Back in April, last April when I starting putting together ideas for this trip, very minimal ideas because the thought of having any set plans just nauseated me, as it still does today, I thought I should at least find somewhere to spend Christmas.
Even the most bah-humbuggy person, such as myself, eventually tires of being alone during the holidays. I put the word out to friends and family and by July I’d booked a plane ticket from Hong Kong (totally arbitrary) to Manila to spend the holidays with my high school chum and web guru Alethea and her (co-web guru) husband Jason, who were flying out to be with family in the Philippines for Christmas. Which is how I discovered:
When a Filipino family takes you in, they take you in. No joke.
In my usual live-in-the-moment-ness, I hadn’t thought at all about just how big a family I was getting myself into: a serious gaggle of titas (aunts), titos (uncles), kuyas (big brothers) and ates (big sisters). Everyone seemed to have a nickname, and every nickname a backstory.
As I look back through the photos, I smile remembering all the love and care of this warm, brainiac, artistic, bookaholic, beyond description family who took me in and treated me like one of their own. Gosh, you guys, you were so great, I confess I hardly missed my family at all.
Like any good hosts, one of the first questions they asked was, What do you want to see? I can be a bit of a let down in that department. Usually I just show up in a place and see what happens. My favorite thing to do anywhere is to do what people who live there do there.
So we went to 5 am mass in the city, and midnight mass in the country (standing in the crowd outside the church, listening to the carols while a carnival went on just on the other side of the gates).
We went to Pancake house and Jollibee and Max’s (the quintessential Filipino chain restaurants).
To the fancy fancy malls of Manila. Did you know you could go to mass at the mall?
And drove to this relative’s house and that relative’s house, like you’re supposed to do at Christmas. Pile everyone into the car and go around to visit all your relatives and eat a bunch of food. As a result, a lot of my photos are of things I saw from the car.
The day before Christmas, all the ladies (and a couple of the guys) went out for fancy haircuts. I love my new Filipino do. If you ever find yourself in Dagupan, go check out Marcel at Vibrante Salon. He rocks, and so do his dimples.
So Many Fun New Things to See
The Philippines was full of surprises, things I’d never seen and hadn’t expected to see. Like Shakey’s pizza with crunchy hash browns on top. Besides the pizza, I couldn’t get enough of the jeepneys and tricycle cabs (not so fun if you have to rely on them for transportation every day, but really cool to look at).
And this funny little bug you aren’t supposed to touch.
Giant bilboards selling all kinds of things.
And Jesus in a glass coffin.
So Many Fun New Things to Eat
As usual, I also wanted to eat, which was great because it was Christmas and so did everyone else. Apparently, my reputation as an adventurous eater had superseded me and will remain long after I’m gone, because a few days after I left “Tito Boodge” sent me this caricature.
That’s me, chowing down on mangoes, suman (sticky sweet rice stick), sinigang (sour soup), halo halo (literally “mixed up,” a frozen treat that I’ve never had served the same way twice), and longganisa (sausages). I guess my appetite left an impression.
There are so many fascinating things to eat in Filipino cuisine. All manner of things fishy, stinky, fried, and ricey, which I love. And innardy things too, which I will try but have yet to learn to love. My favorite breakfast: Rice, a fried egg, and dried sardines with a side of tomatoes. Although the most interesting breakfast dishes were 1. Champorado, a dark chocolate rice porridge garnished with tiny smoked anchovies called dilis, and 2. a fermented rice porridge that tasted like Japanese sake, because that’s what it basically was, with the rice still in it.
Some other memorable dishes: Kare Kare (peanut, meat, and vegetable stew… my favorite iteration contained banana blossoms), Dinuguan (pig blood stew), Chicken Sisig (sauteed brains… how many chicken brains does it take to make a serving?), Pansit (many versions of noodles with vegetables and meat), Sinangang (fried rice), Buko (coconut), Su Su (tender young ferns made into a salad). Seriously, I could go on forever.
I didn’t (thankfully) have a chance to try balot (egg containing chicken fetus), or soup number 5 (bull testicles), which I’m happy for because even this adventurous eater has her limits.
You won’t find any chopsticks here, though (unless you’re in a Chinese restaurant). Spoons are the common eating utensil, sometimes doubling also as a fork or a knife. Although if you’re not in the mood, you can always use a banana leaf.
At one point I even got to pick my own food before I ate it, at Costales Organic Farm, where they’re doing great work educating folks about permaculture and growing delicious organic veggies. They’re open for visitor so you can stop by and take a tour, eat a completely organic farm-grown lunch, or even spend the night in one of the bungalows on the property.
And the mangoes… the mangoes! There is a reason why tourists try to smuggle mangoes home in their luggage. (It’s a total no-no. Don’t try it.) They are so sweet and juicy I could eat them all day, and sometimes I did.
There may have to be a whole post dedicated to the food of the Philippines, because there’s no way put it all here. For now, you can head over to wikipedia and have a look for yourself.
Salamat Po! (Thank you)
A huge thank you to Alethea and all her wonderful family, who took me in for ten days and filled me to the brim with yummy food and family time, and for giving me a memorable Christmas on the road. I loved getting lost with you… or as Cesar put it, taking the scenic route. If you’re ever in my neck of the woods, I owe you a proper Persian dinner (or 20).