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A Walk Through History With the Ilocos Empanada

When visiting the Ilocos region, 500 kilometers north of Manila, the Philippines’ capital, you cannot help but notice these large hand-held orange pastries being sold along the streets of Ilocos Sur and Ilocos Norte. This “pastry” is called Ilocos empanada, one of the region’s most popular snacks, and one of the many icons from which the region has long been known.

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Empanadas from Ilocos Norte with their signature orange rice flour base

You will also quickly notice that there is a slight difference between the empanadas sold in Ilocos Sur (south) and Ilocos Norte (north). The reason for this may be the availability of resources in both districts. Ilocos Norte has a sizeable source for the achuete (atsuete/ annatto), extracted from the seed of the achiote tree (scientific name: Bixa orellana). Ilocos Sur, however, does not have much access to this natural resource.

Reflecting the colonial past

The Ilocos empanada reflects history itself, since it is inspired by the Spanish empanada. Empanada is a typical snack that originated from Spain and its former Latin American colonies. An empanada is made with wheat flour and stuffed with meat, carrots, corn, cheese, and/or peppers. There’s a lot of variation with the stuffings, depending on the ingredients available in the area.

Taking the empanada as Ilocos’ own

As is often the case with any cultural exchange, the Spanish empanada has been modified to fit the local area’s culture and traditions. Since rice, longanisa (ground pork and molded into sausage links), papaya, mung beans, and eggs are abundant in Ilocos, these ingredients are used for the local empanada. And since baking is not a traditional way of cooking in Ilocos, the empanadas are deep-fried rather than baked.

Making the Ilocos empanada is both an art and science, with many attesting to how difficult it is to make. It is such a sight to behold to see the Ilocos empanada artisans creating each empanada by hand, and producing every piece into precision.

The Ilocos empanada is indeed a jewel of the region. The making of an empanada is a craft on its own that must be passed from generation to generation to stay alive. When visiting Ilocos, be sure to give the empanada a try. And don’t forget to say “Dios ti agngina” (“Thank you” in the Ilokano language) to the manang (a respectful Ilokano way of addressing an old lady), manong (a respectful Ilokano way of addressing an old man), or ading (a respectful Ilokano way of addressing someone of the same age bracket) who made the empanada for you.

Where to try the Ilocos empanada 

The best places to try the Ilocos empanada are in Dap-ayan in Laoag, Ilocos Norte; Food Hall along Batac River, Ilocos Norte; and the Heritage District in Vigan, Ilocos Sur. Dap-ayan is open 24 hours, 7 days a week; while for Batac and Vigan, it’s open every day up to 10 PM, depending on the stall.

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Visiting Pamulaklakin Forest Trail in Subic

R and I decided to go for a nature trip on our fourth anniversary, and with some help from our friend Google, we ended up giving the Pamulaklakin Forest Trail a try.

What is the Pamulaklakin Forest Trail?

Named after the Pamulaklakin vine that grows in abundance in the area, the Pamulaklakin Forest Trail is one of the many routes that have been used for training by the US Army during the American Colonial Period, with the aetas as their teachers. The aetas taught them valuable lessons on how to survive in the jungle, and shared their vast knowledge of flora and fauna in the area. Up until today, the aetas take the lead in protecting the site and are sharing their expertise through tours organized in partnership with the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority.

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This is what you call organic shampoo!

We had a GREAT time doing the two-hour ecology tour, with our guide, Menmen, showing us a glimpse of the richness of the forest.

Here are some tips to help you organize your trip:

Official name: Pamulaklakin Forest Trail

Address:

How to get there: Via private vehicle, navigate towards Pamulaklakin Forest. There’s a large sign at the entrance with the name of the place, so it’s difficult to miss.

Before starting with your trail tour: You need to register at the jump-off point with the guide on duty. There is no mark that says “registration,” but it is pretty straightforward to find since there is just one table in front of the stores with a lady with a notebook.

Fees are as follows (as of March 2018):

  • PHP 100/person (entrance fee for sightseeing or picnic)
  • PHP 100/person (mini-jungle tour: goes for 30 minutes, inclusive of a local guide)
  • PHP 250/person (ecology tour: goes for 2-3 hours, inclusive of a local guide)

Important reminders:

  1. The trail is family and beginner-friendly, so do not worry about boulders and slippery slopes along the trail.
  2. Although there is a rich water source along the trail, it is still best to bring water that you know you are comfortable to drink.
  3. There is a small local store at the jump-off point where you can purchase water, sports drinks, soft drinks, chips, candies, and cookies.
  4. Toilets are not available along the trail. They are only available at the jump-off point.
  5. Please bring a plastic bag for your own trash. It’s unfortunate that many visitors leave their trash along the trails. As any responsible hiker would know, what you bring to the trail, you must also bring with you when you get back.
  6. Please don’t haggle with the local guides’ prices. Many guides have this as their sole source of income. If you’re doing budget travel, save on other areas of your trip, not on the guides’ fees.

Why you must consider a trip to Pamulaklakin Forest: The forest offers the best of all worlds: trails and the fresh stream that offer a sense of comfort, young and old trees that protect you from the heat, and humbling insights on how the aetas utilize and preserve what nature has to offer.

P.S. The keys to sustainable hikes are universal (lifted from The Leave No Trace Behind program):  plan ahead and prepare | travel and camp on durable surfaces | dispose of waste properly | leave what you find | minimize campfire impacts | respect wildlife | be considerate of other visitors | listen to your gut ❤

If you have other questions about this trip, do not hesitate to contact me 🙂

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Hiking Mt. Arayat in Pampanga

A little reflection…

I had the opportunity to hike Mt. Arayat for the first time last January 20, 2018. Since then, I’ve hiked it three more times (January 26, 31, and February 16). My brothers always ask me, “Why do you keep on going back?”

The answer to this question is simple: Because there is always something new to see, feel, taste, hear, and smell every time I visit.

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Wish I had this view for lunch every time.

I haven’t climbed many mountains (landform, not on a personal level, because if we talk about the latter I’ve come across so many of that haha!) in my 28 years of existence, and I’m glad I’ve discovered this connection this year. Before Mt. Arayat, I got to hike for a fair bit, yet because of my outlook back then, I didn’t get to appreciate these trips as I do now.

Interestingly, I find it more difficult to climb mountains these days compared to when I first started doing it in 2012. I still run regularly, but I guess it is gravity and poor nutrition taking over. However, even with this internal challenge, I look forward than ever before on taking these hikes. I guess in life if something clicks at the right time and space, then it will stick, no matter how much you want to push it against the puzzle.

Now, enough of me.

Let’s get down to business on how you can plan your trip! 🙂

Official name of mountain: Mt. Arayat

Address: Barangay Baño, Arayat, Pampanga

How to get there: Via private vehicle, navigate towards Mt. Arayat National Park, then go past the park’s entrance towards “Treetop.”

Before starting with your hike: You need to register at the jump-off point with the guides on duty.

Fees are as follows (as of March 2018):

  • PHP 30/person (environmental fee)
  • PHP 700 for up to 5 people for South Peak (local guide fee)
  • PHP 1,500 for up to 5 people for Pinnacle (local guide fee)
  • PHP 1,750 for up to 5 people for North Peak (local guide fee)

Important reminders:

  1. There is no water source at Mt. Arayat. You have to bring enough water to sustain your entire hike.
  2. It is going to be hot on the first hour of the hike because of Mt. Arayat’s open areas, so wearing a cap or hat, and light long sleeves or arm sleeves is a must.
  3. Toilets are not available along the trail. They are only available at the jump-off point.
  4. There is a small local store at the jump-off point where you can purchase water, Gatorade, chips, and candies.
  5. Please bring a plastic bag for your own trash. It’s unfortunate that many hikers leave their trash along the trails. As any responsible hiker would know, what you bring to the summit, you must also bring with you when you get back.
  6. Please don’t haggle with the local guides’ prices. Many guides have this as their sole source of income. If you’re doing budget travel, save on other areas of your trip, not on the guides’ fees.

Why you must consider a trip to Mt. Arayat: Mt. Arayat, a protected virgin forest, is home to thousands of flora and fauna species. If you are lucky, you will come across monkeys wading on the sides of the trail, or the Philippine Eagle’s majestic songs. What an experience!

P.S. The keys to sustainable hikes are universal (lifted from The Leave No Trace Behind program):  plan ahead and prepare | travel and camp on durable surfaces | dispose of waste properly | leave what you find | minimize campfire impacts | respect wildlife | be considerate of other visitors | listen to your gut ❤

If you have other questions about this trip, do not hesitate to contact me 🙂

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Why I Don’t Live With My Boyfriend

Today marks R and I’s fourth year together. We started off as a long-distance couple, then two years ago, he decided to move to the Philippines.

People are still scratching their heads as to why we don’t share a home. The question makes perfect sense since we travel and make major decisions together. So, why are we still living apart?

Why make this decision?

(Note: Let’s not talk about this issue with any religion in mind. This decision does not have anything to do with it.)

Before I go any further, let me tell you that I don’t mind my partner seeing my booger in the morning, or farting in front of him, or having to tell him that I need to spend quiet times alone. Let’s go beyond these surface-y stuff grounded on immaturity that magazine articles will tell you as to why couples choose to live apart.

It’s difficult to explain everything in speech. So, if you happen to be my relative or friend who keeps on bugging me as to why I made the decision, here are my reasons:

1. Establishing financial independence is important

Many people tell me that they choose to live with their partner to save money.

I find this reasoning very wrong on many accounts. For one, why would you have to rely on someone else to fill in the funding for your life? Secondly, why wouldn’t you want to reach a level of financial independence where you know you can stand on your own without someone backing you up?

Reaching that level is essential to me, and while I can say that R and I are now at this stage, we want to keep on saving until we are truly ready to share a home and to compromise on each other’s interests. For example, I like hiking, and R likes gaming. So, when we live together, R would have to agree to come on a hike with me, while I would have to agree with him purchasing gaming upgrades.

When I think about it, having these two interests together under one roof can be expensive. Instead of just thinking of myself, I also have to think of my partner, and then I have to learn to give, as well, to share with my partner’s interests. The art of giving and receiving can both be rewarding and costly emotionally, mentally, and financially, and so being sufficient with myself is important.

Right now, I am living with my parents, and I get to live alone when I’m on field assignments, or when I choose to spend some time alone elsewhere. R, on the other hand, is living with his grandparents and goes bird hunting (SAD!) and night hangouts with his uncles and cousins, and plays online games whenever he’s free from work. We call and message each other throughout the day, and meet every chance we get. We get to spend time with our families, and most of all, we get to save by living at home.

2. Why should I?

Why would I want to share my personal space with someone else this early in the relationship? Four years is anything but a number, and it shouldn’t have anything to do with how we, as a couple, should make a decision.

At this point, I don’t find an incentive to want to live with my boyfriend. Other than having lots of couple time, that’s only one aspect of the relationship, anyway. We’ve come to a mutual decision that while living apart, we will allow the other aspects of our relationship to grow.

Rairhey Date

R’s surprise dinner for our monthsary: complete with my favorite white wine and “brownout” candles!

Every chance we get, R and I make plans to see each other. It is like going on dates all the time. We dress up and strive to look good for each other on these dates. After four years, going out is still incredibly exciting!

3. I found my boyfriend complementing my personality

You know that common phrase where couples say, “We fit together like pieces of the puzzle?” It’s cheesy, yes, but I found that my boyfriend did just that. He complements my personality perfectly. When I am being my usual loner self, he would stand up and answer the phone for me. When he likes to splurge on things, I would remind him to be mindful. It makes perfect sense to live together with someone who’s a perfect fit for me, right?

Truth is, I got seriously scared when I realized this dynamic unfolding. It made me question, “Why?” I wanted to see for myself why and how R was complementing my personality, and what I can do to fill in those empty spots.

I know that every time R fits in my puzzle, I must look within as to why he has to do that job for me. Before I get to share the rest of my life with someone else, I must be sufficient within to do that.

There is no rush. Heck, if everything works out, we’re going to spend our future together, anyway. We will share a home every day, and every minute of our lives. So, why would I want to rush the process and show myself up for the next step prematurely?

Defining “maturity”

The thing with many people is they associate “maturity” with “living apart.” But isn’t it more immature to do something, thinking it’s okay, just because everyone else is doing it? I get to meet people who choose to live alone and are (super) proud of what they are doing. They have this air around them with a sort of invisible tag on their foreheads that say, “I’m better than you are.” I just find it funny. Why is there a need for anyone to prove something?

People have different reasons as to why they choose to live apart, but I think what sets apart the mature decision-makers is they know exactly why they want to do it, without finding the need to prove their decision.

Conclusion

Not living with my boyfriend does not make me love my partner any less. By staying apart, we are helping our relationship grow without having to resort to physicality to patch things up. Although sometimes we go to bed without sorting things out, we talk, talk, and talk until we again go through another learning curve.

I know I’m lucky to have a partner who is also more than willing to explore the “Why” with me. And I know I’m lucky that I– we– get to choose when and how we want to be in it for the long haul.

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Why It’s OK to Leave Your Camera Behind

Early this year, my friends and I went to Tingloy Island, Batangas for a two-day-one-night trip. We had the chance to catch up on our lives and to talk about our plans. And more than anything, we also spent time basking in the serenity of being away from the mainland.

It was quite a long trip, with a one-hour bus ride to Batangas Grand Terminal, a one-hour drive to Mabini Port, and a one-hour boat ride to Tingloy Island. It was quite a spur-of-the-moment trip where we planned our entire trip just one week before.

The unexpected hike

My friend J and I decided to walk around the area after lunch, while my friend M stayed along the beach to read a book.

From a view of a calm and waveless sea, we were greeted with rows of lush rice fields, freshly made bamboo huts, and Eurasian tree sparrows ready to dive for grains. It was such an awesome feeling to be caught in between the sea and these beautiful rice fields without having to compromise on which path to choose. We were there, in the middle of it all, allowing ourselves to enjoy the best of both worlds.

As we walked around the area, we decided to explore further afield and set our eyes on this gentle peak, Mt. Mag-asawang Bato (The Couple Rock Mountain). My friend J was wearing a dress and flip-flops, and I was wearing my swimwear and flip-flops, too.

I was a bit wary at first since we didn’t have a guide, having left all our things behind including our money and– gasp!– mobile phones. At this point, I have never experienced hiking without being ready, so this is a first. But then I thought, I am with my friend anyway…

Hiking without a working camera in tow

So, we hiked without anything else other than the clothes and flip-flops hugging our bodies, our water bottles, and my friend’s defective camera. At first, I felt incomplete without a camera in tow. It would have been nice to document our little adventure. How I wish I could take pictures of these views, and replayed these thoughts in my head over and over again.

But as we continued with our hike, I did my best to simply let go: to let go of my needless wants and self-doubts. Although it wasn’t easy, I chose to take a closer look at the views I see. I never thought it would be THAT difficult to remember something so beautiful. It was way easier to just let a camera capture things, rather than me making an effort to make sense of the moment.

Savoring the view

As we reached the first peak, I learned, for the very first time, to try to remember everything I’m seeing. I don’t have a pen and paper to guide me, nor a camera to capture the moment. I only have my sense of sight, smell, hearing, feeling, and taste to guide me.

Weeks after that camera-less hike, I could still picture in my head many memories of that hike, to that moment that we reached the first peak, and up until the time we reached our friend M back to the shore. Surprisingly, what initially felt like “nothing” now turned into “everything.”

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Mt. Mag-asawang Bato, one of Tingloy Island’s many iconic peaks

Looking back, I’m glad for that off-the-grid experience. Albeit short, it gave me an idea as to how liberating it feels to get face-to-face with nature. Although I cheated with bringing my water bottle, it was my first time to hike without a mobile phone and camera, and I intend to do it again.

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Why I Left My Online English Teaching Gig

I got accepted at Rarejob in November 2014, at a time where I realized I needed to spread out my risks in the midst of the recession. I had friends and relatives who got laid off from their jobs around this time, and so I wanted to have a “back up” in case I lose my job, too.

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Teaching English while cross-legged on the bed

I’ve enjoyed the flexibility of this online English teaching gig. I could punch in the hours depending on my availability, and I can have enough time to review lesson materials before the class. I had the chance to meet a range of students across different backgrounds, from teenagers who want to study abroad, to the elderly who enjoy working as volunteer tour guides, to professionals who are working in international environments. I am thankful for the opportunity to meet these people, albeit virtually.

Low pay, but…

The pay was low (during my time, it was at $2.50 per hour), but since it is an additional source of income, I find no reason to complain. I am not obligated in any way to follow a certain schedule, or to report to a supervisor at the end of every day. So, on weekends, instead of oversleeping or watching TV, I would log in to the Rarejob portal and teach through Skype. It was a nice way to spend some hours of my weekend, and I learn something about Japanese culture along the way, too.

Why I left

I left this online English teaching gig not because of the pay, but because of lack of trust within me. I am not a native English teacher, and I am not even close to being someone who can translate Filipino documents to English, so why am I here, teaching English?

I realized this when I was looking for a French teacher online. I found it funny to find non-French, Canadian, and African teachers who were offering their services, too. I even saw a Filipino who marketed herself as a Filipino, English, and French teacher, when her English wasn’t even that good (mine is not good, too, but hers had serious grammatical errors).

I thought, I will never want to be taught my target language by a non-native speaker. Although many non-native speakers can speak, write, and understand the language on an advanced level, I still find inconsistencies with how non-natives understand their second language. Just like me, I still have to check for my prepositions every so often, and I’m not that confident just yet in speaking English.

So, why would I bother getting a non-native teacher when I can get one who grew up using the language?

Reality in the age of political correctness

In this day, my stance may be deemed racist.

Everyone should have equal opportunities! If others can do it, we, in developing countries, can do it, too! Why should our race dictate what we can do?

And the discussion goes on and on and on.

But I’m just being real here. Why would I choose a non-native speaker for a language teacher, when I can get a native teacher even if I have to pay a bit more? And can I really trust the knowledge of someone who only knew how to use the language for the last two decades? Of course, I want to put where my money has its worth, so I will not think twice about learning French with someone who grew up speaking, writing, listening to, and understanding the language.

This one, though, is absurd: Students don’t trust lecturers who aren’t native speakers. I can only speak for language classes, and not for anything else.

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Why Work Gives Me a Sense of Purpose– And I Think It’s Kinda Wrong

Imagine a world without work.

Can you take it?

Can you see yourself being in one?

What do you do (for a living)?

On any party that I go to, the first thing that people ask after asking my name is, “What do you do?” It is not like a question of “What do you do?” but, in fact, of “What do you do for a living?” So, imagine people’s surprise when I told them I was unemployed a month after graduating from university.

Of course, there is this “saving face” sort of attitude ingrained in Filipino (and Asian) cultures; so, instead of asking me the question of “Why,” people would go to my parents instead. These inquisitive souls would then bugger my parents, and my mom and dad, unfortunately, had the sore role of wanting to be in my defense. “She is still job hunting,” was their usual answer. And I was being blatant with saying, “Yeah, I’m unemployed.” I did not want to explain myself because, really, what was there to explain about? I just got out of university, and it is unfortunate that I did not think of applying for jobs before I graduated.

Thankfully, after that one month of unemployment, I got a job– as a freelance writer. So, here we go again, people asking me the same question of “What do you do?” When I tell them I am a “freelance writer,” the reaction I get is even worse than telling them I am unemployed. Going freelance always has its share of misconceptions, and one of them is this being another way of saying that, indeed, you are unemployed.

Anyway, after five months of doing writing gigs on Upwork, from writing theses, online articles, and e-books, I got my first legit office-based job at IRRI. IRRI, with all its standards and good name, pulled me into its fame, too. All of a sudden, people stopped probing me and bugging my parents on the question of “What do you do?”

(Side note: But to be honest, I had the least stressful life during my time at IRRI. I had a lot of free time to go to the library, with permission and encouragement from my boss since there was not much work to do. In fact, I was more agitated during my freelance days.)

Impostors galore

I used to be so agitated when I have free days on a weekday, or when I have short work days. I used to feel useless to be sitting and reading when I know I should be working. Even though I usually finish my work before 5 pm, I will not go out, afraid that people will think of me as “unemployed.” I used to bother because I cared so much about others’ opinion. I didn’t want to be probed any longer, so I would rather wait until 5 pm when all working people are out so I can join in the pack. I thought I will not stand out so much.

Utterly stupid as I look at it in retrospect.

Work? What Work?

After all the hustle and bustle in finding flexible work, I am now happy to say that I got what I’ve always wanted: work that will not control my time, and the opportunity to choose what I want to do with my time. I only achieved this recently (to be exact, this January 22), when I got a better post in my current jobs. All my work is now deliverables-based, so I am not constrained by time to accomplish what I have to do.

Surprisingly, I now work even harder. I don’t want anything like this to pass my way, so the more I treasure and enjoy it while it lasts.

This schedule is still taking me a bit of getting used to since I never before had the chance to be in full control of my day. I would occasionally rummage through my list of tasks and do my work in advance. To be honest, I felt a bit iffy at the start to be having this much time in my hands. But the more I live my every day based on my own terms, the more I choose to let go of my fears and to just embrace everything in my way.

And what has this new schedule brought me? Weekday hikes, weekday birdwatching sessions, weekday running sessions, time to clean the house every day, and time to learn new skills. I haven’t felt this time-strapped than I’ve ever been, but now, it’s the sort of “busy” that I choose to be in. I put “busy” in open and close parentheses because I’ve always hated the word; but now, I want to use it because, well, I want people to leave me alone 😛

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Enjoying the sight of the super blue blood moon with a glass of wine. Thanks to R for the photo.

… So this is what it feels like when you feel like a kid again enjoying this new-found freedom!