Hello Bohol: A Day Around Panglao

One full day itinerary for my Philippine holiday included a driving tour of the smaller island of Panglao. I’d had the chance to drive up to Bohol, I’d had a lazy beach day, and Thursday was my day to find as many points of interested on Panglao as I could. As always, I’m drawn to water, so I found a couple of lakes, one of them underground. I made it back to visit the bees and learn more about the local plants. I saw one of the most expensive and tiniest seashells in the world, and I witnessed my very first “fire rainbow”. What’s a fire rainbow? I guess you just have to read to the end, now.


Hinagdanan Cave

I’ve read that there are a multitude of caves around Panglao, but it seems that most of them are not set up for the safety and convenience of visitors. Several of the ones that are visitor friendly were too far to drive this trip. A few others are exclusive to certain resorts who restrict their private cave spa to their guests, and yet more that are only accessible to divers. Hinagdanan is easily the most famous of all of these, and the advice I’d read online was get there early if you want to swim (before it gets crowded). The reviews on the swimming were mixed, and by the time I finished researching it, I had no idea what to expect. We found the cave entrance easily enough and pulled into shady parking spots amid a hoard of souvenir stalls and snack stands and then bought our tickets. The entrance fee is quite low, but there is an additional fee for swimming. The whole thing is only a couple dollars US. Everything that is maintained (cleaned) has a small entrance fee, but none of them are onerous, and they do seem to be well cared for.

20171005_092425.jpgWe signed the guest book and the guides at the top of the entrance offered to keep an eye on our helmets while we went down. The stairwell looks like a black hole into nothingness, and the cave entrance is more like a sinkhole than a cave mouth. The stairs are steep, but sturdy and have a handrail, and it’s a short trip down. Once inside, there’s plenty of room to stand up straight and look around. It’s a small cavern with some lovely, though not stunning formations. The main attractions are the natural skylight that fills the cavern with the warm light of the sun like a spotlight, and the beautiful crystal clear pool. Looking at the water, I couldn’t understand why anyone had complained about it in the reviews. I suppose it’s possible that weather or too many swimmers might have clouded it up during their visit, but for us, just past opening time, the water was still, blue, and so clear that every rock on the bottom was visible even in the dim cavern.20171005_092702.jpg

We decided at once that swimming had been a great choice, and found a little outcrop to put our things before entering the water. There’s obviously been some man-made construction: stairs, a railing and a little platform to make getting in and out easier. The water was cool and soothing on my sunburnt skin. The bats were mostly sleeping, but occasionally we could hear a squeak or a wing-beat from our neighbors in the ceiling. The water is technically brackish, and I did hear a guide tell someone else that, but all that means is that it is a mix of fresh and sea water, not that it is somehow dirty. You wouldn’t want to drink it, and only mangrove plants are adapted to use it to live on, but it’s absolutely fine for swimming.20171005_093137.jpg

We tootled around in the underground pool for well over an hour. Often we had the cavern to ourselves, but a couple times, the guides brought groups of tourists in who just wanted to have a look and get some photos. The famous photo op there is to stand under the skylight and do a trick shot that makes you look like a saint. A few people waded through the shallow water around the steps, but no one else came in to swim. I took a million photos, and at the time my display screen showed the beautiful clear and turqouise pool, but when I looked back again later they were all black. It reminded me of a story from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld where people can be fooled by illusions, but the photoboxes can only see what’s truly there. I enjoyed the slightly chilling idea that I’d spent the morning in inky black water that was enchanted by some creature to make it seem blue and welcoming, but it turns out my companion’s pictures worked out a little better, and we do have a small amount of photographic evidence after all.20171005_094451.jpg

Songculan Lake

Although I felt like I could spend the whole day in that cool and quiet swimming cave, the time came to move on if I wanted to see the rest of the itinerary before dark, and we got back on the road feeling peaceful and refreshed. My next stop was a large lake that I’d only seen on the map and not found any mention of in other tourism websites. It’s called Songculan Lake, and it’s so close to the cave that it seemed like a shame to not at least go and look at while we were up there. The road that runs along the lake doesn’t afford much of a view since the lake is mostly blocked off by mangrove jungle.

20171005_110603.jpgWe drove around in hopes of getting a glimpse of the water or perhaps some boating opportunity, but mostly what we found was a kind of upscale neighborhood where the people seemed rather surprised to see us. It seemed not unlike other lakefront neighborhoods, and we still had no view of the water which I presumed was visible from the back windows of these beautiful houses. At last we came up to the bridge that crosses the narrow point where the river meets the lake and we got our viewing spot.

20171005_111720.jpgI’m sure everyone thought we were nuts for pulling over and walking out on the bridge to take pictures, but it was very pretty, and we’d driven over there more or less just to find out if there was anything to see at all. At the far end of the bridge I found a staircase that led down to a shaded swimming area in the lake, but it was occupied by a local family and I wasn’t entirely sure of the etiquette so I waved politely and moved on.

 

Bohol Bee Farm Tour

20171005_133031We went back to the Bee Farm for lunch and the “tour”. Arnold, our guide, started us out with a little cooking lesson in the herb garden where we played “name that herb”. I recognized nearly all of them, but the oregano completely stumped me. What? Oregano? How hard is that to spot? Yeah, but this crazy Filipino oregano was completely different with HUGE leaves. The guide asked the names of each plant in English, Tagalog, and Boholano, and when we got to the oregano and everyone saw how surprised we were, we had to explain the differences in the plant’s appearance in Europe and America versus the one growing in the Philippines. Arnold said he’d heard about that but never seen the European varieties. Behind him ranged a huge display of potted herbs with their names displayed, and I recognized most, but had to ask about Pandan.

Pandan is an aromatic, used to add fragrance to things like rice, and it can be used to repel cockroaches, which I thought was interesting. Later I saw it in the ice cream flavors, and now that I’ve read this article, I’m kind of sad I didn’t eat it when I had the chance.

20171005_134343.jpgOnce we were finished in the herb garden, we moved over to the manufacturing areas. Arnold explained that while they do use as many of their own ingredients as possible, the farm has grown too large for them to do tours of the farmland itself anymore. We saw the bakery where they made the wonderful squash bread. We saw the creamery where they were busy making ice cream, sadly it smelled like Durian was the flavor of the moment. And we saw the prepping areas where they made and packaged the teas, honeys, and other goodies used in the restaurant and sold in the gift shop.

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In addition to foods, we got to see some of the other manufacturing they do including the hand woven raffia, mostly mats and wall hangings they grow from a tree locally called “buri” which is more widely known as the coryphe, a type of palm tree native to the Philippines, the leaves of which can be stripped and dried to make the fibers used in weaving. We got to watch one of the ladies doing traditional weaving, a method that can only produce a few feet of material in a workday, but is preserved as part of the local cultural heritage. We also met the seamstresses who turn the woven fabric into bags and other goods to be sold, as well as some furniture restoration where young men worked to give new life to old chairs using the woven raffia and palm leaves.

At last, it was time to meet the bees. Although the majority of the hives had been moved away from the restaurant and hotel, they kept two on hand for the local gardens and for the tourists. These aren’t Philippine bees, but European honey bees, the most docile honey producers available. Arnold had us stand a decent way back from the hives and gave us a serious talk about safety, warning us especially not to swat at any bees who happened to fly around or land on us because it could trigger defensive behavior and result in some major stinging. He also reassured us there was a clinic there on hand just in case. Finally, he went to pull some bees out for us to have a closer look, and boy were we in luck. Not only were these the most chilled out bees ever (not even one took off and tried to investigate us), we got to see the queen in the very first tray that came out!

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As you most likely know, there is only one queen per hive and she never emerges except to swarm, so seeing the queen is pretty special. Although she is visually different from the other bees, that bright turquoise spot is added on by her human caretakers to make it easier to spot her when they’re harvesting honey or doing hive maintenance. Once we all oooohed and aaahed over the royalty, everyone in the group was offered a chance to hold the tray full of bees and pose for photos. Arnold was very careful to hand off the tray gently and with safe gripping spots. At first I was hesitant, but when even the little Boholano grannies did it, and not a single bee was perturbed, I decided it was ok to have a go. It was silly fun and I’m glad I did it.

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On our way back into the gift shop, I passed a curious looking fruit and snapped a photo to ask about it inside. I was told it was called a “mickey mouse” fruit, but that it wasn’t really a fruit like for eating. Once I got back to the internet and had a bit of a rummage around, it turns out that it is the solanum mammosum, also called “utong” which is Tagalog for “nipple” and took me to some strange search results before I finally figured it out.

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Back inside the gift shop, we went and had a few more samples of our favorites from the last evening visit, as well as sampling a few new things. My top new discovery here was a thing called “hard honey”. It wasn’t crystallized honey, which sometimes happens when I forget about a jar in the back of my cabinet, but instead a liquid with a dark color and a texture like soft taffy or thick molasses. Indeed, it tasted a little bit like molasses would if it was made from honey, and my deep need to know things was immediately satisfied by the knowledgeable staff and helpful signs.

Hard honey is a thing that happens when honey stays in a hive for a while and ages. Hive aged honey. I assume the texture is a result of evaporation? And it would seem that the unique flavor is a combination of the honey taking in the flavors around it and a slight fermentation. Either way, it was a magnificent new taste experience which I recommend.

Nova Shell Museum

20171005_153024After lunch I went in search of the Nova Shell Museum, because I like seashells and museums. The whole area of Bohol is filled with tiny little roadside tourist attractions that are so cheesy and cost 20-60p to go see. I realize looking back on this experience that there is a high probability I enjoyed these because they reminded me of the random roadside attractions that we would sometimes visit on road trips when I was a kid. The US has (had? I’m not sure how many are still there) a huge number of tiny local sights setup for families to stop and look at while stretching their legs or getting a snack. None are sights that are destinations in and of themselves but they are fun to see if you’re passing by. This is how I felt about the Shell Museum. Would I have driven out of my way for it? Probably not, but it was right there next to one of my go to restaurants (La Familia) and only a few minutes drive from our hotel, so why not?

This is not a museum the way that I usually think of them. It is, in fact, the private collection of a Mr. Quirino Hora who has been obsessively collecting shells for more than 50 years and likes to show them off at this tiny building in Panglao. It is said that he collected many of them himself around the various islands of the Philippines, but he has also purchased several. My guide, because you cannot go anywhere without one of those, was clearly instructed to make sure that visitors understood the price and rarity of the shells on display. It was this emphasis on price tags that made me ask about the collection’s owner in the first place, finding it less and less likely that this was some kind of government run museum. I have nothing against private collectors, and I think it’s nice that he’s decided to share this stunning collection, but “museum” might be a bit misleading.

I remember going into the stone and gem rooms in the Smithsonian as a kid and seeing case after case, and drawers and drawers of cases of samples of different rocks all carefully labeled. It was like that, but with shells. Shells were put in groups and there were tiny tags for labels that were mostly taxonomic with the scientific name, the “author” (I’m not sure what that means in context of a shell), and a location and depth at which the shell was found. Sadly, I just don’t know enough about shells for the tags to tell me much, but I did enjoy looking at the huge array of shapes and colors including some naturally party colored scallop shells, some stunningly large nautilus, a kind of critter that liked to decorate it’s shells with the smaller shells of other animals, and three enormous shells of giant clams which I have seen in the wild, but only at about a 10th the size of these monsters.

The pride of the collection is an extremely tiny shell found in Panglao and named after the Emperor of Japan, and the two shells that Mr. Hora discovered himself and are so named after him. They range in value from a few dollars to millions. There are rooms and rooms stacked with shells in cases, behind glass, on shelves, in drawers and eventually just in boxes. Like any worthy tour, it let out in the gift shop where the more common shells were sold whole or made into art and jewelry for sale. Outside the gift-shop, there was a small tree house I was invited to climb around and explore and they talked with me about the museum’s plans for expansion.

Fire Rainbow

20171006_172421.jpgThat night we went back to the Pearl at Linaw for a sunset diner on the beach.  I spent more or less the entire vacation being in absolute awe of the cloud formations that piled up in fluffy mountains around our island, and this night was no exception. I got up from the table several times to walk the few meters to the water’s edge and get the most unobstructed sunset views possible. However, we got treated to something a little more than your average (stunning) tropical sunset. As the sun worked it’s way downward, I noticed an odd smudge of color at the top of the tower of clouds. I thought that it was that beautiful golden lining effect that so often happens when the sun back-lights dark clouds. I took more photos, admiring the glow and the strong beam-like shadow that was being cast into the sky.20171006_172654.jpg

As I watched, more colors than gold began to appear. Soon I could see a tinge of green and purple. And then an entire rainbow spectrum appeared in the crown of light atop this cloud. It did not look like a rainbow, for it lacked the shape and stripes. It looked if anything as though a rift in the space time continuum had opened up. I had no idea what could be causing this unique and stunning visual effect, but I stayed standing on the beach, food forgotten, alternating between taking photos and simply staring in awe until the colored halo receded. Only then did I return to my table to eat, venturing forth once more when the sunset clouds became a brilliant pink.20171006_173842.jpg

Back in Korea, I was finally able to research this atmospheric oddity, and I have discovered that I apparently witnessed something rare and special, well, I knew it was special, but I had no idea how rare. It’s called an “iridescent cloud” or sometimes a “fire rainbow”, and it, like other rainbows is caused by sunlight refracting through water, but this variety generally only happens on hot, humid days with lots of cumulus clouds. Only the tall piles of clouds like I had been admiring on my trip get high enough to cool the warm air and condense into droplets forming the cap, or “pileus”, creating the disc of color that I saw. According to National Geographic, not only is it rare to see such a phenomenon, photos are even rarer. I feel amazingly lucky to have had the opportunity for both!

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Even though it’s a small island with no cities, I found Panglao enchanting and found that 9 days wasn’t even enough to see everything. I’ve been thinking a lot about my island adventures this January, not only because it’s so very cold in Busan, but because I’ve sacrificed my winter holiday this year in favor of running around Korea doing job interviews. Sometime in March when that hair-pulling adventure is wrapped up, I’ll share all the crazy details, but until then I’ll share my memories of Bohol to keep us all warm.

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Letters From China (Spring Flowers & Holidays 2008)

When the vicious cold winter weather begins to fade, the world begins to fill with flowers and everyone is in a more festive mood. Sitting in my cold and empty classroom in Korea now, I’m looking forward to spring more than ever. but until it arrives, here are the stories of the celebrations and beautiful blossoms I encountered in early 2008 in Yanjiao and Beijing to tide us over.


Mar 18, 2008 at 4:47pm

This week is Ireland week. The Irish Embassy is holding a number of events to increase awareness of Irish culture in China, and one of them was a St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Not only was this the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in China, I’m told it was the first “open” parade since 1989. There have been military parades, and a few dragon parades (which are actually street performances, not real parades). So, a big step toward openness for China and a real historic event.

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Though I must admit it was painfully obvious that China doesn’t know what to do with a parade. They limited the participants in number (if not in scope), so it was quite small. They didn’t put any rope/tape up to block the parade route, there were no musicians besides the bagpipe at the lead, and they only marched about 500 yards before doubling back to their starting point.

Quite a few people came from Ireland for this special event, and they are easily identified as the crazy people wearing huge green hats. I had no idea that the holiday was as big a deal there as in the states. Before I found the people from the school here to hang out with, I met a group of Irish tourists, decked out in green clothes, big green hats and carrying large Irish flags. They shepherded me until I found my own group, quite friendly, and magnanimously declared I was Irish for the day. Although I don’t have any photos of them, there is at least one of me in their trip album somewhere.

After the parade (which started 30 min late) there was a band, a real traditional folk music group, very enjoyable, and traditional Irish dancing.

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The Irish minister of something or other got up on stage with some Chinese officials to be all official and ceremonial.

There was then a “famous Chinese singer” who won the Chinese equivalent of the American idol show, no its not called Chinese idol.

Then there was a jazz band and it kind of tapered off.

We went to an Irish pub called Paddy O’Shea’s, had some drinks and chips. The irish band and the bagpiper came there too, and played for us throughout the evening, and we didn’t get back home until after midnight.

I think I celebrated this St. P’s day with more Irish people than I’d ever MET before in my life. It was fun.

Some amusing things:

1) St. Patrick having been at the ball the night before, claimed to have been drinking tequila till 7:30 that morning.

2) I ran into one of my students there, who had many questions about Irish culture, including why was the piper wearing “a dress”. That was a difficult explanation, mostly involving “shhh, don’t say that so loudly, it’s not a dress”.

Mar 24, 2008 at 5:58pm

I don’t think I have many photos of this one. We went to the Marriott hotel for Easter Sunday brunch. Super posh. I mean, I’ve been to Marriott in the states, and they’re nice and all, but I felt like I was in some weird rags to riches movie. I just couldn’t bring myself to be crass enough to snap photos in there, sorry. But take my word, it was beautiful.

The day was also lovely, mild and sunny. And we sat indoors, but near the patio’s open doors so we got to see outside and have a nice breeze without suffering the sun in our eyes or the smoke from the grill.

The buffet was HUGE (we’re seriously considering doing that once a month now). I ate so much seafood: sushi, sashimi, steamed mussels, scallops in the shell, smoked salmon… mmmm. So much seafood. And cheese, which is really hard to come by here, especially good cheese. There were American breakfast foods like sausage, bacon, and omelettes, but I didn’t have any. There was Chinese food; there were crepes; there was a fresh fruit smoothie station and a salad bar. There were 3 grill stations outside, ribs to die for, as well as other meat selections, a table of fine sliced meats like prosciutto etc. A desert selection of doom (though honestly there was not enough chocolate, the lemon tarts were awesome) and a fondue station. And while I believe that SOME of it was special for Easter, they do this every Sunday. it was about 300 kuai, so 40$, not cheap, but sooo good.

We puttered there till 5 pm (the buffet stopped at 3:30, we just lingered over last cups of coffee, champagne etc), then headed to a tiny little bar in a hutong some way away, where we wiled away the evening discussing politics (mainly American). They had flavored rums there, and I got one ginger and one orange clove… very smooth and very nice.

I had to duck out earlier than most, and got home rather later than I wanted to, but it was still a nice day out, and hopefully the next late night bar excursion will be on a Saturday.

 

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2017 Note: Oh the days before Instagram. I can hardly imagine being ashamed of taking photos of my food,or a restaurant, or a buffet table these days. The last time I went to a very posh buffet, I actually ran around with my camera to get pretty pictures of the tables before they were attacked by guests before I even got my first plate of food. I wrote more than 7,000 words about my food experiences in Bohol in 2017 and took pictures of nearly everything I ate there. And yet, back in 2008 in China, it seemed gauche to stop and take photos in that beautiful hotel. I wonder what photo trends we’ll get this decade.

Mar 26, 2008 at 7:58pm

Yuyuantan Park

IMG_0376.jpgThis is the gigantic park that has over 2000 cherry trees. I went today to check it out, since some of the cherries are blooming elsewhere. There weren’t a lot in bloom, and I walked around for about 3 hrs (it’s huge). I took over 100 pics (and this is without most stuff in bloom). I think these are the best of today’s. I’ll be going back in 10-14 days when I expect it to be really much fuller. A lot of the pics are closeups because the trees are still pretty bare, and most of the grass is brown, so the wider shots just don’t look very nice yet. This one is my favorite from the whole day. Unexpected bee!

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Enjoy the rest of the photos!

Apr 1, 2008 at 4:23pm

I think this very well may be the student’s favorite western holiday. I woke up sleepy, cold and cranky because the weather is cold and I can’t breathe. I got to class a couple minutes late and my classroom was empty. One of my students came up to me in the hall and said (as seriously as possible) “Oh! We thought that you wouldn’t make it to class today!” which was a vaguely reasonable assumption, because I’ve been sick.

Anyway, it was an April Fool’s trick and the whole class poured out of a neighboring classroom with choruses of “happy fool’s day!” It did make me smile.

Then during the next period a group of Kevin’s students asked me to switch classrooms with them so they could play a prank on him, and thus I became a participant in the shenanigans.

Certainly a good deal of enthusiasm for April Fool’s.

April Flowers

2017 Note: In April 2008, I took a lot of beautiful photos of flowers all over the campus as well as the snow-like drifts of cottonwood trees that almost certainly added to my health troubles. I somehow never wrote anything about these beautiful trees that brightened my day as I walked past them on campus, or even about the strange hummingbird moth that I saw for the first time that year and only learned the real name of recently. I don’t know if I was too consumed with my misery to think about writing more about the flowers, but it makes me glad that I’ve changed my focus.

I still write about the hard times on occasion, but I like to spend my words on beauty and joy whenever possible. In the end, that means that I experience the joy over and over. The first time, when I’m living it, again when I think about what I want to write, again when I write, edit and proofread it, and again when I choose which photos will accompany my story. The joy becomes larger and the pain becomes smaller as time passes, and I hope that the next 10 year retrospective of my life reflects that.

Hello Bohol: Fancy Restaurants

Fancy might be a misnomer, since it’s perfectly acceptable to turn up in beachwear, but the quality of the food and range of the menus places these restaurants several stars over the average lunch stop. Panglao is full of amazing restaurants where most meals come to under 10$ US, but have the quality of a 40-50$ meal. I managed to visit the Pearl at Linaw, the Bohol Bee Farm, The Personal Che’f, and The Bougainvillea. At least two of them are places I’d happily go to again and again.


Pearl @ Linaw

I ended up here twice. The first time on my very first night in Panglao because it was the closest thing to the hotel. The second time to get a spectacular view of the beach at sunset, because this is one of the best places on the island to do it from.

If you’re looking for the Pearl restaurant, be sure to search for the Linaw Resort because the restaurant doesn’t have it’s own Google pin. We got lost, asked directions, parked in the wrong place and were generally silly tourists until we finally got settled down at a table near the water. I wanted to start my vacation off with some Filipino specialties, and ordered a kind of tomato and eggplant salad, a pork belly adobo, and finally halo halo for dessert, all while watching a stunning lightning show over the black ocean beyond our little pool of light.

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The second time I went, the very ocean most tables were all reserved for the top paying guests at the Linaw Resort, but we got a fairly good table on the west edge where we had a nearly unobstructed view of the impending sunset. We ordered early on, knowing it would take a while for the food to arrive. I tried again to order the kinilaw which had been unavailable the last time we came (and while I am eternally grateful they decided to tell me the fish was off rather than try to serve it, I was disappointed). The waiter asked me if I was ok with spicy, and because of my excessive spice exposure in Korea I promptly replied that I love spicy. I won’t say this was a terrible mistake, but it was the first tourist place I’ve been to where anyone took me seriously and didn’t give me “white girl spicy”.

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Kinilaw is a raw fish “salad” (just a mixture, not really any lettuce involved). It’s more like ceviche than poké, since the fish is soaked in vinegar to help tenderize the fish flesh. Even though it was an appetizer, it was all I could eat. The portion was so generous and the flavor so intense, I had no room for a main dish, and only took in a few bites of rice when the spice build up got too strong. The waiter came out to check on us (perhaps thinking that it would be too spicy), and I told the story of missing out on the kinalaw before and how happy I was to get to try it. They told me they were glad too, since it is one of their signature dishes. Even if you don’t like it as spicy as I do, I highly recommend this to any seafood lover.

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When all the beautiful colors of sunset were gone, we finally gave up on the sand, chased away by ants at our feet. It’s the only disappointment in this particular restaurant, choosing between a view and ant free feet. But once we were inside (and the staff were gracious about relocating us), we had a pleasant ant-free dessert of mango crepe supreme and blended ice coffee. And if you’re worried about being too full from dinner to order dessert, that could be the only time the long wait for food is a boon, since you’ll have plenty of time to digest your meal while you wait. In fact, after several such experiences, I’ve decided that should I return to Panglao another time, I’ll be sure to order *all* my food choices at the beginning of a meal, and simply ask for the desserts to come last.

Bohol Bee Farm

Bee farm? For dinner? Yeah, I know, I thought it was weird too, but I read so many reviews of this place and blogs that included it as a must do at least for the ice cream, if not for the restaurant and tour, so I figured it was at least worth checking into. The restaurant features dishes that are made with organic ingredients, and as many of them from the farm itself as possible. A variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers are grown on the farm and used in the restaurant, plus of course the honey from their bees which is the only sweetener they use.

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There was no listing for tour times on their website, but knowing the sun set around 6, we hoped to get there in time to do the 30 minute tour before settling in for dinner. Sadly, we didn’t make it. The tours end at 4:30, but we did get a nice table overlooking the sea. The fresh juice menu is not to be missed. I got a ginger watermelon juice with no extra sugar (you have to ask or they’ll add it). The reviews I read indicated the top things to try here (other than the ice cream) are the floral salad and the pizza. I know, so very American, go to another country and order pizza, but 1) good pizza is an art no matter what country you’re in and 2) I don’t actually get pizza that often in Korea. Although the recommendations had been in favor of the plain cheese, I decided to brave the spicy honey pizza, made with honey from the local bees.20171003_170318.jpg

While waiting for the food, a bread plate with some fresh house made squash bread and cassava chips was brought out. The spreads were honey mango, basil pesto, and some kind of pico/chuntey thing. They were all divine, but my favorite was the honey mango on the squash bread. They sell it in the gift shop, and only my tiny backpack luggage kept me from bringing jars of that stuff back here.

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When the salad arrived it was clear that this was one of the most instagramable foods imaginable, a salad like a floral bouquet! But don’t be fooled, this was not simply lettuce and petals, there were plenty of generous chunks of cucumber, pineapple and other goodies buried beneath the presentation. And the dressing? Honey mustard, of course.

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The pizza was a much simpler presentation, but every bit as much of a taste explosion. The crust was thin and made from some mix of whole grains that gave it a rich flavor and appealing texture. The sauce and cheese were well made and generously spread without being overwhelming. The “spice” was reminicient of spicy italian sausage without actually being sausage. I think that the more Asian chili spice combined with the pizza herbs like basil and oregano created this gustatory illusion. And the honey was a little drizzle, a mere hint that served to counterpoint the spice and compliment the grains of the crust. I have never had anything like it before and I can honestly say that while I would never have thought to put honey on a pizza, it’s now one of my favorite flavor experiences.

Finally, for dessert I knew we had to have some of the ice cream that appears on every Google search for “things to do in Bohol” and find out what all the fuss was about. The Bee Farm keeps a wide array of flavors on hand, some are annual standbys and others are seasonal or even du jour.

The Bee Farm makes all their ice cream using coconut milk so it’s dairy free, and they serve it in casava cones which are gluten free. Organic, vegan, and GF trends aren’t yet a big thing in most of SE Asia, but the Farm’s success is very promising. In addition, coconut milk is a local product, coconut palms were everywhere, but dairy cows are still scarce. The Dairy Box project is a small dent in the issue, but most milk there is the processed and recombined variety we got at the store. The ice cream flavors are all based on the fruits, vegetables and herbs that they grow at the farm (except the chocolate), and it’s all only sweetened with the honey they harvest from their own bees.

The most famous flavor is the mulangguy, but I wasn’t up for a total mystery and decided to put that off for another day and instead ordered the salted honey, imagining (correctly) that it would be similar to a salted caramel. My dinner partner decided to try the flavor of the day: tomato.

The salted honey flavor was rich, creamy, and intensely flavored. I found it to be a good balance of salt and sweet, and also that my single scoop was quite satisfying. I had a small taste of the tomato ice cream out of pure curiosity. I have to say that I think it would have been an amazing soup, the coconut cream and tomato flavors were good together, but somehow the chilled temperature and ice cream texture were just too much dissonance for me to enjoy it as a dessert.

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Since we missed a chance at the tour the first time (and because any excuse to eat there again), I headed back to the Bohol Bee Farm on anther occasion. I switched up to a lemon ginger juice (I might have a ginger addiction) which was strong and delicious, then got the spicy honey pizza again (yes, it is that good). We tried the honey glazed chicken as well, which was also excellent, and came with a mini floral salad and a grain I always knew as “kasha” as a child. Kasha is buckwheat grains cooked kind of like rice, and it’s dominant in Eastern European or Russian culture, but not known well in SE Asia, so I was surprised to see it there.

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I also went on the tour, and I finally tried the mulungway ice cream. Mulungway, or malunggay, is a medicinal herb that is very popular in the Philippines, especially made into sweets. I found the flavor to be a fresh green experience and enjoyed the ice cream, but some people think it tastes too much like vegetables. Either way, it’s a quintessential Philippine flavor that’s worth the taste.

Personal Che’f

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No, that’s not a typo version of “Chéf”, that’s how it’s written, I looked several places. The Personal Che’f is run by a Russian couple and serves unbelievably good super fancy food. I had a little trouble finding it because there’s only a small sign on the side of the road in front of what looks like a patch of woods. I finally found the entrance to a path through the trees that led us on a lovely walk back to the restaurant.

Like almost every restaurant here, it had no walls except for the kitchen. It was empty when we arrived but nearly every table had a “reserved” sign. Lucky for us, there was one unclaimed and we were able to be seated. I say lucky, because quite a few people showed up after us only to be turned away. My feelings on this restaurant are both strong and mixed.

I liked the set up, it was simple and elegant, and the contrast of the stunning food, artistic plating and upscale prices with the rustic bamboo thatch and the occasional lizard on the furniture was fun. The huge volume of mosquitos brought on by the fact that we were embedded in the jungle was not. They seemed to be aware of the issue because our waitress brought us mosquito spray to use, but it would have been nice to have more effort. Maybe citronella would conflict with the flavors of the food, but there has to be something, bug repelling tiki torches, candles, electric zappers? Almost anything would have been better than being dined on while dining.

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The chef was an amazing, kind and extremely talented person. He came out to talk to us, checked on my travel buddy’s allergies, told us a story about how he’d made something off menu just the other day for a woman with serious dietary restrictions. The chef was great. The rest of the staff was… less so? There was only one waitress and she became quickly overwhelmed, especially when a huge group showed up without a reservation and insisted on talking to her for 15 minutes about it. There were only maybe 7 tables seated, but it was more than this poor server could manage. Her only real help was the barback/busser, a guy who repeatedly took food to the wrong table, or made other mistakes she had to correct when she asked him for help, and otherwise just stood behind the bar looking lost. Any time we asked about anything (like, hey does this dish have any xyz in it) she had to go get the chef, who was gracious about it and wanted to help, but he was clearly doing too much trying to both cook and do things in the front.

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The food is the only part I have no mixed feelings on. It was hands down amazing. We ordered a gazpacho soup with strawberry for a starter and the chef kindly put it in two bowls, even though that meant extra time in plating. We received wide white dishes with beautiful curls of cucumber and a little spattering of diced herbs and vegetables. The gazpacho was pureed and served in a carafe that we would then pour over the display. I have to say I would never have thought of adding strawberries to a tomato based soup, but it was truly a flavor revelation. I historically prefer my gazpacho a little on the chunky side, but I don’t think that would have worked with the berries. The puree mixed the flavors so thoroughly they became something new. It also did make me wonder about making a strawberry salsa someday.

For the main dish, I gravitated to the mushroom risotto and was not disappointed. The flavors of the cheese, the shrimp, the broth and the mushrooms were each distinct and outstanding and yet blended so well. It made me think of the instruments in a string quartet, it is easy to hear each one as they play, but together they are a concert. And it made me feel a little like Ratatouille (the cartoon rat, yes) which was also fun. Sadly, the main dish was not a success for my companion, who had an allergic reaction despite the chef’s precautions and decided head back to the hotel to take some medicine.

I had thought to stay behind and have a dessert, but the waitress brought out our check at once. It took me ages to get her attention, and in the meantime, I managed to get the bar back to come deal with the fly that was swimming in the wine… one more reason to get those bug zappers. He took the glass away but didn’t bring a replacement or it seems tell anyone. So when I finally got the waitress to stop at my table again, I told her that I wanted to order dessert and about the wine issue. Over the course of the next hour, I kid you not, I managed to get a dessert menu and to find out that they would take the wine off the bill. When I did order a dessert, I was told it would be another HOUR to prepare… and no it was not a souffle. I declined.

It was such a difficult experience to evaluate. It was some of the most amazing food I’ve ever eaten, and the chef himself was so kind and gracious about everything. But the service was terrible, the bugs were a major enjoyment killer, and while I value the quality time that goes into creating the kind of amazing food we were enjoying, it seems like if it’s going to take an hour or more to make a simple dessert, you should warn people to order ahead, or accept fewer customers. I really hope they manage to find a solution, because that kind of talent with food deserves success, but I chose not to return a second time.

Bougainvillea

I still can’t get over how much astonishing food is available on Panglao. Of course traditional Filipino food is delicious and worth perusing, but the quality of restaurants on the island makes many nationalities dishes a must dine experience. For my final dinner, the restaurant of choice was a relatively new (and hopefully long lived) tapas restaurant that Bob had enthused about called Bougainvillea, next to but not to be confused with the resort of the same name.

I was negligent in every instance of making reservations, and it’s pure luck that I was ever able to get a table, so if you’re going to any of these places I suggest calling ahead because I regularly saw people get turned away. The fancy restaurants are stunning but very small and intimate with limited seating. The Bougainvillea was no exception. We arrived a little after dark and we’re lucky to find that some diners were just about to leave and that their table had not yet been claimed, so we only had to wait perhaps 10 minutes for a table and a kind young man from the resort kept us company while we waited. I suspect that the garden we waited in was beautiful and even at night I could tell it was filled with the flower that both the resort and restaurant took their name from.

The restaurant was elevated, which at first seemed odd to me, but once we were on the second floor I began to understand the choice. One was the view, which we had also missed out on by showing up after dark, because one wall opened out toward the sea. I say wall, but like most of the places we’d been, it was a roof and open sides (except around the kitchen). The other main reason for the elevation was the avoidance of insects. By lifting the restaurant out of the jungle flora, we were blissfully free of ants, mosquitoes, and flies that had plagued nearly all of our previous dining experiences.

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I ordered some of the house made sangria, for which they use their own mix of spices in syrup, red wine, and fresh apples and oranges. It was amazing, refreshing and light while not being too sweet and carrying a wonderful tendril of cinnamon. The bread arrived as well, served with whole garlic cloves and olive oil so rich you wouldn’t miss the butter. We noticed that extra bread portions were 30p and were hardly surprised they felt the need to charge for this delectable dish after the first serving.

While I was perusing the descriptions, I noticed they had a few dishes with manchego. I cannot express my joy. Manchego is a Spanish cheese that holds a special place in my cheese loving heart. I had not had any for several years because I’m pretty sure that the Koreans have never heard of it, and even when I can find it in the US, it’s expensive. I asked our server how in the world they managed to get it on the tiny island of Panglao and he seemed quite pleased that I recognized the difficulty involved and the dedication it represented.

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Although I was tempted by the paella, the minimum order was 2 people and my companion was unable to eat seafood, so instead I tried a smaller appetizer of “Calamares a la andaluza” described as flour coated baby squids, deep fried and served with honey mustard sauce. My dining companion ordered the Patatas Bravas (deep fried potato cubes with spicy “bravas” sauce). We were both well pleased with these choices. I had a bite of her potatoes and was pleased as punch to find that they had perfected the crispy outside, squishy inside of a truly excellent home fry. The sauce was creamy and spicy. My squids were stellar, maybe even interstellar. I have never imagined in my life that I would have a tender squid. They’re just always chewy. Maybe it’s the “baby” squid or maybe it’s just the chef, but the squid was actually tender. The flour fried coating was light and not oily, and the honey mustard sauce rivaled that at the Bee Farm. Plus, both appetizers were served with tiny crispy bread sticks that we could use to clear our palettes between dishes or just to scoop up extra sauce with.

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Next we had some Mondaditos, described on the menu as an Andelusian style bun. Starting to guess where the chef is from? I ordered the “Catalan” because it was manchego, fresh tomato and olive oil. She got the Don Quijote [sic] which was chorizo, sweet red pepper sauce, and manchego. Of course we traded tastes, and although I preferred the simple fresh flavors in the Catalan (I was out for the manchego), I was blown away by the sweet pepper sauce. The saucier at this place is clearly blessed by some kind of culinary deity, or maybe Dionysus. In addition to their own simple yet elegant awesomeness, the mondaditos were served with “veggie crisps” which turned out to be thin sliced and fried vegetables, rather like potato crisps (or chips), but with an array of other vegetables.

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For dessert I settled on the crema Catalana, which looked to me like a Spanish version of a creme brulee (a dessert I have loved since I met it). Looking later, I find it is quite similar, but is traditionally flavored with cinnamon and orange peel. I haven’t had the chance to try this dish more than once, but I would happily try it many more times. While in my experience creme brulee is always a rather thick custard, the crema Catalana at Bougainvillea was much softer, almost as if it were the sweet love child of a creme brulee and a zabaglione. It was a wonderful finish to an excellent meal, and my only regret was that I only found it on the last day and I didn’t get to taste more of the menu!

Unexpected Joy

I planned to enjoy great food on this trip, learn more about Filipino food and do some proper local dining. I did do those things, but it was a surprise and delight to find such a plethora of fine dining options with considerations for organic, dietary restrictions, allergies, and of course quality food. I never thought Panglao would be a foodie haven, but it’s full of local delicacies and so much more. Bon Appetit!


I’m writing this a week or more before the publish date because I finally have some free time between the end of school and the beginning of winter camp, and I don’t want to dump all my polished posts on the internet at once. Who knows what news will come by the time this is online, but for now I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I’m leaving Korea and still wondering if I’m going to find that next job before May. I’m hoping to get the rest of these stories out before my moving day (Feb 25), and I’ll have some new adventures to write then. Whether it’s  a new job, a new country, or something wholly unknown, there’s no doubt it will be a good story. Thanks for sticking with me! Happy New Year!

 

Letters From China (Second Semester 2008)

The winter breaks are long in China and I managed to get back to visit folks in Seattle from January 10 to February 20th. Returning to China after that visit home was one of the hardest things I ever did, and it was a hard road to emotional recovery in the bitter cold afterwards. In the last few years abroad, my sense of “home” has changed a lot. I love my friends and family in the US, but now when I visit, it’s more like a vacation, and getting back to my host country is “going home”. I’ll never stop loving them, but looking back on these letters, I am glad that this level of homesickness and culture shock depression is a rarity in my life today. But don’t worry, next time there will be flowers.


Feb 23, 2008 at 12:28pm

It’s Saturday morning here and I’m about halfway unpacked. I’m getting some laundry done and I’ve managed a trip to the store for the basic essentials, food for me and the bunny and new dvds.

I have my class schedule and my books (though I haven’t looked at the new books yet). The students I handed out as pen pals will be my students again this semester, along with some new ones as well. Classes start on Monday, so I’m going to spend a chunk of time this weekend looking over the books and filing out paperwork (yay bureaucracy!).

535240_10150779820031646_1213254039_nThe bunny is well, however we’re going to the vet soon anyway because I got a really enthusiastic greeting when I got home and I now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is indeed a boy bunny.

The sofa is not as bad as I’d feared. The hole seems to be underneath the sofa, so the bunny crawls up inside it and vanishes.

It’s kind of wierd being back. Everything is familiar yet strange. The smells especially, not all bad ones, just unique to China and to my apartment here. The weather is ok, its sunny and cold (not quite as cold as when I left, I think we’re above freezing now) its even pleasant if you stand in the sun and the wind isn’t blowing.

Alot of the anxiety I felt over returning is gone (leaving again was the hard part, now that I’m here I guess its easier). Its strange that this place somehow feels more stable than Seattle. I loved seeing everyone, but the whole time I felt out of place, and not sure what to expect from anyone or anything. I think that would change if I had a job and an apartment of my own, but still, its strange.

It was really awesome to be home for a while, although I have to try not to think about it too hard right now. I hope you’ll all continue to visit the board and chat on IM. It sounds cheesy beyond belief, but I can’t stress enough how much it helps me to have you all as my friends and my support structure while I’m way out here.

Love and Hugs

Feb 24, 2008 at 6:43pm

Day 3, and I’m already going insane…

The weather is still evilly cold, especially when the wind blows, so its hard to make myself go outside for anything non-essential.

The party Friday and game Saturday have led to a really slow g-talk for the last couple days, so try to check in soon.

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The bunny had a little conniption fit and knocked over his litter boxes (not for the first time), so I finally went out and bought a full size covered cat box. The lid is off while he gets adjusted, but the sides are quite high, and it is (I hope) too heavy for bunny to overturn. I’ve left the lid on the floor to see what he thinks of it, I’m still not sure if I’ll use it on the box, or just keep it as a bunny hideout elsewhere in the room.

Classes start tomorrow at 8am. I’ve written my syllabi and now there’s nothing but the waiting.

I checked around a few websites for job listings, I may try to get something as a proofreader/editor to fill in the extra time and earn a bit more.

I’m going to try to figure out my new camera this week, too so I can upload some pics of the sofa damage everyone keeps asking about, and of course of the bunny, which has grown more into his ears now.

And I think I’m out of things to report just now. ttfn.

Feb 29, 2008 at 5:33pm

The first week is over. I just got back from my last class on Friday afternoon.

All in all, it’s going well. I didn’t venture into the city this week, mostly allowing myself time to get adjusted and to get a feel for what my free time is like during the week.

I’ve decided that since I have classes that end before noon on Tuesday and Wednesday that I’m going to attempt to install myself at a cafe with free wi-fi in Beijing on those afternoons so I can maybe have a strong enough connection to upload pics and maybe even *gasp* watch Youtube!

I’ve joined Facebook, many of you have noticed.

I’ve found a neat website called thebeijinger, which has lots of classifieds for jobs and events so I’m looking there for something interesting to do in my spare time/weekends. So far I’ve put out feelers for a position as a blues singer at a club and for a Saturday afternoons meeting “culture club” that features hands on activities of Korean and Chinese culture and language. More on those as it progresses.

Classes were uneventful. My schedule this semester is a little strange though. I have my favorite classes again (the ones I put up pics of), 3 groups that each meet 1x a week, I also have the same group for advanced conversation that meets 2x per week, and a new group for “American Newspapers and Magazines” reading course that meets 1x a week. For all of these classes our first day was just catching up from the break, or in the case of the new class, getting acquainted, and we won’t really get into lessons till the next meeting.

The wierd part is that I am a “guest teacher” for another set of classes. There’s 8 classes of about 80 students each that are all taking the same course (at different times of course). Now, I have one week with each of these 8 groups of students, at 3x a week. There are, however, 20 weeks in a semester, so for 8 of those weeks I have 3 more classes than the other 12…. oh, and since its 8 groups all learning the same thing, I have to teach the same 3 chapters from the same book 8x… joy.

In other news, I’m learning how incredibly hard writing a good professional CV actually is… anyone who has some experience in this that wants to help, I’d love it. I can’t believe I’ve made it to my age and never really had to write one, but as it turns out I’ve always either been trying for really low level jobs that wanted applications instead of resumes, or got hired by recommendation from within and only had to hand over a resume for “the files” rather than actual competitive job seeking.

Stay tuned for updates on the extra curricular life and of course the bunny… I hope to make it to a cafe this weekend, but if not, it’ll be Tuesday (your Monday) before I finally get some pics up.

TTFN!

Mar 4, 2008 at 6:45pm

IMG_0150.jpgI wasn’t online all day today because I decided to try to go to the wi-fi cafe I mentioned earlier. It turned out to be REALLY hard to find, and I spent almost an hour wandering around the part of town its in before I was able to get comprehensible directions from someone. This was in part because no one knew where the place I was trying to find was, and in part because those who knew were far enough away and I was unfamiliar with the streets and landmarks that anything past “go that way a while” was more than I could follow. But I found it, and the weather was nice and sunny today, so it wasn’t too bad to be walking outside.

Its cute, and though it was after the lunch rush when I found it, it didn’t seem crowded, only a couple other people. Unfortunately, the plugs were all 2 prong or Chinese standard 3 prong, so I couldn’t plug my computer in.

Being tired from my journey, I decided to sit and check out the menu anyway. I got a banana/ginger/orange smoothie, which was nummy, and I had a chance to peruse their menu and prices, which are both highly western and reasonably priced. Sure its more expensive than eating at the cheapo diners or the street vendors, but the average seems to be about 50 Kuai for a meal and drink, and there were lots of specials that were less. (remember that 50 kuai is still only about 7$ US), and the menu had several things that looked tasty and Kaine friendly.

I only stayed about an hour, then on my way back I decided to try to catch the bus at a different station, since several people had told me the lines were shorter. The line may have been shorter, but the walk from the subway was much longer and the wait between buses was also longer, so I doubt I’ll be using that again.

The upshot is that I spent about 4 hrs in transit and 1 hr at the cafe today, and I’m beat. However, now I know where it is, and that I need to bring a converter, so I’ll be better prepared when I go back, which will hopefully be tomorrow, as I’d like to try to go Tuesday and Wednesday most weeks.

I think the upscale environment and regular access to affordable western food will do me some good, and assuming the wi-fi works, I’ll be able to get more photos uploaded while there, including, of course, photos of the neighborhood its in…. if it weren’t for the writing I wouldn’t have taken it for part of China. It’s so CLEAN, people were even washing the trashcans on the sidewalks!

Ok, that’s my ramble, catch up to you all soon!

Mar 11, 2008 at 8:29pm

Long, Long Day

It started with me waking up at 5am, restless, because I actually caught up on sleep last weekend, and wasn’t exhausted, then tossing and turning for 2 hrs in and out of sleep and the weirdest dream that i was fighting Lord Voldemort… but it turned out to really be Raif, and the whole thing was a movie set… yeah

Then, in my early morning bleary haze, as I chow down my oatmeal and try to remember what I’m teaching today, there is a pounding on my door… notice I do not say knocking… which continues virtually nonstop till I open it, only to find an out of breath Chinese woman I’ve never seen before who explains in broken English that she has now come to my apartment 4 times looking for me because she needs an English teacher for her school on Saturday mornings. “No thank you, I really don’t have time”, some how takes more than 5 minutes of me and my oatmeal getting cold as I stand there with the door open at 7:30 in the morning. She leaves, I go back to checking my email. 2 seconds later, more pounding. She is back to ask me if I can ask my friends if they are interested in teaching. I try to tell her, because I know for a fact, that none of the other teachers have time or want more work. I finally even resorted to loudly explaining this in Chinese, in case she wasn’t getting it in English. she asks, what about my other friends, and I say they’re all in America. And I can’t get her to leave me alone until I agree to take her phone number anyway! worse than Jehovah’s witnesses, I swear.

So, now I’m late, because this woman… grr… anyway, I’m rushing off to my 8 am class, trying not to glower at the morning gray smogginess, when all of a sudden, a bright patch of yellow catches my eye, and I see FLOWERS! beautiful tiny yellow flowers on a bush that kind of looks like someone pulled a willow tree down till only its branches were above ground. I’m told they’re called spring greeting flowers here. So, better.

Class, yay, class, more class, ok they aren’t really that exciting, though they are better than last semester.

Then a quick lunch and off to the bank.

 

Abbey agreed to go with me today, to help out, but she fobbed me off on Wang Meng, a very sweet, but totally backwater Chinese man, with much less English than Abbey has. (and since I wanted Abbey for difficult translations that occur in international banking issues, you can imagine my frustration). Wang Meng is also from a small town, and this is his first job, and he just started last fall, about 2 weeks before I did. I was actually guiding HIM through Beijing to get to where we needed to be.

Leave the apt at 1pm, miss the close bus, so we walk to the far stop and end up waiting till the next bus that would have picked us up at the close stop shows up. Traffic jam.

Finally get to Beijing, and I have to go first to change the money to USD, since this process at the bank can be somewhere between difficult and impossible, and usually expensive.  Then go BACK to the place we got off the bus, get to the bank, only to discover that they apparently have their entire English speaking staff working today, and Wang Meng has nearly nothing to do, other than to write the address in Chinese for me.

Wait

Wait

Wait

Wait

Wait

I have no idea why bank lines in China last so long… got my form all filled out holding on to my number…

Wait

Wait

Wait

Almost 5pm, my number pops up. The actual process with the teller is short and easy, and hopefully in a few days, I’ll have money in my US account to pay bills with.

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I part ways with Wang Meng, and wander into Walmart to get a bunny carrier and maybe something tasty, like cheese. The bunny carrier is actually a doggie carrier, those little things that look like oversize handbags that women carry their little dogs around in, and its BRIGHT lime green and cost about 25 usd… *sigh, but not only do I need it to take the bunny in to the vet, as the weather gets nicer, I have plans to take the bunny to parks as well, so it’ll get used.

Then to Starbucks. I made the mistake of getting a soy latte instead of just coffee, never again. I don’t know if they used real milk or if the soy milk they use is just weird, but it had THE strangest after taste, almost like someone had melted butter into my coffee… I didn’t drink most of it.

Loooong bus ride home, and here I am at 7:30pm, finishing up my day online with sore feet and a considerably lighter wallet.

Oh, AND I found out that the culture club I wanted to go to on Saturdays is CLEAR on the northwest side of the city, (I‘m on the south east) and probably 2-3 hrs ride including bus, 3 subway lines and a taxi… so, no. sad. I’ll just have to keep looking.

Mar 12, 2008 at 8:02pm

I finally made it here (Zoe’s Bistro) with a proper adapter for the computer and got online. I have pics from the bus ride to show what a transition it is from Yanjiao to here, but Photobucket is being temperamental.

The cafe is nice, clean, quiet. I had a niciose salad which was actually canned tuna, but nice greens and an excellent dressing. Got some coffee, and a fruit smoothie for dessert. Its more expensive than my normal day, but I’ve been here 5 hrs, and had a good non-Chinese feeling day, even all the writing in here is in English, so I figure I can afford to do this once a week or so, as long as I don’t go crazy.

It may also be a week between photo postings, because my internet at home doesn’t make it easy to upload, but I’ll eventually catch up.

TTFN


The internet at my apartment was enough for email and chat messengers, but it was terrible for uploading photos or streaming video. Lucky me there was a bootleg DVD shop operating out of a disused post office across the street and he kept a steady supply of English language shows and movies in stock just for us teachers, so I was not short of things to watch.

Zoe’s Bistro turned into my weekly haven of sanity during a time of negative culture shock, and I went there regularly to get good internet and feel “Western” for a few hours at a go. Nowadays I have great internet at home, and I’m not sure if it’s because Busan is a large city (where Yanjiao was tiny) or if Korean culture is easier on me than Chinese, or if I’ve just gotten used to some quintessentially Asian things that used to make me uncomfortable, but I haven’t felt the need to sit in a western style cafe since I’ve been here, and I only go to Starbucks to sample the unique seasonal drinks that aren’t on offer in other countries. It doesn’t hurt that Korea has a coffee culture that keeps me in lattes and americanos on every street corner. Good coffee always tastes like home. 😉

Hello Bohol: Food

My food post has expanded into two more bite-sized posts. In this one, I take a look at the everyday eats, markets, convenience stores, roadside chicken stands, unique food experiences, and lower cost restaurants. Just because it’s not gourmet doesn’t mean it’s not delicious! Interesting foods discovered include: not-milk but still dairy “fresh”, the lakatan banana, mulungway, water buffalo ice-cream, and maja blanca. Hope you’re hungry!


Don’t Drink the Milk

After discovering our limited food options upon arrival, I asked my trip buddy to stop at a store on the way from the airport. The taxi had to take her to a store on Bohol, because there is not a single “grocery store” on the island of Panglao. There are a plethora of tiny marts and open air markets, however. The next morning at breakfast, I noticed that the milk tasted a little odd. Not off, just strange, and I looked at the carton to find out what was going on. It turned out that the “Fresh Milk” for sale in the store was actually a reconstituted combination of milk products. I know that in some island countries, dairy is hard to come by in liquid form, because shipping it over is expensive, so they ship in powder and reconstitute it in local factories for distribution, but this was the first time I’d actually had any. It wasn’t … bad? It just didn’t really taste like milk.

The yogurt also had a slightly terrifying list of ingredients. I’ve tried to get less picky about my food since leaving Seattle, I know lots of places aren’t going to be up to the Bo-bo standards of organic/local/minimal processing, but yogurt has been one of the foods that has more often than not been wonderful, fresh, and local when I travel. It seems despite the huge number of cows I saw on the island, the dairy industry is still a few decades behind. So, no real coffee, and no real milk products… but the seafood, the pork, and the fresh fruit are outta sight.

Markets

20171001_112654.jpgI went to the Alona Market on the first day. It was a permanent structure where things like clothes and gadgets seemed to be on sale, but there were a riot of colored tents and awnings set up outdoors as well where vendors sold everything you could need on the island. Eggs, fish, meat… the smells assured me they were fresh. Fruits and vegetables. An infinity of flip flops and heaps of clothes. Electronics, swimming gear, DVDs, decorations, and although this was clearly a market for locals, there were a few souvenir type things as well. If I were staying long term on the island and needed to cook more than breakfasts or needed to replace a t-shirt or pair of sandals, it would be a great place to know about (especially in the absence of grocery stores), but for time it was mostly a curiosity, a fun thing to see as I explored my holiday surroundings.

On the way over to Chocolate Hills, I took a rest stop at another market in Baclayon, very similar to the Alona market, and got some pastries at a little bake shop. The Bohol pastries aren’t a patch on the Korean ones, but they were fresh and good, and extremely cheap. I never bought only one, but it seemed like one could fill a bag for less than a dollar. And it was nice to have something to munch on when felt hungry. Days later I realized that the market was next to one of the many churches on my to-see list, so I ended up going there more than once.

Sari Sari

This is the basic economic unit of Bohol. They are everywhere. Tiny shacks that sell snacks, drinks, and other things a household might need. It’s almost impossible to tell if they’re open because they have bars and grates on the windows. I had been avoiding them for that reason alone. I didn’t want to stop, get off the bike, walk over, then find out they were closed and try again at the next one. I’d been stopping at larger more obvious shops for snacks and drinks but way out here, I didn’t have the option. I’m also not sure how many of these are simply a shack in someone’s front yard where they sell random stuff to their neighbors.

Post holiday research reveals that these tiny ubiquitous shacks are known as sari sari (Tagalog for “sundry”), that the bars and grating look is normal, that they are generally family owned and operated from the family property, and that they make up 70% of the sale of manufactured consumer food products and account for about 13% of the GDP. They don’t all look like the little roadside shacks, some are larger or in conjunction with other vendors in the market areas. I’m not sure how many sari-sari I shopped at while I was there, but it’s nice to know I was contributing to the local economy when I did.

La Familia

One day of island exploring we found this little gem. It was getting on in the day and the weather in Panglao is hot and humid year round, so we decided it was time to find a place for lunch. After a little bit of being lost looking for a restaurant by sight, we finally consulted Google. It turns out there are a plethora of eateries along the roadside, but it’s hard to tell which ones are convenience stores, or take-aways, or sit down eateries, or even open just by looking while you’re driving by. I love trying local shops and restaurants, but I definitely wanted a sit down place to rest after our morning adventures.

We settled on a place called La Familia on the south end, quite near the church and watchtower. It’s not gourmet, but I ate there more than once because it was good food at a reasonable price, and while not air conditioned, it was comfortable. On my first visit, I got some watermelon juice and had to ask for no sugar. I learned that in the Philippines, all fruit juice will be mixed generously with sugar unless you ask for it not to be. This drink seemed to be fresh watermelon blended with ice into a kind of slushy, and I thought it was wonderful and refreshing without the extra sweetness. I also tried a satay burger, which was a regular hamburger served with satay sauce, and instead of ketchup, the fries came with a kind of sweet chili sauce that I was skeptical of at first, but soon devoured.

The second time I went we were too exhausted and hungry to research restaurant options so we went back to La Familia, knowing it was close to the hotel, good and well priced. I was still in my “try all the Filipino food” phase and after Googling a few new words on the menu, I settled on a chicken Tinola, which is a fairly famous Filipino ginger soup and could readily give pho a run for it’s money as my go to sick soup of preference if it existed where I live. A rich bone broth infused with ginger. My only complaint was that the soup was served so hot I couldn’t just guzzle the broth. I also ordered a club sandwiches for lunch the next day out on the boat.

The third time I popped over to La Familia for a refresher and decided to give the house milkshake a try. I don’t normally go in for banana flavored things. Artificial banana flavor terrifies me and I’m picky enough about real bananas to not risk it if there are options. However, after my run in with the Latakan (explanation further down), I was feeling very optimistic about a banana based drink here in Panglao. Not just a regular banana shake, it was made with graham crumbs and a touch of cinnamon. It was delightful, light, fluffy and a great blend of that creamy banana and other flavors that made me feel like I was drinking a pie.

While I was waiting for my shake, another expat struck up a conversation. I’d almost forgotten how that worked, since this was one of the few occasions on this trip I was on my own. It seems that people in pairs or groups just don’t get approached as much, but I love meeting new people, so I joined him for a chat and learned that he was called Bob, he was from the UK, and that he ran a local bar (the Ging Ging), which I never did get to try out. We talked about how we each came to be living abroad, and then we talked about the best food around. He also shared with me the best places from which to watch the sunset which led me to my second dinner at the Pearl.

Tres Ninas

After getting more accustomed to the bike, I decided to have another stab finding a roadside food stand to take something back to the room. In this endeavor, the night was my friend since only open places were lit up. I pulled into one of the larger lit up areas at what seemed to be a cluster of shops. One was selling meat on a stick, another seemed to be a place to sit and eat with drinks, and a third was selling beautiful rotisserie chickens. In less than two days on the island, I had seen dozens of chickens wandering around. Some totally free, some bound to a tree or hutch by a length of string. Either way, I felt confident the chicken I was looking at was local and free range, with no added hormones or chemicals… it went a long way in making up for the milk.

Tres Ninas is a chain of chicken stands. The one I went to is on the circumferential road on the east side just south of South Palms, but I spotted several others by the same name around the island.

Chocolate Hills

Initially we didn’t think that lunch at a major tourist stop was a good idea. These kinds of restaurants are often over priced and not even very good. Boy howdy I’ve rarely been so happy to be wrong.

Although the service and the food were slow (this is a fact of Bohol that we eventually came to accept, it’s a good idea to get to the restaurant, any restaurant, a good while before you’re too hungry) both turned out to be of excellent quality. Our server happily recommended dishes which turned out to be wonderful. We had bam-i (a kind of noodle dish) and lechon kawali (a crispy fried pork belly), with corn soup, and I had a calamansi iced tea which was strong, sweet and tart. We ate every bite, and it was the perfect amount. The whole lunch was less than 15$ (most of our meals were between 10-15$ for two, a couple splurges were in the 20-25 range. That’s not per person, that’s the whole thing and we ate good food).

The main advantage of the slow lunch service this day was that by the time we were finishing off the last bites, the rain had passed by and the sun had returned. The restaurant has large picture windows, so we watched the progress of the dark clouds the entire time we were eating. It was interesting to see them moving by so quickly.

The Dairy Box

On the way out of the adventure park, where the bumpy dirt road hit the highway, I spotted some signs for ice cream that led us just a few meters down the road to the Dairy Box.

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After my experience with the “fresh” milk the other morning, I wasn’t sure what to expect by way of any place called the Dairy Box, but I stopped to look and discovered to my delight a local sustainable livelihood program participant. The little shop was part of a movement by the government to help local businesses flourish, and so they partnered with nearby farmers to use the milk from the water buffalo nearby. There were signs showcasing the local small farmers and inside there was a plethora of dairy based treats. The ice cream was the main focus, but there were biscuits, milk candy, and snacks as well as flavored milk, yogurt and cheeses. Ok, yes, water buffalo milk, but I assure you it was delicious.

Dumaluan Beach Resort & the Lakatan Banana

There is a little grill and cocktail bar at Dumaluan which makes it especially appealing as a lazy hangout beach. I had made jokes with my sister before going that I would be on a beach with coconut drinks, but somehow I hadn’t had a single coconut based concoction up to this point. When I ordered my simple breakfast at the grill, I also got a coconut smoothie. The breakfast was simple: egg, sausage and rice, but cheap and filling. The smoothie was very clearly made from fresh coconut.

As the day wore on and we continued to nibble on snacks, I tried the fresh fruit plate. Normally I wouldn’t dedicate pages to a fruit place, but it was my first exposure to the unique Philippine banana: the lakatan.

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What I did not know about bananas… and to be honest, I probably still barely know anything. I’m used to the standard grocery store banana: the Cavendish. This type makes up something like 95% of the world’s bananas. I have always preferred to eat bananas when they’re a bright yellow with hints of green at the edges, and no brown at all. Everyone has a preference, but in my house, when the bananas got brown spots it’s time to make banana bread. I have a decades long aversion to golden yellow and brown bananas. I do not enjoy the mushy texture or the sickly sweet flavor at that stage in a Cavendish’s life. But, I do like banana bread, so there’s that. Based on my lifetime of banana monoculture, when I saw this little yellow and brown buddy on the fruit plate I was not at all interested… until it was peeled.

My expectation of a banana, even a very ripe one, is kind of off white inside, not unlike vanilla ice cream. This banana was a much deeper shade of cream, like “french vanilla” ice cream, or even custard. The only other time I’d seen that shade in a banana-like shape was in plantains, but it was clear from the easy peel and the total lack of cooking that this was no plantain. In addition to it’s beautiful color, the flesh of the fruit was bruise free. A Cavendish banana in that stage of ripening could be expected to have a light bruise or two and be very soft, but this banana was in perfect shape and still pleasantly firm. I decided to try a taste and was rewarded with the most and best in all that is banana. It was sweet, but not too sweet, and had little hints of tartness that I crave in my slightly green Cavendishes, but with a bonus creamy texture that I feel unable to describe without referencing dairy products. Why are these amazing fruits not the market standard? Probably something about shipping or they aren’t pretty enough. *sigh. If you’re ever in the Philippines, eat them.

River Cruise Lunch & Maja Blanca

20171006_111213 - CopyIt was not the best meal I had on the trip, but everything was good and it’s a buffet so you can eat as much as you like, as long as you don’t leave food on your plate (they charge 50p for leftovers to discourage food waste).

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I had more delicious pork adobo and an assortment of veggies and side dishes, but the star of the whole show was a little square of heaven called maja blanca. I had never seen or heard of this before, but I put one on my plate anyway, guessing it was a dessert, and so saving it for the end of my meal. It was easily the most amazing coconut cream anything I’ve ever had. So plain and unassuming, it was a white square that jiggled a little, which almost made me leave it behind as I’m not a huge gelatin fan. Instead I got three more squares! It’s just a coconut pudding, it’s thickened with cornstarch instead of gelatin, and maybe that made all the difference? It may also be made with condensed milk in addition to the coconut cream, and has a little sprinkling of toasted coconut on top. 10/10 would eat again.

Nikita’s Coffee Shop and Cafe

It is listed as being Western (esp British) breakfast food, well priced, and close to Alona without being on the main drag. Perfect for an early morning breakfast on my last day.

There’s not really “breakfast food” in Korea. The Koreans eat things like kimbap, or soup and rice, and that’s fine, but sometimes you just miss the heck outta bacon and eggs. I am very nearly ashamed to admit that I get breakfast at McDonald’s here, but it’s that or bus an hour to the expat bars on the beach. Anywho, there I was, enjoying my bacon and eggs and toast and coffee. It was already the fastest restaurant service I’d experienced in Bohol, and I was well satisfied with the price and portions of the morning’s special, when a middle aged British gentleman came out to apologize to me for how long the order had taken. This was David, the owner, and I hurried to reassure him that the wait had hardly been anything at all (especially in comparison to every other restaurant in Bohol). He was only slightly mollified and it was obvious that he felt his short-staffed cafe wasn’t living up to his own personal standards.

We chatted a bit more and he asked me if I’d made it out to the “virgin island” (the name of one of the island tour stops). I hadn’t, nor had I any real plans to because my research on the island hopping tours had turned me off of that option. He then told me that a nearby church runs free shuttle boats out to the island, since it’s a religious monument, and that it was a very lovely half day trip. I was both excited to hear the news, but also a bit sad, since my day plans were already spoken for, and it was my last day. Of course I could have changed, but … well, waterfalls. Plus, I hadn’t really gotten dressed or sun screened for another boat ride that might finish cooking me. The choices we make. Nonetheless, since I also wish I’d found Nikita’s Cafe earlier in my meal options, I can heartily recommend anyone to stop by for a meal and get the details on the free church boat trip.

Be Patient, Be Kind

Every time I said please or thank you with a smile, the people serving me seemed both surprised and happy. It made me think about the way that tourists I’d seen were treating the locals in the service industry. I know in many places I’ve lived that Filipinos are 3rd class workers, given the worst jobs and little to no protections. I thought of the woman I met in the Madina airport, of the nurses in Saudi hospitals who were getting yelled at for doing their jobs. Of the men who do back breaking labor and live in curfew controlled dorms and the women who clean rich people’s homes while trying not to get raped by their teenage sons (or grown fathers). Even expat restaurant owners were being treated with a level of ingratitude by the tourists here, and the locals had it worse, but no one could complain or stop serving because their livelihood depends on visitors.

I try my best to be gracious and polite wherever I can, but it struck me that here in the Philippines, my pleases and thank yous were really truly appreciated by people who were so often being at best tersely given orders and at worst being yelled at or demeaned. I did not find anyone here to be lazy, rude, or anything less than gracious and helpful. There’s no excuse for the way they are treated. Follow the golden rule, be patient, be kind, and enjoy some of the warmest people and best food you can find.


Panglao has an amazing array of food, including gourmet quality restaurants with very low price tags. In part two of Bohol: Food, I’ve compiled all the fancier restaurants I visited, but don’t worry, the dress code is still beach casual. 

Letters From China (Winter 2007-8)

A decade later, I’m in Korea suffering below freezing temperatures and I *still* ended up with a rainy Christmas instead of a white one. Let’s go back in time and look at my first snow in China. Also that winter I discovered my favorite “traditional” cold remedy, went to Xi’an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, found out I was allergic to tigers, and visited what later became my favorite temple in the world (so far). Hop in the Way Back Machine with me.


Dec 13, 2007 at 2:22pm

A couple of days ago on Monday we had our first snow. The internet’s been mostly out since then, so this is the first opportunity I’ve had to post the pics I took.

Starting out leaving my apartment going to class in the morning.

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It kept snowing all through class, and on my way home, I spotted some mischief makers throwing snowballs and took some more pictures of the snow covered trees.

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I thought the red berries were particularly striking, and the little winter sparrows were adorable.

On my way to class on Tuesday morning, I found some snowmen that had apparently been constructed the evening before, not all of them survived the students’ rambunctious winter games, but at least they look happy. (Don’t ask me why they have antlers, because I really have no idea)

Dec 21, 2007 at 11:34pm

I’ve had a cold for about a week now, which royally sucks cause its hung on through my birthday and finals week and so far three Christmas parties. Last night after a class party, I went by my regular restaurant to get some dinner. I’ve mentioned before that I go to this one place nearly every day, sometimes twice a day. The lady who works there (her name is Lian) is super nice and the food is pretty good and reasonably cheap (if a little oily). They’ve even got an English menu now, since a student translated it for us. I’ve been going there every day for 4 months, and we’re developing a friendship. We chat to the best of my limited Chinese ability whenever she’s not too busy.

I must’ve looked as bad as I felt, because she asked if i was sick, and I told her i had a head cold, but it would be ok because I had some medicine at home, which I do. She said that she never takes medicine for that, but eats oranges and drinks soup and 姜丝可乐.

Here I was sure my translation was way off, because I could swear she was talking to me about boiling coca cola. I looked at her like she was crazy (just about the same way she looked at me for drinking 7-Up when I had that stomach flu), but she kept insisting it was the best thing, and finally sensing I hadn’t fully grasped her meaning, she wrote it down for me.

I’m a curious person, and I look it up on the internet (here some credit to Adam, who was online chatting with me at the time and opened a page for me I couldn’t get to so I could discover the meaning) for jiang si ke le.

“Jiang si” is ginger, and “ke le” is cola (any of the dark cola drinks), and once I knew what I was looking for, I searched for it in English, and found several blogs mostly from other expats who had learned of it from theirChinese friends.

You take a can of Coke (opinions differ as to whether or not you can sub Pepsi or generic brand, but everyone insists you need the sugar and caffeine, so no diet!), and pour it in a saucepan to heat up.

You peel and mince/chop/grate a LOT of ginger, I couldn’t find a specific amount, but it seems the more the better and you’re aiming for at least one decent sized 2-3 inch piece, maybe more.

Then when the Coke is hot, you add the ginger and simmer for a few more minutes, pour it into your mug and enjoy! (being sure to eat at least some of the ginger pieces too)

Now, most people hear hot Coke and think of a can or bottle that’s been left in the car on a hot sunny day, but I can assure you it is nothing like that. In fact, its really nothing like Coke. But it IS tasty and it DID make me feel better for at close to 8 hrs (and even now as its wearing off, I still feel marginally better than this morning before I had it).

I went back to the restaurant this evening for dinner, and told Lian I had tried her suggestion and it really helped, and she informed me I needed to drink one cup of it every day till I was better, so I’m gonna keep going.

The only downside is that between the caffine and the ginger, your metabolism speeds up enough that you wouldn’t want to drink it before bedtime, however as a morning or afternoon pick-me-up when sick, I highly recommend it.

What’s more, its a pleasant hot drink, so even if you don’t have a cold, you can still give it a try (though I would suggest using less ginger for a non-medicinal version).

*2017 Note: I still love this remedy. The only reason I haven’t been using it this year is because Korea sells these jars of sliced ginger and lemon in honey and you just put a spoonful in hot water and bam, instant “tea”.

Jan 6, 2008 at 11:28am

I’m back from Xi’an. It was really cool, I’m really tired, I took almost a whole gig worth of photos and video, and I found out I’m allergic to tigers…

Xi’an City

These are from my trip to Xi’an in January. The first is a picture of the old city wall.

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The bell and drum towers are some of the oldest structures in the city, they date back to the Tang Dynasty, and hold HUGE instruments a bell and drum respectively, which were used in Buddhist rituals.

And because it is so far west, there is a large Muslim population in Xi’an, creating the city’s Muslim quarter.

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The city wall is the only complete city wall in China, though most cities still have remnants of their old protective barriers, Xi’an has reconstructed the entire wall. Of course the city is quite a bit bigger now, so its more like a wall around the city center, but its really amazing, and I’m kind of sad I only got night shots, because its hard to really grasp the size and scope of this wall that encircles a part of the city equivalent to downtown, cap hill and the u dist., maybe more. You can actually walk around the entire thing, and there are a limited number of gates which makes the flow of traffic in and out a little… interesting.

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Qinling Zoological Park

This was the zoo/park/safari/circus thing I went to in January in Xi’an.

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I had to ride the bus for over 2 hrs to get there, but it was pretty cool. I hope to be able to go back when the weather is nicer and things are greener. (an interesting side note, this trip was one of my biggest tests of comfort and Chinese ability, since the bus my map said to take wasn’t on the hotel’s map and I had to ask the hotel, a traffic cop, and two bus drivers all in Chinese to find where I was supposed to be, and it took three buses to get there)

We start off with the entrance walkway, which is probably way cooler in the summer, but there were lots of interesting carvings in the trees.

Next I got on a bus to drive thru the safari part. The first half was just farm animal type things, there should have been more interesting animals like giraffes and whatnot, but the weather was too cold. The second half is carnivores, and while I had read in reviews that they enticed them near the bus with meat treats, this was not true. The photos aren’t great because I had no zoom on my camera, but it really was a neat experience to have nothing between me and those carnivores but a bus window.

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Then we move on to the walking area, where you can walk around and see various animals in cages and on chains (unfortunately). Many were missing, the flamingos, the pandas, the warm weather creatures, so this part was a little disappointing, but still interesting.

And last but not least was the animal show. This was everything animal rights activists will not let circuses do anymore in America. Dancing bear and tiger’s jumping through hoops of fire, and at the end, I paid an extra 10kuai to have my picture taken with a tiger, which was by far the highlight of the trip. You simply can’t appreciate how much cat is there from a picture or even at a zoo. WOW.

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2017 Note: When I went back in 2017, the conditions for the animals were much better. The habitats were improved, there were still too many bare boring cages, but at least animals weren’t being staked out on the path with chains. I didn’t put those pictures here because I didn’t want to ambush anyone with animal cruelty photos. in addition, the circus show had shortened the tiger performance by more than half and replaced the fire with flowers, then added human acrobats to fill the time. And there was no tiger petting at the end. I’m still glad I had the opportunity to get up close to this incredible animal, but I’m very happy that China is improving conditions in it’s zoos. I hope it keeps going.

Tang Dynasty Dinner Theater

Another event from the trip to Xi’an. We went to the dinner theater, had a whole bunch of dumplings many of which were shaped like the food they were filled with, and enjoyed some beautiful dance and music.

 

Big Wild Goose Pagoda

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a 7 story pagoda that was built many centuries ago. There was a sect of Buddhists that had not yet gone vegetarian, and when they were travelling and hungry, a wild goose threw itself to the ground for them to eat, inspiring them, ironically, to embrace ahimsa (nonviolence) to the point of vegetarianism and to build a temple on the site.

We start as I get out of the taxi at the far end of the north square, which is huge.

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Then we have to walk around the pagoda, because the entrance is on the south side.

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Then travel into the pagoda all the way to the top, all 7 very narrow stories of it.

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Then to the grounds and structures behind the pagoda.

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Finally ending the day with the night-time fountain show.

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Hope you enjoyed!

Da Cien Temple

Here are the promised photos of the Da Cien temple. This is the temple that is on the grounds of the Wild Goose Pagoda, so you’ll see the pagoda too.

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The photos don’t really do the white marble justice. I’ve never felt like such a geek, but it really made me feel like I was standing in Gondor.

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There are some beautiful carvings not only in the marble, but also in sandalwood, other walls and even some that look like paintings but are actually made of carved pieces of semiprecious stones (the ones in the next batch of photos are about 5 feet tall)

Unfortunately, it was very dark in there, so the image quality isn’t great, but it was truly amazing in person. Based on our crafts system, I’d have put this room at over 6 successes, because when I walked in I just stood and stared for I don’t know how long until some other tourist walked in. It was really the kind of art you can believe is inspired by true faith!

(for those who don’t know much about Buddhism, the mural depicts the life and enlightenment of the Buddha Gautama, starting with his mother being chosen, going thru is childhood, youth, adventures, enlightenment and post-enlightenment works)

Enjoy!

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*2017 Note: the craft system referenced is a way of marking the quality of imaginary crafts in a game setting. 1-5 are considered human achievements, 5 being the best. 6-10 are considered supernaturally beautiful and affect viewers in deeper ways. By saying this art was a 6, I was describing it at having that kind of supernatural quality that affected me more than just a pretty picture.

Terracotta Warriors

2017 Note: There is no writing about the Terracotta Warriors. I didn’t get around to it before I left China, and by then I didn’t need to write it on the board, since all those stories were just a way of keeping my friends and family up to date. Thinking back on my visits in 2008 and 2012, it’s a deeply overpowering experience. Buses leave from the city center as soon as they fill up, and people call out in the parking lot advertising for the ride to the site. It’s a long drive through farm country, although I do recall passing by a replica of the sphinx and pyramid of Giza on the way. Oh, China.

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The dig sites are covered with structures like airline hangars, and even though you are indoors, the space is vast. Many statues are still where they were buried and tourists look down on pits full of excavated warriors. A few have been removed to be studied and displayed and we can see the broken pieces and the restoration in progress. You can walk around for hours before covering all the ground and no two statues have the same face. The amount of labor boggles the mind.

It’s one of those experiences where, at the time you feel like each new statue deserves it’s own photo, and you keep finding better and better angles to showcase them from, and then later on you have a thousand nearly identical pictures which simply do not capture the feeling. Because it isn’t just the artistry, craftsmanship, or even the size or number (although all those things contribute), it’s the knowledge that you are walking in the earth that these artifacts were buried in for 2000 years. Museums are wonderful, but there is something special about being at the dig site, and because of the sheer scale, and the ongoing unearthing, that’s what I got viewing the Terracotta Warriors.

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I went back to Xi’an in 2012 as part of a holiday. Some of those pictures were better, and may have been substituted for quality. And there are hundreds of photos, the best of which I’ve put, as always, over on Facebook: Campus Snow, Xi’an City, Tang Dinner Theater, Qinling Park, Wild Goose Pagoda & North Square, Da Cien Temple, and Terracotta Warriors.

As I’ve been processing all these photos over the New Year’s weekend, two things have become painfully obvious. 1) whatever I was taking pictures with in 2007 was terrible. 2) My writing style has changed drastically in the last decade. Nowadays, a weekend like the one I spent in Xi’an would have been 3-4 posts of 3000+ words each. It’s not just about the word count, though. It’s the choice to use words to tell a story that pictures may compliment as opposed to using pictures with a few words about them. The story about jiangsikele is closer to my current style of prose, but only because I had no pictures to lean on. I like looking back on my photo albums, but I think 10 years from now me is going to like reading what I’ve written about my adventures as the Gallivantrix. I wonder what will change about me by 2028.

I hope you enjoyed this throwback post, and as always, thanks for reading!

 

 

Hello Bohol: Beaches

There are a seemingly endless number of tiny beaches on the island of Panglao, and each one has pros and cons. I wanted to look at several to get a good idea of the best beaches for my tastes. While only the paid beaches (resort run) are “clean” in the sense of pristine sand and crystaline waters, the other beaches aren’t what I would think of as dirty. They do have natural debris, tree branches, leaves, seaweed, driftwood, etc, but I didn’t feel like any of them were trashed by human junk, a few pieces of litter sometimes. If you’re looking for a postcard beach, it’s better to pay the entrance fee for a resort. If you don’t care so much, just get a decent pair of water shoes and have fun!


Momo Beach

Momo was my first beach visit mostly because it was between two other stops we were making on Sunday, and it had decent reviews online.  Momo was almost eerily quiet. Despite the fact that it was Golden Week in East Asia and it felt like half of China had come to the Philippines, Momo’s only tourists besides ourselves were a diving class practicing in the shallows. There isn’t any deep swimming off the beaches of Panglao; it’s all shallow for a long way out, making it great for kids or weak swimmers, and it’s full of life which is fun for everyone.

The water at Momo was dark with the sea grass growing just beneath the surface, but it was so clear I could see all the creatures who lived there… including lots of spiky sea urchins. I waded out carefully, working to avoid stepping on anyone sharp, and tested out my underwater camera apparatus. In preparation of snorkeling, I’d purchased a phone bag that was water-safe, and a floater in case the phone strap broke. Although a cursory test of waterproofness had been done before, this was my first chance to try to take pictures underwater. It was harder than it sounds.

The touch screen worked great through the plastic above water, but went nuts as soon as the sea surrounded it. It took a while to get all the settings under control so I could launch the camera and take photos with buttons instead of touchscreen. In the end, I never did figure out how to get it to focus on what I wanted, so my underwater shots are a little hit or miss, but it was nice being able to take any at all. Along with the fields of sea grass and myriad urchins, I found a beautiful brown starfish, colored like a pointed Siamese, and managed to get a single focused photo without having to lift the creature out of the water, yay!

Alona Beach

Also on Sunday, we headed over to the famous Alona Beach. I had read that it was once a paradisaical white sands tropical beach which has become overrun with tourism and is no longer so pleasant, but I wanted to look anyway. Alona certainly is beautiful, but there is none of the quaint island charm that I found at Momo. The beach was better tended and the water cleared of sea grass and urchins, but other than a tiny marked off swimming area no larger than a pool, the ocean was covered in boats.  Just above the high tide line, the beach is lined with restaurants, souvenir shops and diving shops.

Since we were on bikes, we had to park in a lot just off the main circumferential road and walk the rest of the way to the beach. (parking was only 5p, btw). I don’t think this is as bad as the blogs I read made it sound as long as you know what you’re getting into. We passed every kind of food, drink, cultural market, and tour group set up you can imagine. I didn’t want to join any tour groups myself, but if you need a tour experience, you’ll find it on Alona beach. Ok, that’s not totally true, I did want to join one group at least to get myself out to the island with all the turtles for some snorkeling, and I found that there too.

Once I hit the beach, I walked all the way to the right, scoping out the options for dive groups. It’s not a huge place, so within a few minutes I’d reached the end. Vendors were constantly calling out, selling tours, drinks, food, pearls… so many random guys selling pearls out of a box on the beach. They may be fakes or they may be cultured pearls, but I’d say if you like them, just don’t pay more than you would for costume jewelry. I have my grandmother’s pearls, so I’m set. I did cave in and buy from one street vendor: an older lady selling fresh mangoes. It was 20p, probably more than it cost at the market, but she peeled and sliced it for us on the spot and it was ripe and delicious.

I headed back the other direction, trying to figure out which of the diving shops I wanted to patronize. I wasn’t planning on diving (I’m not licensed and also it’s super expensive), but after some internet research and asking people who’ve lived/traveled there, I found the best bet for good snorkeling without being ripped off is to join a dive group and just snorkel from the boat while they dive.

At one point, I thought about doing a tour over to swim with the whale sharks (because how cool would that be?), but as I read more about it, I came to realize that the tours at Oslob are damaging to the environment, and to the animals. Although the sharks are rarely harmed directly (though sometimes by thoughtless tourists or bad guides), the fact is that the Filipinos feed the sharks to keep them there year round as a tourist attraction which interferes with their migration, breeding, and feeding habits. It also teaches the sharks that humans are safe, which is not true outside of Oslob, and it puts them at greater risk elsewhere in the ocean. Whale sharks are gentle giants who eat only krill and plankton and have no teeth to hurt humans. As much as I would love the opportunity to swim among them, I cannot do it in a way that endangers their future as a species.

However, while I was learning about this tourism tragedy, I found a dive shop in Alona that felt the same way and offered all kinds of conservation based dive classes for advanced learners. Even more hilariously, it turned out to be the same dive shop that an old high school buddy who moved to Manila an age ago had recommended, although he’d given me the name of an instructor rather than the shop at first, so I didn’t realize until later. With all that coincidence it felt like fate. This ecologically sound dive shop is called Sierra Madre Divers (on Alona).

Inside I found a very frazzled young man running the front. I explained the desire to join a dive as snorkelers, but it turned out that every spot on every boat was filled for the entire duration of my stay in the Phillipines… by Chinese tourists. One day I’m going to get back on a holiday schedule that is not the same as a billion other people. However, he was kind enough to recommend another company. I figure all these dive shops have to know each other at least a little on such a small island, and I was more than willing to take his suggestion rather than try to filter through internet reviews searching for another by myself. He called over another young man who introduced himself as Rafi (short for Rafael) and told us he’d be happy to take us out the day after tomorrow, just show up at 8:30am.

We paused on the way back up the beach for milkshakes and as I sat on the bench overlooking the water, the most adorable tiny little girl came up to me with a ukulele and began to sing “I Wanna Be a Millionaire”.  I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of money scams in my travels. I still remember the little girl in Petra who gave me postcards “as a gift” but wanted money in return.  I like supporting the locals who are trying to make a living from the tourism trade by doing things like making and selling goods or food (the totally grown up women in Petra I made sure to buy handmade jewelry from, or even the mango seller earlier that day). I also like busking as a way to earn money, though I’m hesitant to give money to bad performers. Not only was this girl so adorable she could be on a cereal box, she was a very talented musician. Her uke work wasn’t complex, but it was solid and her voice was very nice. I am big sucker and I only wish I’d thought to pull out my camera, but she was so close, she was nearly in my lap, and I was genuinely enjoying the song so I didn’t think about filming until it was too late. Of course I gave her money, don’t be silly.

White Beach

The last beach of Sunday was another locals only kind of place. Despite being just up the coast from Alona, it was far less developed and by late afternoon it was occupied by Filipino families doing evening barbecues on the beach. The sand beneath the water was much less infested with urchins than Momo,and we waded out into a clear sandy patch where we could play around in the warm water that came only up to our hips. Some of the locals came by to make conversation, and I felt obligated in the growing darkness to lie once more about my marital status.

I haven’t done that since the Middle East, and I have to wonder if I would have done it in the daylight, but the sun was behind the trees and it was getting quite dark.  I felt exposed in the sea, even with another American woman beside me, as a man I didn’t know asked about my age and my husband. I want to believe he was just being friendly. I’ve learned that in many places the standard questions are “Where are you from?, What do you do?, How old are you?, and Are you married?” I want to be a proud single traveler. I want to scream from the mountain tops that I don’t need a man to do this. And yet, from time to time I feel less than safe admitting to my spinsterhood, as though by admitting I’m single it will become an invitation for attention I do not want, or worse be taken as an admission of promiscuity. So until the day women are safe and independent all over the world, I may sometimes have an imaginary husband in the US military to scare away unwanted male attention. Sigh.

We splashed around in the shallow water, trying to take selfies in the dark and watching the lightening pop in the distance until it got so dark we couldn’t see our bags on the beach. Looking back on it, I need not have been worried about the bags on a local beach, but at the time I didn’t know yet how things were, and although there wasn’t too much in the bags (phones and keys were with in the waterproof bags with us, money in the wallet was minimal, important ID was in the hotel,etc) it would have been a bad first day to end with them stolen. Plus we were getting more looks from the men as women and children became scarcer in the water. I still don’t think anyone would have hurt us there, but there’s never a need to take chances, and I wasn’t sure how long that lightening would stay in the distance before the thunderstorms hit. I did NOT want to be on a motorbike in the dark and the rain.

Dumaluan Beach

After getting a monumental sunburn while snorkeling on Tuesday, I figured a rest day would be in order and decided that Wednesday would be a great time to check out the “semi-private” beach at Dumaluan that had been recommended by both the hotel hostess and the taxi driver. Panglao has three types of beaches: public, private, and semi-private. Most of the very public ones are not what anyone would put on a post card, the sand has debris from the jungle and the sea, and the water has things growing in it that show it’s clean and healthy, but do not promote a turquoise tropical beach vibe. I personally find these places worth visiting, but there is also something deeply luxurious about the postcard beach experience.

There are a couple of hoity toity resorts with private beaches, and some of them will let non-guests use the beach for a day fee. Unfortunately, I found zero information on what that fee is, or which resorts do and don’t allow, or if there’s a limit, or anything really because all their websites are geared toward getting people to stay in the resort, not just stop by for the amenities. The Bohol Beach Club is supposed to be right up on the top of that list, and I had been thinking about checking it out, but when the locals told me about Dumaluan instead, I decided that was a better option.

Dumaluan is semi-private, meaning that it’s tended to and cleaned up, and there’s a small fee for use, but anyone can go. It’s attached to the Dumaluan Resort, but not exclusive to guests. The fee to enter the beach area is only 25p (about 0.50 US) and the parking fee for motor bikes is the same. Plus, there are little cabin/picnic areas you can rent out for the day. Ours was a “B” and cost 350p for the day. I only saw the B and C cabins; the B were granted an unobstructed view of the water, while the C were set farther back. I presume the A were possibly somewhere nicer and the D somewhere less desirable? I looked but never found them. The cabin area included bathrooms, showers, some entertainment options like volleyball and a karaoke room, as well as a little grill serving light meals, fruit shakes, and cocktails.

The cabin had one long table between two benches, and was covered by a thatched roof, making sure guests would have plenty of shade. There were also lots of trees around which helped keep the area shaded and cooler. Although the sun on the beach was bright, making the sand and sea pop in white and azure, there was a nice breeze and I felt comfortable in my shady seat. It seemed once again we were the only tourists there. There were people at the restaurant, in the karaoke room, and in a few other cabins, but as far as I could tell they were all Filipinos. The cabin next to ours was having a big family birthday party for one of the kids and they’d arranged to have a whole roast pig delivered in for their picnic! We were generally surrounded by (but not crowded by) happy families and playing children throughout the day.

And dogs. So many dogs. In Thailand, there was a profusion of semi-wild street dogs which (other than on Koh Lipe where an animal shelter works to keep them safe and healthy) they are generally scrawny, sick, diseased, injured, and very shy of humans. It’s sad. When I got to Bohol and saw dogs everywhere I was worried it was going to be a similar situation, but as I got settled in, I found that most of the dogs here were better cared for and while collarless, seemed to have good relationships with the humans. Someone told us that they were really family dogs who just wandered around at will. I guess they’d have to be well trained or the chickens and baby goats that also wander around unattended wouldn’t last long. Either way, however many dogs I saw, I never saw a single leash.

Many times throughout the day, a dog would wander over and hop up on a bench to lay down in the cabin. I don’t want to  judge, some people might like that. I don’t hate dogs, but I am allergic, and I also had no idea if these were trained, well behaved, or just thought they owned the park. There are safety concerns with unknown dogs when no owners are nearby. I tried to shoo them off with great difficulty several times until finally one of the Filipino neighbors noticed our predicament and told me what to say. For all the world it sounded like “sit” to me, perhaps with a less aspirated “t”? And when I said it the dog obeyed at once getting down from the bench and moving on, so it was clearly a well understood command and a well trained dog. Later on, I found a list of Tagalog dog commands, but none of them seemed phonetically similar, and the island dialect Boholano is too small to be well documented or have a Google Translate option, so I’m afraid I can’t accurately relay the “go away dog” command for I was taught that day.

The beautiful sun made the water more attractive, but I didn’t want to risk worsening my burn, so I hid under the cabin and partook of the snack bar, which was decent, but not really on par with the amazing food I had elsewhere on the island. Finally the sun retreated behind some clouds or trees, and the beach was no longer quite the burn threat. By this time the tide was in full retreat and it was amazing to see the huge swaths of land revealed. The beaches around Panglao are all very shallow for a long way out, so when the tide goes out, it really goes. I got up to have a walk around the beach and try to take some nice pictures. The clouds there are basically stunning all day, so that helps.

Kids and families played around in the wet sand, hunting down clams and other critters that had dug down during the tidal retreat. There were places where the sand was a little deeper and the water hadn’t gone out with the rest of the sea, creating miniature ponds replete with tiny fish who were trapped until the next tide returned. I waded around the shallows, but had avoided wearing my swimsuit that day to let the burn work on healing. Instead I contented myself looking at the textures in the sand, the piles left behind by digging clams and the ribbons left by the retreating waves. I found a few places where cool water came from under the sand, including one where it emerged with such pressure it almost seemed to be boiling, but it was ice cold.

There were resort workers out raking the piles of debris to keep the sands clean and white. I played a little game of how far out can you walk before the water hits your knees (quite far), and had some fun taking pictures in the glassy reflections of the tiny pools left behind.

Doljo Beach

The last beach I visited was a quick stop I made between two other stops on Thursday just to see if it was a beach I wanted to return to a different day. Doljo is another small, local, free beach that’s far away from the resorts. By the time I made it there, the tide was out, leaving a fleet of boats stranded on the wet sand, but I could tell it was still a pretty place. There wasn’t much around, a couple of huts that were falling apart and some guys selling fresh coconuts to a family of Chinese tourists. It’s small, and a little out of the way. I gather there is at least one resort over there which gets good reviews, but I would have been happy to go there when the water was higher, or even stayed with the low tide to see the sunset. It was amazingly quiet and private. However, sunset wasn’t an option for that day, since I’d already booked an evening activity, and I never did make it back, opting instead to spend my final day of holiday chasing waterfalls.

Conclusion

I think a person could easily visit 3 beaches a day for a week and not see them all. Choosing a beach on Panglao depends a lot on your goals, but regardless of your plans, I would advise:

  • looking at a tide chart because the water goes far far away at low tide and although it is still fairly shallow at high tide, it is much more beautiful and easier to swim in
  • getting water shoes because only the pay to play beaches are safe for tender bare feet (although the locals might have Hobbit blood because they don’t seem to mind)
  • using more sun protection than you think you need because you will burn. Double up, sun screen and covering clothes. The locals swim in street clothes, only tourists go in only swimsuits, so you’ll actually stand out more in a bikini than you will in a covering, skin-saving shirt.

Don’t forget to go over to my Facebook page to see more beautiful sunny beaches! Why? Because WordPress charges more for photo storage than Facebook, and I’m putting off the day I have to beg for money to supplement this blog. Enjoy!


It’s hard to reminisce about beaches in December with below freezing temperatures outside. I’ve been busy job hunting for my next posting, and while I know the responsible thing is to try to get hired for the spring semester, a tiny beach bum part of my brain can’t help but wish for a fall start and the chance to spend 5 months living on a beach in SE Asia while I wait. It seems like I’ll be ok either way, but no out of country trip this January :/ I’ll have to make do with a winter wonderland weekend in the snow instead. 

Hello Bohol: Balicasag with the Turtles

Bohol is especially well known for the excellent diving spots, including Balicasag and it’s famous sea turtle conclave. I had hoped to take a diving certification course while there this year, but alas, my root canals ate that budget and I had to settle for some stunning snorkeling instead. Join me on a little sailing jaunt under deep blue skies to a world of magical coral reefs, tiny territory defenders, and lazy giants. Bonus: this time I managed to actually take some of my own photos underwater!


Choose Wisely

When I was planning this trip, an old high school buddy who now lives in Manila told me, “you have to go to Balicasag, it’s like a sea turtle old boys club down there”. I love snorkeling, and the chance to meet amazing and rare sea creatures in their home turf is not to be missed. However, it can be tricky to make sure you’re doing the responsible thing. I had already made the decision not to see the whale sharks at Oslob because of the environmental impact on the animals, but I was excited about Balicasag. As far as I could find, there are no damaging practices that draw the turtles there, they just like it.

While trying to make my plan of attack, I read a few dozen similarly disappointing stories of snorkeling and island hopping around Panglao online, most of which shared three basic themes:

  • You’re rushed when you don’t want to be and sitting around doing nothing other times
  • You’re stuck haggling over prices and then dealing with hidden fees and expectations of tips even with lousy service
  • The standard island hopping tour is not a good way to do snorkeling

The best experiences came from people who were lucky enough to find a private boat owner to drive them for the day where and when they wanted to go (very hit or miss), or from the people who went as tag-a-longs with a diving group.

This advice led me to Sierra Madre divers (the people who published that article on the whale sharks I linked to and teachers of marine preservation diving classes). Sadly, they were booked solid for the whole week with Chinese tourists in for the holiday. The guide was very kind, despite his overfilled schedule, and introduced us to his neighbor Rafi at Valm Dive with whom we made a verbal reservation.

20171003_134327.jpgRegardless of who you choose to go with, make sure you ask about any extra fees for Balicasag. Some activities do require paying the national park fee and others don’t. It’s never fun to be caught by surprise once your in the ocean. Valm Dive wasn’t planning to go to any of the pay areas, and so we were only on the hook for our ride and equipment (mask and snorkel only, no fins. I think they would have let us use them if they had extra, but they had to supply the divers first and ran out). Total cost: 500p or about 10$ USD.

A Three Hour Tour?

20171003_082402That morning was one of the few rains that happened during our active times. On any other morning, we could have just waited for it to stop, but Rafi had told us to be at the dive shop at 8:30 and we didn’t want to be late and run the risk of losing our spot on the boat. We waited as long as possible, and it didn’t take long for the downpour to become a drizzle. Driving on the wet roads wasn’t nearly as difficult as I feared, but getting a face full of rain made seeing a little challenging. I thought again about what kind of gear to use to prevent that if I ever had to drive a real distance in the rain, but it seemed like all the locals, in addition to shunning helmets, only wore ponchos while driving in the rain, leaving their faces, and eyes, open to the wet.

Despite the rain, we showed up at the shop at 8:30 as we’d been told, and although Rafi was running around like a nut getting things ready, he spotted us eventually and gave us a friendly good morning and made sure things were set for us too.

Nothing starts on time here, and there’s no point in worrying about it. While we waited, the rain cleared up and the sky began its transition from gray to a deep vault-of-heaven blue filled with towering, crisp edged cumulus clouds. It wasn’t long after that when we all boarded the boat. This involved walking through the shallow water to a ladder on the side. I underestimated the depth and rolling up my pants was not enough to keep them dry.20171003_085545.jpg

Our boat mates included a very serious Japanese man who seemed to have a personal assistant with him taking care of his every need, but not diving herself (she was Filipina and had a tourism badge on, so I feel safe calling this as an employer/employee interaction). There was a Chinese couple who had some intense underwater photography rigs. It made me wonder if they were professional photographers on assignment. And finally and Australian couple who seemed just to be out to have fun. None of them were beginners.

A word about the boats

In Thailand we rode on the longtails nearly everywhere, and by now you’ve probably seen a few boats in my beach photos and have noticed that these boats are quite unique. The Filipino outrigger canoe style, called bangka or bangcas, is distinguished by the two slender bamboo poles on either side called katig. They help to balance the boat, and also mean the main boat needs less keel and can be lighter weight while still being ocean stable. Sailing versions are called paraw or parao. The outrigger canoe plan is most used by Filipino, Malay, Micronesian, Melanesian and Polynesian people today.

20171003_115304.jpgThe Wall

Balicasag is tiny island some 40 minutes to the south of Alona Beach. I never set foot on it, so I can’t tell you how it is. Our dive boat stopped first at a reef called “the wall” because there was a goodly stretch of shallow reef and a sharp drop off that for the divers below was actually a rising wall. We were asked to wait until all the divers were in the water and then given about 45 minutes to do all the snorkeling we liked. They pointed out some Chinese snorkelers a little bit away, and warned us about the current before turning us loose.

20171003_101601.jpgThe corals were lovely, and I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere in particular. It was my first real chance to play around with my new underwater photo taking capability. Almost as soon as we got in the water, I spotted my first turtle hugging the edge of the drop off. I did my best to keep pace with him, but especially swimming against the current, I had no real hope of catching up to a turtle, no matter how lazily he seemed to be swimming. Finally, I had to give up. I swam using as little energy as possible, but it was hard going because the current was much stronger than I was used to and it was impossible to hold still while taking a picture.

20171003_100627I wove back and forth above the stunning coral shapes, trying to get my camera to focus when I was spotted by a little rainbow wrasse, maybe 5 inches long. It was clearly watching me, swimming back and forth in front of me in quick zipping lines, and once it was sure it had my attention too, it swam straight at my face. I was honestly worried it was going to hit my mask, not for my safety, it was a small harmless fish, but worried that it might hurt itself bashing into the plastic. Fortunately at the last moment it turned aside.

20171003_102013It seemed like a strange behavioral anomaly, but the fish came back and did it several more times. As I got used to the pattern I tried to get a picture. I wish I could have done a video, but I hadn’t quite figured out the trick I needed for that with the waterproof cover.

Eventually I let it chase me away and went on exploring more beautiful coral shapes. I got so focused on getting a working photo that I drifted into a whole shoal of fish without realizing, and at one point when I looked up I was entirely surrounded by tiny flashing fish bodies, not unlike being in a blizzard. I saw larger fish in the hazy waters just past the drop off, fading in and out of the misty darkness. At one point there was a school of silver fish that were more round than narrow and as they passed between me and the dark open ocean beyond, they reminded me of nothing so much as cherry blossoms falling in the wind at night.

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Less Coral, More Turtles

All too soon it was time to swim back to the boat, a healthy challenge in the current without fins, but we made it and the boat moved off to the pick up point for the divers. They had to spend an hour on the boat between dives, but the snorkelers have no such restrictions. We were invited to head back into the water while they waited. The pick up point was not as interesting as the drop off had been, but the water was cool and refreshing and it was nice to just float around and watch the few fish that were braving the desert landscape between reefs. I saw a few more turtles there as well. Despite the poor quality of my pictures, the in person experience was captivating. The water was so clear that I could see the patterns on their shells and fins. I watched each one that passed through as they dug in the sand or chewed plant life growing on the bottom. We also saw a couple turtles surface for a breath once we were back on board.20171003_110919.jpg

The second dive site for the day was all about the turtles. The divers started getting ready well before their hour was up so they could hop back in the sea as soon as it was safe. Once more, we waited for everyone to get in and head off to the goal. Apparently, there is a sort of sea turtle metropolis down there, and we were parked over in turtle exurbs. I’d already seen more sea turtles in the first two stops than I’ve ever seen in the wild before, so I didn’t mind too much.

At first I was a little disappointed because there were still no corals like we’d seen at the first stop. I didn’t want to head too far from the boat, as my last two trips had resulted in very tiring swims against a strong current to get back and I didn’t want to risk getting too worn out in the ocean. However one of the boat hands came in the water while I was swimming and began helping me spot turtles. The first one was chased avidly by a nearby boat of Chinese tourists. A couple others passed by too far for a good look, but then a giant beauty showed up right beneath us. The guide held my elbow to keep me steady so I could try for a better photo, and then when the turtle began to swim away, he motioned me to follow and we swam under the boat to keep the turtle in sight.20171003_121442.jpg

Unlike the turtle the Chinese tourists were chasing which was close to the surface, this one was on the bottom and I was not about to try to free dive to reach it, so I don’t think we were being invasive. We followed it for a few minutes and I managed to get some of the best photos of the day as well as a short video clip. Of course, my phone in a plastic waterproof bag has an upper limit on quality, but I was excited about it.

Finally, I put the camera down and just watched. When the turtle swam on again we didn’t follow but returned to the boat where we motored over to the final pick up point of the day.

With the divers back on board, we made the return journey to Panglao. I happily gazed into the horizon watching the monumental cloud formations and being totally oblivious to the horrendous sunburn I was developing.

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If I Could Change One Thing?

Ideally, if I went back it would be with the time, money, and intention of actually getting my PADI certification and going on those dives, but if it turns out that snorkeling is on the table, then just two main changes: wear a shirt! No amount of sunscreen is enough. I think the reason I didn’t burn on the snorkel trip in Thailand is that it was overcast (and yes, UV happens on overcast days) which meant there was no reflection off the water as there is on sunny days which massively magnifies the cooking power. And get fins. Again in Thailand although it was tricky at first, it was not a hindrance to go without fins because the water was calm. But the current around Balicasag was intense, almost like swimming in one of those resistance pools, I had to swim as hard as I could just to make any forward progress at all, even gentle swimming could result in me drifting backwards.

The massive burn did teach me one interesting fact about fashion. I now know the only valid excuse for a tube top. I don’t own any, but I had to fold down a regular tank top to wear in tube top style for the next several days in order to avoid horrible pain. Thanks mom, for always making us wear shirts over our swimsuits at the beach!

Don’t miss out on the photo album over on the book of faces.

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Hello Bohol: Chocolate Hills & Tarsiers

Two of the most famous sites in Bohol are the Chocolate Hills and the adorable miniature primates, the tarsiers. No trip to the island is complete without a stop to see these unique wonders. In this post, I explore not only the famous hills, and two different tarsier sanctuaries, but also a few nearby stops like the mahogany forest, and one of the many adventure parks. As a bonus, I’ve included some native pre-Catholic mythology about the hills and the tiny monkeys.


Bilar Manmade Forest

Monday (day 3) was the longest drive of the trip, all the way from the southern tip of Panglao to the Chocolate Hills in the center of Bohol. We rode through rice fields, palm jungles, and tiny villages where dogs and chickens meandered freely and residents laid the recently harvested rice on plastic sheets on the side of the road to dry.

As the road turned inland, it passed suddenly into a strange and out of place landscape. Everything in Bohol is tropical: beaches, mangroves, jungles, rice fields. All at once we were in a temperate zone forest of mahogany trees. The sunlight was cut more than half, and the air was cool and dim. We pulled over to marvel at the view, and I realized that we must be in the Manmade Mahogany Forest.

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The Bilar Manmade Mahogany Forest is listed as a stop on many Bohol tours, and I saw on the map that it was on the road to the Chocolate Hills, so I planned to see it on the same day. I have since learned that there is no park-like infrastructure at all. The forest is simply planted around the road, and even the tour groups just pull over on the side like we did to look around and take pictures. I suppose there’s nothing stopping someone from walking up into the woods and hiking around, but there are no trails or interpretive signs. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful forest, and I enjoyed the drive through it in both directions.

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Later, I learned that part of the reason this forest is so silent and peaceful compared with the buzzing, squawking jungle around it is that the local birds and insects have not adopted the non-native mahogany trees as a habitat. The trees were planted as a way to reforest the island after some slash and burn farming tactics, and now there is a bit of a controversy from Filipino biodiversity specialists about the best way to keep doing that. As stunning as the forest is, it does explain why it felt so alien in comparison with the rest of the landscape, and highlights the reasons why environmentalism is about more than just planting trees.

Chocolate Hills

20171002_103406.jpgAfter 2 and a half hours of driving, we finally made it to the Chocolate Hills Lookout (sometimes called the Chocolate Hills Complex). There was a line of cars and vans stopping at something on the way, but they all looked like tourist groups and there were no clear signs, so we just drove around them and on up to the parking lot at the top. Motorbikes always have a separate parking area from cars here, so we pulled in and were asked for our tickets… which we didn’t have. I’m not sure if that was what we should have done in that long line of cars or not, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone, we just gave an attendant the money for the parking and tickets and she returned with our passes and receipt. We left the bikes there, and although we had to leave them unlocked, the lot was watched so we weren’t too worried.

The Chocolate Hills are a unique geographical formation found nowhere else on earth. There are well over 1,000 of these mounds in this one area of Bohol and none elsewhere in the world. The hills are soft, conical mounds covered in grass that dies and turns brown in the dry season making them look like chocolate kisses and giving them their flavorful name. No one knows how the mounds were formed, but everyone agrees it is a natural rather than manmade phenomenon.

Once Upon a Time

The mythology of the Chocolate Hills is a bit richer than the geology. There are three main myths to explain the hills among the people of Bohol. I have paraphrased them here for you.

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1) Long long ago when the land was always either baking dry, or slippery with mud and only the harvest time had green growth, there was a fight between two giants. No one seems to remember what the fight was about, only that it started to rain, and they soon began to hurl huge balls of mud at one another. The fight went on for days until both giants were exhausted. Some say they were so worn out from fighting, they simply lay down and died, but others more optimistically say that once they were worn out, the giants also forgot what they had been fighting about and resolved to be friends, leaving the field of battle strewn with their giant mud balls which became the hills.

2) Also long long ago, a giant named Arogo fell in love with a mortal woman named Aloya. In some versions, they marry and live together, but in all versions Aloya falls desperately ill and dies, leaving Arogo in terrible grief. For his love and loss of Aloya, he cried giant’s tears and where they fell, they became the hills.

3) This legend is a great deal more scatalogical, but it seems to be a favorite among children, as such stories often are. One day, a long time ago, a giant water buffalo wandered Bohol eating all the crops. The people became frustrated and so they laid a trap, piling all the spoiled food where the water buffalo could not help but see it. However, once he consumed the spoiled food, he had terrible stomach pains and… well… you can imagine what happened next? When the buffalo’s business dried out, there were the hills.

Getting the High Ground

20171002_105544.jpgWhen going to view the Chocolate Hills, there are two main scenic points, the one I went to, and another on the opposite side called Sagbayan Peak. The descriptions I’d read online make Sagbayan seem like a great place to go with kids, with a water park and giant animal sculptures and other places to play, but after a 2.5 hour drive to the Complex in Carmen, I opted not to drive to Sagbayan as well. There are other places to get a view, and there are some ATV rental places you can do an off road drive in the area, but it seems like the best way to be sure of getting a nice look is to go to one of these two peaks for a high ground advantage.

The Carmen location where I went had ample motorbike parking, and a little building with a restaurant, snack shop, restrooms and some souvenir stands, and a little off to one side, a giant staircase leading up to the highest peak for the best view. First, I took a circuit of the main building, looking out at the vistas below and peering casually at the souvenir stalls. I have given up souvenirs with my nomadic lifestyle and rely almost exclusively on photos and this blog to help me remember my travels with fondness, but I still like to see what’s on offer. Every now and then I find something I will actually use or wear.

20171002_104853.jpgOnce we completed the survey of the base level, we headed over to the stairs. I’m not a champion stair climber, but there were lots of places to stop, and a few side paths for extra sights. It’s not too much of a climb for all that it’s the tallest of the hills. Part way up is the turn off to see the “Our Lady of Lourdes” Grotto. The Philippines are mostly Catholic, a holdover from the Spanish colonization. There are churches and shrines everywhere, but I don’t mind too much as Catholic art tends to be beautiful, and no one was trying to convert me.

20171002_105639.jpgI took about a million pictures of beautiful flowers and the shifting view on our way to the top. And when I finally reached the peak,  took obligatory selfies from the viewing platform. I also went to find the not-actually-famous-at-all well with a a bell to ring the bell and make a wish. There was also a cute little backdrop on one side for people who like to pose with man-made scenery. I liked it despite or perhaps because of it’s total kitsch, but I’m glad it was off to one side and not covering the whole viewing platform.

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Why Do They Call It the ‘Rainy Season’

Standing atop this highest peak and taking in the view and the breeze, I noticed some dark clouds moving toward us. The weather in Bohol is still a mystery to me. October was supposed to be the “rainy season” and yet I’d only seen lightning from a long distance (and that close to the equator you can see a long way), our skies had been sunny.

20171002_111127-PANO.jpg Even as the week continued, we experienced very little rain. I am told that the rainy season is short but  has strong showers every day, and the hotel hostess did say that the weather was a little unusually dry for my visit, so maybe I just got lucky? Anyway, not wanting to be caught on the very top of the highest peak around if a thunderstorm hit,  we began to descend the stairs.

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On the way down, there was a family looking at something off to the side of the path and I stopped to see what it was. It turned out to be a little salamander! The diversity of wildlife, plant animal, insect, fungi, in Bohol is just stunning, but so much of it is tiny. It’s just proof that seeing the best things means being open to looking.

During the ensuing downpour, we got some lunch in the restaurant. I’ve included this meal experience in the food post, so I’m not going to describe it here, but I will say I was pleasantly surprised.

Just Another Adventure Park

With full bellies and sunny skies, we hopped back on our bikes to descend to our next stop. The parking lot attendants asked us where we were headed and advised us to be extra careful because the roads would be slippery. It seemed everywhere we went, the local people were quick to watch out for our safety and well-being.

12274756_10154324072564838_1412251690201222453_n.jpgOne of the many things I found online about Bohol was the prevalence of adventure parks. We have these in Korea too, and for some reason I still haven’t ziplined. The Chocolate Hills Adventure Park advertised a kind of zip bike, where you pedal a special bike (with a safety harness) along a zip line between two chocolate peaks. I have nothing against ziplining, it just doesn’t seem like a great way to actually see anything, so I keep putting it off in favor of taking in sights until I manage to find one in a place I’ve thoroughly explored. But this bike thing seemed unique and slow enough to get a great view with plenty of time to look around and admire the scenery instead of zipping through it.

I found the park at the end of my first, but not last, bumpy dirt road. I decided that driving on that road was the first test for any ambitious adrenaline junkie, after all, if you couldn’t navigate a dirt and rock road with uneven levels, shifting gravel, and post rain mud puddles, how could you possibly do the real adventure at the park? You can’t buy tickets to the individual rides at the front but must pay a 60p entrance fee, although they did offer to hold our helmets at the ticket office while we were inside.

20171002_145050.jpgI read online that the park had a weight limit, but we decided try anyway and see how much they actually meant it and how much was just a liability disclaimer. It turned out to be sort of both. We were each a few kilos over the weight limit, but instead of telling us straight up “no”, the staff advised us to head on up to the zip bike area and try on the harness with the safety guide to see if it would fit anyway. In retrospect, I’m not sure if this was their way of shifting the responsibility or not. I think if we’d been WAY over the limit they would have turned us away, but since we were close?

20171002_145135.jpgWe headed further in, following signs to the zip bike and were led to a steep stone stairway with the sign “fitness test starts here” at the bottom. I theorized that anyone who couldn’t climb the stairs to the starting point wasn’t fit enough for the activity, and we began the ascent. Whatever your opinions of stairs are, know that the jungle makes it harder. Humidity. Nonetheless, we persevered and made it to the top and were rewarded with a breathtaking view and a less than stellar ride attendant. I do try to give people the benefit of the doube, and maybe she was annoyed with her coworker on the radio or something else we couldn’t even see and not with us at all, but it was clear she was annoyed with something.

20171002_134923.jpgWe waited on the viewing platform, and I have to say that even though we’d just come from the tallest peak in the hills, the Adventure Park’s view was stunning. I don’t think I would have gone there only for the view, but it was certainly a nice perk. We also watched a few more tourists take the bikes out and back on the lines from the tower above us to the hill next door. The attendant at first told us that we had to wait due to lightning (the storm that had just passed us?), but then we saw people riding anyway? I’m not sure what was the deal there. I also accidentally got doused in ants trying to take a picture of the hanging trellis flowers. The ants really liked the flowers too, and when I bumped into one, they transferred from the petals to me. Thankfully, they were just small black ones, and I was able to brush them off with no bites, but it reminded me to keep an eye out for what I touch or lean on in the jungle.

Finally enough riders returned that the safety guide was able to have us try on the harnesses for size. I thought it fit. It went over my thighs and around my waist, and while there wasn’t much slack, I was starting to feel optimistic when the safety guy shook his head sadly. Although his English was not as good as the attendant’s, his attitude toward us was much kinder, and he seemed genuinely sad to have to break the news. Although the park employees were not speaking to each other in English, I finally figured out the problem was not merely the harness fitting, but where the straps landed on our bodies, especially our legs. It was disappointing, but understanding the reason wasn’t just fatphobia helped me to accept the results.

On the way back down the stairs, I enjoyed seeking out tiny treasures along the trail. Little bitty flowers, fluttering butterflies, a wee fuzzy caterpillar, an odd sideways snail and a mini mushroom. I love taking photos of tiny things sooo much.

Park for the Less Adventurous

There are a lot of opportunities to visit butterfly enclosures on Bohol as well. Initially, I planned to see the conservatory nearby, but the adventure park had their own and we were already there. It’s impossible not to compare, but I may have been spoiled by the one in Kuala Lumpur.

20171002_143134.jpgIf you’re going to the Adventure Park anyway, go ahead and visit their butterflies, but don’t go out of your way for this display. We were accompanied by a guide who had been trained to take lots of pictures for us (with our phones, they weren’t trying to sell them back to us or anything, but Asian tourists especially love appearing in their own travel photos in a way I never will) and move people through. She showed us a display on the life-cycle of a butterfly, and we got to hold a caterpillar. Then we walked through a path in a netted off part of the forest. We only saw a couple butterflies and at one point our guide threw a rock in an attempt to get on up on the top net to fly. We quickly stopped her from continuing that and said we were fine with the way things were. She said the butterflies were inactive because of the rain, but I felt like I’d seen half a dozen just climbing down the stairs from the zip bike.

There was a dead butterfly on the side of the trail which she picked up and repositioned so we could take photos. It was a little macabre, but I could tell she had been instructed to make sure that the visitors had as many photo opportunities as possible. On the way out, we posed behind butterfly wings in transparent cases to create a “trick photo” of ourselves as butterflies. It was, like many other things here, quite kitschy, but harmless fun. I’d definitely prefer a trick photo to mistreatment of living butterflies.

The experience was strange. It was small and a little dingy, and I think designed by someone who had heard tourists loved butterflies but didn’t really know how to do a butterfly garden. We never did go to the main conservatory down the road, but from everything I read on Trip Advisor, it’s almost exactly the same from the holding of the caterpillar to the trick photo at the end. I’m not saying don’t go. It’s super cheap and you might see more butterflies than we did. However, I saw a million beautiful butterflies in the wild, just wandering around Bohol and watching the flowers.

20171002_144552.jpgAfter the butterfly enclosure, we were guided over to the suspension bridge which is included in the park entrance fee already. This kind of bridge through the canopy is another very common tourist must do in Bohol, available at multiple locations. Even though I may not deliberately go looking for the silliest touristy things to do, I’m hardly going to turn it down if it’s right there in front of me. We had fun, and got a nice view of the park from the air before descending the stairs on the far side and heading back to the bikes.

Tarsier Conservation Area

20171002_164035.jpgFollowing a delightful and refreshing stop for some locally sourced buffalo milk ice cream, we headed back down the main road where were would be able to find the Tarsier Conservation Area (not to be confused with the “Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary”). Bohol is also famous as the home of the world’s smallest primate, the tarsier. There are two tarsier spots near the Chocolate Hills, and it was worth it to me to visit both, since I was already planning other road trips near each one. I’ll say now, if you can only do one, do the Sanctuary, but seeing both was nice.

The Conservation Area has a bad rap online for being too zoo-like, and I’ve seen some of the zoos in Asia, so I was wary of going at first. I had visions of tarsiers in tiny cages where people could take close up photos, or worse of them being passed from patron to patron as the reptiles so often are. I was pleasantly surprised to find no such thing going on. Make no mistake, the tarsiers here are captive, not wild, and they are part of a breeding program to restore the native population. But their everyday environment is nowhere near what I feared.

Visitors were encouraged to follow a concrete path through the enclosed forest. I saw a lot of paths that were blocked off with temporary barriers or signs which makes me think that sometimes the walking path changes when the critters need to move. There were park staff positioned along the path to help us spot the tiny tarsiers in the trees. Although photos are allowed, there is a no flash and no selfie stick rule, as well as signs all around reminding patrons to keep quiet for the little sleepy monkeys. Tarsiers are nocturnal, and so visiting hours are also sleeping hours. Each one was clinging to his or her tree under a clearly man-made roof of leaves and branches.

20171002_162736.jpgI can’t be sure if they are placed at these viewing stations or if the park simply made attractive bowers in good places and hoped. I did see one little guy hanging out in a not great viewing spot with no guide to point him out, so at least a few must be slightly rogue. We were also told they are territorial, and tend to stay in or near one tree as adults.

While it is clear that this park is an animal enclosure, a zoo for one species, I felt that it was still a pretty decent life for the critters who, while yes, had to be ogled by tourists, were at least kept a reasonable distance from the path and protected from invasive hands and cameras.

20171002_163905Whether we like it or not, tourism is the main reason species like these will survive. In fact, the growing interest in ecotourism is a big part of what’s paying for conservation in developing countries. It can be hard to draw the line between exploitation and preservation, but I think the Conservatory is leaning on the right side. Of course, the park dumps you back into a souvenir shop between the exit and the parking lot which was full of tarsier themed everything, and one shelf of wooden phallus ashtrays for no discernible reason at all.

Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary

20171006_093344.jpgSeveral days later on my way to a lunch cruise on the Loboc river, I started out extra early to make time for the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary to see how it compared to the Conservation Area. I tried to get there as close to opening as possible to beat the crowds of tourists, and I think I very well may have been the first customer of the day since cashiers had to be found, then change had to be found. It’s not an expensive tour, but like every little adventure in Bohol, it does cost a small amount to go in. I got a personal guide who walked me through a kind of netting air lock into the forest beyond.

20171006_093938While the Conservation center had been paved paths with guides stationed at each Tarsier, the Sanctuary was much more a natural jungle with mud paths through the trees. I doubt I would have gotten lost in the small area behind the building, but I certainly wouldn’t have seen as many tarsiers without my guide. The Sanctuary is closed in, but the fence and netting are very unobtrusive, designed more to keep predators out than to restrict the tarsiers. I also felt like the tarsier perches here were probably man made to encourage the critters to good viewing sites, and to make sure they were visible from the paths while being sheltered from the sun. However, where the Conservatory perches were obviously man-made, the Sanctuary perches looked far more natural, drawing less attention to themselves and who knows, maybe being more comfortable.

20171006_094314My guide quietly and confidently led me through the tangle of muddy paths, stopping every few minutes to point out a tiny sleeping primate. I was surprised at how close they were to the path after my experience at the Conservation center. While I’d been hard pressed to get any decent photos at the Conservation center, I had merely to hold up my phone to be close enough for great detail here at the sanctuary. I was worried about disturbing the little critters, so I tried to keep a reasonable distance, although more than once they were close enough for me to have reached out and touched, I know that would have been dangerous and damaging for them, so I resisted the urge. My guide was in no rush, and was happy to stand by while I got a good look at each one, and until I was satisfied with my photos. I can’t say I always had a good photo before I decided to move on, since I was keenly aware that simply by watching me back, I was keeping them awake and didn’t want to become a source of greater stress. I probably stayed at each spot between 2-5 minutes before moving on.

20171006_094405The Sanctuary jungle was also the hottest thing I did on this vacation. The trees were so close together and the netting caught the breezes, so even at 9:30 am it was sweltering hot and I was drenched in sweat the whole time. It was entirely worth it.

Tarsier Mythology and Preservation

20171006_094201.jpgIt was so peacefully quiet and there were no other visitors in the park so I felt very special getting to have this beautiful jungle and adorable creatures all to myself. I talked to them in soft reassuring tones like I was trying to sooth a scared kitten, and I have no idea if that was effective at all or just my own human oddness, but it was so obvious that they were watching me back, I couldn’t help but wonder how many myths of goblins or fairies these peculiarly shaped animals inspired. Their eyes are so large in comparison with their heads and yet the gaze is penetrating. Their hands are smaller than a newborn, but their fingers long and deft with large pads at the tips like a lizard or a frog.

In the west, these creatures have inspired fictional characters like Yoda, Gizmo (the Mowgwai), and the very popular Furbies. But in the Philippines, a deep superstition that pre-dates the Spanish colonization (and has never been fully eradicated by Catholic conversion) holds that forest spirits who dwell in the Balete Tree keep the Tarsier as beloved pets. Although there are very few of these trees left, the superstition has not wholly passed out of practice, and some of the early conservationists mentioned this myth in concerns over the mass capture and killing of the Tarsier that until recently had become normal in Bohol.

Thankfully, they are now a protected species, no longer for sale in every market, and where they are on display to the public, their environment is protected from two and four legged predators while raising money for increased preservation efforts.

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Feel free to check out the full albums of the Chocolate Hills and the adorable tarsiers over on my Facebook page 🙂


It’s December in “real time” here in Korea and I’m mostly occupying my time with end of year chores and dentistry. Looking over my photos, it’s clear I didn’t do nearly as much exploring inside Korea as my first year, and so I’m looking into some winter festivals that I missed out on before. And although January is our holiday time, I may be postponing my next out of country trip depending on what my next contract holds. While things are up in the air, I’m going to be a bit of a money saving homebody, but I have no doubt that some kind of adventure will come my way soon. Until then, I’ll keep publishing the Bohol stories and the China throwbacks. Thanks for reading! ❤

Letters From China (Holidays 2007)

As the year slides to it’s final months, let’s take a look back a whole decade and see what my very first holiday season overseas was like. In many ways it seemed like western holidays were a bit of a novelty in China (not unlike how Chinese New Year is in the West?). Thanksgiving Dinner specials at expat restaurants were the only place to find turkey and cranberry sauce; and Christmas was entirely bereft of religious overtones (not a single nativity, angel, or baby Jesus anywhere!) focusing instead on Santa, beautiful lights, and fun gatherings, which since I’m not actually Christian are really my favorite parts. Happy Holidays!


Nov 23, 2007 at 10:21pm [American Thanksgiving]

It was strange to celebrate this holiday so far from home, but it turned out pretty good.

I had a class in the early morning, so we headed into Beijing after lunch. We did some shopping, and stopped for coffee in a shop that was playing Christmas muzak, which was vaguely cool.

We had reservations at a place called Grandma’s Kitchen, and we had a small map to it on the back of thier card. The interesting thing here is that it was in a Soho compound, and there are about 80 of those in the city, and the girl who made the reservations thought it was the one at Dawanglu, when it was actually at Yong’anli, 2 subway stops over. I managed to figure out what part of the city it was in from the map, but even in that complex there were like 7 Soho buildings, labeled by giant letters in front (I should have thought to take a pic, but we were lost). It took us quite a while, and three times asking directions (in Chinese) to get there, and then one of us (Kevin) had to go back to the subway station to meet Michelle, because she was meeting us there and went to the wrong place.

After much adventure, we all arrived. The place was empty at first, although by the middle of our meal it was packed. I was really surprised to see so many Chinese people there for the holiday dinner. The menu included a full 5 course dinner, not all of which was traditional American T-day stuff, but it was all tasty.

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The first course was a choice of bacon wrapped shrimp or stuffed mushroom, I ordered the shrimp, but traded one out for a mushroom. Both were good. The second course was salad, I got the spinach and pear, it was also nice. The third course was awesome, a rich pumpkin soup.

The main course included turkey with gravey, sweet potatoes which were mixed with a touch of cinnamon and the white thing on top is a marshmallow with a little lemony bit in the middle, which was a really nice combo with the cinnamoned yams, carrots (mediocre), bread stuffing that I avoided, cranberry sauce which was quite nice, and for no apparent reason, baked beans (they were out of mashed potatoes). And I chose the pumpkin pie for dessert, which was almost, but not quite, as good as mom’s.

Over dessert we went around and said what we were thankful for, and for me this included my friends and family at home who support me in my crazy life, finding a decent job here in China, and finding good people here to share the experience with. We told stories of Thanksgivings past, and generally had a really good night. I took some pictures of us, and had some pics taken so you could see the people as well as the food.

From left to right its Bill, Kevin, Michelle, Erwin and me.

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I love and miss you all, I hope you had wonderful Thanksgivings wherever you were.

Dec 4, 2007 at 9:28pm

Although I have actually seen a couple Christmas trees around town (amazing though that is), I decided the only real way to have my fill of Christmas spirit was to decorate!

So I went to Wal-Mart and got a little plastic tree (20 kuai), and a string of lights to put on it… (16 Kuai), and some cute little painted pine cone ornaments (honestly the most tasteful ones available, most were gawdawful plastic do-dads, there were some nicer glass ball types, but they were too big for my mini-tree), and a Santa topper (ok, not really a topper, its really an ornament that I cut the string off of and poked a hole in the bottom of so I could shove it on the top of the tree, but hey…14 kuai)

However, the lights were blinkey, and not in a nice way, in a terribly erratic way, and like so many Chinese things, they were broken 5 minutes after I got them, and the middle of the strand stopped lighting at all, I have no idea why. So I went to the local store and bought new lights in the shape of little presents, which I like much better. (10 kuai)

And so as not to waste my blinky lights, I hung them in my window which faces the street to spread my Christmas cheer to all passers by.

Dec 16, 2007 at 7:21pm

Its been strange, building up to Christmas in a place where every street isn’t lined with decorations, houses aren’t competing for the biggest, brightest light show, department stores aren’t spouting Christmas carols 24/7 and there are no bell ringing Santas out front of the grocery stores. Some days it seems like it must still be November.

There are a few trees and decorations here and there, plastic trees and paper Santas. I’ve got a tree, of course, and my window lights, which are the only Christmas lights on display I’ve seen in Yanjiao.

I went to Wal-mart in Beijing today, though and there are bigger trees. It looked like some workers were setting up a light display, and there was even a store that had reindeer out front.

I treated myself to a gingerbread latte at Starbucks, and sat amid the Christmas music and decorations and almost felt like I was just in another city in America… almost.

But one of the amazing things I noticed in the middle of all this complete lack of Christmasosity (I can’t even find candy canes), was that my students, 20+ tho they may be, are like little children about Christmas. Its still magical and amazing to them, because they haven’t done it every year of their lives.

I downloaded some classic Christmas tv, like Charlie Brown, Frosty, Rudolph and of course the Grinch (the good cartoon version), and as I sat in the darkened classroom, watching these cartoons for the umpteenth time and taking some solace in the sameness and familiarity of them, I realized something really amazing.

As I sat there listening to my students laughing out loud at the Grinch’s dog Max *for the first time in thier lives*, it was an amazing experience for me to hear that laughter and realize that these young adults were enjoying Christmas tv for the first time.

Say whatever you want about Americanization, cultural pollution or even the evils of Christianity, but the fact is, I’m not Christian, and Christmas is older than America, and whatever these kids have in their own culture, there isn’t a winter holiday that’s getting pushed aside to make room for Christmas, so if they can find out from me that Christmas is joy, and cheer and goodwill and cookies, then that makes me pretty darn happy.

Dec 17, 2007 at 9:37pm

Despite the fact that most of you seem to have forgotten I’m in the future, and that today was my birthday… and more gruelingly the fact that I’ve got a horrible cold, and that I’ve finally broken into my third decade, as my mother was so kind to point out, and its freezing cold and I had to start giving finals today… it turned out to be a good birthday after all.

The morning was ok, I woke up too early, but it gave me some extra time to chat online. All my students wished me a happy birthday at the exam this morning, and a couple even gave me presents. One boy gave me some dried fruit snacks and a girl gave me a lovely Peiking opera mask miniature of the monkey king.

100_0693After the exams I went to lunch and enjoyed some hot soup, then came home to grade papers, not really thinking much of the day. The school sent over a cute little cake which i decided to hold on to until I could share it with some folks at dinner tomorrow. I graded papers, looked at more evil forms and watched some X-files, all the while becoming more icky feeling and more cold.

Finally it got to be time to go to my evening class, which I didn’t want to go to cause I’m tired and sick and have to be up super early tomorrow for another final. But I drag myself across campus in the cold, I get up to the 9th floor and see one of my students going into the classroom and closing the door behind her.

I thought, ‘well that’s odd, I could swear she saw me’. Then when I tried to go into the room, another student asked me to wait outside, and when they finally let me in, they had prepared a birthday cake with candles and everything, and they sang me “happy birthday” in English and Chinese.

I couldn’t blow out the candle on the first try (probably because of my cold) but on the second try I actually blew it over (fortunately it was out first). The cake said “We ❤ U” with a picture of a heart, and was decorated with a huge frosting Santa. The cake was quite large enough for everyone in class to have a big piece. I didn’t have my camera, but several of the students took pictures on their phones and I asked them to email the pics to me, which I’ll post once they do. *(they never did)*

I honestly don’t remember the last time I had a surprise party. I’ve been organizing my own birthday parties for so long I figured here I am so far from home and I haven’t invited anyone to celebrate with me, so nothing will happen. It was so sweet and thoughtful of these students to organize even a simple cake and singalong that I feel like I really have had a happy birthday, in spite of some pretty overwhelming odds.

If this is anything to go on, I hope the whole decade is full of such happy surprises.

Dec 19, 2007 at 11:17pm

Wow. I have just gotten back after 4 hours of dinner and party.  The dinner was held in the hotel next door, in a huge room decorated with a Christmas tree and other festive decorations. We had so much good food, most of which was far less oily than my usual, and they even had french fries, which were fun to eat with chopsticks. They also had lots of booze, wine, beer and baijiu, as well as a homemade “wine” from one of the women there.

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It actually turned out to be pretty fun, as every 2-3 minutes someone else came by our table to make a toast, so we all got pretty toasty. We sang a Christmas song, and the Chinese sang us a song about friendship, then we went across campus to see the show the students had prepared.

The show was put on by the business department, so none of my students were there (there’s another party on Sunday night for that, I hear). There was singing, dancing, and performances by many unique instrumentalists (both the instruments and the players were unique).

There was a student dressed up as Santa Claus who gave us all Christmas cards and candy (I even got a Santa hat!).

I’m going to have to buy more batteries so I can take pictures of the parties in my classes and the one on Sunday night, as well as our ‘teachers only’ dinner on Christmas eve.

I thought for a while that I would miss out on Christmas by being here in China, but the faculty and students have gone out of their way to make us have a good Christmas, and even though the traditions aren’t quite the same, I definitely feel full of Christmas cheer.

Here’s the show: dancing girls, rapping guys, singers, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument, accordion player, and a whole crowd of audience.

 

The students threw glitter and spray snow all over the teachers.

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Dec 26, 2007 at 5:20pm

I had 6 parties in all, one you’ve already seen was the department party, then there were 3 class parties and a school dance, and our teacher dinner. This post will have 2 of the class parties (the third one wasn’t much to look at), and the school dance.

Here’s the first class, they’re advanced conversation. They went to town decorating the room.

Here’s the school dance, I was warned it was going to be like a middle school dance with the girls on one side and the boys on the other, but there was a performance, which I missed most of because Kevin wanted to get drinks first.. the VP of the college asked me to sing. I couldn’t exactly refuse, so I sang one verse of silent night. And I got dragged out to dance quite a bit, and I noticed how much the smog affects me, since my lungs stayed on fire way worse than even at the Merc [a Seattle dance club]. But it was fun, and there was certainly lots of dancing.

And here is the last class party, once again, there was an abundance of decorating. In both cases the class monitors brought speakers to hook up an MP3 player to so we had music, people brought snacks and decorations, I brought Christmas bingo, a puzzle game and taught them some Christmas carols, including the 12 days, which was hilarious, at least for me. There was also dancing in the classes as well. They really like singing and dancing.

Merry Christmas from all the Chinese kids!

Dec 29, 2007 at 2:53am

The long awaited Christmas Eve Dinner. We went to a place called Cafe Europa, it was in the same giant shopping complex as Grandma’s Kitchen, but a totally different atmosphere. It was elegant, but not overstated, which was nice, since so many Chinese Christmas decorations are like 5 yr old meets raver kid style. There were 9 of us, and 9 is an auspicious number in China, so who knows, maybe we get some good luck.

Erwin, Michelle, Rebecca, Jonathan, Bill, Peter, Terry, Louise and myself.

It was a pleasant evening, the restaurant never got too crowded or noisy, but we weren’t the only people celebrating. We had some champagne and beer, and a (mostly) pleasant conversation, tho toward the end it devolved into “first date deal breakers” thanks to Peter.

The menu was very nice. We started off with a small foie gras appetizer, served over a tomato vinaigrette salad, entirely too many people were hesitant about the paté, but I thought it was lovely. This was followed by a salmon appetizer with a quail egg and salmon roe in addition to the normal onions and capers. This was my first salmon since leaving Seattle and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. Then there was a lobster bisque, nice and rich.

Followed by I think the biggest pile of prime rib I’ve ever been served, huge thick slices, tender and well seasoned. YUM! It made me glad I hadn’t eaten much all day. Dessert was a mousse plate, there’s a white chocolate mousse which tasted a lot like devonshire cream, in a chocolate dish, and a milk chocolate mousse with raspberry sauce.

On our way back to the main road toward a taxi, we passed these pretty lights and Peter redeemed himself by singing Christmas carols in harmony with me, which was fun.

Christmas (11)

When we got back to Yanjiao, we went to a local bar and stayed out drinking until 4am. (the people working there kept going to sleep behind the bar between rounds, but they never asked us to leave) I somehow got roped into doing tarot readings with a deck of playing cards, which amused everyone, and we finished off the evening with a rousing game of “I never”. Maybe not the most Christmassy ever, but there was a big tree decorated and lit up in the bar, and we had a toast at midnight to welcome Christmas in.

I won’t say that it hasn’t been hard to be away from you all during the holidays, but given the circumstances, I had a pretty good Christmas.


It makes me cringe just a little bit to read how totally Americentric and culturally illiterate I was back then, but on the other hand, it was having experiences like these that helped me grow into the person I am now. We all have to start somewhere. Who knows, maybe in another ten years I’ll look back on my current blog entries and groan.

I can also see the slow detachment I’m having from Western holidays. I still like going to expat dinners, and I definitely still like decorating my home for Christmas, but every year it’s easier to focus on the holidays that the country I’m in is celebrating rather than pine for the celebrations I’m missing. Buddha’s Birthday has been one of my favorites here in Korea when everyone decorates in beautiful lanterns.

However you celebrate, and whoever you celebrate with, I hope you have some very happy holidays this year!