Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Philippines and South Korea: brothers in peace and war

THE BEST WAY to have fun as a tourist is to plan and prepare. Doing both means you’ll have more time to enjoy your limited time as a tourist in another country, and will save you a lot of money.

It also means making an effort to know more about the country you’re visiting. That’s a lot easy these days. You can go to YouTube for videos; read about your destination on the Internet and use your Facebook account to connect with your friends who’ve visited the country.

When you plan and prepare your trip to South Korea, you’ll discover that the Philippines and South Korea share a very deep historical bond. The ties that bind the Philippines to South Korea are so strong we can consider these countries as brothers, or “hyeongje” in Hangul, the Korean language.

The Philippines is the older brother or “hyung” (“kuya” in Filipino) while South Korea is the younger brother or “dong saeng.” And why is this so, you might ask? Why is the Philippines “hyung” to South Korea, a country that is today one of the 15 richest nations in the world?

It’s because of historical facts that most Filipinos don’t know about even today. South Korea, or more specifically the Republic of Korea, came into existence only on August 15, 1948. The independent state of Korea was conquered by the Empire of Japan in 1910, and for the next 35 years was ruled by Japan with a brutality that shocked the world.

The formerly independent state of Korea was divided into two by the Allies: the northern portion was a communist entity called North Korea while the southern portion or South Korea was administered by the United Nations.

In September 1947, a proposal by the Philippines at the United Nations helped guarantee South Korea’s first general election that led directly to the creation of the Republic of Korea on August 15, 1948.

Six months later or on March 3, 1949, the Philippines became the first Asian state to open diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea. The Philippines was a “ninong” (godfather) to South Korea at its birth.

In a letter to President Elpidio Quirino, Syngman Rhee, first President of South Korea, said of the Philippines:

“As a nation which courageously and with high vision stood resolutely in the forefront of the international movement to re-establish the sovereignty resident in the people of Korea, your generous and forthright extension of recognition to Korea comes as a happy augury of cordial relationships of our two peoples.”

Fifteen months later or on June 25, 1950, communist North Korea launched a massive and surprise invasion of South Korea, igniting the Korean War. South Korea asked the world for aid and the Philippines immediately responded.

The Philippines rushed food, medical supplies, tanks and weapons to South Korea in the weeks after the communist invasion. On August 7, President Elpidio Quirino announced the decision to send Filipino soldiers to South Korea to save it from communist conquest.

The Philippines became the first Asian nation to send troops to defend South Korea, and the fourth member state of the United Nations to do so.

On September 19, 1950, less than three months after the start of the Korean War, the first Filipino warriors landed in Korea at the port city of Busan. The 10th Battalion Combat Team (BCT) was the first of five Filipino BCTs that would serve in Korea from 1950 to 1955 under the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea or PEFTOK.

In all, some 7,400 Filipino soldiers served in Korea. Of this total, 112 died in defense of South Korea; some 400 were wounded while 16 Filipinos remain missing-in-action until today. The Philippines paid a heavy price as “hyung” or “kuya” to South Korea, its “dong saeng.”

A history of the Philippines’ role in the Korean War is on the Internet at

Never forgotten
South Koreans of today have not forgotten the sacrifice Filipinos made for them during the Korean War. And they remain thankful for our courage and humanity that helped save their nation from communist conquest.

Remember this when you visit South Korea. Be proud to be Filipino in South Korea because there would be no South Korea today if the Philippines and 15 other United Nations’ countries hadn’t sent their soldiers to the Korean War.

I discovered this first-hand during a “Revisit” to South Korea in May 2012 along with five Filipino veterans of the Korean War and the children and grandchildren of other veterans.

A husband and wife in our group said they were walking down a street in downtown Seoul when an elderly Korean woman old enough to be a grandmother approached them. The Korean noticed the identification cards both wore around their neck that said “Korean War Veteran” and that bore a symbol of the National Flag.

“Filipino?” the Korean asked.

When they replied “Yes,” the Korean began bowing and thanking them for helping her country during the Korean War.

“She kept thanking and thanking us so much we were embarrassed,” said the wife.

“It was only then we began to understand the importance of what the Philippines did for Korea,” noted her husband.

Both of them agreed it felt very good to be a Filipino that day.

Korea is for Filipinos
South Korea is a wonderful country for tourists. That’s why it was visited by over eight million tourists in 2011, a number twice that of the Philippines’.

Tourists visit South Korea for two main reasons: shopping and culture. Filipinos will find both in Seoul. The combination of shopping and culture makes Seoul, a megacity of 10 million persons, Korea’s top tourist destination. Seoul is the best choice to start your visit to South Korea.  

The Korea Tourism Organization has a list of the top 10 tourist spots in South Korea. Three of these favorites are in Seoul. One other favorite is Jeju Island.

The top tourist destination in South Korea isn’t a place. It’s an activity that women love. Yes, it’s shopping and shopping is Korea’s Number One tourist draw.

The most popular shopping sites for tourists in Seoul are the Namdaemun Market in Jung-gu (or Jung District); Dongdaemun Market in Jongno-gu; Myeongdong (or Myeong Neighborhood in Jung-gu) and Insadong in Jongno-gu.

Shopping isn’t cheap in South Korea (as I and my travel buddies found out) but Filipinos are convinced that the high quality of Korean products is a good buy despite their upmarket cost. Remember that P1.00 is worth 26 Korean Won (as of mid-November 2012).

But since only very few banks and money changers will exchange our Peso for the Won, you’ll have to bring U.S. Dollars instead. The conversion rate is generally US$1.00 equals 1,000 Won. A can of Coke costs about 1,000 Won. Blouses at the Doota Fashion Mall in Dongdaemun sell at around 30,000 to 35,000 won.

Almost always at the top of the Filipina tourist’s shopping list in Seoul is “BB Cream,” the original Korean versions. Our lovely Korean tour guide said she uses it every day and revealed it’s the main reason why many Korean women seem to have such enviable, flawless skin.

The letters “BB” in BB Cream has many meanings: blemish balm, blemish base and even “beblesh balm.” Whatever the true meaning, BB Cream is incredibly popular in Korea, accounting for some 13% of the Korean cosmetics industry’s total sales.

The other two top tourist attractions in Seoul are cultural sites:  the Korean Folk Village and the Ancient Palaces. I’ve visited both these places and they gave me invaluable insights into Korea’s glorious imperial past.

The Korean Folk Village is a recreation of a Korean village of the Joseon Dynasty that ruled Korea from 1392 to 1897. There are some 260 traditional houses in the village, which was built to promote Korean culture and folk customs.

There are Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty in Seoul. My group visited the famous Gyeongbokgung Palace located in Jongno-gu. The palace is also known as Gyeongbokgung Palace or Gyeongbok Palace.

The magnificent palace is the main and largest palace of the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty. Today, it is also famous for the daily “Changing of the Royal Guards” ceremony that takes place at the Gwanghwamun and Heungnyemun plazas beginning 3:00 p.m.

The royal guards, or the “Wanggung Sumunjang,” had the important duty of protecting the Korean king. Posing with these stern and bearded guards is a favorite among tourists, some of whom try to make these unsmiling men smile but without success.

While in Seoul make it a point to visit and have your picture taken at two monuments that honor the Philippines’ fast friendship with South Korea.

The first is the War Memorial of Korea, a massive museum in Seoul’s Yongsan-gu district that memorializes the military history of Korea. Opened in 1994, the memorial building has six indoor exhibition rooms and an outdoor exhibition center displaying over 13,000 war memorabilia and military equipment.

Ascending the incline towards the memorial building first takes you to a hallway on whose walls are inscribed the names of the United Nations soldiers who died defending South Korea. The brass plaque for the Philippines has on it the names of the 112 Filipino soldiers who did not come home from the Korean War. Located at the second floor of the building is the hall housing the exhibit about the Korean War, including an exhibit about the Philippines’ role in the war.

The other monument is a gymnasium. The Jangchung Gymnasium in Jung-gu was built in 1963 by the Philippines for South Korea. The 7,000 seat gymnasium is South Korea’s first ever indoor sports arena. It was built during the administration of President Diosdado Macapagal as part of our economic aid to South Korea, then a third world economy.

That the Philippines could afford to send economic aid to South Korea in the 1960s underlined the Philippines’ status as Southeast Asia’s leading economic and military power and Asia’s second largest economy. Jangchung stands proud as a symbol of Filipino humanity. The 50th Anniversary of its construction takes place this year.

It was a venue for the taekwondo (a demonstration event introduced here) and judo competitions from Sept. 17 to 20 during the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Ironically, the South Korean who won the taekwondo flyweight gold medal defeated a Filipino for the title at Jangchung.

But the most moving monument to Filipino greatness and humanity is the “Monument Dedicated to the Philippine Armed Forces in the Korean War” located in Goyang City, which is a 20 minute drive to the north of Seoul.

It was unveiled on October 2, 1974 “. . . in memory of the members of the Philippine Armed Forces who fought to defend the security and freedom of the Republic of Korea.”

The monument, now painted a glistening black, stands 17 meters tall. It is dominated by the life-sized statues of three Filipino soldiers representing the men of PEFTOK. The soldiers stand before a central column whose relief illustrates Filipino culture. The relief at the monument’s 4.5 meter long base depicts 50 Koreans portraying their country’s struggle for freedom and peace.

Wonderful Jeju
For tourists who love nature and who want an exotic adventure outside of Seoul, however, a trip to Jeju Island or the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province in the Korea Strait off the coast of southern Korea is to be considered.

Jeju receives over six million tourists (mostly South Koreans) every year making it one of the most popular domestic tourist destinations. A semi-tropical island, Jeju is a tourist island much like Boracay. Its temperature is in the high 20s (Centigrade), almost similar to that of Boracay’s.

Jeju has its own version of Boracay’s world famous “White Beach.” The white sand at Jeju’s “Hyeopjae Beach” on the island’s northwest comes from the large amounts of crushed seashells mixed in with the sand. Boracay’s famous powdery white sand, on the other hand, is powdered coral and sand.

Also called the “Island of the Gods” and “Honeymoon Island” (for obvious reasons), Jeju was voted one of the World’s Seven Natural Wonders in 2011 along with the Philippines’ Underground River in Palawan. 

Jeju has the tallest mountain (Mount Halla or “Hallasan”) in Korea. Jeju is a volcanic island. The volcano exploded long ago, tearing off its top half. What remained was a curious oval-shaped island with fertile soil and one-of-a-kind natural wonders such as Mount Halla’s crater lake called “Baengnokdam.”

Among the unique and oddest attractions on Jeju are the many “dol hareubang” or stone grandfather statues carved from blocks of basalt. The statues represent gods wearing hats that protect the people of Jeju from demons. The dol hareubang are the symbol of Jeju Island.

Filipinos that visit South Korea are visiting the home of a good friend. The Philippines has proved its friendship by nurturing the Republic of Korea at its birth and helping save it from destruction during the Korean War.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Herbal medicine: the other half of healthcare in the Philippines

(Published in Enrich magazine, 2010)

FILIPINOS ARE AVID PATRONS of herbal medicine: they spend anywhere from P75-90 billion on herbal medicines annually, according to the government. That’s about half the total amount spent by Filipinos on medicine (both synthetic and natural) every year.

It’s a massive amount that indicates a huge pent up demand for herbal medicines, which have been a basic remedy in many Filipino homes since the time of their “lolos” and “lolas” mostly because they’re cheaper than synthetics. Today, some 60 legitimate manufacturers (mostly small and medium-scale Filipino companies), small independent producers, multinational companies and a growing list of importers (legitimate and otherwise) cater to this rise in demand for traditional medicine.

Herbal medicines are defined as those that use natural herbs and plants for the treatment or prevention of diseases and disorders, and for promoting good health. The penchant for herbals is not peculiar to Filipinos, however. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80% of the world's population presently uses herbal medicine as part of their primary health care. WHO also revealed that 25% of modern drugs used in the United States are derived from plants. Over 7,000 medical compounds in the modern pharmacopoeia also come from plants, while some 35,000 plant species are estimated to have medicinal value.

The Department of Health (DOH) classifies herbal medicines as either food or herbal supplements, emphasizing these are not meant as alternatives to synthetic pharmaceuticals. Hence, the disclaimer, “No Approved Therapeutic Claims,” all herbal medicines carry on their packaging. This government concern also explains its warnings to the public to always check whether the herbal products they buy are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and carry the FDA seal of approval.

Our government’s emphasis on product safety and efficacy is matched by the natural health products industry whose members have banded together as the Chamber of Herbal Industries of the Philippines, Inc. (CHIPI). A self-regulating industry group, CHIPI consists of 60 of the leading FDA-registered companies engaged in the research and development, production, domestic and export marketing of various natural health products including herbal medicine, food supplements, cosmetics and home care products.

Beginning in the 1990s, a renewed interest in traditional medicine has taken hold in the Philippines. The government recognizes the importance of traditional medicine in providing essential health care. It notes the practice of traditional medicine (passed on from generation to generation) has gained a deep significance in health delivery since most Filipinos still cannot afford expensive western medical treatment.

A legitimate industry
Lito Abelarde, CHIPI chairman, said herbal products registered with the FDA as herbal medicine or food supplements, like products of CHIPI members, are not advertised as "miraculous" or "cure-alls.” CHIPI has taken the position that advertising any herbal product as "miraculous" and with "cure-all" claims is improper, deceptive and against FDA regulations.

“All advertising copy of CHIPI member companies are closely scrutinized and pre-approved by the Advertising Standards Council (ASC) which strictly follows the guidelines of the FDA on allowable product claims. Members of CHIPI strictly follow CHIPI's Code of Ethics that includes truth in advertising,” he explained.

Abelarde said a few "bad eggs" that operate outside of proper industry practices have managed to escape FDA supervision, creating a bad image for the legitimate herbal companies and products that adhere to FDA regulations.

He noted the natural health products industry is a legitimate industry whose growth is due to, and is regulated by a law, the Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act (TAMA) of 1997. TAMA declares it a policy of the Philippines to improve the quality and delivery of health care services to Filipinos through the development of traditional and alternative health care, and its integration into the national health care delivery system. It also provides the legal framework that supports the natural health products industry.

TAMA or Republic Act No. 8423 created the Philippine Institute of Traditional and Alternative Health Care (PITAHC) to accelerate the development of traditional and alternative health care in the Philippines. PITAHC’s ex-officio chairman is Secretary of Health Dr. Esperanza Cabral.

Abelarde said CHIPI is encouraged that serious efforts are now being undertaken to align FDA regulations for natural health products with the new national health policy as established by TAMA. PITAHC recently commissioned a group of PhDs in Pharmacy belonging to the National Institute of Health of UP-Manila to act as its Technical Working Group in reviewing FDA regulations on natural and herbal health products. The group will also propose for PITAHC's approval a revised set of regulations in harmony with TAMA's objectives. 

“Hopefully once approved by PITAHC, the FDA will then adopt these revisions,” Abelarde said. He expects the proposed revisions will set in place new product categories and processes by which companies producing natural and herbal health products can validate their products' therapeutic values and be allowed to make appropriate therapeutic claims. 

This then will lead to the phasing out of the disclaimer," No Approved Therapeutic Claims," the FDA requires as mandatory in labels of all food supplement products. Abelarde noted this practice prevents companies from saying what their products are for and deprives the public of the adequate information needed to make informed decisions.

Approved herbal plants
It will help consumers to know that DOH advocates the use of 10 herbal plants that have passed its "Traditional Health Program.” DOH said these 10 herbs were rigorously tested and are clinically proven to have medicinal value in the relief and treatment of various aliments. You can use the acronym “TANAY BULBS” so you can easily remember the following 10 herbs:

Tsaang Gubat. Effective against diarrhea and stomach ache. Boil the leaves in water and let the patient drink it like a tea. Remember to cool and strain the decoction before drinking. Scientific name: Carmona retusa.

Akapulko. Anti-fungal treatment for ringworm, athlete’s foot, tinea flava and scabies. Scientific name: Cassia alata L. English name: ringworm bush. Other name: Bayas bayabasan.

Niyug-niyogan. Anti-helmintic (anti-parasite) whose seeds are effective in eliminating intestinal worms. Dosage depends on the age: 5-7 seeds for children and 8-10 seeds for adults. Not to be given to children under the age of 4, however. Scientific name: Quisqualis indica L. English name: Chinese honeysuckle.

Ampalaya. Treatment for diabetes (mild non-insulin dependent). Ampalaya leaves may be boiled or blanched, or steamed and eaten. Ampalaya in pill and tablet forms are also available. Scientific name: Mamordica charantia. English name: Bitter gourd, balsam pear or balsam apple.

Yerba Buena. Used to treat nausea and fainting (apply crushed leaves to nostrils), insect bites (apply juice to affected body part) and as an analgesic for aches and pains (use as a decoction).

Bawang. Known to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels in the blood. Crush a small piece and apply to an aching tooth. Scientific name: Allium sativum. English name: Garlic.

Ulasimang Bato. Used to lower uric acid, and useful for patients with rheumatism and gout. Prepared as a decoction. May also be eaten as a salad. Scientific name: Peperonica pellucida. Other name: Pansit pansitan.

Lagundi. Commonly used to treat asthma, cough and fever. May also be used as an aromatic bath for sick persons. Scientific name: Vitex negundo. English name: Five-leaved chaste tree.

Bayabas. Pounded leaves can be used to ease a toothache. A decoction made from boiling its leaves can be used as a mouthwash. Can also treat diarrhea and as an antiseptic disinfectant for cleaning wounds. Scientific name: Psidium guajava L. English name: Guava.

Sambong. Primarily for anti-edema and a diuretic (it increases the excretion of urine). Also known to prevent kidney stones. Scientific name: Blumea Balsifera; English name: Haliban/Camphor.

A word of caution: consult with a doctor knowledgeable in herbal medicine or Philippine medicinal plants before taking or mixing any herb with prescription and non-prescription drugs. Some herbal medicines can have adverse reaction when mixed with other drugs.

In the United States, most herbal remedies are regulated as dietary supplements. Manufacturers of products in this category are not required to prove the safety or efficacy of their product. The U.S. FDA, however, may withdraw a product from sale should it prove harmful. In the European Union, herbal medicines are regulated under the European Directive on Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Let it go, Mr. President. Let it go

(Published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, 7 Feb. 2015)

MR. PRESIDENT, do you remember Yul Brynner?

Of course, you recall one of Hollywood's biggest stars of the 1960s and 1970s. I guess your family’s seen "The King and I" and the classic cowboy Western, "The Magnificent Seven", both of which were Brynner's most famous movies. I guess you've also seen "Westworld", the 1973 sci-fi film where Brynner stole the show as a murderous android gunfighter.

And you'll certainly recall the distinctive trademark that made Brynner world famous and a standout among other male actors of his era: his shaven head. Brynner was the first world famous shaven movie star.

Well, Brynner shaved his head for his role as the Thai king Mongkut in the stage version of The King and I. He was so successful in this role, and became so well recognized because of his shaven pate, he decided never to re-grow his hair.

Photos of Brynner reveal strength of character and a powerful masculinity magnified by his shaven head.

When he had hair, however, Brynner looked far less masculine and uncomfortably like Vladimir Putin. Come to think of it, “Vlad the Mad” Putin would look a lot more fearsome if he were shaven.

Brynner, by the way, was born a Russian in Vladivostok to Russian parents but later became a naturalized American citizen.

Which Yul Brynner looks more masculine?

What I'm saying, Mr. President, is that change can be for the better. I realize you're very much your own man and you're content with your looks. But it won't hurt if you consider a change that might--might--be to your liking.

Why not take that long-delayed decision to shave-off your hair and do a Brynner?

I'm not saying you do it now. All I'm saying is that you seriously ponder this course of action. I'm certain you've thought of shaving before. I guess people who care about you have suggested the same thing.

We're both battling Mother Nature and there's no way we can beat her. Once you hit 60, your hair will also have to contend with another foe: Father Time. I guess you'll agree no one can beat both Mother Nature and Father Time.

Hair falls. That's a fact. The average guy loses about a hundred strands a day. The only thing with guys like us is our genes won't allow our bodies to produce enough hair to cover our losses.

If we were bankers, our hair would be a losing investment. And smart bankers know the smart move is to “cut their losses”.

I took the decision to shave a decade ago. Before this, I went through the same trials with my "crowning" glory as you're going through now. We've got the same male pattern baldness we don't want but which was handed down to us anyway by the paternal side of our families.

Genetics is a b****, I grant you that. We'd rather be hirsute but, again, it’s our genetics that are the problem.

But what convinced me to shed my thinning locks is the realization it's useless to hold on to something if there's nothing left to hold on to.

Mr. President, I've seen you up close many times. I was there when you inaugurated and toured the Museum of the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea or PEFTOK on March 29, 2012 at the Philippine Korean War Memorial Hall.

I would have wanted to talk to you since we are kindred spirits in a way. Our fathers were War Correspondents who knew each other and who wrote about the Korean War for their newspapers: The Manila Times (your dad) and The Evening News (my dad). We share that rare distinction of being "anakpeftok" or the sons of men that were in Korea during the Korean War.

I was there when you keynoted all the Integrity Summit conferences held at various venues in Metro Manila over the past four years. I've always been impressed by your steadfast commitment to integrity and honesty despite the manic ranting of your foes. It's this steadfastness that's one of your great strengths.

Pres. Benigno Simeon Aquino III

But can you shed this toughness just a bit to consider the advantages of surrendering gracefully to Mother Nature and Father Time?

Advantage 1: Shaving your head like Brynner, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Jordan et al will project two key attributes: strength and dominance. I wouldn't be wrong if I pointed out these men project an image of hyper masculinity.

A few years ago, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School conducted research on the advantages of being bald. All the tests conducted by the university showed the female participants found men with shaven heads more dominant than men with a full head of hair. These women also found shorn men 13 percent stronger than maned men.

On the other hand, the study discovered that men with thinning hair were seen as the least attractive and least powerful by these women. This is probably because women tend to associate men with thinning hair with "egghead" professors or scholars. You know, the guys some women deride as harmless.

Shaving your head will give you the best of both words: a perception of hyper masculinity and “eggheaded-ness”.

Yes, you'll say substance trumps form anytime. And that you’d rather be the real you instead of somebody else’s idea of you. I believe that, too.

But times have changed and you’re a powerful man. The word selfie means the hypernarcissism unleashed by smartphone cams compels a lot of people to value the gift wrapping more than the gift. And perception affects power, doesn't it?

Advantage 2: A shaven head shows you're badass and sexy at the same time. Most guys want to have more than what they've got. It's a guy thing like I want to be taller, irresistible to women and have a longer....

Every little bit helps in this game called romance. And there are young women who really, really love good-looking shaven men. No doubt about that.

A shaven head is cool. It's fashionable.  It's sexy.

Advantage 3: Having a shaven head makes you stand out. The shaven man is easy to spot in a room full of men with black hair.

This reminds one of Carlos P. Romulo's reaction to much taller American generals who kidded him for being a "shorty" (Romulo was 5 feet 3 inches tall).

Responding to this, Romulo told these men, "Gentlemen, when you say something like that, you make me feel like a dime among nickels".

For the shaven man, this retort would be, "Gentlemen, when you say something like that, you make me feel like a giant among midgets".

This statement isn't just hot air, mind you. Research shows a shaven head makes a man appear an inch taller.

Lesson: Disadvantages can be advantages in disguise.

Advantage 4: You're never going to have a bad hair day again, literally. And you might also have fewer bad days, figuratively.

Think about it. No moaning over falling hair. No dandruff soiling your immaculate business suit. No more frantically combing your surviving locks with your fingers after a slight breeze tosses them aloft like confetti.

No more trying to figure out if propecia is better than minoxidil for you. Or if you should consider the herbal option. Or listen to more sisterly advice.

Advantage 5. A shaven head will reveal the real you, Mr. President. An American academic who did a study on social perceptions about baldness said a shaven head "is nature's way of telling the rest of the world that you are a survivor".

He pointed out a shaven-head projects aggressiveness, competitiveness and shows a "willingness to stand against social norms".

The last trait is probably a good description of the part of your character that allows you to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Stubbornness can be a virtue in your profession.

You can do former President Fidel V. Ramos (also a PEFTOK veteran of the Korean War) one better by going the route he didn’t tread. A shaven FVR as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines would probably have changed history before the People Power Revolution.

“Tanggap ko na,” you answered when Vice Ganda asked you about your thinning hair at the start of this year. That's great news. Your views are changing.

I remember reading about you saying your hair problems were caused by stress. You're partly right but the scientific jury's still out on this one.

I urge you to shave, Mr. President, not because you're being forced to but because it's the natural thing to do.

Let it go, Mr. President. Let it go.

Friday, February 27, 2015

“Lakbay Norte 2010: Part 3"

Day 3 (Adventure Day): Sandboarding
By consensus, our day at the Ilocos Norte sand dunes was the best adventure gig in all of Lakbay Norte. Credit that to the newness of the sport: many of didn’t know sandboarding existed until we read about it in our itinerary. There was also the suggestion of danger about the sport. What happens if you fall off the board?

But, since most of my mates were in their 20s (that is, hot and “x-tremely” daring), the danger was the addiction. Dawn on Jan. 27 again found us at the sand dunes we zoomed through in 4x4s the night before. This morning, however, we headed straight for a towering sand dune.

We were met at the top by the guys who were trying to make sandboarding the latest x-treme sport in this country and Ilocos Norte the epicenter of sandboarding. It’s easy figuring out what sandboarding is: it’s surfing on sand. The tough part to sandboarding is mustering enough courage to hop onto a teeny strip of laminated wood, position yourself on the edge of a 20-foot tall sand dune and willingly plunge downwards. Visions of a broken neck dance in your head as you contemplate your immediate future.

Sandboarding appeared easier said than done until travel writer Ida Calumpang became the first to sandboard. She reached the bottom standing up and let out a loud rebel yell. A road went up from those of us left up on top. In the next three hours, more than half the group—and most of the girls—sandboarded. The consensus: nothing to it. It isn’t as scary as it looks and we should have sandboarded from a taller dune. That would have made it more exciting.

Travel writer Margie Francisco went gaga over sandboarding, and for that reason Ilocos Norte was her top destination at Lakbay Norte. “Ilocos Norte, for sure, takes the top spot in the list! I've been to Ilocos Norte before for a history class back in college and fell in love with the architecture of the buildings in the province,” she said.

“So going back to Ilocos Norte and finding something new and out of the ordinary to do is a really wonderful surprise. Who would have thought you can go to Paoay Sand Dunes, ride the 4x4 and try out sandboarding?”

Travel blogger Ferdz Decena also believes sandboarding was the outstanding adventure in Lakbay Norte. “I definitely enjoyed the Paoay sand dunes adventure. In terms or activities it’s really fun and the photographic landscape of the sand dunes early in the morning is stunning. The Cagayan Valley spelunking and river activities is also one of my faves since it's a mix of nature and extreme activities like caving, rappelling and kayaking.”

From our sandboarders and instructors, I gathered these helpful tips:

§  Sandboard at an angle and not straight down. Slicing through the sand diagonally ensures you pick up speed—which is what makes sandboarding fun. Plunging down in a straight line means sand accumulates in front of your board. That build-up will slow you down and ultimately stop you. We saw that happen more than once.

§  Keep your butt down and your knees bent. If you feel yourself falling over, simply sit down on the sand. That will stop the board and keep you safe. Put your weight on your rear foot to keep your balance. Putting your weight on your front foot will make you tumble.

§  There are other ways to sandboard apart from the “surfing style.” You can sit on the board, but that means you’ll drop straight down. No fun there. Or you can lie face down on the board. This’ll mean eating a lot of sand, however, and sand is definitely not a nutritious breakfast though it contains minerals.

§  If you’re wearing large sandals like Crocs or Crocs knock-offs, you can “sandalboard” down the dune, said one of the instructors. That takes a lot more guts, but nobody wanted to do that. I had on a pair and no, thank you. Not this time.

Those who want to try sandboarding when they’re in Ilocos Norte can contact these organizations:

  • LEAD Movement (Sandboarding and 4x4 adventure)
Glenn Guerero (0908) 8853669

  • Paoay Off-roaders and Adventure Group (4x4 adventure)
Gilbert Santos (0928) 9473518

Ilocos empanada
The empanada in Metro Manila is nothing like what they’ve got in Ilocos Norte. Up there it’s a meal in itself, and is also nutritious because it uses fruits, vegetables and bean sprouts. The “empanada de Metro Manila,” on the other hand, is hardened bread with cold, small pieces of meat filling. It doesn’t look delicious and most of the times I’ve tried it, it wasn’t.

Historic Batac is the home of Ilocos Norte’s version of the empanada. Batac empanada comes in many forms: ordinary (papaya, bean sprouts and egg); ordinary eggless (vegetables only); special (longganisa and egg), special eggless (longganisa without egg), special without mongo (everything except mongo), jumbo (with hot dog), double special (double longganisa and one egg), double egg (one longganisa and two eggs) and the double double (double the longganisa and egg). Best of all, Batac empanada is served hot off the wok.

It was the first time I’d eaten an empanada I liked at first bite. I started out with an ordinary empanada and finished that off in no time with a bottle of Coke. Feeling bold, I ordered a double special. I got halfway through this before I called it quits. The reason is because Batac empanada is huge: about twice the size of the cold, mass-produced versions we’re used to in Metro Manila.

The empanadas we had were lunch. That’s how “filling” they were. Wish we had them in The Metro. I guess they are in The Metro but I haven’t run into them yet. It was also fun watching the empanada made in front of you. That way you know the ingredients are fresh. Our videographer, Karlo de Leon (, considers empanada one of his favorite foods at Lakbay Norte. “My favorites . . .  Batac empanada just because it’s comfort food for me.”

Ivan Henares, one of Lakbay Norte’s organizers and an authority on tourism and ethnic cuisine, told us beforehand Batac empanada was a complete meal in itself and he was right. He’s also an authority on old churches. You can catch Ivan and learn from his experiences at

From Ilocos, our road took us to La Union and its famous beaches. I first got to visit the La Union shoreline in the 1980s and it looks like it had hardly changed. There are more resorts this time, however, but the beach I stood on looked like it never left the 80s.

We spent the next four hours watching waves hammer the metallic gray seashore and our girls taking quicky lessons on how to surf and survive. Back in the 80s girls wore tees and shorts when they took a swim in public. Our Lakbay girls—bright, assertive fashionistas—were surprisingly as modest as the Pinays of the 80s when it came to public exposure or lack of it. No bikinis here.

After slow cooking under an intense afternoon sun, we packed up and headed for Baguio, six hours away. We got to Baguio at about 10:00 pm, which is saying there isn’t much to see of the fabled Summer Capital at his ungodly hour. The royal welcome we got at the posh Baguio Manor Hotel, however, more than made up for this disappointment.

We had the hotel garden all to ourselves. The setting was romantic; the evening temperature probably that of chilled red wine and the magnificent buffet mostly European (the chef is Irish, which seems unique in itself). I miss Baguio’s wonderfully cool climate and God, I wish we had it in Metro Manila. That alone would make this crazy city life worthwhile. The Mayor of Baguio City, Peter Ray Bautista, recited a poem, Beautiful Baguio, to welcome us.

Too much red wine, even if you’re used to it, will make your head spin in no time and I found myself constantly wiping a silly smile off my face to appear sober. But it made the night’s sleep all the much better. As we headed towards our hotel room at the storied Baguio Country Club, I thought it ironic we were toasting under the sun just hours before, and now were rubbing our palms together to keep warm. “C’est la vie.”

My roommate this night was Anton Diaz (, a very popular travel blogger. Anton came to Lakbay to have fun and do business at the same time. After I stepped out of the shower, I found him on his notebook PC checking out his website, then on his Blackberry re-checking his business for the next day. He arranges tours throughout the country and banks on his immense travel experience and knowledge to give his guests a travel experience worth their money.

For this very well-traveled man, “. . . my most awesome (experience) was sandboarding in Paoay sand dunes because it was unique and exciting.” He also rated the Ilocos empanada as the best fare at Lakbay. “Ilocos Empanada. Sarap! You can't get the same taste here in Manila.”

Day 4: Baguio/Ambuklao
We were in Baguio because Baguio wanted to be known as something other than “The Summer Capital of the Philippines,” which is how elementary school text books consistently describe “The City of Pines.” The bright boys in Baguio’s tourism industry had decided to repackage Baguio as the jump-off point to adventure sites within an hour’s drive from the city.

We visited one of these new adventure sites, the Ambuklao Dam, on Jan. 28. The soon to be launched “Baguio Adventure Experience” will feature rappelling, kayaking, ultralights, all terrain vehicle (ATV) rides, nature treks and romantic lunches or dinners in exotic locations. Then it’s back to chilly Baguio to cool down after a hard day’s adventure. That’s the thinking behind Baguio’s repackaging.

Ida found the new Baguio Adventure Experience the second best of Lakbay after sandboarding. “Personally, I was impressed by the various adventure destinations that can be found in the north,” she noted. “I would recommend Paoay/Laoag for the 4x4 and sand boarding because it is something new and unique. My second recommended place to visit would be Baguio/Benguet for their adventure packages because they offer so much from kayaking to go-karting, mountain climbing, ATV, airsoft and even hang gliding! Even though we didn't get to experience all of these activities, I would love to go back and try them out.”

We left Baguio late afternoon and slept as our bus roared towards Lingayen City, Pangasinan and its famous Hundred Islands. We got to Lingayen at 10:00 pm but the city government was still wide awake and treated us to a tour of their renovated and imposing capitol building, which is also a tourism site. We had a midnight dinner and a few beers before calling it a night at the Islandia Hotel. Most of my mates, however, stayed up even later to party and, of course, karaoke/videoke!

Day 5: 123 Islands
The next morning saw us head for the world famous Hundred Islands National Park. This was my second time at Hundred Islands, the last over a decade ago. The tour and the onsite facilities were infinitely better this time around. And I’m glad safety is the major concern at the pier. The boats looked safe and sturdy although the freeboard of the one we took appeared too low for comfort. All of us wore life vests but these were the old Styrofoam-type.

The Hundred Islands are exactly 123 islands, of which only three are developed. The rest are off limits to tourists so you can’t plant a flag and claim an island as your own. That is past history. We stopped at two of these developed islands: Governor’s Island for photo ops and Quezon Island for lunch and snorkeling.

Over lunch, I got to talking to Melo Villareal, another famous travel blogger (, who also makes money in that new business called “mobile marketing.” He uses his mobile phones to “text blast” his client’s gigs or products to his enormous list of contacts or potential customers. His job is to create the all-important “buzz” that leads to sales. His job is as “viral” as it gets.

Our next major destination was Subic, Zambales, famous for its Duty Free shopping but now a new center for adventure tourism. It took us five hours to get to Subic. We first stopped by the quaint seaside town of Masinloc, however, to have a look at its famous San Andres Church made out of coral stone. An hour after checking into the White Rock Resort Hotel at 6:00 pm, we were off to Subic for an evening at the tree top zip line.

I’d always thought plunging downward suspended from a metal cable would be heart pounding fun. It would’ve, but the guys at Subic decided to send us down the zip line feet first—for safety reasons since it was now late evening. So, I plunged feet first down the zip line, watching the tops of papaya trees colored pale gray by the moonlight slide lazily beneath me. It wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped but it was still my first ride on a zip line.

But the evening’s videoke at White Rock was the wildest of Lakbay Norte. Our girls really went romantic, singing songs that told of love rewarded or gone terribly wrong. The stunning Sol Racelis, editor-in-chief of the travel magazine, Sidetrip, seemed to spend the evening holding on to the mike. Izah Morales, always lovely to behold, from the online edition of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, again took to the mike and was again her romantic self.

Fun-loving Ella Fortez of the Asian Traveler magazine was delightful in her selection of romantic and rock ballads. And lovely photo-journalist Monica Barretto ( of Smile Magazine, inflight magazine of Cebu Pacific, proved enchanting as a singer. While some of the guys did videoke, we left the singing mostly to the ladies, who were glad to oblige.

Day 6: Adventures closer to home
A trip to Subic by the sea wouldn’t be complete without a boat ride. The Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority arranged a one-hour boat ride across Subic Bay on one of their search and rescue boats, the M/V Redondo. After this exhilarating cruise, it was off to the neighboring province of Tarlac at around 1:00 pm. Breakfast and lunch at the Lighthouse Marina was superb.

The Tarlac “adventure” was the most serious part of Lakbay since it saw us visit the “Ninoy Aquino Museum” where we learned more about the heroic Ninoy Aquino. We departed for Pampanga late afternoon and checked into the Holiday Inn. We toured this famous hotel; had a fantastic and massive dinner at the nearby Red Crab restaurant (the red crabs were deliciously huge!) and got to know more about Pampanga and its culture at the Center for Kapampangan Studies at the Holy Angel University.

Highlight of this fast paced evening was our taste of the nightlife at San Fernando and partaking of the famous Camalig pizza. This pizza is known for its bewildering array of toppings. There’s pizza with chicharon/adobo/white cheese; pizza with salted eggs; pizza with dilis/white cheese and that eternal favorite, pepperoni pizza, among others.

And, as has been our practice since Day 1, we let our bloggers and photographers take as many pictures of the cuisine before we plunged headlong into a gastronomic feast. I called it our version of the grace before meals or “The Pictures before Meals.”

Day 7: Goodbye to adventure
The mood at breakfast was somewhat somber: this was our last day together and some of us had that wistful air about them. It had been a grand and great six days and I really didn’t want it to end just yet. But nobody bucks Father Time.

We spent the entire morning at the nearby “El Kabayo,” a convincing replica of a small town in the U.S. Wild West. What you have here is a main street flanked by a saloon, a stable, a sheriff’s office and all those quaint shops you see on old Western movies. The main draw at El Kabayo, however, is horseback riding and most of us rode the ponies halfway to our next destination, the Paradise Ranch.

The ranch was the final adventure in our fantastic seven-day odyssey. As we got to the ranch, we were greeted by busloads of “excursionistas” from high schools in Metro Manila and Pampanga. The ranch is famous as a nature preserve and one of its most delightful sights is the Butterfly Farm where hundreds of butterflies flit around in careless abandon. It’s nature at its cutest. A late lunch at the Oasis Hotel confirmed its reputation as an oasis for excellent international cuisine. A visit to the Lakeshore in Pampanga and its enormous man-made lake and to Robinson’s Starmall were our adieu to Lakbay Norte.

It wouldn’t have been a great adventure without great organizers. In this regard, I say “That was one hell of a great job” to Vince Araneta, Charisse Anne Fernandez. Michelle Liza Co and Anthony Hapa of NPVB; Grace Ayento and Frances Dionisio of Manila North Tollways Corporation and Nixon Batarao and Reynaldo Valdez of Victory Liner.

More than the many magnificent places we visited and the new adventures we experienced, many of us pointed to the friendships gained as the most precious possession they took home from Lakbay Norte.

“We had a very great group,” said travel blogger Nina Fuentes. “Each participant was passionate about traveling and equally passionate about life. What I'll remember most about my new friends is their gung ho attitude about every activity, their courage to try new things and their unwavering devotion to the videoke machine.”

For Ferdz, “It was a great group. Most are adventurous and enthusiastic. I think everyone gelled well.” This veteran traveler saw Northern Philippines as a “. . . different type of market as the north has something to offer that Boracay or Cam Sur don't have. If people are looking for heritage, caves and sand dunes adventure, the north has it.”

“Strangely enough, in spite of all the incredibly exciting and one of a kind experiences we had during the trip, the most memorable moments for me were our crazy karaoke nights,” said Ida. “These moments were precious to me because it was during these times that we all got to bond with each other the most.”

Karlo saw the whole trip “. . . as an unforgettable experience in itself. Having to join a bunch of people enjoying the north, sharing experiences, delightful or otherwise, for seven straight days. I think that is unforgettable enough. I think it’s because I like relating to people. Travel is about experiences and who you share it with is also important. Sometimes it’s not the journey, nor the destination, but the experience shared from journey to destination.”

“These people are definitely an adventurous bunch!” said Margie. “They're not afraid to try out new things. They go head on with whatever is in store for the trip. There was never a dull moment with them. I'm so lucky to have met these people who have made this trip so much better than I expected it to be.”

It’s about who you travel with. That’s what makes a great vacation—and great relationships.

(Published in Zest Air Inflight magazine, 2010)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

"Lakbay Norte 2010: Part 2"

Day 2: relationships
The frenzied pace of our first day at Cagayan set the tone for the entire Lakbay Norte tour. From then on, it was a race against time to meet tightly woven schedules so we could see many of North Luzon’s best tourist sites in just seven days.

Without time for proper introductions on the bus as it began its 1,800 km trek from Quezon City on Jan. 24, however, each of us was left to make new friends on his own. That we were either writers or photographers—kindred creative spirits—helped us morph from seatmates into mates quite quickly.

During this tour, Victory Liner bus no. 2121 (a MAN coach made in Germany with 900,000 km on its odometer) was our “motel” where we first rested after checking out all those North Luzon destinations. The toughness of this machine made me again appreciate why the world associates the phrase, “Made in Germany,” with high quality. The bus never failed us on the trip; the worst it encountered was a leaky oil line easily fixed. Its air conditioning was sub-arctic and that was a good thing during blistering afternoons.  

We made friends with one another during our “extra vehicular activity,” mainly over deliciously alien meals (think of huge and meaty red crabs, a lot of red crabs) or exploring out-of-this-world tourist sites such as a dry river bed outside Baguio with a romantic table for two—and a butler!

But the evening “Karaoke” sessions were my mates’ most cherished memories of Lakbay Norte as I found out later on. Without these crazy sing-alongs, our 1,800 km trek would probably have been intolerable. Surprisingly, our girls were the most avid “karaokers.” And strangely for these single young ladies in their 20s both scared of, and intrigued by men, love songs—very sad love songs—were their favorite fare.

Travel bloggers
The first real chance we got to know each other beyond the polite smile stage was at the Callao Caves along the Pinacanauan River in Cagayan during the afternoon of our first field day (Jan. 25). Our previous morning stop on this tour (the Basilica Minore of Our Lady of Piat) was more of a quietly religious rather than a boisterous lay experience.

Curiously, the first three persons I got to know were fellow travel writers from other airlines. Margie Francisco is editorial assistant for Seair Inflight Magazine of South East Asian Airlines (Seair). Ida Calumpang writes for Mabuhay, magazine of Philippine Airlines while Monica Barretto is a photojournalist for Smiles, the magazine of Cebu Pacific Airlines. These ladies were also among the most daring: they weren’t scared to try out “guy things” such as a new sport called “sandboarding.” And I never expected the competition to look this great.

The photographers among us had a field day at Callao since the site is visually striking. A digital picture here is, quite truly, worth more than a thousand digital words. Following our guided tour of the cave, I noticed our sole female professional photographer, Nina Fuentes, photographing her tiny Anime plastic doll named Sayuri against a backdrop of “The Cathedral,” the largest chamber at Callao.

Nina said she does this most everywhere she goes (it’s her “signature”) and Nina has been to a lot of places in the country, Asia and Australia. An inveterate tourist, Nina records her vast journeys on her blog at She describes herself as a “backpacker. blogger. babysitter.”

Nina goes by the Net alias “Evil Martian” or the “Evil One.” I never found out why she chose a name so diametrically opposite her real personality. Too polite to ask. Accompanying her on her many trips are her cute doll pals, among which are a cute Darth Vader, a non-menacing Star Wars’ Storm Trooper and Sabrina (another cute doll).

Callao also saw me make the acquaintance of that new breed of professional writer/photographer/adventurer/tourist/entrepreneur spawned by the Internet: the online travel blogger. Nina is one of these new media professionals. She and the other five other travel bloggers in our group (all men) had, among themselves, visited practically all the worthwhile tourist spots in this country.

Truly awesome for a group of people mostly in their 20s and 30s. And these bloggers make a living by arranging guided tours to those sites they’ve been to, offering photo seminars and creating buzz about places, events or people through mobile and online marketing.

A well traveled travel blogger is Estan Cabigas from Cebu.  His blog at shows the extent of his “conquest” of the Philippines: from a few places visited in his native Cebu and northern Mindanao in 1974, Estan’s newest map on his home page shows his having visited practically the entire country.

We first got to talk while watching a lovely Izah Morales, a reporter for, online edition of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, rappel from a height of about 20 feet at Callao. We jokingly remarked the girls seemed the braver of the species, an observation that would be confirmed in the coming days.

On his blog, which won as Best Travel Blog in the 2009 Philippine Blog Awards, Estan describes himself as “. . . an inveterate traveler” who “. . . enjoys the freedom that going to places entails, both the trip itself and the destination, reveling in the many things that the act of travel offers: the sounds, the sights, the people and the flavors. I’m more into going off the beaten path but am equally comfortable in tourist traps too.” It’s a pretty good description for someone who’s always a willing victim of the travel bug. His business is conducting photography seminars and he takes a lot of photos wherever he goes.

We were joined later on by another famous travel blogger, Ferdz Decena. His travel blog at is a mine of helpful information and photos about his never ending journeys. Like Estan, Ferdz came to Lakbay equipped with those four pieces of equipment essential to any pro travel blogger: a state-of-the-art digital SLR camera (Nikon, Canon or Minolta), a digital movie camera, a notebook or netbook computer with wireless Internet and a celphone or smartphone. Our bloggers lugged around this heavy gear so they could quickly update their blogs. Real time information builds click through readership at their blogs and our bloggers never stop feeding their readers’ appetite for information.

From Cagayan, we rushed to Ilocos Norte, hoping to make it by 3:00pm so we could experience first hand a new sport called sandboarding. This six-hour drive to Ilocos first saw us stop over at the famous Blue Lagoon at Pagudpud for lunch at the new Hannah’s Beach Resort. The cuisine at this refurbished resort was fantastic: giant lobster worth thousands of pesos in Metro Manila, steamed shrimp, dinengdeng and crunchy, deep fried bagnet, among other fare.

Screams in the night
We got to the Ilocos Norte Sand Dunes at Suba at around 6:00 pm. The light was fading fast and we were in unknown territory facing what could have been a terrifying first experience—in the dark! Yet, we bravely boarded four toughened 4x4 jeeps and roared towards the sand dunes, 10 minutes away.

Crowded at back of a blue and white 4x4 with me were Estan, Ferdz, Poch, Cha Fernandez and Michelle Co, two quite pretty ladies from NPVB, Lakbay’s organizers. And, as was to be expected, one of us, Ida in this case, did a Leo de Caprio, “I’m king of the world!” pose in the jeep ahead of us. Our jeep tore along a dirt road at 60km/h as it headed towards the dunes, trailing a monstrous dust cloud. I hadn’t eaten so much dirt in a very long time.

The girls started screaming their lungs off as our jeep plunged down one sand gully. We held on to the thick roll bar and its supports for dear life. The screams reached terror pitch when our jeep reached the top of a tall sand hill, then plunged almost vertically downward, still at speed. I thought to myself as the ground rose up to meet us: “Is sand as rock hard as water if you hit it at high speed?”

Fortunately, I never got to test this hypothesis as our driver steered us out of danger. The girls never stopped screaming and I knew that was a great way of easing tension. As we plunged down our second hill at speed, I decided to scream my lungs out, as well. To my surprise, the other guys with me started screaming, too. We were all laughing loud and nervously as the jeep screeched to a halt amid a spray of swirling sand. “I’m going to take a long, hot shower tonight,” I promised myself.

As we stopped, I could hear the screams of the girls in the three other jeeps. They were having the time of their lives. I looked out across the Laoag River, a glistening black ribbon beneath a brilliant Blue Moon. The race wasn’t that dangerous or else the drivers wouldn’t have taken us out on this evening joy ride. Since it was now almost pitch black, the bosses decided to continue this experience at 6:00 am the next morning. And the girls never stopped screaming as we roared along the dirt road back to the safety of Victory Liner bus no. 2121.

Poque Poque Pizza anyone?
The bus quickly took us to our next destination: the new Robinson’s Mall at Laoag City where we were serenaded by Ilocano folk songs (including “Pamulinawen”) and entertained by Ilocano folk dances. Then it was on to dinner at the nearby Saramsam Café for a taste of their famous Saramsam Pasta and other cuisine.

One customer favorite at the café is their curiously named “Poque Poque Pizza.” Poque Poque is an Ilocano dish made from eggplant. The flavor of a pizza dominated by natural foods such as eggplant, tomatoes and onions, however, takes some getting used to for persons more familiar with the oilier taste of Pizza Hut or Greenwich.

Saramsam Pasta, however, was the group’s favorite as best dish of the day. It’s basically pasta with a lot on it: shrimp, Parmesan cheese, diced green mango and peppers. Karlo de Leon, Lakbay’s official videographer and an instructor at the College of St. Benilde in Manila, became a Saramsam pasta fan. “The best food experience so far is Saramsam. The dishes were uniquely local and yet the flavors stood out,” he said.

Margie with her to-die-for legs went gaga over Poque Poque Pizza and Saramsam Pasta. “Definitely a must try when you get to Ilocos Norte! It's my first time to try it and these two dishes just made my palate long for a lot more pizza and pasta.”

Sad love songs
Poque Poque, Saramsam Pasta and all the other Saramsam dishes constituted a delicious first encounter with Ilocos Norte. What completed the great food, however, was Karaoke and our girls were first on the scene. I was surprised at the gusto with which our girls constantly attacked the mike. Surprisingly, Margie, Izah, Monica, Ida, Cha, Michelle, Ella Fortez (a writer for the magazine Asian Traveler) and Sol Racelis (Editor of the travel magazine, Sidetrip) chose to sing sad love songs. Whatever happened to light rock, MOR and disco?

It’s as if it were easier to sing about one’s personal pain in front of strangers who wouldn’t ask you why than in front of close friends and family who knew why. Or do Filipinas remain unrealistically romantic in this age of non-committal, two-timing men? Some of the men did sing, but it was definitely girl’s night out. The singing went on for hours and we had to pry the mike from the girls’ hands so we could head to the hotel at 1:30 am.

I did take that long, hot shower, and it was great seeing all that brown sand and dirt cascade off my soapy body into the metal floor drain. If there’s one thing I learned in all my other trips, it’s the therapeutic value of a hot shower. My arm and shoulders muscles kept complaining, however, but I knew a good night’s sleep and a paracetamol tablet would take care of that.

Our room at the new Mira de Polaris hotel at Laoag City had that “healthy” clean smell I always search for in strange hotel rooms. If a room “smells healthy” to me, it most always is and I can sleep well. My bunkmate for the night was Bong Bajo, a professional photographer for Sidetrip.

A handsome rake who could be mistaken for celebrity Ogie Alcasid, Bong was at Lakbay with Sol, his boss. The pro that he is, Bong cleaned his Canon, recharged its battery, took out his HP notebook and downloaded his photos before taking a shower. We talked quite a lot before calling it a night.