right and the shrimp curry delicious, though a chutney would have made it amazing. For dessert, we shared a key lime pie. The search for the best key lime pie was still on, but this was more like a vanilla cream pie. Again, we were told that the best key lime pie could be had at Key West.

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Jess then toured us around his Wellington Mall, pointing out the five schools that were there, as well as the Post Office. The mall seemed more like a museum than a mall as it had beautiful sculptures around. There were statues of game fish and horses of different kinds, including carousel horses and a unicorn, live fish in aquariums, grandfather clocks, and brass sculptures of children playing and having fun. I was happy to see the Philippine flag together with the American flag hanging in the activity area.

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Andre and his Uncle Jess

An accomplished gentleman, Jess Santamaria was elected as County Commissioner three times. He believes in sharing his blessings and has two foundations that help provide education to children as well as help for less privileged families.

We stopped to look at a poster he had of Desiderata, and I was amazed when Jess and Andrè started to recite the poem from memory. Andrè’s favorite was: “Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.”

October 18, 2016

The next morning, we had breakfast together with Cachito and Tita Dolly. The night before, Rocio had prepared a Filipino breakfast of longganiza and fried rice. I fried the eggs and prepared the tomato and onion salad to go with it. Rocio’s longganiza was to die for. She said she got them at Kabayan, the Filipino store in West Palm Beach. That night, I asked her the secret for cooking it the way she did. I was happy she taught me how to do it properly.

img_0469 img_0470 img_0499Margarita then picked us up to bring us sightseeing at Worth Avenue, one of the most exclusive shopping streets in the United States. It is the equivalent of Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, where all the most expensive brands have stores: Jimmy Choo, Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Kate Spade, and more. I wasn’t paying much attention to the stores, instead enjoying the stroll and talking to Margarita.

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With Andre, Mike, Techie and Margarita.

Lo and behold, who do we see at the corner of Worth Avenue, sitting down by the shaded bench but Mike Bilbao, hubby of Techie Ysmael. Turns out he was waiting for Tetchie who was meeting someone at one of the shops. Soon, Techie showed up with a copy of the book she had written on her famous mother, Chona Kasten.

After bidding goodbye to Mike and Techie, we continued to look for Pizza Al Fresco, a little restaurant tucked away inside one of the garden alcoves. We had a most delightful meal of Andrè’s favorite, shrimp cocktail, a Portobello mushroom salad, and their famous pizza alfresco, washed down with a Peregrino with gas.

img_0492Over lunch, we shared our life experiences, how sad and lonely we were when our beloved spouses passed on, how we needed to get a grip on our emotions and decide to accept fate and move on, how we adjusted to the difficulties of senior dating, and how fortunate we were to discover second chances at love, along with the complexities that come with it. After all, there is so much more life to be lived and happiness to be enjoyed.

img_0460We then visited the Palm Beach Outlet Mall where we visited various shops, and chanced upon GH Bass, which had the most comfortable shoes, which Margarita and I bought. We all ended up buying various items.   A sudden downpour cut short our shopping spree, and we headed home, as we still had a dinner to attend. Angeline and Chris Gross were hosting dinner at Aglioli for the family. Margarita and I laughed when we realized we both had worn our new shoes to the dinner.

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At Aglioli with Andre’s family

Aglioli is a family restaurant that allows its guests to design their own pizza and pasta using various types of noodles, sauces, meats and veggies. After sharing the fresh house salad, which came in huge bowls, with lots of black olives and crunchy baguettes, we had fun designing our own pasta. Andrè ended up with angel hair pasta with rich pomodoro sauce and a side dish of meatballs. On Angeline’s recommendation, I got a shrimp pesto angel hair with artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and grilled garlic. It was sublime! When dessert time came, we were too full to order a key lime pie.

There was much banter and lively conversation over dinner. I learned that Angeline, despite her 5’2” tiny frame, is an accomplished industrial engineer, a wind blade specialist at New Era, which used to be the Florida Power and Light Company. She climbs wind towers that are hundreds of feet high to check on the blades. Cachito says that when she sent him photos of how high she was on her first climb, that he was so nervous he had to take a drink. Kudos to her, as she excels in a man’s world.

When Rocio learned that we were on a quest to discover the best key lime pie, she offered to bake us one for the next day when Margarita was hosting dinner.

October 19

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Reliving breakfasts of before at Gabrielle’s

Early the next day, Andrè and I together with Tita Dolly and Gerry went to Gabrielle’s Café and Grille, voted 12 years running as the best breakfast place in town. Andrè recounted that this was a Sunday tradition for him and his brother Raymond, their uncle Tony and cousin JJ and a few other friends. He said it looked exactly the same, except the round table where they usually sat was now nearer the entrance.

After breakfast, we went home to Tita Dolly’s where we had dance lessons from Gerry. Gerry Humphries learned how to dance from the Fred Astaire Dance Studio, and eventually put up his own dance studio. His school produced several dance champions of the US. It was interesting how Gerry explained the science of dance so simply that we got it immediately. He made sure we learned the basic “box” and showed us how that box was applicable to various types of dance, how high our hands held should be (level with the woman’s eyes, he admonished Andrè), where to put my hand on Andrè’s shoulder, how to turn gracefully, and so on. I took a video of Gerry dancing with Andrè, and then with Dolly. A few more lessons, and I believe Andrè and I could conquer the dance floor!

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Beautiful Dolly

I enjoyed talking to Andrè’s mom. At 92, she still exudes the special beauty that captivated the heart of Rene Kahn, Andrè’s father. Not only that, she was charming and sharp as sharp can be. She relayed stories of her youth, of their courtship, of being mother to 13 children, of being asked to be a blue lady but declining, of how she and her husband were so in love with each other, and how he would not let her dance with anyone else at parties.

She had met him when she was only 12, acting as chaperone to her older sister. Because she was tall for her age, her sister’s suitors would vie for her attention and start to court her instead. Her parents advised her to dance with other boys, but when she met Rene, she was smitten and all she wanted was to be with him. He would wait for her outside at parties, and she would escape to see and talk to him.

img_0405He got a job in Cebu, but after just three months, he could no longer bear to be separated from her that he left to marry her. She conceived on their honeymoon, and nine months later she had her firstborn, Butch. She said Rene vowed he would have just one child after he saw the pain of childbirth she went through. But it was not to be as the children came one after the other. Love was not to be denied.

img_0401Dolly and Rene were inseparable, and he would bring her with him on trips domestically and overseas, even living for a year in Hong Kong while he set up the San Miguel Brewery there. As I listened to her, I wondered how she was able to cope with social responsibilities as the wife of the Coca-Cola Corporation CEO, and as mother to all her children – four girls and eight boys. But cope she did, marvelously, as her children turned out wonderfully, with solid values.

When Rene died, she moved to the US. There, she gave in to her love for dancing, and would dance for hours. She told me that once her doctor asked if she did any exercise. She said none, but that she would dance for four hours a day. The doctor was floored! No wonder Tita Dolly has kept her slim figure all these years.

Silver Wedding Anniversary
Silver Wedding Anniversary

Tita Dolly showed me her treasured albums, especially that of her Silver Wedding Anniversary. It was a beautiful album with black and white photos. Rene and Dolly looked so happy together, and they had a beautiful family! I eagerly looked for photos of Andre as a young man. He was quite handsome!

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Andre and his mom’s portrait. He was in her womb when this painting was made.

In her living room, she showed me a painting of her as a young mother, and she told me that she was pregnant with Andrè at the time the painting was done. She looked absolutely gorgeous! No wonder Rene loved her so much, and as Andrè said, put her on a pedestal, teaching his children that this was the way a man should treat his wife. I asked Andrè to stand beside the painting so I could take a photo of him with her.

After the dance lessons, we went to BJ to see what they had on sale. BJ is like Costco, and also has food samples in each lane. We were tired, so we went back home. For lunch, Cachito, Andrè and I made a quick run to Jon Smith Subs for some sandwiches. Andrè and I shared an 18-inch meatball bomb sub. A poster boasted that Jon Smith Subs was voted the favorite French Fries. There was also a cute poster of a forlorn dog with long ears that said “I hate Jon Smith. No leftovers.” Poor doggie, the fries were so good there was none left for the doggie bag.

That night, we went to Margarita’s home and met her Colombian family and friends. There was her sister Beatriz and her hubby, Andrès Gutierrez; Jon Duque, the husband of her best friend Vicky; and the Kahn family. Margarita prepared a delicious roast of prime rib, served the Kahn way with horseradish, creamy mashed potatoes, grilled Portobello mushrooms, and a green salad with avocado dressing.

For dessert, Margarita made a flaky jackfruit (langka) and plantain pie. She told us her jackfruit tree from the Philippines planted by Raymond bore a lot of fruits and she had been wondering what to do with it, so she froze the fruit and made pie. It was heavenly! But, dinner wasn’t over yet, because Rocio arrived with the promised key lime pie she had specially prepared for us. I loved it so much I had seconds! Andrè was naughty and gave me a whole slice rather than the sliver I had asked for. What a wonderful time we had at Margarita’s! Andrè and I agreed that the Colombians were a fun group.

October 20

The next morning, Cachito prepared breakfast for us: toasted Thomas English muffins with melted butter and honey, sunny side up eggs, ham, and Starbucks coffee. It was delicious! Earlier, Tita Dolly had gone to 8am mass to pray for safe travels for us. She came by to bid us goodbye.

Margarita then arrived to drive us to the airport. She was going to have lunch with Douglas and give him our “little fishies” gourmet tuyo in oil pasalubong. This was going to be a long flight, first to Atlanta and then to Seattle.

On the plane, I remarked to Andrè that there were a lot of pumpkins around. The malls were full of all sorts of pumpkins, from large ones I couldn’t carry to tiny ones, with different colors and textures. Restaurants all seemed to incorporate pumpkin as an ingredient in their dishes. There was pumpkin pie, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin risotto, pumpkin sauce, even pumpkin perfume and pumpkin wine! I guess it’s that time of the year, nearing Thanksgiving. But before that would be Halloween, and the malls were replete with Halloween costumes and décor being sold. Several of the houses we had passed were already adorned with Halloween décor, from giant spiders to witches and goblins to eerie lighting and even some cackling.  Halloween was going to be interesting, but now we were off to see my side of the family, and I was terribly excited for them to meet Andrè.

 

Chapter One: California Dreamin’

October 11, 2016

I’ve only been to the US four times: the first was to attend a publishing conference in New York, the second a trip with my late husband Mike to Boston to meet with the Harvard Publishing Group, the third a trip to visit our relatives in Texas and Washington, and the last, five years ago, to attend my sister’s wedding.  This time around was different.  I was excited yet apprehensive.

In three short weeks, we would do the rounds of Los Angeles and Florida to meet Andrè’s US-based siblings and his mom, and then go to Seattle and San Francisco to meet my side of the family: two brothers and a sister.

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On the flight to LAX

I realized getting out of the LAX airport that LA is cold. Brrrr! Andrè had told me to pack light clothes for LA and Miami as it was just as hot as Manila. We didn’t account for a cold front the week we arrived in LA. It was great that Gerry Gonzalez, Maribel’s husband was there to pick us up.

Our first meal on US soil was burgers at The Habit. It was a toss up between In and Out but The Habit won. There was some discussion about which burger was better: that of The Habit or I&O. The Habit got most of the votes. The burger was delicious, but I made a mental note to try out I&O myself. At Maribel’s home I slept like a babe that night, tired out from the long flight from Manila.

October 12, 2016

The next morning, I prepared breakfast of bagel, ham, cheese and eggs. Gerry had left earlier for work. Maribel helped me pack our pasalubongs (gifts) for family in Florida, Seattle and San Francisco. When the boxes were done, Maribel drove us to Costco where I had my first experience of shopping. It was overwhelming for someone not used to shopping. I immediately settled on a sweater to keep me warm. I also found out that one could get full nibbling on free samples at Costco.

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Pumpkins galore

Everywhere we went, pumpkins were on display.  They came in varied sizes, color and shapes, though they were mostly orange.  We couldn’t help but have our photos taken with the pumpkins.

After a late lunch at Akropolis with gyros, Mediterranean salad and a baklava, we passed by the Persian Market at Mission Ranch.   Like a little child in a candy shop, I was blown away by the lushness of fresh vegetables and fruits on display, some of which I’m not familiar with, the endless variety of spices and mouthwatering sauces, and couldn’t help myself but pick up a few items.  In my mind, I was already dreaming of what I would cook with them.  Tired from shopping, we went home to a delicious lentils and boeuf bourguignon dinner that Maribel had prepared before she left for the Philippines.

October 13, 2016

Shopping is second nature to the Kahns, and this was my baptism of fire. Andrè gave me tips on how to shop, and where to look. “Head straight to the Clearance corner first,” he said. “That’s were you’ll find the best buys. Check the price tags and look for the coloured ones as they give you a further discount from the printed price. If unsure, ask!” That night, he sent me to sit with Maribel to learn about coupons and sales.

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At Target

We visited Target where Andrè loaded up on shirts, then Trader Joe’s and finally, Tuesday Morning, where I broke the ice (or should I say melted completely and gave in to a buying spree) and loaded up on bed linen, foot rugs, and towels. The cashier called out that they were closing in 10 minutes. We were the only ones in the store and had only gone through two rows, yet I already had two overflowing shopping carts. Maribel and Andrè were chuckling as I was paying at the counter. Anytime now, they said, I will be hit by “shopper’s remorse.” Andrè bought some dark chocolate bars so I would feel better.  He knows very well that chocolates lift my spirits anytime. I figured that since I hardly ever shop in Manila because of my work schedule that I shouldn’t feel guilty about shopping for things we need. That night, I filled up one balikbayan box.

In between shopping sprees, we had lunch at Cinnamon Production where I had half a delicious corned beef sandwich and piping hot pumpkin squash soup. We looked longingly at the dessert counter, and asked for key lime pie, but they had none on the menu. Instead, we settled on an apple pie to bring home.

Andrè’s brother Mario and his wife Marivic happened to be in San Diego, and they decided to swing by Maribel’s house to meet us and have dinner. Gerry popped into the oven the Chicken Marsala that Maribel had prepared, while I cooked the masa for croquetas de jamon and croquetas de boeuf bourguignon. For dessert, we opened a Chocnut from Manila. Because Mario and Marivic had a long drive ahead, they left early.

A shy person, Maribel reminded me not to post any photos of her on Facebook, and I promised I wouldn’t without her permission. Hence, I ended up not taking any photos that night.  A pity though as Maribel is such a beautiful person, her  inner warmth and kindness shining through, the kind whose irrepressible laughter brings sunshine to the room.

October 14, 2016

What a day this turned out to be!  In the morning, I did the laundry after Gerry, who was working from home that day, taught me how to use the washing machine and dryer.   In between wash loads, I formed the masa into croquetas ready for dinner that night.

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Friends and family for dinner: Tessie, Andre, me, Gigi, Mari and Gerry

The day before, Andrè had invited Tessie and her husband Toño, his classmate Mari Crespo and his girlfriend Gigi Gomez, to join us and Maribel and Gerry for dinner. I offered to make a paella and croquetas.

Gerry dropped us off at Irvine Spectrum to shop.  There, Andrè finally found the Sketchers shoe he had been searching for. We passed by the Apple store to check if we could get an iPhone 7 Plus but there was none on stock that we could get with an open line, or SIM-free as they called it here.

We had a funny yet exasperating experience at a Beauty Shop at Irvine. We were walking when a young man handed Andrè an envelope, which he inadvertently accepted. It was one of those con jobs where they try to sell you beauty products to supposedly remove your eye bags. I tried pulling Andrè away but he went into the shop, so I had to follow him. The salesman said he would put a lotion on my eyebags that would make them disappear. I said only if you put them on both eyebags and on Andrè too. He agreed and so we sat down.

The salesman put the magic lotion on my right eye, and I immediately asked him to put it on the other as well. He said wait, so we could see the difference it makes. He then put it on Andrè’s left eyebag as he tried convincing us to buy this and that product. Of course, the product worked, but the price was steep: $399 for a small stick of lotion that he said would last a year, and whose effect will last two more years. He then tried to sell us two sticks, one for each one of us, but we didn’t bite.

In the meantime, I asked him to put in on my other eye. He kept stalling, negotiating better offers, such as $399 per stick plus a free hand lotion. The man kept chatting, dialing up his sales talk, even resorting to the old trick of “if we divide $399 by 52 weeks, we’d end up paying only $11 per week to remove our eye bags for a year.” OMG, I thought, even his math was wrong. It should be little more than $7.60 a week, I computed mentally. Again, I demanded that he put the lotion on the other eye as promised. He did after much nagging, but not enough so that the other eye was still puffy. I signaled to Andrè, let’s leave.

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Paella and croquetas dinner at the Gonzalezes.

The man followed us out of the shop making his final offer in a stage whisper, “I will give you my family price of only $250 per stick. Please buy.” No way, Jose. After telling him we would think about it over lunch, the man finally gave up and went back to the store. We all had a good chuckle over dinner that night when we recounted to our guests how Andrè and I escaped without giving in, but were each left with a hint of an eyebag. That night, Tessie told us that the same thing had happened to her. We all had a good laugh about it.

October 15, 2016

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Lunch at the Rusty Pelican with Mike and Liz Hulley and Gerry and Maribel Gonzalez

The next day, Gerry drove Andrè, me and Maribel to Newport Beach where we had lunch at The Rusty Pelican, at the invitation of newly-weds Liz and Mike Hulley. Liz is Gerry and Maribel’s lovely daughter. It was a breathtakingly beautiful drive along the coast, and we passed millionaires’ homes along the way. The seafood lunch at The Rusty Penguin was absolutely fresh and delicious. We had calamari, shrimp cocktail and freshly-baked buttered crunchy parmesan-coated baguettes for appetizers. Andrè ordered the lobster salad, while I had grilled salmon with a lobster sauce. I even gave in and had a chilled Moet Chandon with my salmon. It was heavenly!

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We spent the rest of the afternoon resting at home and getting ready for the flight to Miami that night.  Tomorrow, I meet Andrè’s mom, and the butterflies in my stomach are having a field day.

Remembering the Iturralde Sisters

Invariably, whenever I would bump into an older graduate of the College of the Holy Spirit where I studied, I would be asked, “How is Miss Maria Luz? How is Dean Julia Iturralde?” And then they would launch on how the two sisters left an indelible impression on them, how much they missed them, and how thankful they are for the values and learning they received.   Sadly I would tell them that my two aunts, younger sisters of my father, had passed on.

My brothers and I grew up in the family compound right behind the Basilica of San Sebastian. My mother was widowed early, and so we were raised in a maternal environment: my mom, my father’s mom Lola Ingga, my father’s aunt Lola Teta, and my two maiden aunts: Julia and Maria Luz. My father had another sibling, Tita Rory, but she had entered the nunnery and became a Sister Servant of the Holy Spirit (SSpS) and so we hardly saw her.

My two aunts figured largely in my growing up years, and this is my tribute to the two women who I love dearly.

Maria Luz Iturralde

My godmother and aunt, Maria Luz Alvaro Iturralde died in the wee hours of December 31, 2008 while I was in Texas. I can still remember my sister Pinky’s sobbing voice trying to tell me the sad news over the phone, which she had received from Paz, my sister-in-law in San Francisco, who had in turn been called by my brother Paul. The news had traveled swiftly around the world.

I quickly called my mother in Manila. She had not even heard the news yet. All she knew was that my brother Paul had brought Maria Luz to the hospital at midnight. Then, I woke up Bea and asked her to go to Quiapo to be with my mom and help out with arrangements. Like real troopers, my daughters Bea and Cara, with their cousin Monchoy, took charge of the wake while my brother Paul made the funeral arrangements.

The rest of us siblings (Johnny, Pepito, Pinky and I) felt helpless being so far away. All I could do from the other side of the globe was write down my memories of our aunt for an online memorial. Maria Luz loved to write. This was the best way I could think of to pay her tribute.

Maria Luz or Lucy or Frenchie as her friends would call her or Dada Uds as her grand nieces and nephews called her was a writer non par. She was the longest running moderator of Action (1947-51), Veritas (1980-94), The Profile, and The Faculty Review. Udsy was also the editor of The Search and We the Alumnae. She was an excellent writer and would write under the monicker Sub-Rosa (or chismis queen). I remember many trips to the National Printing Press in Quezon Avenue to check on various publications. She guided the exhibit for the College of the Holy Spirit’s 75th anniversary.

An English teacher at the College of the Holy Spirit, Udsy dedicated herself to helping students learn to love the English language. Quick-witted, she entertained her students with stories about family and life, making her dearly beloved to all of them. She was my English teacher as well, from the time I learned how to speak, read and write. In college, I studied English under her. She prodded me into writing and editing for the school paper. My baptismal godmother, she was always there to watch over me and guide me. And I had to study extra hard to make sure that I earned good grades.

She taught for 49 years at the school that she loved with all her heart, and was guidance counselor for a long time. I remember her anguished crying when she was replaced as the guidance counselor. Her life revolved around that school, and when she was forced to retire, she was terribly disheartened. Writing and editing kept her alive, and when she was removed by the CHS Alumnae Foundation as editor-in-chief of We the Alumnae on the pretext that the newsletter would now be computerized, she lost all interest in life.

As a young girl, Udsy excelled at sketching. Sports-minded, she won two trophies for marathon running. She studied Elementary Education for Teaching Children at Holy Ghost College (now College of the Holy Spirit).

A frequent visitor of the school’s bodega when she was a youngster, Udsy was always sent there for being the naughtiest girl in school. She was the bane of Erundina Fernandez (who later, for a time, became my mother-in-law and wrecked her revenge on me), Teofisto Guingona who called her “kabayo” because of her kicking him with her boston, and Alejandro Reyes who later became dean at San Beda.

Udsy was brave to the point of carelessness. During the Japanese occupation, a man was shot by the Japanese on our street. Without thinking of her own safety, she ran to him to give him the Last Rites. She would always take the side of the oppressed, and if she felt any of us were being given a hard time, she would take it upon herself to defend us.

Udsy loved to clean. Cleaning was her thing. She was very OC about this. The wooden staircase was not acceptable until it was gleaming. Her room was off limits to all us, unless it was story-telling time. She never liked the kitchen, and could not cook as far as I know. Kitchen duties were reserved for her sister Julia. But, oh, how she loved to eat! To the very end, she was always hungry, even if she had just eaten five minutes before.

Story telling was her thing. And for this, no one came even close. She was a master storyteller. And we lapped it all up.

I always credited my love of reading and literature to Udsy. When my brothers and I were young, we didn’t enjoy the usual fairytales like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, or Cinderella or Snow White. Instead, Udsy would regale us with stories of Greek, Norse and Roman mythology. Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Poseidon, Apollo, Athena, Hades and Ulysses. These were our heroes and heroines. The Three Fates – Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos – caused me nightmares. When would Atropos cut the string of my life, I anguished? Why, before The Lord of the Rings became a hit serial movie, we knew the entire story from beginning to end.

We eagerly looked forward to her payday because she would bring us to Goodwill in Escolta or to Bookmark and Alemars in Avenida Rizal and let us buy whatever book we desired to read. We had a complete collection of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books. When I got into my teens, she even indulged my love of Barbara Cartland and pocketbook love stories. On my 16th birthday, she got me a dozen pocketbooks. That was a special day!

Hot-tempered, Udsy easily got agitated. But when she was calm, she was very gregarious. She was always the life of the party, or so I remember. She would force my brothers and I to perform for her guests (mostly nuns, teachers and students) during parties at home. We had to recite a poem, dance or sing. Rock-a-bye-baby and Joyce Kilmer’s Tree Poem were favorites of mine.

When Udsy was angry, she was like a grenade, hurting everyone within reach. It was wise to stay out of her way. She would run over everyone. She would fly off the handle if she could not find a book, and would accuse us of getting it without permission. But when she would find it, her way of apologizing was to treat us to a Coke. And, oh, how she loved to drink Coke!

She wanted us to be serious about our studies, and thought anything unrelated to school work was the Devil’s work. One time, I was invited to become a model. Udsy was so angry, she threw a basin of water from her second floor window over the agents who came to take my photo. Naturally, that was the end of my budding modeling career.

Near-sighted in one eye, Udsy always wore glasses for as long as I can remember. Red lipstick was her trademark. She kept her shiny black hair short and hated it when white hair started to appear. She commissioned us to pick out her white hair with tweezers and would pay us a centavo for every three white hair we got out. She had her breasts removed when she was in her early twenties because of a cancer scare. She told me the surgeon made a mistake and took out her good breast, and when he realized his error, removed her other breast. She heard him talking about his mistake during her operation through the haze of her anesthesia. This caused her lifelong fear of doctors and medicine. Otherwise, she was in the pink of health for most of her life, all 5’4” and 98 lbs.

Udsy secretly admired my late husband, Mike, and would cut out his articles from different newspapers, save them in a brown envelope and give them to me each time I visited San Sebastian.

In her later years, Udsy became schizophrenic, thinking everyone was out to get her. It was truly sad seeing her fall into deep depression. She would physically hurt her caregivers, and so we decided to put her into a nursing home in Calamba run by nuns. We felt then that she and my aunt Julia would have better care there. We brought the family’s Christ the King statue to Calamba to watch over them. I was relieved though when my brother decided to bring them back home to San Sebastian. This was their home where they were happy.

Julia Alvaro Iturralde

On February 8, 2015 while vacationing in Rome. I received word from my mom that my father’s only remaining sibling, Julia Alvaro Iturralde had passed away. In a way, I was relieved. She had been ill for a very long time, her brilliant mind long gone, her once robust body withered and thin. She still managed a cherubic toothless smile whenever I would visit and remind her that I was Monette, her niece. Sometimes she would remember me. The last time, she did not, and it saddened me greatly. She asked why it was taking her parents long to fetch her.

Julia was born on October 7, 1931 to Jose Manalo Iturralde and Dominga Alvaro. The youngest in a brood of six, Julia or Jill as she was fondly called, was an extremely intelligent individual. She graduated Magna Cum Laude with an AB-BSE degree from Holy Ghost College, and finished two masteral programs: Master in Sociology from Ateneo University and Master of East Asian Studies from Radcliffe, where she enjoyed a scholarship. Jill held the deanship of the Liberal Arts Department of the College of the Holy Spirit for 23 years. She was also moderator of Action, Veritas and The Profile from 1964-67. A prolific poetess, Jill expressed her emotions in beautiful words.

My first recollection of Tita Jill (and later Dada Nings), as we fondly called her, was playing in my grandmother’s warm kitchen with a white porcelain tea set decorated with flowers that she had given me. I must have been less than three then. Pouring real milk tea in the tiny cups, she sat with me on the floor, and we pretended that we were having guests over. Sometimes, we would collect the moss in the garden, place them on the tiny plates and pretend it was salad. Other times, I got lucky and we actually ate food that had just been cooked in the kitchen.

When she came back from taking her masters at Radcliffe University, she brought home a huge walking doll for me. Oh, how I loved that doll with curly blonde hair! It was almost as tall as I was.

Tita Jill taught me how to pray before I slept: “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love entrusts me here. Ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide. And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord, my soul to take. Amen.”

Summers, when we were growing up were spent in that kitchen. She would teach us how to bake, decorate cakes, and then let us experiment in the kitchen. I remember crying when my cake didn’t rise because I had forgotten to put baking powder in the mix. My brothers and I would fight as to who would clean up the leftover fudge in the bowl.

I loved watching how she cooked, and she would let me be her little assistant, though I was not allowed to wield a knife. I was assigned to mixing food. Getting egg whites to stiffen up was the hardest task ever. “Whip it 100 times, Monette, and don’t lift the spatula up or the air would escape,” she would admonish me. I would try valiantly to soldier on even if my arms felt like they were about to fall off. Looking back, I realize now that she had nurtured my interest in food.

Dada Nings taught Asian Studies at the College of the Holy Spirit, and to drive home learning, she would host parties at our ancestral home in San Sebastian for her students. They would cook Asian dishes, and wear dresses from the different countries they were assigned. My personal favorite was her sukiyaki. I loved watching them prepare the food, and then perform Asian songs or dances after. Oh, that was a lot of fun!

And she made life fun for her nieces and nephews. On Holy Saturdays, she would herd us into the dining room, give each of us a brush, and we would paint dozens of eggs for the Easter Egg Hunt the next day. I guess she must have hidden the eggs in the garden while we slept because we had fun hunting for them after mass on Easter Day.

We would have our own version of Flores de Mayo. We would dress up as saints using her clothes and stack of ribbons and scarves, parade up and down the house, then have a raffle of little knickknacks that she would collect. Oh, and we were not the only ones who had fun dressing up under her guidance. Her students were also in on it. I remember one Marian festival where she had her students dress up as different versions of Mama Mary and stand up like statues around the garden by the CHS Mendiola chapel.

She was a consummate writer, poet and story teller. She wrote plays about the Old Testament which her students performed in school. She wrote poems for the school paper, the CHS alumnae newsletter, and later for the newsletter she and her sister Maria Luz put up. She penned a book entitled Family Treasures which revealed all of the Iturralde secret recipes, and which I use to this day. Her friends gathered some of her poems and published them together with pieces written by my other two aunts, Maria Luz and Sister Encarnacion.

Early on, she encouraged us to perform during parties at home (Actually, I think a better word would be mandated). We either had to sing, dance, or recite a poem to the guests who invariably were their fellow teachers and nuns from the College of the Holy Spirit.

She was a very kind soul, soft-spoken, and yet you knew you were in deep trouble if you ever crossed the line. When I was in first year college, a classmate from elementary asked if she could visit me at home on a Saturday. I had not seen her for some time and was excited to see her. She came to the house with her father who was an advertising executive. A popular soft drink brand was giving away a car to the lucky person who found the tansan (bottle cap) with the winning mark. Apparently, he was running the contest, and he told me that he would make sure I would win the car, but in return I would have to sell the car and split the proceeds with him. I was to let him know my decision on Monday.

Naturally, I was very much tempted. Since my father died when I was ten, we were hard up. The funds would come in handy so I could pursue my dream of studying law, buy things I’ve always wanted, give my family a more comfortable life. At that time, I was studying on scholarship. I discussed the options with my Tita Jill, who advised me of the importance of being true to the values of honesty and integrity. That night, she gave me two cards she had drawn. Depending on my decision, I was to open one of the cards. That weekend was excruciatingly difficult for me. I decided to turn down the offer, and opened the card. Here’s what was written:

“Dear Monette,

You lost. W-a-a-a-a-h… sob sob… Boo hoo… Boo hoo. Hikbe… Sniffle… Sniffle… 

But to me, after Monday, you are taller than a giraffe, taller than Empire State, taller than Mt. Everest.

You are one of us – born losers whose poverty is their (sic) our wealth.

At any rate, I’m so proud of you, so proud that I can treat you to a Shakeys pizza tonight!!!

Love,

Ninang

October 23, 1975″

And then, I opened the other card. It said simply:

“Dear Mongga,

Hooray!! Tsup!!!

Love,

Nings”

I knew then that she was very proud of me for making the right decision. That for me was the most beautiful gift she had ever given me. I treasure those two cards to this day.

I always wanted to study Fine Arts but we didn’t have the funds for this. But the summer after the softdrink incident, Tita Jill enrolled me in a summer class in painting at CHS. I was in heaven! The next summer, she enrolled me in theatre class, along with my brother Pepito.

She was always looking for ways to encourage our various interests. I remember the day the encyclopedia set she had purchased arrived. Pepito and I who were in grade school then were so excited, we spent the entire summer reading the encyclopedia from A to Z. We also played Scrabble and Monopoly with her. Tita Jill’s bed could be spotted a mile away because of the mountains of books and papers that littered it.

College studies was a different matter. Because I was on scholarship (which was the only way I could afford studying at CHS), I had to study very, very hard. It was made more difficult because my aunts worked at the school: Sr. Encarnacion taught Theology, Maria Luz headed the English Department, and Julia served as dean of Liberal Arts. They were stricter on me than anyone else, because they wanted to prove that I could make it on my own. They were thus ecstatic when I graduated with a Summa cum Laude.

Although she was the youngest sibling of my father, Tita Jill appeared to be the head of the family when it came to decision making. She was always protecting her older sister from harm. When Tita Jill and Tita Udsy (Maria Luz) were forced to retire from CHS, they started a newsletter to keep their minds busy. I suspect that Tita Jill used her retirement funds for this as Tita Udsy who had unceremoniously been removed as editor-in-chief of We, the Alumnae, had gone into deep depression. She wanted to make her sister happy. Tita Jill bought a computer and learned to use it.

Things got worse when my cousin Jose Rene and his mother Vicente died and Tita Jill was left to cope with the legal issues on inheritance. The stress was too much for her, and she suffered one stroke after the other, with complications from diabetes. She lost her eyesight, and this was a crushing blow to someone who was as widely read as her. As the years went by, she became less and less interested in life, and would just lie down, seeming to wait for her parents to come and fetch her. And now, they have finally and they are all reunited in their real home in heaven, with Christ.

Though I miss them terribly, I am happy that they are now at peace. I thank the Lord for the gift of having had them both as my aunts, and will always keep them in my heart. May they rest in God’s embrace forever.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Refreshed after the Balesin Spa experience.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Triptychs
Triptychs

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.

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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.

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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 DiwataSwimwear.com. 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.

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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.

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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.

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Sandugo

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 boyplakwatsa.com.  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, boyplakwatsa.com is quite popular with nigh over 48,000 followers.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Carambolla

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The children of Sitio Punta Tigbao, collecting candies brought by Mark Espinosa
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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.

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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.

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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.