Thursday, December 31, 2009


To say that Christmas is a big deal in the Philippines is an understatement. The malls have been decorated and the holiday tunes have been playing for months now. December was a month of parties, and for many there is travel to one’s home province. I haven’t really heard people talk about gifts, though that’s a part of it (at the office there were some little gifts exchanged). The devotions and prayers are prominent year-round, but they have escalated with the Christmas theme. There are also lots of random fireworks and gunshots this time of year (not a good thing).

Filipinos celebrate Christmas with a novena – for the nine days before Christmas, they rise early for 4:30 am mass. Christmas Eve itself is the big night, Noche Buena. Families go to midnight mass and then come home and have a big feast. Presents can be exchanged that night or the next day. People also text all of their friends and family on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day (which is another family day). There are Filipino-specific decorations – big, colorful stars and round balls made of abaca fiber, capiz-shell lights hanging from the trees.

Another tradition is the weekly flag ceremony; on the way to the Habitat build last month I passed the ceremony that was taking place at Pasig City Hall; one of the PCVs told me that every city, town and village has a flag ceremony every Monday morning at 7:30 am. I thought it would be interesting to go back some time, and this week was the time! I had the bonus of seeing City Hall all decorated for Christmas. Different groups of municipal workers stand in different spots – the city police here, the traffic enforcers there, the “green police” elsewhere, etc. While we were waiting, a marching band played Stevie Wonder tunes (unexpected) and “Nobody, nobody but you” (not sure if hearing it in marching-band version improved it). Then city officials came out (I was hoping to see the mayor, whose picture is everywhere, but he was on leave this week). They played the national anthem and raised the flag, while everyone saluted. Then there was some sort of oath that everyone took. And then there was a prayer. Then, members of the band took the stage to sing what sounded like a Pasig City anthem, and many of the workers sang along, full of emotion. There were some speeches, and then everyone went to work (including me!).

I’ll add that my travel last week was stress-free – no holiday mob at the airport, nobody confiscating my bottle of water, nobody caring that my sunscreen bottle was more than three ounces. I was already thinking about how unpleasant it is going to be back in the U.S. when I heard about the latest threat that was thwarted. Being frisked before you get on the plane? Hey, I get that every time I go to the Mega Mall or take the MRT!

An interesting side note, from the owner of Nuts Huts – he’s been in the business a while and he thinks travelers – even backpackers – aren’t as independent as they used to be. He said they want everything taken care of for them, and while he can arrange trips on Bohol, he’s not a travel agent for the rest of the Philippines. This echoes what the long-time Peace Corps Program Manager said about PCVs these days compared to years ago. If backpackers and Peace Corps Volunteers want everything handed to them, what does that say about the rest of society?

Another tradition here is that when a person celebrates a birthday, he or she treats everyone else. On Monday I’ll buy pizza for the office; earlier this week I treated some of my fellow PCRVs to dinner at California Pizza Kitchen. It was fun!

Oh – and Water Charity agreed to fund the smallest village in the Mindanao proposal, as a start. Check out Donations welcome!

My new Tagalog phrase of the week – Maligayang Pasko at Manigong Bagong Taon – Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! New Year’s is also marked with fireworks. Happy New Year, everyone!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tarsiers, the Chocolate Hills, and Nuts Huts

Bohol is the best place to view tarsiers, one of the world’s smallest primates (they'd fit in the palm of your hand). And the best place on Bohol to see them is at the Tarsier Sanctuary and Breeding Center. These 45-million-year-old primates have eyes that are bigger than their brains or stomachs, a rat-like tail twice as long as their bodies, and are totally carnivorous (they eat insects). One picture on display was split down the middle – half of the face of a tarsier, half Yoda. They are also nocturnal – which means they don’t do a lot during the day other than hang onto a tree and sleep (hm, sounds like me in the hammock). But that makes them easier to see and photograph! These creatures are endangered, due to habitat destruction and the illegal pet trade. Tarsiers are easily stressed when caged – their lifespan can shrink from 20 years to 12 months! – and when handled, their bones are easily broken. Amazing wildlife!

And then I went on to Nuts Huts, a tricycle, jeepney and boat ride away (well, you don’t have to take the boat, but then you have to walk 750 meters on a rough path and down 278 steps!); this was Kate’s recommendation and another unique place to stay. My boat ride on the Loboc River went past Nuts Huts at first for a bonus trip to a waterfall. I checked into my hut and went for a swim in the river, surrounded by mountains and palm trees. I had said I wouldn’t swim in any fresh water but I think they would have told me if it wasn’t safe!

The next morning I went on to the Chocolate Hills. The name alone might have been enough to pique my interest. Hearing that it was a unique geological formation might have been enough. But a unique geological formation called the Chocolate Hills, with a classic postcard shot used on many of the Philippine tourism office’s advertisements? Sign me up! It was a bus ride away and then a walk up to one of the hills, from the top of which you can see others all around. The formation is thought to have been caused by coral rising up and eroding down; there are 1268 mounds. They were given their name because of the brown color that the hills turn in the dry season; they were mostly green when I was there, but that’s okay. Since you were going to ask, the Bohol Bee Farm did sell hill-shaped chocolate truffles, and I had one.

That afternoon, I hiked along the river, though rice fields, and past houses into the town of Loboc, where I saw the second-oldest Spanish church in the Philippines. That night, I stayed up in the restaurant after lights-out to see the fireflies gather under the roof (there was an ad for a firefly cruise some ways out of town, and I thought about going, but it would have been difficult logistically – plus the owner said the fireflies were down this year because it wasn’t as wet as usual, due to El Nino – and also, there were irresistible hammocks here too).

Nuts Huts had some wonderful touches – CDs on the wall with painted country flags representing the nationalities of the guests currently staying (each day that I was there, flags of at least nine different countries were displayed!), a coconut-shell barefoot-reflexology massage walk that I took every time I went to or from the restaurant, an herbal steam sauna. Many people come thinking that they will stay overnight and end up staying for several days; truly a backpacker haven. But my favorite thing – maybe of the whole weekend – was swimming across the river and walking upstream on the dirt path (barefoot – another thing the health manual might take issue with…) towards the waterfall. Where the path ended, I jumped in and swam against the current – my own “endless pool.” I made some headway and passed the first waterfall but I couldn’t fight my way all the way to the second waterfall. Then I drifted for a while and, when the current weakened, swam back to the hotel!

In my idle moments I thought about what I would do if I ever came back to the Philippines to show it to a theoretical friend who might not have been able to visit me during these six months but wanted to go another time. Up to the Cordillera for sure – Baguio and maybe Sagada, Banaue and Batad or another rice terrace hike, and maybe San Juan for more surfing. Maybe a couple of spa days at The Farm! And a beach place. Until Bohol, I’d have leaned towards seeing something I hadn’t seen yet – Coron and El Nido, on Palawan, are supposed to be spectacular, with island-hopping and limestone outcroppings. Or Donsol, with whale sharks (and the better-known firefly cruise). But now I might consider Bohol, for these two special places to stay and to swim up that river again (there’s also horseback riding and bike riding from Nuts Huts, a long white sand beach that I didn’t get to, dolphin-watching, and more….).

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Bohol Bee Farm

The PCVs I got to know when I first got here gave me some good travel tips, and both Travis and Kate highly recommended Bohol, in the Visayas. So months ago, I made my plans to go there for the weekend (Christmas Eve was a holiday here, though it may not be one every year – it made for a four-day weekend, which was nice).

Travis had recommended the Bohol Bee Farm. It was a bit of a splurge for those on a PCV budget (i.e., the equivalent of $40 a night) and a wonderful place! This small organic farm has some delicious food – my favorite was the organic salad with edible flowers and honey-mustard dressing. It has some great products – I had to take home some of the pesto spread, honey spread and mango spread, plus some royal jelly moisturizer and papaya soap (they also gave me a little Christmas gift bag with some honey). And I found moscovado sugar! This makes me two-thirds of the way to the Dark, Bittersweet Chocolate recipe from Café by the Ruins, so I’m reprinting it here. I don’t have much hope for finding fresh carabao milk when I get home (in fact, I don’t think it’s that easy to get fresh cow milk!), but maybe store-bought heavy cream will do. I think tableas can be found in a Mexican grocery store. And moscovado sugar? Maybe it’s easy enough to find too! Here it is:

Dark, Bittersweet Chocolate
9 tableas unsweetened tablea chocolate
1 cup heavy carabao cream
¾ cup moscovado sugar
9-10 demitasses
Scrape chocolate into flakes
In heatproof bowl, mix with sugar
Bring cream to boiling point – that is, when it rises up and threatens to boil over
Immediately pour over powder
Tap bowl to settle the chocolate into the cream – let it sit for one minute
Using rubber spatula, slowly stir in circular motion, starting from the center and working out, until all chocolate is melted – 2 minutes
Make sure it is smooth
It can be kept for two weeks in the refrigerator or freezer
To use, warm amount needed in double boiler
As beverage, serve hot in demitasse

I had a couple of treatments at the Bohol Bee Farm, too, in their spa by the Bohol Sea. The evening I got there, a traditional hilot massage (I had been hoping to have one of these – nice, but I can’t tell you what made it different from a typical western massage), and the next morning, a scrub with honey, coconut and ginger. There wasn’t a beach (so no beach cleanup!) but there was a deck over the sea, and there was a pool. I spent an unusually short amount of time in the water – mainly because I found a hammock and, once there, I didn’t want to leave it! When it got too sunny, I moved from the hammock down to the deck and sat there for a while. And then I sat in a lounge chair by the spa. And then I went to a hammock chair – I read and napped and lived in the moment. My vacation to the north, while not frenzied, was quite active – this trip was more about relaxing and doing nothing! After dinner, I went down to see the stars – Orion is on his side here.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Cat's Tongues and Fancy Sweets

When I was in Baguio in September, I bought some cookies called Lenguas de Gato (cat’s tongues), a specialty of the region. Somehow (I don’t know why) I didn’t open the package until recently and they are yummy! So not only did I buy more this past weekend, but I also looked up a recipe. I’m ovenless here, but looking forward to making them.

Makes about 70 small cookies
Unsalted butter 8 tbsp
Confectioners sugar 3/4 cup
Salt pinch
Vanilla extracts 1/4 tsp
Lemon zest 1/8 tsp
All-purpose flour 3/4 cup
Whites from large eggs 2
Have all of the ingredients at room temperature before continuing.
The use of confectioner’s sugar maximizes the cookie spread and minimizes the amount of aeration in the cookie dough when mixing. It also gives the cookie a finer texture.
Special Equipment:
A pastry bag
A #11 or #12 round pastry tip (about 1/4-inch opening)
To Prepare Lenguas de Gato – “Cat’s Tongue” Cookies:
Preheat Oven 400ºF / 205ºC
Prepare two half-sheet pans or cookie sheets lined with parchment or silicone mats.
Mix - Using a rubber spatula, mix together the butter, sugar, salt, vanilla extract, and lemon zest until smooth.
Gently fold in half of the flour. Slowly mix in the egg whites followed by the rest of the flour. Continue mixing only until thoroughly incorporated.
Pipe - Put the cookie dough in a pastry bag fitted with a round pastry tip (about 1/4-inch opening). Pipe the dough onto the prepared pans in 2 1/2-inch lengths.
Space the piped dough at least 1 1/2 inches apart to allow for spread.
Bake - Bake at 400ºF / 205ºC for 6 to 8 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned and the middle is still pale.
Cool - Immediately transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool. The cookies will be pliable straight from the oven but will crisp within minutes.
Chocolate Lenguas de Gato Variation:
Omit the lemon zest and replace one-fifth of the flour with unsweetened cocoa powder.

While we were in the store buying the Lenguas de Gato, Julie noticed Alfajor cookies; her mother is Argentinean and her sister makes these cookies. So I bought some of those and they too are delicious! Web sites say they are South American but they can also be found in Baguio! The name is derived from Arabic (as I could have guessed – the archetypal cookie is from the Middle East and it made its way to Andalusian Spain) and it means fancy or great sweets. These seem more complicated to make (though Julie says it’s easy; when her sister makes them she buys the dulce de leche) but I am eager to give it a try!

For the Dulce de Leche Filling:
2 cups milk
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons brown sugar
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 stick (1 oz/28g) unsalted butter
For the Cookie Dough:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 stick (2 oz/56g) butter
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Few drops of rum (optional)
Pinch of grated lemon peel (optional)
For Garnish: (optional)
Confectioners' sugar
Dark chocolate, melted
Milk chocolate, melted
Prepare the Filling:
Boil the milk with the sugars, salt and baking soda. Let it cook for about 1 1/2 hours on a very low flame (if cooking on an electric stovetop, cook on low heat), stirring regularly. Cover the pot with plastic wrap and place pot inside a larger pot with boiling water. Cook for another 1 1/2 hours. The mixture should get sticky and become caramelized. Remove from heat, add butter and vanilla extract, stir and allow to cool.
Prepare the Cookie Dough:
Mix all the ingredients together to make a thick dough. If it is too dry, add some water. Refrigerate the dough for 2 hours. Remove and let stand to soften. Roll out dough to 1/8 of an inch thick and use a floured 2 to 2 1/2-inch cookie cutter to cut cookie dough into circles.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 C). Bake the cookies for about 8 to 10 minutes, until the tops are a very pale golden brown. Cool completely on wire racks. When ready to eat, spread dulce de leche cream between 2 cookie rounds. If desired, cover with melted chocolate or confectioner's sugar.
Cook's Tips:
If you opt to cover the cookies with chocolate, melt the dark chocolate and milk chocolate together on top of the stove (over very low heat) or in a microwave oven.
You may prepare the dulce de leche ahead of time and store, covered, in the refrigerator.
In place of the rum, try using rum extract or add an extra 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract to the cookie dough.
Recipe makes enough cookies to serve 4 people.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Some Pictures from Week Twenty-One

Habitat holiday party:

Manilenos holiday party:

La Union sunset:

The San Juan hotel strip - about as unpretentious as it gets:

Julie and I are ready to shoot the curl:

This may or may not be me, but that's what I looked like out there:

Dark, bittersweet chocolate at Cafe by the Ruins:

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Status, Santa and Surfing

When I was at the Peace Corps office I asked Milo, the Peace Corps Response Coordinator, for some facts and figures on the program so that I can incorporate those into the Third Goal presentation that I’ll start working on one of these days. I learned from the info he gave me that there are 29 Peace Corps Response Volunteers currently serving. And ten of them are here in the Philippines! I would have guessed that there were more elsewhere. Well, now I feel I am a part of an exclusive club! Not as exclusive as the one of men who have walked on the moon, but close! PCRVs are currently in ten countries; since the inception of the program in 1996, over 900 have served.

I thought I might start that presentation soon after giving the Morocco one, with Third Goal fresh in the mind, but work has been busy! I still haven’t really met with my supervisor about the status report I put together but I know what I would do next, which is a more formal marketing plan for the organization to use going forward, so I am working on that. Somewhere in my memory are the elements of a formal marketing plan, but it’s been a while, so it’s taking a while. My supervisor also gave me a small project – writing up a Power Point presentation that will be given to foundation that funded community centers. I’ve spent some work hours looking into the Katrina-area build that I’m hoping to organize for the spring while also working to set up more PCV builds here. A PCV I met at International Volunteer Day invited me to his site on work-related leave – he wants to do small business development with indigenous tribes – and I wrote up the leave request for that. But the most exciting thing is a breakthrough on the water system proposal for Mindanao. I wrote about it here a few posts ago, and someone from Water Charity ( found me! He searches blogs for PCV water projects and then he funds them! I passed his comment on to PCV groups in the Philippines and in Morocco and then it occurred to me to send him our proposal. One skype call later and he agreed to fund the water system for the smallest community immediately and to look for funding for the rest! When our project is on their web site I’ll post again so you, too, can donate to it! I’m thrilled.

We had a Christmas lunch at work last week, sponsored by the Board. The usual food – lumpia (spring rolls), pancit (noodles), fried chicken, buko (coconut)/gelatin dessert. And there were games – good, clean office fun, as Julie said. We had to identify the Christmas carol from pun-cartoons (I won a prize for that one). Teams had to guess the board member (one person had the name taped to his forehead so he couldn’t see it, and he asked yes-or-no questions), teams raced to unwrap Hershey’s kisses while wearing oven mitts, each board member chose an animal sound and popped up from behind a wall while team reps made the sounds (I tried to imagine the board of any other organization I have been involved with doing this), and then someone read a story while we passed presents around, and when the story ended, that’s what we got – as in a five-year-old birthday party, everyone ended up with a prize. It was really nice. I am on the silent side of a quiet office – everyone is usually at their desks working, so I don’t chat much with people here, but over the course of these months I’ve gotten to know most of the them at least a little and it’s a really nice group. I’ll miss them!

Last Wednesday night, Drew cooked Jamaican food for us (that’s where he served) – he ET’ed and this was his farewell dinner. He’s going to grad school starting in January; the original timing would have worked perfectly for him but once our departure was delayed, he knew he would be ETing. End of an era! As for me, I’m glad for the timing, now – more summer back home, less winter here, and it’s nice to experience the holidays here. Friday night there was another party at the guys’ place – combination birthday for Jonathan, final farewell for Drew, and holiday. It was fun but it went late! May Lynn, a regular PCV who I’ve become friendly with, stayed over, and we stayed up even later, exchanging pictures; she also gave me some music – both Filipino music and some of the overplayed music that I hear all the time and that will always remind me of my time here – Nobody, Nobody But You, Pokerface, and Jai Ho are probably the top three.

Going to bed late made it hard to get up early but it was worth it to be surfing on Saturday afternoon! Julie and I made it up to San Juan, La Union in time to surf for two hours before the sun set. I love it! It’s fun, and I’ve got a bit of a knack for it. It took a while to get into a rhythm, but then – with help from the same instructor – I rode lots of waves! We went back to the same place where I’d had the Bicol Express and had it again. And then we surfed again in the morning! She’s from California and she noted how nice it was to surf without a wet suit. I hadn’t thought of that! So now I’m wondering if I can go again before I leave the Philippines! I do have unscheduled time and can swing the travel – if Julie (and possibly the rest of the gang?) can go, I’m up for it! When am I going to have the chance again – especially in warm water and especially for the price (two-hour board and lesson, plus transport, for around $20!)?

Our bus trip up to San Juan featured several movies. They’re almost always action movies – I don’t think I have ever seen a romantic comedy on a bus. We endured “2012” and then became big Jackie Chan fans with “Rush Hour” and “Rush Hour 2.” I’m not much for pirated DVDs, but when I saw the Jackie Chan collection for sale, I bought it as a present for Julie. “Shanghai Noon” awaits! Our trip back to Manila featured a major detour to Baguio for late lunch/early dinner at Café by the Ruins. More mango shrimp curry and this time fresh strawberry juice – but of course the raison d’etre was the dark, bittersweet chocolate, and as far as I’m concerned, it was worth the detour!

I found the DVD in yet another mall; my reason for going there was an appointment with the Peace Corps-approved eye doctor. My glasses were scratched to the point where the lenses needed replacement, and as long as I’m getting that done I’m updating the prescription. I’m thinking of buying new frames at my own expense when I go back to pick them up – as a stranger mentioned in a blog comment long, long ago, glasses are MUCH cheaper here (I paid $714 last time in the US – the number sticks with me because of Babe Ruth – and here, the doctor showed me a nice pair of frames for $60). I needed to get back to Julie with the DVD so I didn’t want to spend the time looking and trying frames on, but next time I’ll allow time for it. It might be fun to have a new look!

I learned two new phrases – just in time! Maligayang Pasko (Merry Christmas) at (and) Manigong Bagong Taon (Happy New Year)!

I’ll close with a link to an article that talks about the sobering reality of politics here -

Friday, December 25, 2009

Month Four in Haiku (Better Late Than Never)

The Farm – what a treat!
Gourmet vegan, some treatments
Meditation too

A peaceful setting
Yoga, time with friend Mary
The Farm – com – p – h

Makati respite
Run for the River 5K
Greenhills for more pearls

Some email appeals
U-S-A-I-D and more
Funding proposals

Day for Veterans
‘Merican Cemetery
The Ambassador

H-F-H-I guests
Some sustainability?
Global Engagement

Calauan again
Marikina repair kits
Along the floodway

On to Mindoro!
Rescheduled due to Santi
Friends, food, sun, sand, swims!

The Habitat build
Peace Corps Volunteers and friends
Three days of hard work!

Gravel and sand moved
Concrete interlocking blocks
Painting the stair rails

Recreation day
Pristine forest at Subic
With Aeta guide

A long vacation
North – coast and then the mountains
The transition point

Vigan – old Spanish
UNESCO World Heritage
Colonial town

Then, still farther north
Lighthouse, windmills, beach
Malacanang north

San Juan, La Union
Afternoon reading, walks
Bicol Express – yum!

Let’s go surfing now!
Baguio – night in a hut
Bittersweet choc-late

On to Sagada
Cordillera hippie town
Some breathtaking views

Coffins- hanging, stacked
Thanksgiving with PCVs
Hike, shop, eat, relax

Bontoc stop – mus’eem
Ricefield rest – then bouncy ride
On to Banaue

Ifugao rice ter-
-races UNESCO World Site
Tasty fried rice, too

Trekking in Batad
Across the rice terraces
Maybe favorite day

Down to waterfall and back
I felt so at peace

One last plate of rice
And then a long trip back home
What a great country!

Build – nice PCVs
Trip pals – Mary, Julie, Bill
And Sagada – lots!

A wonderful month
People, places, things to do
Took four weeks to tell!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Some Pictures from Week Twenty

Another view of Shangri-La:

Our T-shirt:

The fruit vendor:


Offloading bags – and people! – from the boat:

Mt. Isarog (closer to where I was than Mayon is):

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Some Pictures from Week Nineteen

International Volunteer Day:

This is a critical habitat and ecotourism area!!!

All these people and we barely made a dent:

PCVs picking up:

Shangri-La Mall:

Mega Mall:

Milo and his peeps:

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Some More Pictures from Week Eighteen (Banaue and Batad)

Bontoc footbridge and rice field:

The 1000-peso view:

The scale of Banaue:

Ready to trek:

The view from the top:

Actual Ifugao hut:

The steepness:

The path:

The amphitheatre:

Tappia Waterfall:

Rice at the rice terraces:

Bulol and Buong:

Monday, December 21, 2009

Some Pictures from Week Eighteen (San Juan, Baguio, Sagada)

My afternoon spot:

Surf's up!

San Juan sunset:

Bicol Express:

Hut sweet hut:

Rice guard and me:

We're in the mountains now!

More scenery from the bus ride:

Thanksgiving morning:

Sagada town:

Echo Valley:

The start of the hike to the small waterfall:

Hosing myself off:

Rice terrace view:

Woodland path:

if you look closely in the middle towards the bottom, you can see hanging coffins:

Stacked coffins and me, for scale:

Museum artifacts:

Sagada Weaving (and other) treasures: