Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Filipino Cuisine: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Filipino cuisine is an eclectic blend of Chinese, Spanish, American and of course native cooking. I’m suddenly starting to realize during this trip that I’m actually not that big a fan of Filipino food. There are some things I like of course but in general, I just don’t really care for most it. For one thing, it’s not the healthiest diet in the world. High blood pressure and heart disease is pretty common in this country and it’s easy to see why. I have high blood pressure myself and on one of our trips I remember Lola telling me “Riccardo, I am worried about you drinking beer with your high blood pressure” and all I could think was “Jesus, everything you serve me is deep fried and layered in salt and you’re worried about me drinking a beer?!” 

I’ve always thought it was interesting to compare and contrast the Philippines with Japan: both island nations, both reliant on fish and rice as their main food source however the similarities end there. Japan, one of the healthiest countries in the world,  eat their fish and seafood raw or grilled while Filipinos deep fry everything and add tons of salt and MSG to everything. Not only that, the fish they eat here are the more trashy kind like tilapia and bangus which are raised in muddy ponds, most of which are found on farms so the animal feces seeps into the water. This is the main reason I refuse to eat tilapia. Tilapia seems to have become a fad fish in the US these days probably because it has an exotic name and is so cheap but if most people knew the disgusting conditions they are raised in, nobody would be eating it. 

Pork is king here in the PI and, true to their nature, they eat it in the most unhealthiest way they can think of. Popular pork dishes here are things like crispy pata which is basically a ham hock but of course it’s deep fried and usually served with a soy-vinegar sauce. Then there is lechon kawali which are deep fried slabs of pork belly. Another hugely popular pork dish here is sisig and is probably the worst sounding one of all – it’s made from the ‘throw away’ parts of the pig such as the face, the ears, snout, etc., they fry it all up together with onions, chilis and garlic and serve it on a sizzling plate and then crack an egg over it so that the egg sort of cooks into the dish. I’ve tried all the above and they are all very tasty (yes, even the sisig) but I have to avoid them here because they would send my cholesterol and blood pressure skyrocketing into orbit. 

Lechon kawali; basically fried pork belly.

Pork sisig; looks delicious until you realize it is ground up pig ears, belly, snout and cheeks.

Chicken is probably right up there with pork in most of the PI as it’s cheap and easy to raise chickens. Of course the most popular way to cook and eat chicken here is…you guessed it, fried. Fried chicken most likely became popular here due to the presence of the American military; as the story goes, African American soldiers taught the Filipinos how to fry chicken the American way and the rest is history. Filipinos also love to eat the heads and feet of the chicken. I’ve never tried the heads but I have tried chicken feet and I don’t like it at all – there’s no meat, it’s just collagen and bones. Virginia eats it occasionally and has actually gotten Max hooked on it. Weird kid. Of course everybody knows about chicken adobo which is absolutely delicious but again, extremely high in salt/sodium so I mostly avoid it here. Back home Virginia makes it often and her recipe is phenomenal but she usually makes a version much lower in sodium so I can partake. For those who have never tried it, adobo is basically a dish of meat braised in a mixture who main ingredients are soy sauce and vinegar along with other herbs and spices. Chicken is the most popular meat to use but they do it with pretty much every meat you can think of here. The best is when they put the small potatoes in it because the potatoes suck up ll of the amazing sauce while it cooks. The other night Virginia’s brother Bobby made duck adobo and it was delicious. The Filipino chicken barbeque is one of my favorites; they marinade the chicken in a combination of banana ketchup, sweet chili sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar and either calamansi or some kind of lime soda (Bobby uses Sprite), then they grill it up on wooden skewers. The sauce isn’t the healthiest I’m sure but it’s so good that I eat it anyway. Hey, at least it’s chicken, right? I’m a big chicken guy and I love me some chicken but the issue I have with a lot of the dishes here (not just chicken but pretty much every other meat dish) is that they usually cut up the animal fresh which means the meat is all on bones. It’s difficult to eat like that because you have to pick up a piece with your hand and sort of gnaw at it to get the meat off. When I eat meat dishes, I like to just shovel a big forkful into my mouth and enjoy all the flavors together without having to try and pick the meat off the bone. First world problem, I know. 

The ubiquitous chicken adobo

Then you have the old Filipino standbys – pancit and lumpia. Pancit is basically a dish of glass noodles cooked with some soy sauce with tons of vegetables and some kind of meat. It’s probably the second most popular staple here after white rice and if you ever go to a Filipino party, you will no doubt see a giant bowl of pancit. I am personally not a huge fan of pancit. I don’t hate it, I just find most pancit rather bland and lacking in flavor. Virginia makes it really good as she uses dark soy sauce which gives it a bit of complexity in the flavor (dark soy sauce is more intense and robust in flavor) but for the most part I don’t eat much pancit. 

Pancit: a Filipino staple

Lumpia are right up there as a Filipino staple and quite possibly the most recognizable Filipino food, along with adobo. As an added bonus, it’s also fun to say – “loom-pia”. Lumpia are basically the Philippines answer to the Chinese egg roll. Now, full disclosure; I personally don’t care for the way most Filipinos make their lumpia. They normally use too little filling and too much wrapping so when they deep fry them, they end up tasting like a glorified wanton. When you get a good lumpia however, they are delicious and, as usual, Virginia’s are the gold standard as far as I’m concerned. I am obviously biased as she’s my wife but people who have tried her lumpia would agree with me that they are the best they’ve tried. It’s not just by accident though, she has spent literally hours upon hours working on her lumpia recipe over the years. She works on every little detail – the marinade for the meats and vegetables, how thick to make the wrappers, etc., she leaves no stone unturned. She also makes hers a bit bigger than average so each one is a mouthful (that’s what she said). She started selling them at a few of our previous duty stations and was completely inundated with orders, so much so that she couldn’t even keep up with the demand. She makes them with pork, beef or chicken but I often find her vegetable ones the tastiest (she uses bean sprouts which I love). Lumpia are usually served with a sweet chili sauce but the absolute best dipping sauce we have found for her lumpia is the La Choy brand of sweet and sour sauce. We’ve tried other brands but not even close, it HAS to be the La Choy brand sweet and sour sauce. I remember our first year on the beach here, there was an old Filipina woman walking the beach selling homemade lumpia. I just HAD to buy some, thinking they must be great if you buy them here in the Philippines, but they were awful, almost no filling at all, just fried wrappings with shreds of carrot and the occasional speck of meat. Lesson learned. I tend to not eat a lot of fried food so I tried cooking Virginia’s lumpia in my air fryer due to my buddy Ramsey’s suggestion and they actually came out fantastic. And much healthier!

Virginia's lumpia; she has spent hours perfecting her recipe and people go crazy for them. One trick is to stand them up after frying so the oil drains and they remain crispy.

One of the best things about this country are the fruits and vegetables. The vegetables are mostly what we have back home but the fruits are off the chain. They have fruits here that I’d never even heard of such as rambutan (my favorite) and lanzones. Vegetable dishes are very popular here but in true Filipino fashion, they make them as unhealthy as they possibly can. For example. the other night they brought home some kind of green leafy vegetable which are some of the healthiest foods on the planet and I eat them as much as I can so I was eager to try them and told Lola as much. A little while later she came out to the bungalow with a plate of the greens but she had sauteèd the greens in a huge amount of oyster sauce which is loaded with sodium (are you sensing a trend here?). I took one bite and declined the rest. My favorite vegetable dish here is called Pinakbet and it’s a specialty of this region (Ilocano). The most popular ingredients are bitter melon (empalaya), eggplant, green beans, okra and pumpkin or squash, then they spice it up with garlic, ginger and onions. The Filipinos then ruin it by adding ‘bagoong’ which is a fermented shrimp paste. The Filipinos LOVE bagoong and put it on everything so one time I asked to try it and sweet fancy Moses did I regret it. It was like taking the top off of a salt shaker and pouring it down your throat. There was not enough water in the world to get that taste out of my mouth. Virginia makes pinakbet all the time back home but she leaves the bagoong out so it’s actually an extremely healthy dish and I eat the hell out of it. My favorite is to eat with some sardines. Another huge favorite that Virginia turned me onto is called Laing (La-ing). Laing is basically the leaves of the taro plant (though you can use most any green, she uses collards back in Germany since we can’t get taro leaves) which are very slowly simmered in coconut milk. They add garlic, chilis, lemongrass (a personal favorite), shallots, ginger and some kind of meat such as little bits of pork for flavoring. Locals use the bagoong but of course Virginia leaves it out. Laing is one of my absolute favorite Filipino dishes, it’s like a flavor explosion in your mouth (that’s what she said).  

Pinkbet, my favorite Filipino veggie dish

Laing, one of my all time favorite dishes anywhere.

The Ugly (these are the worst dishes, most I won’t even touch):

Filipino Sweet Spaghetti. Filipinos LOVE sweet stuff. The love all kinds of desserts, they love sodas, they put sugar in everything…including their spaghetti sauce. They will do a red sauce with ground beef or pork but then they will add sweet banana ketchup to the sauce and they put hot dogs – yes, HOT DOGS – in the sauce. Then they will put some shredded cheddar on top. It is disgusting however, it does make pretty good drunk food after too many Red Horses. 

Sweet spaghetti with banana ketchup and hot dogs, a Filipino tradition I just cannot get into...unless I am really drunk.

Dinuguan. Simply put, this is a stew made of pigs blood and pig offal (intestines and other internal organs). I’m pretty adventurous and there’s not much I won’t try at least once – I have even tried balut twice – but I draw the line at blood. The Filipinos love it though, it is extremely popular here. 

Chicken heads. These are basically marinated chicken heads with the comb and beaks removed (sometimes). My wife’s family cooks these on the grill all the time and I just don’t get it. Seriously…how the hell do you even eat a chicken head? I remember my first trip here when we were staying at the wife’s family place in the provinces. I decided to go for a walk one afternoon and I came upon some young Filipinos cooking on the grill. The guy cooking asked me if I wanted to share some barbeque with them, I looked at the grill and it was two chicken heads on a wooden skewer and a few chicken feet. Needless to say, I passed. 

Barbequed chicken heads: WTF. 

Balut. Perhaps the most famous ‘bizarre food’ in the Philippines, balut is a fertilized duck egg that is incubated somewhere around 14-20 days and then steamed. The longer they are incubated, the more chance you have of getting an egg with features of the duckling starting to show and it’s not uncommon to eat balut that has feathers or a bit of beak starting to form. What they do here is crack open the top, sprinkle a little bit of salt and vinegar, then drink the juice that was formed by the cooking and then just eat the duck embryo whole. As I said earlier, I have actually eaten balut twice, if only to show Virginia’s family that I’m not a wuss, and it was surprisingly not as bad as you would think. Tasted mostly like a hard boiled egg, just with more crunchy bits. I have no desire to eat it again unless of course Virginia’s family throws down the gauntlet, in which case…it’s on. 

Obviously the food in the Philippines is much more diverse than just the handful of dishes I’ve listed here and, like most countries, tends to be regional. Just thought I’d give people who have never been here an idea of what some of the cuisine is like…

Friday, July 15, 2022

Philippines 2022 Part 5: The Mother of All Walkabouts

Saturdays are really busy on the beach as people usually have the weekend off so yesterday was pretty packed as I discovered during my walkabout. My thinking was that Saturday is the busy day here at the beach and Sunday is more of a rest day since there are so many religious people in this country. Today I found out how incredibly wrong I was. I woke early and prepared to take my usual seat in the bungalow while I sipped my daily buko but I was dismayed to find that my bungalow had been taken over by a group of young Filipinos. I considered going and sitting down just to display that this is my domain but Lola informed me that she rented the bungalow out to them for the day which meant I was resigned to the house and nipa hut until they were scheduled to leave at 1500. I was not pleased with this but I figured I would not make waves and let Lola make her money. She rented it to them for 500 pisos which is about 9 bucks and I would have gladly given her the 500 pisos if it meant not losing my favorite spot for the day but whatever. Instead, I had my buko and coffee on the table next to Lola’s store, took my shower and changed and was planning on hanging out in the nipa hut so imagine my surprise as I passed by our dirty kitchen and saw a bunch of strange people in there cooking food and putting stuff away. Walking a little further, our nipa hut had also been taken over by strangers and Lola told me she had just rented the nipa hut and kitchen out for the rest of the day and night to a group of Filipinos from the US who are here on vacation. My first thought was WTF, where the hell am I supposed to hang out all day and night? If I was not pleased about losing my bungalow for the day, you can imagine how I felt about losing everything else for the day (and night). “Let it go”, I told myself. “Let’s just go to the Lazy A and get a club sandwich and relax.” And so I did. 

Sari sari store full of Emperador getting ready for the weekend!

I realized right away that Sunday is not a rest day here, it is “family day” as Lola calls it. On Sundays, rather than go to church, everybody comes to the beach to spend the day worshipping a different kind of trinity; eating, drinking and karaoke. As I walked to the Lazy A, every single shed on the beach was packed and overflowing with parties, probably as crowded as I’ve ever seen it. I knew instantly that there would be a walkabout in my near future. I got back to the beach house around noon, the group was cooking stinky bangus on the outdoor grill, I started chatting with them and it turns out they are from San Francisco and they are all Golden State Warrior fans because of course they are. For those who don’t follow sports or the NBA, the Warriors recently beat my beloved Boston Celtics for the NBA title, a fact which this group relished in reminding me of several times. Eventually I just had to get out of there which meant it was time to go walkabout. 

It started out well, I hadn’t gone more than 3 or 4 sheds down when I heard the melodious sounds of Filipinos butchering some random song in English so stopped and smiled and instantly was being whisked into the shed by the group. They were an entire family and the guy who seemed to be the head was a character, shirtless with tattoos of his wife and daughter, missing half of his teeth and hair braided into cornrows but he turned out to be the nicest, coolest guy. He introduced himself as Jerry. Everyone would not stop offering me food and shots of Emperador. I told them I don’t like Emperador but would have one shot with them which I did and it was just as nasty as I remember it. They wanted me to do another but I told them I would stick with San Mig Light. The guy introduced me to everyone in his family – his wife, his grown daughter, his brother, his brother’s wife, his friends, everyone. Everyone was half drunk and having so much fun I decided to stay but there was one small problem; the guy’s sister in law was completely drunk and even though she barely spoke English, she kept telling me, “Sir…I want thank you for coming to our party…” I kept saying it was my pleasure but she just would not leave me alone, to the point where everyone there was laughing and joking about it. After about an hour and several songs on the karaoke, I decided it was time to move on so I told them I had to go, they begged me to stay so I told them I’d be back later and headed out. Turns out I only had to go a couple sheds down and I was dragged into another party, one which included 3 or 4 baklas. As you can imagine, I was an instant hit with the baklas who wanted to know everything about me – where was I from, how long was I here, was I married, how old am I, etc. They shoved the songbook in front of me and asked to sing whatever I wanted so I went with the old standby, Country Roads and they all went crazy, signing along in their broken English and clapping their hands. The party was on. Every song I did sent the group further into a frenzy as they all recorded my every move on their phones and giggled to themselves in Tagalog. 

Big Jerry, the leader of the band.

On our previous trips, smartphones weren’t as prevalent as they are now here in the Philippines but now everyone has one and everyone records me when I join their parties and sometimes I wonder exactly how many videos of me doing karaoke on the beach exist out there on the interwebs. Quite a few I’m guessing! It will probably be my lasting legacy…

Anyway, in between songs, I went to the sari sari store a couple sheds down to get another cold San Mig Light and as I did so I was besieged by another group who heard me singing in the shed next door and wanted me to come drink and sing with them. “Just wait”, I told them, “I’ll get to you guys next!”

This was starting to get insane. 

I finished up with the bakla shed and popped into the other one, the group didn’t seem all that fun so I told them I’d do one song and then had to go. Of course, one song turned into three as it so often does. One woman even requested “Save the Last Dance” which is one of my favorite songs to listen to AND to sing so I had fun with that one. Afterwards I grabbed another SML from the sari sari store there and a familiar face greeted me – it was Belaine, the woman who used to manage the resort part of the Ocean Breeze years ago before it got sold. See, in addition to the actual bar, Peter also had a bunch of bungalows and sheds that he rented out as well, Belaine managed it all and he took good care of her financially. She lived on the compound with her husband, Terry. Both of them were great people and I always wondered what happened to them when the bar was closed. Turns out Belaine runs a sari sari store on the beach and Terry, I assume, still does odd jobs, construction work, etc. We caught up for a bit and then I went back into the shed for another song before taking off to find my next adventure.

 By this time I had a pretty good buzz going so I just hit shed after shed as I made my way down the beach. In one shed, there was a girl singing “I’m your Lady” by Celine Dion and I mean this girl was belting it out, hitting the high notes and everything so I had to go in and see for myself…turned out it was a bakla! I took a short video of him singing and then started chatting with the guy there who spoke English and was wearing a Seattle Seahawks hat. 

I left and continued walking and sure enough, the rain started. It’s rainy season here right now so it rains at least part of almost every day, if only for a half hour or so. It was so hot and humid that the rain felt GREAT and I was just loving walking around in it. All the Filipinos were running for cover into the sheds and looking at me like I was crazy which, I am really. I was telling everybody as I passed “You should be out here in the rain, this feels great!”. A few times I may or may not have even broke into a chorus of “Singin’ In The Rain” or two as I walked with my arms outspread like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, details are sketchy (ok, I did). 

It was getting late so I left and made my way back down the beach towards the beach house but I just HAD to stop in at the shed with the three baklas for some more karaoke and beers (Emperador for them) and then finally, the last stop was the first shed I’d stopped in which was far and away the most fun shed of the night. When I walked in everybody started cheering my return. They were really in their cups now and having a blast. Jerry raised his glass and said “We party today because tomorrow we have to go back to work!” Later I asked him what he does for work and he said he shovels gravel for 300 pisos a day. That’s about $5.50. A DAY. Things like that really put things into perspective for me. Jerry was a great dude, just needed to cut loose and have a good time like the rest of us. 

One person who had no problem cutting loose and having a good time was Jerry’s drunk sister in law who was now REALLY drunk and acting the fool. At the sight of me she rushed over and kept thanking me again for coming to their party and eventually the thank yous turned into I love yous and she started getting grabby with her hands. It was starting to get uncomfortable! Nobody in there seemed to mind, they were all just laughing at her antics, even the husband so I guess it was just harmless fun. You know what they say – “what happens in the nipa hut stays in the nipa hut”. Ok, I just made that up. There was a thirteen year old kid there who had the maturity of a person twice his age and he started chatting with me asking questions about where I’m from and such. This kid had the most beautiful head of long black hair, I told him “Man, I wish I had your hair!” and he replied in his broken English, “I weesh I had your eyes!”. My eyes seem to be the root of my popularity in this country as blue eyes are not very prevalent here and Filipinos tell me all the time how beautiful my eyes are, women, baklas, even men. I remember when Virginia was pregnant with Xavier she used to always say “I hope our baby has your eyes and my skin!”. Of course they all got just the opposite, poor kids. 

I'd met a guy named Masi at the last hut who had a sister in the US and she apparently sends him a lot of money because he drove a nice black pickup truck. He lives in Mangaldan, not too far away and knows everybody here he says so he took me down to the end of the beach to introduce me to the Barangay Captain which is sort of like the mayor of the beach. He says they are good friends and he wanted to introduce me so I would have a hook up in case we ever need anything here. He said I just needed to call the Captain and everything would be taken care of. I was starting to feel like Don Pedro! Anyway, just my luck the guy was out running errands and I couldn't wait around all night so I walked back to the beach house. I got home late and fired up the karaoke machine for the visitors from San Francisco and we ate and sang deep into the night. This day was completely off the chain, absolutely the craziest walkabout I’ve ever done. And I loved every minute of it!

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Philippines, 2022 Part 4: An Ode to the Ocean Breeze and Don Pedro

The Ocean Breeze was a Nibaliw Beach institution; large square shaped open air bar right on the beach about 3 minutes walk down from us. It was the main hangout for ex-pats who lived on, or frequented, our beach and it was where I usually spent most of my time while here. The best (and sometimes worst) thing about the Ocean Breeze was the owner, Peter. Peter was like something straight out of an old Hollywood movie. He was half Scottish and half Canadian and had been a professional chef for years before he retired. He liked to brag that he had once cooked for Queen Elizabeth which of course we had no way of verifying. He had been coming to this beach since the late 70’s and he knew this country better than just about any ex-pat I’ve ever met. He was also completely rude, crude, crass and any other adjective you could think of for someone who had no filter, said and did whatever they wanted and honestly didn’t give a shit what anybody thought of them. 

Me and "The Don" - Don Pedro somewhere around 2011

We met Peter during our first trip here in 2010 in grand fashion. For those who haven’t read the account of my first trip (shame on you), this was before we bought the beach house, we had rented a place on the beach for a weekend and the Filipino manager had told me about the bar that a lot of ex-pats hang out. So we went there to check it out, there were several older western guys hanging out drinking and right in the middle of it all was Peter, drunk as hell and holding court. I didn’t know he was the owner so I was ignoring him and trying to talk to the other, more sober guys but Peter kept interrupting to the point that it was getting annoying. That was Peter. Eventually I learned that Peter liked to sit at the bar like he was a customer and do what he could to get everyone else to order more beer, even if he had to shame them by calling them ‘kuripot’ (cheap). At one point a truck drove up and out came his wife at the time, Imelda. Imelda was really nice, she was from the area but had been living and working in Canada for several years and was really westernized, spoke perfect English. She introduced herself to us and her and Virginia hit it off immediately, conversing in Ilocano, their native dialect. She was very apologetic about Peter and kept telling us how sorry she was for his behavior. It was obvious that they were on the outs and were not fond of each other. Right at that moment, Peter got up and took the keys and said he was leaving. Imelda tried to stop him because he was completely drunk but he would not be stopped. She even showed us the dents in the truck from all the times he drove home drunk and ran into a pole or some other object. I remember thinking at the time “Jesus, this place is like the wild west, there are no rules!”. Peter had a house just behind the beach and compared to most places in the area, it was a frigging palace, the kind of place I have always dreamed of owning. Two floors, several bedrooms, huge living room, dining room and kitchen and an entire separate outdoor kitchen and BBQ party facility. 

In the years that followed, I learned that most, if not all, of the ex-pats had sort of a love/hate relationship with Peter. He owned the Ocean Breeze which was ground zero for us ex-pats and gave us a place to hang out and visit with each other and that was no small thing. As well, he had been here so long that he knew everybody in the extended area and could get you anything you wanted, usually cheaper than normal price. He also was in good with the local police which explained how he was able to get completely fall down drunk and not worry about driving home. Because of all his connections and how well known he was, he was known locally as “Don Pedro”, a nickname that fit him perfectly. But, due to his devil-may-care attitude and actions, he managed to piss off everybody sooner or later because he truly didn’t care what anybody – be they friend or foe – thought about him. As for me, I figured him out pretty early and I adopted the attitude of the other ex-pats; be friends with him because of what he can do for you and because, let’s face it, he’s entertaining as hell, but always watch your back and don’t trust him with anything. Peter LOVED drama, he loved causing it and he loved being right in the middle of it all and so the Ocean Breeze was ground zero for a lot of it. When we met him, he was fond of saying “I’m sexty-sex years old!”. Next year it was “sexty-seven” of course. Peter was an absolute pimp, he had a never ending stable of young girls in their early 20’s who he told everybody were his girlfriends but in reality they were using him for what they could get out of him; money for stuff they needed. By our second year, he and Imelda were basically separated, and she lived in Canada so he did whatever he wanted. He liked to brag to everyone about his young girlfriends but we were told by more than one of them that he was a non-starter in the bedroom because he was drunk pretty much 24/7 and his willie didn’t work anymore. So for the girls, it was perfect, they didn’t actually have to sleep with him, just be one of his girls and he would buy them whatever they needed. You’d see it constantly at the bar, the girls would ask him for loads for their phones, manicures, food, anything and everything. The funniest thing he ever said was one night one of the girls at the bar told him she was hungry and he replied "You want a longanisa and two itlog?" (sausage and two eggs), that one had everyone at the bar laughing for a solid 10 minutes. I remember one girl he was with regularly at the Ocean Breeze, she had a child and one night after he’d passed out, she told me that she was only with Peter because he paid for her son’s medication and she asked me not to look down on her for doing what she had to do for her son (of course I didn’t). He had no shame when it came to women. One time he gave Virginia and I a ride to the Nepo Mall to do some grocery shopping and as we were walking in, we passed by a group of about 6 or 7 college aged girls. Sure enough, as we passed by them, Peter propositioned them, asked if any of them wanted to go home with him. I made a comment to him, something about him being almost 70 and hitting on college girls and he simply looked me in the eye and said “Don’t ask, don’t get”. That was Peter. 

Peter, me and Carlos, an ex-pat buddy from San Fran.

But Peter was useful too. He had connections everywhere and loved to help people out. Our first year I asked him where we could get a good deal on a videoke machine for the beach house and he took Virginia and I into Dagupan City to meet with his friend Nelson Cho who gave us a great deal on a state of the art machine. When our toilet broke, he brought me to his friend who was a plumber and arranged to have a new toilet put in at a fraction of the price that the one we just put in last week cost us. He had been coming to this beach since the late 70’s so he was a fantastic source of information about the local area and the Philippines in general; the culture, the history, the people, everything. In the two or three years I had with him, I learned a ton about this country that I would never have learned anywhere else. 

One thing about Peter though, craziness and drama seemed to follow him everywhere, usually of his own making. I remember one night at the Ocean Breeze, he had one of his girls with him, a stripper from Visayas. Out of nowhere, one of his other girls showed up at the bar and things got very tense as they did not like each other one bit and were both vying for Peter’s undivided attention. Now, the stripper normally would win that one hands down because she was beautiful with a dynamite body while the other girl was a local girl with a flat chest and braces but she would not give up without a fight and decided to start stripping to get Peter’s attention. Not to be outdone at her own game, the stripper started matching her, article of clothing for article of clothing while the rest of us at the bar looked on in stunned silence. Eventually there were two girls there in just their bra and panties and a proud Don Pedro just sitting there beaming at what he had wrought. 

Another, more scary moment I remember; one evening I was hanging out at the Ocean Breeze, it was just me and Peter. A huge, stocky Filipino guy pulled up in a San Miguel beer truck and sat at the bar with a couple friends. Peter told me the guy is a delivery driver for San Miguel and he had once borrowed some money from him and still had not paid it back. He was of course drunk as hell by that time and one thing about Peter was that he was extremely arrogant and not afraid of anybody so at one point he yelled across the bar at the guy “Hey! You better pay me the money you owe me, fucker!”. The guy looked embarrassed and pissed off at being called out like that in front of his friends but didn’t say anything. Eventually the guy’s friends left and Peter kept making loud remarks about the guy owing him money. At one point Peter got up to go to the bathroom which was in the cabin area behind the bar and soon after he did, the other guy got up and went too. A little bit later I could hear them talking and I was on a stool that could see the area behind the bar so I turned to look just in time to see the guy yell at Peter for embarrassing him in front of his friends. A fearless – and clueless – Peter doubled down and said “Fuck you, give me my money!”, at which point the guy slapped him…HARD…right across the face, knocking Peter’s glasses to the ground. Regardless of whether Peter had it coming or not, he was a frail man in his mid-60’s and that guy had no business hitting him like that, he could have done some real damage. He came back and sat down and kept drinking and then Peter came back holding his broken glasses. It was the first and only time I’d ever seen him frazzled and he was rambling incoherently about the guy breaking his glasses and then he sort of came to his senses and said he was going to call the police. He told the guy he was calling the police and started dialing his phone and then something very strange happened. The guy said something to the effect of “Go ahead, call them and I’ll tell them what happened to [name I can’t remember].” At that, Peter suddenly hung up his phone and told the guy to get out and don’t come back to his bar ever again. Later I told a few of the ex-pats what had happened and they told me that there were rumors years ago that one of Peter’s wives had been having an affair and that Peter had done something to him, or at least bragged that he did. But, they all said nobody believed it, that the real story was that the guy had just gone back to where he was from and it was just Peter being Peter. So who knows what the truth is but man, there was never a dull moment when Peter was around. 

Never a dull moment at The Ocean Breeze. God I miss it...

Anyway, Peter died suddenly in 2013, right before my last trip to the beach. The Ocean Breeze was still there but Imelda had returned from Canada as she inherited everything Peter had so she was suddenly very well off financially. She ran the bar for a little bit but eventually sold it and the new owners tore it down and now you can’t even tell where it used to be. I had a nice chat with her one my last trip, she was always very nice and very friendly and I like her very much. I can’t even imagine what she must have been put through being married to Peter so she deserved everything she got. These days the beach is a lot more boring without the Ocean Breeze and I miss it tremendously. I’m still in touch with a few of the ex-pat friends I made there via Facebook but not very often. Hopefully none of them have a problem with me writing this. If I had the money, someday I would love to open a bar similar to the Ocean Breeze here, if only to give us ex-pats someplace to hang out but I doubt it will ever happen. The Ocean Breeze will just have to live on in our memories I guess. But oh what memories they are...

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Philippines 2022, Part 3: The Legend Continues

Our nipa hut with the requisite videoke machine

During the years we used to come here, I became somewhat of a celebrity on our beach for reasons both good and, shall we say, not so good. My pasty white skin makes me stick out like a sore thumb here and I draw stares everywhere I go. In fact, yesterday as we were leaving the Nepo Mall, Xavier said to me “Daddy, it’s really funny to walk behind you and see the looks on people’s faces when you walk by. They literally stop and stare at you, it’s hilarious.” I’ve dealt with it as long as we’ve been coming here and it doesn’t bother me, I’m actually a bit entertained by it. Being a white American with gray hair and blue eyes makes me sort of a novelty around here and people love it when I say hi or stop to talk to them for some reason. I’m a guy who likes to have a good time, particularly when I’m on vacation and it’s not uncommon for me to just plop down with a group of locals with a beer and start chatting. They always love it and enjoy asking me questions about where I’m from and when I say the US, they love to tell me about their friends or relatives who live in the US. It may sound kind of strange to some but it’s a whole better than sitting in the nipa hut doing nothing. 

The kids are not really enjoying themselves so far, they like the beach house but there’s not much for them to do here so they get bored easily. Virginia and Lola had to go into town this morning and the kids all begged to go which left me here with Virginia’s brother Bobby and some of the nieces and nephews who stay here most of the time. None of them speak much English so there’s not much conversation to be had and so I decided to go down to the Lazy A and see if they still had the open air café with Wi-fi. I wanted to walk and see the beach but Bobby insisted on taking me in the tricycle so I relented, thinking I could just do it on the way back. I am happy to say that the Lazy A is still going strong, the café with Wi-fi is still there and the two women who worked there years before are still there. One of them, Gie-Gie, saw me and got a big smile on her face as she remembered me instantly. She asked how many years I’ve been away and I said nine and asked her if she still makes the amazing club sandwich (she does). We caught up for a minute, I sat down to use the Wi-fi and I ordered a San Miguel Light without even thinking about what time it was. When I turned on my computer I saw it was only 1040 in the morning but I figured what the hell, I’m on vacation. I ended up staying for a couple San Migs and then it was time to walk back and see what has become of my beloved beach since I’ve been away. The biggest difference is that the Ocean Breeze is long gone. In all my trips here, the Ocean Breeze and the Lazy A were the two things I could always count on. The Ocean Breeze was a large square shaped open air bar right on the beach about 3 minutes walk down from us. It was the main hangout for ex-pats who lived on, or frequented, our beach and it was where I usually spent most of my time while here. The owner died about 10 years ago and his wife sold it and it’s now completely gone. Someone bought the entire lot, tore down the bar and it’s now just another one of the endless cookie-cutter ‘resorts’ renting out nipa huts with karaoke machines. Sad, really, the Ocean Breeze was always my favorite place here on the beach (I’m going to write an entire chapter dedicated to the Ocean Breeze here in the near future so look out for it). 

As I continued my walk along the beachfront, I received the usual “Hello sair!” greetings from the locals who were surprised to see this white dude walking around as well as the usual small handful of girls and women waving and catcalling me. Sadly, there were no baklas around today because they are usually the most fun. Bakla is the Filipino word for gay but it mostly is used for the gays here who are very feminine acting and extremely flamboyant to the point where there is no question that they are baklas. I always attract a lot of them here and I enjoy joking around with them as I have no prejudice against gay people. I remember one trip, probably 2011 or 2012, there was a bakla day at the beach here, they arrived in vast numbers, brought in by buses and almost completely took over the entire beach. As I made my daily walk down to the Lazy A and back, my god, I felt like a piece of meat. I was constantly catcalled and yelled at – “HI SEKSI! OOOO SO SEKSI!” and later in the day when I’d had a few too many beers in me, I started blowing them kisses, licking my index finger suggestively and then touching my ass whenever they catcalled me and they would go absolutely bonkers, it was just so funny. Hey, “It’s more fun in the Philippines!”…

I ended up back at the Lazy A in the evening to get my long awaited club sandwich which did not disappoint and it turned out there was a sort of band playing. I say sort of because it was basically just a guy and girl with a keyboard and a laptop that they could look up karaoke songs on but they were fun and entertaining and nothing like the Lazy A had ever had before. I have to say, they have really done a great job of expanding and seem to be the biggest thing going on the beach these days. They noticed the white guy sitting at the table right away and instantly started grilling me for information – what was my name, where was I from, how long am I here, etc. After a few songs they asked me to come up and sing and of course I was only too happy to oblige. 

Now let’s take a minute to talk about karaoke here in the Philippines. 

I am not exaggerating even a little tiny bit to say that it is practically a religion here, anybody who has been here will back me up on that. Filipinos by nature are born entertainers, they love to sing more than anything. In fact, if you have traveled around various cities in Asia and went to a bar where there was a live band, the odds are pretty good that the band were all Filipinos. I remember being in the Hard Rock Cafe in Bangkok many years ago and the band was all Filipinos. When we lived in Korea, the club on base had a live band that would play every weekend. You guessed it…Filipinos. On all the beaches, the popular thing is for Filipinos to rent a nipa hut (commonly called a shed) that has a karaoke machine – except here they call it ‘videoke’. They will swim, eat food and sing karaoke literally all day. We of course have a karaoke machine in our nipa hut that Lola sometimes rents out and I am not ashamed to say that when we are here on vacation, I wear that sonofabitch out. It’s not normally something I would do back home but here in the Philippines, the locals see me as some kind of karaoke god simply because English is my native language so they are under the mistaken impression that I must be able to sing any song in English, regardless of the vocal range. Personally I don’t really care because it’s my nipa hut and my karaoke machine so I’ll sit and sing all day if I want. Honestly, I have a terrible singing voice so what I try to do is find songs that are mostly in my voice range, limited as it is, and I stick to those and then if I’m by myself, I’ll have fun and experiment with other songs that I like. Here’s a small sampling of the songs that I've discovered I can actually do without sounding horrible:

Achy Breaky Heart 

Save the Last Dance

You May Be Right

Piano Man

Hotel California

American Pie 

Every Breath You Take

Country Roads (Take me Home)

Don’t You Want Me

Mack The Knife



There are more to be sure but those are sort of my go-to’s. The classics like Piano Man, Save The Last Dance and especially Country Roads drive the locals crazy. 

So fast forward to Saturday, the beach was pretty packed; weekends are busy here as the day trippers descend upon the beach in droves to rent the sheds, swim and sing karaoke. I love days like this and I especially love walking up and down the beach on these days because the sheds are overflowing and normally the mere sight of me drives the Filipinos crazy and they beg me to come in and have some food and drinks and sing some songs with them. I am happy to do it of course because, well, I like to make people happy. I’m a giver, what can I say? On this day, I was kind of bored not much going on at the Copacabana shed. I was doing some karaoke but there was nobody else who wanted to do it and so I was by myself which was just not happening for me. And so I decided to rediscover one of my favorite old pastimes from my previous years here; I call it ‘going walkabout’. When the beach is overflowing with day trippers on the weekend, I’ve found that if I just start walking, invariably I am besieged by requests from the aforementioned day trippers to join them. More often than not, they have been drinking and just want to have a good time and having a white American guy in the party just adds to that I guess. I went walkabout and sure enough I hit a handful of parties up and down the beach, singing songs and having a good time. I hit one party up as I neared the Copacabana Shed and there was a Filipino guy singing who just had the most incredible voice I’ve ever heard here. I popped in when he was done his song we started chatting and we hit it off immediately. He had a tattoo of the “Philippine Eagles” which I had seen a few places before but didn’t know what it was so I asked him and it turns out it is sort of brotherhood of Filipinos who were in the Army or the military in general. He asked me if I ever served, I said yeah, ran down my Army service for him (reserves, active duty and civilian), he raised glass and said “My friend, you are in the brotherhood!” and I answered him with a loud “HOOAH!”. It was a fantastic moment, one I will never forget. He asked me to sing so I did “You May Be Right” and I told him to come by our place later for some drinks and more singing. I bade him farewell and headed home and found Virginia outside hanging clothes. I told her of my adventures and she said “Yeah, I was out hanging clothes and all of a sudden I thought I heard you singing and was thinking ‘is that Rik?’! Yup, it was.” We had a good laugh about it. I took Xavier and Max to have dinner at the Lazy A because they now have buffalo wings, Xavier’s favorite but unfortunately, they are not buffalo wings. They are wings drowned in some kind of red sticky sauce that is not in the least bit spicy or buffalo in any way and covered in sesame seeds. The band was there again so we listened to the music and of course I got up to sing another song (ok, two) and then retired for the night. Tomorrow would be Sunday and I figured it would be quiet and a good chance to rest and relax. 

I could NOT have been more wrong...

To go to Part 4, Click Here

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Philippines 2022, Part 2: Catching up

Today started out pretty good, I woke up early which means my body has pretty much adjusted already. It’s always been that way when we used to come here every year; my body adjusts almost immediately on the way here but when I go back to Europe, it takes forever to adjust back. 

After waking, I sat in our little bungalow that fronts the beach sipping a fresh ‘buko’ (coconut) enjoying the morning air and the seaview thinking how good it feels to be back here despite all of the minor – and major – inconveniences. The day, however, started in a way I never expected – toilet shopping. We have indoor plumbing and electricity in the beach house which is of course a necessity. When I was here in 2012, the toilet broke and I had a new one put in but when we got here last night I found out that the toilet I had put in was also broken and unrepairable. This caused a lot of drama and let me explain why; Xavier started bagging at the commissary last year and when Virginia saw how much money he was making, she decided she wanted to do it too as it was perfect for her now that Luca and Max are both in school so she had tons of free time on her hands. The main reason was that her father has terminal lung cancer and this would allow her to send money home to help with the medical bills. Sure enough, she started making a lot of money as well and she sends exorbitant amounts of money (at least by Philippines standards) home every month not only for medical bills but also to help out with the upkeep of the house, bills, etc. So, when we arrived and I see a broken toilet and several other things that easily could have been fixed with a small fraction of the money she has sent home in the last year…well, it doesn’t make me happy because now I have to spend my money and vacation time fixing them. But, in the interest of maintaining harmony, I will digress on commenting further. Virginia’s brother Bobby took me to one of the local houseware stores to buy a toilet, then to a local plumber/handyman to hire him to install it which, all told, cost almost $200.00. Not the way I wanted to start my vacation but whatever.

First morning of my vacation spent...toilet shopping?

Normally the first day here is spent making a run into Dagupan City to hit the Nepo Mall and that’s what we did in the afternoon. The Nepo Mall is great, there’s a modern grocery store (the main reason we go there) as well as phone stores so we can get SIM cards for our phones and plenty of places to eat. There are the usual stand-bys, Jollibee, Chow King and Inisal, and there are several little food kiosks with everything from pizza, and shwarma to my favorite – sio mai. Sio mai are basically the Philippines’ answer to Chinese dim sum, little steamed dumplings filled with pork and/or shrimp. There is a little stand at the mall called The Siomai House that serves nothing but sio mai, you get 4 of them for 45 piso (90 cents) and they put garlic chili on them and serve it with a calamansi that you squeeze over the top and a little toothpick to eat them with. The sio mai by themselves are good but the garlic chili and calamansi just raise them to another level and it’s probably my favorite thing to eat here. 

Sio mai from the Siomai House, with chili garlic and calamansi. My favorite!

I normally enjoy a trip to the Nepo Mall immensely, if only for the Siomai House, however the Philippines seems to be behind the rest of the free world and masks are still mandatory in stores shops and anywhere else indoors here. I detest wearing the masks in general but having to wear them in this heat and humidity is absolute hell. Within 5 minutes, they are usually soaked with sweat and I can barely breathe so the whole time I just couldn’t wait to get outside so I could take the frigging mask off. 

Virginia took the kids to eat at Chow King which is sort a Filipino Chinese food chain that is quickly becoming their favorite place to eat. Xavier and Luca each got the sweet and sour pork plate and they absolutely devoured them. Xavier could not stop talking about the pork and when he finished, he actually went and ordered another plate. Of course there was the ubiquitous halo halo since Chow King serves one of the best here and the kids are addicted to halo halo. 

Max staring at his halo halo with great anticipation.

Next came the grocery shopping. Robinson’s Supermarket is actually a pretty modern sizeable supermarket that carries pretty much everything we need/want, not what you’d expect in a place like this. You’d be surprised to find that they carry a decent selection of wine from various countries and the prices are in line with what I pay back home. It’s way too hot to drink much red wine here and I’m not a big white wine guy but I did buy a 3L box of a generic California cabernet so I can sip it in the evenings when it cools down while I write. I’m actually having a couple glasses as I write this and it’s definitely palatable. Robinson’s also has several other western products that I didn’t expect to find such as Italian extra virgin olive oil, Nutella and some specialty European cheeses. You obviously pay more for these as they’re imported but it’s great that they’re even available here, especially the olive oil. They deep fry EVERYTHING here and they use the unhealthiest oil you can imagine so having access to good Italian extra virgin olive oil is a huge win for me. I bought two beautiful blue marlin filets for 200p which is about $4.00 - those would have cost three or four times that much back home. I cooked them tonight, seasoned with salt and pepper, marinated in olive oil and grilled them in a pan, served them with some beautiful pechay which is green leafy vegetable that’s sort of a cross between spinach and swiss chard. 

Two beautiful blue marlin filets for $4.00. Served with freshly picked pechay. 

I’m trying to avoid the deep fried stuff and eat as healthy as possible while I’m here which isn’t difficult as fish and seafood are my favorite foods and they are so plentiful here. You don’t even need to go anywhere to get it either, it comes right to our door every morning in the form of the beach vendors. Vendors walk up and down the beach all day selling anything you can think of. All manner of fish and seafood pulled fresh from the ocean that morning, beach toys, clothes, towels, belts, machetes and knives, fresh fruit, freshly picked coconuts (buko), locally grown peanuts, lumpia, ice cream, you name it. We usually buy fresh yellowfin tuna, squid and giant prawns from the fish vendors first thing in the morning and cook it for lunch and dinner. Most mornings I flag down the buko vendor and have him cut me open a coconut and throw a straw in it for me. Price? 60 pisos which is about a buck. Lola often gets angry when she sees me do it and complains that it’s too expensive but come on, I sometimes pay 3 or 4 bucks for a small carton of coconut water back home so getting the actual coconut for a buck is wicked cheap to me. Plus, after I drink the water, Lola will sometimes cut it open and give the meat to the kids so it’s a win-win all around! 

My daily morning treat, doesn't get any fresher than this unless I pick it myself...

The last thing we had to do today was attempt to get a pre-paid Wi-fi router for the beach house and this turned into quite a chore. In the past, I have always just used The Lazy A for my Wi-fi. For the newcomers, the Lazy A is a beach resort about a 5-10 minute walk down the beach from our place. They have a little open air restaurant with a handful of tables and they have Wi-fi so I would always start my day by going there in the morning after I woke up to have my black coffee and go online to check email, sports scores, Facebook, etc. Often I would go back in the afternoon when I was bored and have a couple beers and go online. As long as I was eating or drinking, they had no problem with me coming there to use the Wi-fi so it worked out well because they made a club sandwich that was worth the trip. But, this being 2022, you can actually buy a pre-paid router with data on it for your house which of course is much more convenient. We paid 799p (about $15) for a router with 10GB. I told them I wanted to buy the 100GB package that was 1,000p which I figured should last a while as long as the kids don’t play their online games all day every day, but they must have not understood me as the router only has 10GB and that will not last long. They activated it right there and said we just needed to plug it in and connect with the password so we got it home and plugged it in but we quickly discovered that the signal at the beach…sucks. You can’t connect at all in the house or the nipa hut so you have to sit outside to get a signal and even then it’s very slow. I guess I should have expected as much in this place. Thankfully the Lazy A is still there. The Lazy A never lets me down… 

Pre-paid wireless router. Reception is hit or miss but it's good to have Wi-fi at the beach house. 

I haven’t had a chance to walk up and down the beach to see what’s changed yet but hopefully tomorrow as I have nothing planned. From what I’ve seen so far though, there have been A LOT of changes from the beach I remember. Pretty uneventful day today overall, hell I haven’t even fired up the karaoke machine yet. 

Let’s see what tomorrow will bring…

To go to Part 3, Click Here

Monday, July 11, 2022

Philippines 2022: It begins.

Day 1 was…not a very enjoyable day. For anyone who has flown recently, I don’t need to tell you how hellish an experience it is right now. It used to be that if your flight was delayed or you got a hard time at the check-in counter or any other little inconvenience, you complained long and hard but things have gotten so bad these days that now it’s just the norm. It happens way more often than it doesn’t happen and so we all need to adjust our mindset I guess. 

Regardless, I’m about to complain so deal with it. 

In these days of COVID, it is more difficult to fly than ever because you must do extensive research on entry requirements to whichever country you are flying to. This is made even more difficult by the fact that you are basically trying to decipher ‘legalese’ which isn’t always easy. And so, I dutifully studied the rules and regulations of the Philippines’ entry requirements so we would not be caught off guard and to ensure we have everything in order. When it comes to such matters, I tend to be very thorough because, well, you have to be these days. Virginia, Xavier and I are fully vaccinated with booster so I figured that shouldn’t be an issue. Luca and Max are fully vaccinated but have not gotten a booster as they have not started giving them to kids yet at our base. The regulations on the official Philippines website are written rather ambiguously so at first I thought Luca needed a negative PCR test but upon reading the fine print, I realized I was mistaken. The Philippines considers you fully vaccinated if you have had either two shots of a two shot series or one of a one shot series, you do not need a booster. Age 12-17 just need to be fully vaccinated, younger than 12 do not. So bottom line is that all of us are considered fully vaccinated and do not need a negative PCR test or anything else to fly to the Philippines (remember this, it will come into play later). Of course, this being the Philippines, it could not be that easy; they set up a website called “One Health” where you have to go and register every person in the family, personal info, vaccine info and dates, passport numbers, etc. and then you have to upload a copy of your vaccination certificate. They then verify all your info and email you a copy of a bar code or QR code that you show upon arrival. I got everybody in the family registered and vaccine cards uploaded and got the confirmation emails back pretty quick so I figured we were good to go. I should have known better. 

The word around these parts lately is that the Frankfurt Airport is a mess, people are missing flights, losing their luggage, some people say their luggage was never even scanned. It was recommended to get to the airport at least 4 hours before our flight and we did so, thankfully. We were so early that the check in desks were not even open yet and there were only a few people waiting so we took our place behind them. While we were waiting, I discovered that the scales at the check in counters were working so I was able to weigh each of our bags and find that all of them were below the maximum 23 kg which was a HUGE relief. Things were looking up when, about an hour later, the check in personnel arrived and the first thing the bastards did was rearrange the barriers for some inexplicable reason which meant that suddenly everyone behind is in line was now in front of us…and we had been THIRD in line. There was an Indian family who were way behind us but who instantly became first in line with the new configuration, and we figured they would just let those of us who got screwed go ahead of them since we were there before them but noooooo…these inconsiderate jerks just smiled and waltzed up to the counter like they’d just won the lottery while we stared at them in disgust. Tempers were starting to run high but the worst was still yet to come, at least for us. We eventually forced our way in front of a forgiving German gentleman who said “Ja, you were here before me, it’s ok” (Germans > Indians). We then proceeded to let the Arabs who were there when we arrived go before us while people behind us grumbled about losing their newfound - and ill gotten, I might add - favorable queue position.  

We finally got up to the counter and I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking things were starting to come together. But it was not to be. The German lady checked passports with no problem, then asked to see our vaccination cards so I gave them to her and she studied them for a few minutes, then put Luca and Max’s cards down in front of me and said “So these two have a negative PCR test, right?”. My jaw dropped. I researched every little thing on that website, including the fine print and I KNEW she was wrong and I told her so, very nicely. What happened next was mind-numbingly painful. She called the supervisor over and the two of them started poring over some kind of binder that presumably contained entry regulations for various countries but it seemed to be confusing them even more. Eventually she came back to her seat at the desk and I tried in vain to explain that we already have approval to enter the Philippines via the Health One emails but she was completely ignoring me. I then pulled up the website on my phone and highlighted the part that said specifically that minors who are fully vaccinated do NOT need a negative PCR test but again…completely ignored. About 20 minutes later after much consternation, stress, wailing and gnashing of teeth, her and the supervisor somehow determined that I was right and that no PCR test was needed so we would be allowed to board. I was confident that I was right and I damned sure didn’t want to end up as a viral internet star for all the wrong reasons so I kept my cool throughout, did not raise my voice and just let them figure it out. She apologized and said “Just wanted to be sure!” which pretty much sums up air travel these days. Anyway, the rest went ok except the security line which was complete insanity. 

After a nightmare check-in, we are finally on the plane. Next stop: Bahrain.

We had a very short layover in Bahrain and I was worried that either we or our bags would not make the connecting flight if our flight was delayed even a little. Sure enough, take off was delayed an entire hour for some reason, even though the plane was fully boarded on time. After 30 minutes, an Indian guy a few rows back from us stood up and started yelling at the top of his lungs, demanding to know why the plane was not taking off because he was going to miss his connecting flight. The flight attendants eventually got him to sit down and relax but it would not be his last transgression; as soon as the plane touched down in Bahrain, he and one or two other guys he was traveling with unbuckled their seatbelts, stood up and opened the overhead compartments to get their bags. Seeing what was happening, they made an announcement to stay in your seat with your seatbelt fastened until the plane has stopped moving but it fell on deaf ears so eventually one of the male flight attendants came charging angrily down the aisle yelling at them to get back in their seats. The Indian guy was not in the mood to hear it and started arguing back and it got pretty heated for a minute. At one point the Indian guy put his finger in the flight attendant’s face and yelled “IF I MISS MY FLIGHT, I AM GOING TO BLAME YOU!” and threw in a few more choice words. Just when we thought the guy would get arrested, he sat down and accepted that there was nothing he could do. We de-planed in Bahrain with a very short window but we made it on time. Regarding our luggage, someone had told me about Apple “Air Tags” the day before we flew and we were able to find some downtown. They are the coolest things; little metal discs about the size a thick quarter, you synch them to your phone, put them in your bag and you can now track your bag anywhere in the world. As I mentioned, people were saying that the airlines weren’t even scanning their bags and someone even posted a picture of thousands of unclaimed bags at the Frankfurt Airport so we bought the Air Tags to be safe. I’m happy to report that our bags made it to the Philippines with us. 

Not surprisingly, there were more surprises in store for us; After you exit the plane, you walk down a long hallway en route to immigration and baggage claim which normally take forever at the Manila Airport but now there's the extra step before you get to immigration where you have to show your "One Health" pass that I mentioned earlier so they could scan it. I had them all saved on my phone so no problem, right? Well...problem. She scanned mine first and then asked for my boarding pass because she said she needed to stamp it. As it happens, during the flight, Luca asked me if he needed to keep his little boarding pass ticket and I told him he didn't need it because he was already on the plane so he and Xavier had left theirs on the plane. The lady told us she had to have them to stamp and that we would not be permitted to enter without them which seemed completely ridiculous to me. How many people actually save their boarding passes after they've already flown?! We could not have been the only people to make that mistake so I said there must be something else she can do or stamp or whatever but she was insistent and was not being any help at all. Virginia asked if they could get back on the plane to get them and she said we were welcome to try so her, Xavier and Luca rushed all the way back to the plane while Max and I sat and waited, wondering what would happen next. Thankfully they returned with the boarding passes and we got through without further issues. You would think that the One Health website would say SOMETHING about keeping your boarding passes as they needed to be stamped or that perhaps they would make an announcement during the flight to that extent? One thing is for damned sure, I'm never throwing away any of my boarding passes from now on. "It's more fun in the Philippines!"...

We’d hired a van to pick us up at the airport and drive us directly to the beach house but even that did not go smoothly. First the driver went to the wrong terminal which left us standing in the extreme heat and humidity waiting for almost an hour. Then there was an accident and construction on the North Luzon Expressway which turned the usual 4 hour drive into 6+ hours. Now, for those who don’t know, I had suffered from a horrible upper respiratory virus recently which made me cough so much and so violently that I developed an intercostal muscle strain which is where the muscles between your ribs get strained. It’s very painful and it gets aggravated by sitting down for long periods of time so let me tell you, a 6 hour plane ride followed by a 9 and a half hour plane ride followed by a 6 hour car ride…I was in PAIN. But at least we got to stop at Jollibee on the way and I was able to try their new chicken sandwich – which, if it had pickles, would have put the Popeye’s chicken sandwich to shame. We landed in Manila at 1130 in the morning but we ended up not getting to the beach house until almost 8pm. I had asked Virginia to make sure that Lola (Virginia’s mother, for the uninitiated, Lola means ‘grandmother’) had cold beer in the fridge for me when we got there so imagine my consternation upon arrival to discover that there was no cold beer in the fridge. It was a perfect ending to an imperfect day. 

Let the vacation begin!

To go to part 2, Click Here

(If you'd like to read the entire blog from my first trip back in 2010, Click Here for Day 1)

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Another Amazing, Albeit Sad, Story...

I joined the Army Reserves out of high school to help pay for college. I got lucky and ended up in a section that was full of some of the greatest people ever and even now, 30 years later, I still keep in touch with many of them regularly. One of them was a guy named Jay Cobb; he was a sergeant from Plymouth, NH, a laid back Deadhead with a quick, sardonic wit. As per usual these days, we reconnected on Facebook several years back and still chat every so often. 

A month or so ago, Jay messaged and said he had an Army friend who had recently arrived here on Camp Humphreys and as everyone who arrives here does, she was in quarantine for two weeks. He said she was suffering from the horrible Army food they were feeding her and asked if I might be willing to bring her some of the food I had been cooking. Of course I said no problem because, well, that's just the kind of guy I am. 

I quickly discovered that Jay's friend - Ayla Papp is her name, which I think might be the coolest name EVER - is a complete foodie. She was so appreciative of the food that both Virginia and I made for her in quarantine that we started talking constantly about food, recipes, etc. and she shared some pics of her own dishes that just looked incredible and it became obvious that she is my spirit animal...it turns out she is from Louisiana and she vowed that when she got out of quarantine, she would come make her special homemade gumbo for us. This pleased me greatly as I absolutely love cajun food - jambalaya, red beans and rice, etouffé, crawfish bread...and ESPECIALLY gumbo. Well, today was that day. Ayla Papp (I call her Ayla-Papp because it's just such a cool first and last name combination) came over and made for us her special homemade gumbo with chicken and andouille sausage. And it...was...glorious. 

Oh, but there is more to this story. Much, much more. First, let's see the pics of the gumbo, then I'll deliver the second, more incredible part of the story:

Ayla Papp just HAD to wear my Italian apron...

She did a dry roux since the sausage already had a high fat content

She said the dry roux should achieve the color of chocolate and this looks like it did!

She added the roux to the meat mixture, added water and stirred it all together

Then let it "simmah down" for a long time...

The finished product, served over rice. So. Freaking. Delicious. AUTHENTIC Cajun flavors, it was just so good. 

So now we come to the incredible part of the story...

Those of you who have known me for a while know that one of my best friends in the world was killed in the Fort Hood shooting back in April of 2014. His name was SFC Danny Ferguson and he was extremely close to us and especially to Xavier in particular. I won't go into the whole story here but for anyone who doesn't know the history, here is the blog post I wrote telling the whole story; if you don't know it, you should read it before reading this story any further: 

After we finished eating, we were having a nice conversation about everything under the sun and at one point, Ayla Papp mentioned that her husband is back in the US because he's a police officer, I asked whereabouts and she said Killeen, which is where Fort Hood (Texas) is. I cannot hear the name Fort Hood without immediately thinking of the senseless shooting that took my friend's life and so I asked her how long she had been stationed there. She told me, I quickly did the math in my head and then looked at Virginia and said "OMG, I think she was there when it happened...". I asked her about the shooting and to my shock, she was not just there, she was in Fergusi's unit. I shared with her the story of our friendship with Fergusi and we all just sort of sat there, in awe of the crazy circumstances that had brought us together. As I spoke about Fergusi I got choked up as I always do when I talk about him and I could feel the goddamned tears welling up in my eyes as they always do so I kept it short but I just can't believe that this new person that we had met almost by chance had a direct connection to our Fergusi. I swear, I'm actually welling up again just thinking about it...

It really is a small world. And an even smaller Army...