Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Baguio City: A Road Trip of Memories

Panagbenga Flower Festival Parade
Known as the Summer Capital of the Philippines, Baguio City has always been a regular destination for my family when I was growing up.  When we’ve had enough of the tropical climate humidity when summer sets in, we pack our sweaters and jackets then off to Baguio we go. Spending summer vacations once a year to escape the uncomfortable heat in Metro Manila to laze the time away enjoying the cool air and Baguio’s beautiful parks has been a norm for us, city folks.  The endless green rows of pine trees with its wonderful pine-scented air, surrounded by a colourful vista of thriving flowers, that have a difficult time surviving in the Manila heat, is an inspiration to artists and photographers who come here like a moth to a flame.
 There seems to be a traditional routine by Manila residents and other non-Baguio residents to do when reaching Baguio:  the activities include horseback riding, boating at Burnham park, visiting Camp John Hay (a former US army base), going to the market to bring home fresh vegetables and sturdy walis  or brooms, stopping by for strawberry and ube jam at Good Shepherd Convent before heading home.  For those who don’t know about Good Shepherd, (chances are you have never been to Baguio because that is a must-visit place when in Baguio), this place is famous for its home-made flavorful jams and this business is run by nuns who help provide jobs for out-of-school youths and tribal minorities residing in this mountain province. Because you know that your money is going to a good cause,  it feels good to buy a lot of jams for pasalubong  or take home gifts for relatives and friends back home aside from getting your own stash of these native sweets.
 When I graduated from College, I would hang out there more often with friends and have a great time meeting up with other group of friends in private parties.  Needless to say, I have fond memories of Bagiuo from my gradeschool years all the way to my yuppy years.  Who can forget the trail of provinces you pass by to get to this mountain top city: after Manila, you pass Bulacan, Pampanga, Tarlac, LaUnion, . . . then finally, after the tortuous zigzag trail for motion sickness-prone people like me, you reach heaven  in cool Baguio City!
It’s a five-hour trip, more or less, to get to Baguio from Metro Manila depending on the traffic so you might as well enjoy the trip going there by starting early around 6 to 8am.  There are buses that leave every hour so there is no need to worry if you do miss your target bus time.  An hour goes by so fast. Before you finally hop on your bus, make sure you drop by the comfort room because the next stop over will be around two hours.  So sit back and relax, enjoy your ipod music as you take in the wonderful vistas out your window on your way to Baguio.  There will be around two stop-overs before reaching your destination to have a meal or snack and stretch your legs: one in Pampanga and another one in LaUnion.

If you prefer to take your own vehicle, then why not cruise at your own pace to enjoy the moment.  If you have the luxury of time, why not spend an hour or two to explore each province you pass by, starting with Bulacan.  There you can buy the original and famous Bulacan sweets, visit a butterfly sanctuary at Pulilan, Bulacan, say a prayer at the Barasoain chruch or  visit the historical site where the first Philippine Republic was established after the 300-year Spanish rule in June 12, 1898 in Malolos, Bulacan. 

It is interesting to note that Bulacan is home to many Philippine heroes and Patriots such as Marcelo H. Del Pilar and his brother Gregorio del Pilar, famous writers Francisco Balagtas and Huseng Batute.  It is also the only province to produce the most number of national artists like Amado Hernandez, Virgilio Almario (both for literature), Francisco Santiago, Antonio Buenaventura (both for music), Honorato de la Rama (for theatre), and Jose Joya (for visual arts).  You can view their works at Hiyas ng Bulacan Museum at Malolos City.

The next province is Pampanga, known for its Kapampangan dishes, have lunch then drop by Clark Freeport Zone (formerly Clark Air Base) for some action and nightlife. You can opt to stay overnight in one of the hotels and go bar-hopping in Angeles City.  This tourist zone was formerly the biggest US air base in Asia which had to stop operations after the irreparable damage caused by the eruption of Mr. Pinatubo in 1990.  Now it is a tourist destination where they hold an annual international balloon festival and aeronatics exhibition every first week of February.

Tarlac is the hometown of former housewife turned Philippine President Corazon Aquino of the EDSA Revolution.  Her family own Hacienda Luisita which houses the Tarlac Industrial Park which boasts of an 18-hole championship golf course, shopping malls, world-class restaurants, hotels, residential homes, and a vast sugar plantation.  Within the complex is the Aquino Center and Museum.

You may also visit another museum which displays the priceless mementos of another icon in Philippine history, the Maria Clara Museum in Camiling. Leonora Rivera, the sweetheart of Philippine national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, is immortalized as the heroine Maria Clara in the novel of Rizal, Noli Me Tangere.

Since this province is considered midway to Baguio, travellers always make it a point to have a meal in the floating restaurant called Isdaan on the way back home from Baguio.  You can’t miss this place because it is along the way, and  there is always heavy traffic in the area.  Isdaan is usually packed on Sunday when families are coming down from Baguio on the last day of their trip before classes start for the kids. This family restaurant features colourful countless fishes, a plate-breaking  nook to release stress or a nasty temper, and a kiddie ride pulled by a ram around the resto for a fee. But because the bamboo floors are floating on water, kids have the option to wear life-jackets in case they may slip and fall.  So better not let your kids stroll around by themselves.

The last province before entering Baguio is La Union, where you can stay overnight to enjoy the beach before climbing up the mountain city. There are several beach resorts you can choose, some even boasts of surfing activities.

 So even if we’ve gone dozens of times to Baguio, it will always be a fun vacation.  Baguio is more  of a family place, but if you prefer a peaceful, quiet and relaxing time, then this is also the place to go.  Baguio can be whatever you want it to be.

The Art of Vegan Cuisine At its Wholeness

“From the farm to the table” sums up the idea that prevails at Alive. First time visitors will experience vegan dishes never seen or tasted before at this “rawvolutionary” restaurant in The Farm, so aptly called Alive, located at Lipa, Batangas. In the middle of the forest-like ambience of The Farm I discovered a quiet, unassuming shaded struc­ture conducive for rejuvenation and relaxation. This terraced structure is surrounded by greeneries and a small lake, offering privacy and peace of mind. An occasional visit from the resident peacock is not at all an intrusion as it’s clucking and flapping simply blends with the harmony of leaves rustling, birds chirping, and water splashing from the nearby water fountain. Its location in the center of The Farm already emphasizes the significance of its role in the whole “back to natural” program. Alive restaurant is the physical nutrition aspect of The Farm lifestyle, where every­thing is served, fresh, natural, and well, alive.
 Plant energy
Starting the day with the right kind of food to feel good and energized makes a lot of sense to me.  I cannot argue that my food selection will determine the amount of energy I will have for the day, so it only makes sense to be wise about my choices. Fortunately, at Alive, dishes are prepared carefully and thoughtfully with maximum nutrition in mind. Every meal is special, nothing is regular. The menu changes every day – to be more specific-- every meal. Freshness determines the amount of nutrition in a single produce. Being alive, plants mature every minute and so the amount of energy it can provide varies too, especially depending on the time it is har­vested, prepared, and served on the table. The aim of Alive is to make sure the time to accomplish all these steps is minimized to preserve the nutrition value of each dish until it is finally presented to the happy and hungry recipient.  
Cream cheese made from cashew nuts, cereals made from dehydrated and sweetened coconut, spicy bacon from coconut slivers, burger and pate made from lentils – the menu intrigued me. The jams, made from mashed fruit and honey, especially the lusciously rich mango, makes me adamant about not going back to the unnaturally processed regular jams again.
The granola with nut milk is something to rave about as well. I would have gobbled up this tasty treat without regard to nutri­tion anyway even if I hadn’t known it was made from sweetened dehydrated coconut with almond nuts, walnuts, pine nuts, and raisins then infused with nut milk.  That was just breakfast. Lunch and dinner come as set meals with a choice on the main course. Lunch was divine, starting with an Asian crab cake appetizer with cilantro mayonnaise and tomato green mango tartar quickly followed by a Thai tomato soup with cilantro and a crispy vegetable salad with almond butter sauce. For the main course, I was given a choice between Vietnamese pho and potato crusted tofu cutlet on jungle curry. After a moment’s agony, I decided to sample the flavors of Hanoi. What looked like noodles in the Vietnamese Pho were actually coconut slivers. It made me think more highly of the coconut as a wonder fruit, being so versatile as an alternative to noodles, bacon, cereal and more. The refreshing meal was topped off with a mango and chocolate sundae with lemongrass sauce.

I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t find coffee in themenu. Alive does not believe in caffeine fixes because of its obvious not-too-healthy properties. The chef explains that taking coffee speeds up the adrenalin unnaturally thus, it also drains you quickly after. For the caffeine junkies, fear not. Alive seeks not only to nurture but to please. Coffee is served on special request for those who absolutely cannot do without.
The Energizer, Detox Delight, Sunrise, Mediterranean, and Continental are breakfast selections that include a combination of fresh fruits with homemade yoghurt, wheat grass shot, the chef’s signature smoothie, fruit or green juice, cereal bowl with granola and nut milk, home made breads with jam, coconut but­ter, cashew cream cheese, open-face cheese or pate sandwiches, corn scramble with coconut bacon, and everything that is good and nutritious.
Green chef
organic vegetable garden
Good and nutritious means choosing the best possible ingredi­ent. “Good nutrition and health is based on whole food cuisine—which means everything in its natural state with as less process as possible,” says Chef Felix Schoener. “Instead of white rice, we use brown rice. Instead of white bread, whole wheat bread. Instead of apple juice, fresh apples. Instead of olive oil, olives. Instead of white sugar, we use muscovado, honey or natural sweeteners like sweet fruits, dates and the like. The idea is to look for the best choices. In the end, it is really about quality.”
Schoener is one of a few referred to as a “green chef,” a certi­fied Whole Food chef in Germany and Raw Living Food chef in the United States. The minutest details like the seasonings are not taken for granted in his natural living advocacy. The salt he uses, Himalayan crystal salt, is purchased from a less polluted area like the mountains of the Himalayas. “Every ingredient is carefully selected and scrutinized to see if it is helpful to the body. Since it is still a cuisine, we make sure it tastes good as well. It has differ­ent textures, and it satisfies the need to be creative. Instead of be­ing a traditional cuisine, we are more of an innovative cuisine.”
Grass gastronomy
The mere idea of grass for a meal inspiration seems unappetiz­ing, I know. That’s because we are used to fully cooked meals with all the seasonings within reach. When I prodded about his non-traditional way of preparing dishes that are raw or cooked at very low heat, Chef Schoener explains that in doing so, they are actually preserving the efficacy of vitamins, minerals and en­zymes in these plants that are essential to health.
“We are using different techniques in preparing raw living food so that it will still be close to its natural taste without tast­ing raw. We believe that the product in its natural state, like an apple or orange, has the highest nutrient value. When something is done with it (like baking or boiling), the value goes down. You just can’t improve on what nature has to offer. So in its natural state, it has the most vitamins and minerals, the most absorbable protein, and the most enzymes.”  Listening to him passionately speak of the benefits of going green, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this lifestyle towards natural and quality living could be sustainable to the general popu­lation considering the prices involved.
Chef Schoener believes that eating whole foods is the most sus­tainable diet there is because it’s the natural way, but we went away from this. He reminds us that our great, great grandparents used to grow their own malunggay and kangkong then eat them cooked with coconut milk. He concludes that we need to go back to our roots. According to the chef, it is not complicated to maintain such a diet. “In any country, you can eat whole foods – just go to the market and buy fresh fruits and vegetables and eat them fresh as much as possible.”
After a trip to this isolated inner sanctum of Lipa City, I couldn’t help but reflect on how I take my own health for granted. External everyday pressure and stress that leads to abuse of the body goes unnoticed and unchecked until someone points it out. For me, the message is clear. I should start scrutinizing what I put inside my body and slowly wean out of chicharon bulaklak, crispy pata, and lechon. This “wake up call” to consciously start making changes for a healthier life full of energy and vigor or face certain death sooner, both physically and spiritually, is something I will not take lightly. In the end, it’s really a choice, the choice to be alive.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Farm: Organic Cuisine here, and Spa Therapy there . . .

Okay, so this farm is not even remotely close to Old Mcdonald’s: No pigs, cows, dogs, or cats. The only sounds you will hear will be leaves rustling, birds chirping and water splashing against an overall silence. Peaceful and relaxing in its quiet, landscaped beauty of greenery, The Farm is the grand result of a perfect collaboration between God’s natural creation and man’s artistry.

The three-hour trip by bus was all worth the effort when after leaving the polluted city with stressful, endless traffic, I would feast my eyes on a scenery reminiscent of descriptions of Eden. The journey of anticipation began after the bus trip, when the shuttle picked me up from the station and drove me along a long, quiet, narrow road bordered by trees. For 15 minutes, the shuttle felt like it was taking me deep inside the forest. All there was to see were trees and more trees, no other vehicle passed our way. I felt like I was entering a mystical forest. My imagination started to go on active mode as I pictured fairies, gnomes, and centaurs about to stop me on the road and take me deeper into a magical forest.

The Healing Power of Nature
Finally I reached the resort safe and sound. No magical beings encountered. I was honored instead with a warm reception by a blonde, gentle-speaking fair lady of the farm who turned out to be the General Manager, Ms. Tania Hofer. I was offered a moist towel and a refreshment of buko juice upon alighting from the shuttle.

She briefed me on the philosophy behind The Farm’s existence and what to expect during my stay. We would start with a visit to the medicine man for a chat and a Live Blood Analysis--- one of the unique highlights of The Farm experience.

We proceeded to meet with Dr. Rounville Bardonado who explained the medical aspect of the programs offered at The Farm, and who also performed the Live Blood Analysis ritual.

A Drop of Blood Can Tell One’s History
Despite fearing the needle, we decided to brave the Live Blood Analysis for curiosity’s sake. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the needle prick was quick and painless. I felt silly for even hesitating over an itty bitty needle. The whole process just took all of five minutes. After extraction, the blood drop was magnified and presented in the computer screen. It was interesting to see my very own blood cells like animated round balls moving about. There were some irregular, star-shaped cells that I was told were due to environmental stress, diet and lack of Vitamin B.

An observation I have to point out was that hardly any one working there used perfume. It was later explained by the doctor that aside from restricting food intake to whole, natural vegetation even external applications like perfumes, all of which have chemicals, were avoided too. That’s when it hit me what they were advocating was a major lifestyle change. Can you imagine yourself not using any fragrance at all, even in your soaps and colognes, or avoiding make up altogether because of its chemical content? I’m sure it doesn’t just end there. It is no doubt an ideal practice, but a difficult one for perfume-lovers like me. Most women, and some men, I’m sure would not be able to give up their cosmetics totally. Aside from perfumes, the doctor explained that even pesticides are frowned upon for use on vegetable gardens.

Colon cleansing
Until the good doctor discussed about the colon, I wasn’t aware it was even there, much less, given it any thought or importance. So it was newsflash to me when he explained its significance in the whole inner cleansing process. It takes 4 to 6 hours of digestion before food is passed on to the small intestines, where nutrients are absorbed, then it moves to the colons to be eliminated. The colon, he points out, is more than just a major waste area. It is also where “prana” is absorbed. Prana, a terminology from Aryuveda is also the “chi” in Chinese and the life force or negative ions in western terminology. Every living thing has energy or an aura, including the plants we eat. Are you still with me?

“The increasing incidence of colon cancer is linked to our diet and constipation. The colon suffers the most from accumulated toxins.” Dr. Bardonado also informs us that “We start to decay from inside particularly in the colon area. So if our diet has a lot of toxins and bacteria then we are absorbing poison. We can feel it in the form of headaches, dizziness, or low energy level. To regain our health, we need to clean the colon area first. The body is constantly exposed to toxins everyday through food, air, water, and other chemicals. We accumulate toxins faster than we eliminate them. Detox means clearing of the toxins from our body. This can be accomplished in twenty one days instead of only 7 days of treatment.” He recommends that we detox on a regular basis to maintain good health.

Purely Vegan Meals
I got a taste of how a vegetarian’s life is like. No animal protein, no dairy, no eggs as only natural, unadulterated dishes were served, raw or warm at Alive. The Farm’s only restaurant uses vegetables and herbs grown organically in its backyard garden and served dehydrated instead of being cooked so as not to destroy the nutritional properties and enzymes of the foods. The whole health and nutrition philosophy of The Farm lifestyle was inspired by Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, who said: “Let food by thy medicine and let medicine by thy food.”

Gardens, Lakes, Pools, Spa, and a 300 year-old Mango Tree
The stroll around the 9 hectare developed area of the Farm was refreshing and calming as we passed its beautifully landscaped grounds and water features. Our first stop was in a romantic garden that had a 300-year old Mango tree providing shade. We were told this venue had witnessed many wedding receptions already with its breezy location and dreamy nightlights. We passed a large pond with a fountain at the center where three white ducks were about to take a swim, oblivious to anybody walking by.

After walking by several meditation areas, we stopped at the Master Villa named Rempe, after the owner, where guests have a great view of Mt. Malarayat from the living room and outdoor sitting room. It also has its own heated pool.

The Jungle Gym, located across the Spa therapy area called Salus per Aqua, is surrounded by glass walls so guests have a pleasant view while working out. After walking through narrow foot paths that twisted and turned, we found ourselves in the waterfall pool. Guests can request to have this pool heated if they wanted to. A few more twist and turns, then we were in the secluded library that offers a lounge chair and a bench fronting a mini-lake for peaceful reading.

Viewing the Sulu Terrace Suites, which is modeled after the Ifugao huts, followed. This quaint two-level structure with a sitting room and twin beds at the second floor, has an outdoor lounge and bathroom located in the lower level. The tour wrapped up with a visit to the main meditation area for yoga sessions, organic garden and finally, the south pool. All areas, I must say, were a visual treat, picture perfect with its landscaped setting.

“Glass-Sucking-Toxins” Therapy
The finale of my stay was a massage therapy at the Salus per Aqua. From the reception, I could see the infinity pool against a scenic backdrop of verdant mountains and blue skies. The clear, blue pool, surrounded by wooden deck floors and lounge chairs, was so inviting that I was getting impatient waiting for my scheduled massage. The cabanas on the side looked so cool and relaxing with its white covered mats and white curtains flowing with the wind, I wanted to just jump in and sleep.

At the Reception, they politely and confidently recommended the ideal therapy for my back pains. I was told to try the Ventosa Moxa which is the Philippine’s version of the Thai, Swedish, and Shiatsu massage. Several glasses are used to “suck out” the toxins from the body after being laced inside with alcohol then lit for a second to create a vacuum, which allows it to latch on the skin. The masseuse has to be quick and orderly to be able accomplish the simultaneous use of these glasses for several minutes of “sucking” massage. Initially, I was apprehensive about the heat from the freshly fired glasses against my skin so I was jerky when they stuck the glasses on me. After a few minutes into it, I started to feel relaxed while the glasses were being stuck and plucked out of my back without flinching. In the end, I started feeling light and my back pains reduced.

Holistic Wellness
Believing that physical, mental and emotional health are the cumulative result of our own action and lifestyle, The Farm philosophy is all about making use of Nature’s own remedies to guide its guests towards total health of body, mind, and soul. So how can we cure a sick spirit, which manifests in our being depressed or stressed out? Perhaps the solution is in yoga, meditation, or simply taking in visually the beauty of our natural environment. This is something that The Farm has a lot to offer.
In this Farm, even the few ducks that visit respect the peace and tranquility so you won’t hear a quack, there a quack, nor anywhere a quack quack. Eeya eeya Yo!

BORACAY: A Feast for the Eyes (Circa 2004)

“I shall return” was what I said to myself as my boat pulled away from the shore of the beach famed for its white, powdery sand. My fourth trip to Boracay was no less fascinating than my three previous visits in March 1994, October 1998 and May 2001. Any normal beach lover like myself would fall in love instantly at the sight of this dream-like beach. It’s like your screensaver or post card coming to life. If I had my way, I would go to Boracay every three months because I just can’t get enough of the place. Unfortunately, I have neither the luxury of time nor money to do so.

My adventure began with the friendly exchange of greetings with the airline employees as I checked in my black, compact luggage (which contained only the basic essentials such as bathing suit, shorts, shirts, sunblock and mojos). As usual, I would request for a window seat to savor the majestic view of the land and body of water below from a bird’s eye view. As I stepped into the plane, I felt sheepish when I realized that most of the seats in this 19-seater aircraft were located near the window; and the middle seats had easy access to both window views. After I buckled my seatbelt, I said a short prayer --- a standard procedure of mine before a flight (especially when riding a small plane).

The weather cooperated without a grumble so there wasn’t much turbulence to and from Boracay unlike the stormy week before. I prayed that that the storm would end before my trip the following week as I booked my tickets and accommodation. I guess Somebody up there really cares that I have a great time as the sun shone on my weekend, well most of the time anyway. After alighting from the plane and going through the inspection line, the guests proceeded to a waiting bus that took us from the airport to the pier. From here, we took a short, exhilarating boat ride to our destination. I was surprised to find that I was the only guest in my resort this weekend so I had the boat trip to myself. My rare VIP-feeling moment . . . and it took more than 15 minutes too.

Land Ho!
Land ho! Thank goodness I was in the appropriate Boracay attire of shorts, t-shirt and mojos aware that I would be getting wet until mid-thighs on reaching ashore. My past experience of soaked jeans and rubbershoes, which were practically useless during my stay, has prepared me to dress and pack right. I felt the excitement rise inside me as I set foot on Boracay’s powdery shores. The view of the horizon with sails floating on the deep blue water and the high-noon sun making the colors so vivid was truly a mesmerizing sight. After I hurriedly unpacked and changed to my swimsuit, I went straight to the lounge chairs, just to take in the visual treat before me. These were the times I felt so thankful to be alive and enjoy God’s blessings.

Boracay Trademark
Time and again, visitors to this lovely paradise have written about its awesome allure which is not at all an exaggeration. The descriptive phrase of “crystal clear water and powdery soft beach sand” instantly brings images of Boracay to mind. It is a Boracay trademark, an apt description of the beach and not mere ad copy. Unfortunately, after experiencing Boracay, all other beaches fall short of expectation for me.
I can’t imaging anyone not ever experiencing Boracay . . . it is simply a must. What makes Boracay more special than the others for me? Well, aside from the glorious sunset and sunrise, its quaint village-like setting makes me feel safe and comfortable even if I decide to travel alone. Boracay’s incomparable edge, in my opinion, is its unique combination of: natural beauty, beach and shops accessibility through walking, interactive environment, and reasonable rates. It is one big party place where you will bump into all kinds of people, unlike exclusive resorts that encourage only a certain crowd and discourages friendly interaction with other guests.

The Boracay Character
I have observed major changes since my last visit, such as infrastructure improvements. Some resorts now have as high as four-story buildings as more and more travelers are expected. I don’t believe that it has marred the beauty of Boracay one bit. The entry of internet and computer technology even encourages a longer stay as you can do some work while enjoying the beach. The more adventurous souls can enjoy the many activities offered at Boracay such as boating, snorkeling, sailing, rock climbing, trekking, parasailing, horseback riding and more. It would not be fair to compare Boracay with the serenity and privacy of other beach resorts because Boracay has a character of its own. Take it or leave it.

You’ll love the Nightlife
The Boracay nightlife is another story. After sunset, the romantic hues from the candle lit dining tables and the jazzy lights from the row of bars along the shore brings the night to life. The display of colors amidst the starry night and the latin and reggae music against the rhythmic sounds from the ocean is an experience that can’t be described with words alone. I wish I had more guts to sit in a bar and have a drink by myself but I guess I’m not the type.

I prefer the laid back activities than the adventurous ones like parasailing, scuba diving or riding the banana boat. Strolling by the beach under a starry night or watching the sunset while having a fruitshake with a friend may be the pinnacle of cornyness but these are my favorite activities in Boracay. Enjoying the morning coffee while watching the sunrise, having a quiet massage right before sunset . . . what can I say? I guess I’m really corny at heart. Where can you get a combination of reflexology-shiatsu massage infront of the beach minus the exhorbitant spa rates for only P25O (about $5 only). Only in Boracay.

Towards the end of my 3-days/2-nights vacation package that breezed by so fast, I was tempted to extend my stay like I did before. But I had to use my head over my heart so I decided against it because of my appointments scheduled the next few days which I couldn’t miss. I hated the feeling when it was time to go, because the truth is: I couldn’t get enough of the place. I will keep coming back for more . . .the place is simply addictive.


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