Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Metro Manila is Deluged by Typhoon Ondoy

On Tuesday, September 29, I drove to Pasig, Metro Manila, on my way to Marikina, to document the result of the floods brought on by typhoon Ondoy. My family had arrived in Manila on Friday, September 25, for a three-week long vacation, and the storm arrived on the same evening. It rained constantly for two days, and the inundation (several millimeters of rain) resulted in the floods. Today, Manila newspapers reported that more than 200 deaths as a result of the floods.

My original plan was to proceed to Marikina, one of the hardest hit communities in Metro Manila, but my limited transportation asset, a van provided by a cousin, Ponch Villaroman, a medical surgeon, and his wife, Mel, a medical doctor and health officer of one Pasig City's several barangays, did not allow me to go any farther.

Our first stop was the centuries-old Pasig Catholic Church, where we parked our van. We then proceeded to the city hall, which is also under water. Some of the city's assets, including police squad cars, ambulances, and firetrucks were also hard hit. The city lost several millions pesos worth in damage.

On Tuesday, the residents of Pasig went about their activities, despite the flood waters. Some very enterprising residents had a brisk business ferrying other Pasiguenos to different places in the city, charging as much as 100 pesos each passenger. The makeshift "boats" were jury-rigged gallon jugs, large pieces of styrofoam, old furniture, and old bancas.

At the city hall, I joined a small group of volunteers that was transporting several boxes of medicine in a large government-owned dump truck, and we drove along the flooded streets to Barangay Rosario, a distance of about one kilometer. But because of the floodwaters, which was thigh-high in some places, the drive to the Eusebio High School in Bry. Rosario took almost one hour.

Here, more than a hundred volunteers were repackaging thousands of bags of relief goods consisting of medicine, canned goods, bottled water, and cooked rice. They decided to cook the rice because the typhoon victims have lost their ability to cook after their homes had been under water for several days.

The relief goods, whose distribution was being coordinated with a few non-government organizations (NGOs), were donated by the city of Pasig, which is the second largest city in Metro Manila in terms of revenues, second only to Makati City.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

What Delights Await in the Places of my Youth, Part II

When friends and relatives learned that my family was coming to Manila for a vacation, we received several e-mails from them inviting us to stay in their homes, visit their resorts in Antipolo and in Tagaytay, and in Baguio City. A close friend and schoolmate in college offered a fishing trip somewhere in Southern Tagalog -- Anilao, Batangas, I hope -- and I am so looking forward to this one. So much so that I bought a fishing reel off of eBay so that I could test it during the fishing trip.

The last time I went night-fishing in Anilao, Batangas must have been in the very early 70s, with my outdoorsman father, just a few months before he succumbed to a massive heart attack in December 1972. The declaration of Martial Law by President Marcos must have contributed to his early demise. He was 58, and he was working as a dental technician for a dental clinic on trendy Escolta St. in Manila. Back then, open heart surgery technology was in its infancy, and my father could not have benefited from that even if he wanted to simply because we could not afford it. And so he passed, just like his older brothers and sisters later from a common ailment in the clan: heart disease and hypertension.

My father was a consummate outdoorsman. He loved hunting and fishing, and was one of the few dudes in our barrio of Caingin, San Rafael, Bulacan that owned an imported Winchester 22 caliber rifle, back when P.B. Dionisio, the only importer of American firearms, brought them into the country from the United States. When I reached seven years-old, my father taught me how to handle and shoot that 22 caliber rifle safely. One morning, he took me and my older brother, Kuya Leo, to our backyard, at the banks of the irrigation canal (rampa) that brought water to the tumana (produce farms) on the other side. He had arranged a few bamboo sticks, two inches wide, some 15 yards from where I sat holding the rifle, and I remember hitting those sticks one-by-one, sitting on my butt, without missing one. The Winchester had a Weaver scope, making target acquisition much more convenient for my young eyes.

That rifle accounted for hundreds and hundreds of dalag (mudfish), which were plentiful in the water in the canal, and edible birds, like wild pigeons (bato-bato) shore birds like kanduro, which were plentiful in the mountains and on the shores of the rivers of Bulacan, and bayawak (large, edible lizards), which thrived in the bamboo groves at the river edge of our backyard. The canal, just in case you are wondering, was about ten to fifteen feet deep, depending on the season. It was swollen in the rainy season. Back then, the water was clear and greenish, and harbored mudfish, ulang (crayfish) and catfish (hito), and many other edible marine species. But my papa harvested mudfish the most because their manner of existence made them easier targets for the Winchester rifle. Every now and then, the dalag would surface from the depths, either to scope his surroundings or to get a whiff of fresh oxygen. And that's the moment for my papa to whack them with a 22 caliber bullet. He did not even have to hit them squarely, as even the report of the firearm was enough to stun and render them immobile.

My duty, which I performed with a little bit of fear, was to dive to the bottom of the rampa and retrieve the "dead" mudfish. One summer day, my papa and I went hunting for mudfish, and we walked a few kilometers downriver to "Luwasan," which is to say, in the direction of Manila. When we found our favorite spot on the bank, papa, who was a nimrod, began shooting the surfacing mudfish all throughout the morning, and I would dive every five minutes to retrieve the kills.

On that day, we brought home enough medium-sized and fully-grown dalags to fill one banyera (large basin), and that kept my mother busy the rest of the day, cleaning and dressing the fish. To keep them longer, she made some of them into daing na dalag ( salted and dried in the sun), and she cooked the larger ones into pesang dalag, with pechay (bok choy), cabbage, potatoes, a dash of black pepper, thin slices of ginger, and stalks of spring onion. If you have not already tasted freshly-caught dalag, you have not really tasted excellent mudfish.

More recently, driven by a craving for dalag, I purchased one small mudfish from an Asian market in L.A., and made pesang dalag, but I was let down because the mudfish, imported from Vietnam and frozen, tasted so far off from the way the mudfish of my youth tasted, which was sweet, with the flesh flaky, not mushy like the imported mudfish from Vietnam and Thailand.

I plan to make a nostalgic visit to Barrio Caingin during my stay in the Philippines. Maybe, I would even take a jeepney to San Rafael, the sleepy town, northwest of our barrio. I had worked in this town's Catholic church as a sacristan (altar boy) back when Mass was still being said in Latin. Of course, that stint did not stretch for very long, as I found out life away from my family was no picnic. Despite the occasional tip when there was a baptism, working as a sacristan held no financial attraction to me. Besides, it was my papa's idea.

My youngest sister still lives with her large brood in Barrio Caingin, although she works in Manila. The barrio is only 56 kilometers from Manila (about 35 miles), and used to take one to one-and-a-half hours by Baliwag Transit, Victory Liner, and De la Fuente Lines. The latter bus line had its depot right in our barrio, and according to my father, we were related to the De la Fuentes, who lived in a big, two-storey Spanish-style house that was de riguer with wealthy citizens of Barrio Caingin.

My grandfather, Rafael Villaroman, although not as rich as when his family migrated from Nueva Ecija years before I was born, owned a similarly huge house with a large, dark silong (basement) where my cousins -- boys and girls -- and my brother and sister and I used to play taguan (hide-and-seek) on summer days. I learned how to puff my first cigarette in this silong, goaded by my more adventurous male cousins. I remember choking after my first inhalation.

The house had wide narra (Philippine mahogany) floorboards, a very large bedroom, a large dining room, and a capacious but dark dirty kitchen with a big banggerahan, where they stowed china and other dining utensils. The windows had capiz shell lenses. In the salas (living room) hang a large framed portrait of Tatang Rafael, wearing his revolutionary riyadilyo (Katipunan uniform). He died at a ripe old age of 96. If my computation was accurate, my Tatang was born during the same decade as our national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, in the late 19th century.

Our ancestral house is still standing in a lot so large (approximately 1.5 hectare) that it extended from the kamuning bush-lined two-lane blacktop main drag all the way to the eastern bank of the irrigation canal. It is planted with fruit trees, including santol, tsiko, atis, sampalok (tamarind), kamiyas, mango, balimbing (starfruit), guavas, and large avocados, which I liked. and kaymito, which I hated. My sister, whose house occupies a lot closest to the canal's bank, tells me that most of the fruit trees are still living and bearing fruits.

When we were young, my papa's older sister (Tiya Nena), used to sell the fruits of the santol, kaymito, tsiko, and tamarind trees to a merchant who arrived in large truck once a year to harvest the fruits off the trees with a long sungkit (large bamboo pole with a net at its tip). I guess, she made quite a bundle from the sales. We younger members of the Villaroman clan contented ourselves by bringing down the ripe santol fruits with our home-made tirador (slingshots) whenever we craved the sweet-and-sour, large-pitted fruits. We made sure, of course, that Tatang Rafael was asleep or out trading stories with our male neighbors on the papag (bamboo table) of the sari-sari store across from our house.

My father was in Manila working in his dental laboratory at Palomo Building off Azcarraga (now Claro M. Recto) the whole day, and he took the last Victory Liner or Baliwag Transit bus from its station in Divisoria to go home. He would arrive in Baliwag, some six kilometers from Caingin, before midnight, and to get home, he would hire a kutsero (rig driver) with a caretela (horse rig), which transported him to our house in a ponderous clip in about an hour. The jeepneys that plied the Baliwag to San Rafael route have long retired by this time.

On Friday afternoons, papa would walk over to the big Arranque Market on Azcarraga and buy several kilos of the best beef and lots of cabbage, string beans (sitaw), and potatoes (Burbank variety) for our traditional weekend nilagang baka (boiled beef) treat. He did the cooking himself, dumping the beef with bones with marrow in them, and the veggies in a very large stewing pot, and lovingly tending the wood stove until the boiled beef was fork tender. To keep the sitaw together, he tied them with a string, complete with a short handle so that he could retrieve them from the stew in one batch.

Last night, we bought a pack of short ribs and a pack of soup bones (with some meat on them) from our favorite Ralphs supermarket in Glendale. We've not had nilagang baka for about two weeks, and for us two weeks was a week too long without nilagang baka. I am chowing down on it as you are reading this blog. Bon appetit!

Friday, September 18, 2009

What Culinary Delights Await in the Places of My Youth

As I laid the last piece of garment in my used American Tourister travel suitcase, which I purchased for $40 from the UCLA Thrift Store in West L.A., I reflected on ways to go around the 5o-lb. weight limit on check-in baggage and the 15-lb. limit on hand-carried bags. I had earlier packed my green Domke F2 bag with all my photo gear, including a small camcorder, several lenses for my digital SLR, and assorted accessories. The weight hovered in the 15-20 lbs. I had also stuffed my laptop bag with a 5.7-lb IBM Thinkpad and battery charger (bought on eBay), some software in CDs, and three digital voice recorders, and two small notebooks down to a total weight of 15 lbs.

Technically, I am over the limit for my hand carry items by 15 lbs. because I packed two hand-carry bags. In a panic, I unlock the American Tourister and I pull out one denim jeans, three dress pants, four T-shirts, three long-sleeved shirts, several handkerchiefs, and in their place, I dump 10 lbs. worth of photo gear: flash, alkaline batteries, a couple of lenses, etc. I call my friend, Vics, and I ask him how strict the airlines are regarding hand-carried bags. "Don't even think about it," (going over the weight limit) he tells me sternly. "It's going to cost you."

So what am I to do? I need those photographic paraphernalia and computer stuff. In desperation, I pick some of the gear that I think I can live without, and decide to scuttle the plan to haul every piece of equipment that I deem essential: the Coquin and other trick filters, the high capacity Quantum batteries, even the underwater film camera. So when I board the Philippine Airlines PR 103 flight to Manila on Wednesday, I will be carrying my digital SLR around my neck, two lenses in large front pockets of my photojournalist's vest in order for me to take as much of my photo essentials as possible. "Good idea," offers Vics, when I tell him about my sly plan. "They are not going to weigh you," he says, laughing.

I will also carry a pair of Reeboks sneakers, and a nylon windbreaker in a shopping bag. My daughter says, that OK. So I am set. I tell her that I would dump two items -- a fishing reel and a spool of fishing line -- in her own travel suitcase. I am pretty much covered.

Vics, who visited Manila a couple of years ago, tells me how to not attract the attention of bad elements who will be on the lookout for items like cameras and laptop computers. "Do not put them in your regular camera and laptop bags," he cautions. "Put them in a backpack, especially if you are taking public transportation."

When I first visited New York in 1983, I felt the same apprehension about carrying my camera gear in the open while sightseeing in the Big Apple, so I borrowed a cheap-looking burlap bag from my aunt, in which I stashed my expensive gear. I soon discovered that most of my fears were unfounded. I hope that Manila would be a kinder and safer place. After all, I had lived there for 37 years without losing my wallet. But, you never know. So I will be on safe mode, especially when traveling solo.

I don't think that I would be confident enough to drive a car in Manila, not having done so in more than 20 years, and knowing how some Pinoys drive in a reckless way. So I will be taking public transportation most of the time. I would take a ride in the much-talked-about Light Rail Transit system, maybe take an air-conditioned tour bus to Baguio City. The City of Pines (used to be) holds a long-standing fascination with me. I do not know how the city on top of the Cordilleras looks today. But my memories of Baguio City have been mostly romantic and unforgettable.

When I was in college in the mid-60s, I made my first trip to Baguio City to attend my first College Editors Guild (CEG) convention there. It was held at the Teachers' Village. I was then one of the editors of the Advocate, the weekly student newspaper of Far Eastern University. There was no hot water in the showers of the dormitories. In the morning I would hear the blood-curdling screams of the hardy souls who braved the cold showers. I also met a comely college editor from the University of Santo Tomas who hailed from Pampanga. We became an item, and that made the three-day convention a little more interesting. I still remember her name, but I will not reveal it here for the sake of domestic entente.

I had made many trips to Baguio City in the ensuing years, and that city holds a special place in my heart, having honeymooned there in 1983, for one, and having spent many memorable summer vacations there when I was still a bachelor. I also have discovered some of the culinary secrets of that city during these peregrinations, including the popular hole-in-the-wall called "Slaughterhouse," close to the city's public market. I have savored the best nilagang baka (illustrated above) and fried steak in all my life in that unpretentious establishment. It was called "Slaughterhouse" because it was adjacent to one, which explained why their beef always tasted so fresh. I am not sure if this diner is still there, but if I visit this city, I would certainly look for it.

One of my Facebook friends, writer Babeth Lolarga, lives in this mile-high city now, and she has taken painting as an avocation. I met her during the 70s, when the Philippines was reeling from Martial Law. We used to play tennis at the courts in UP Diliman, and from the way she played, (she was a beginner) I deduced that it would take her many years to learn the basics. So my other friends and I used to tease her, "ten more years." The taunting did not bother her though, and that's how I remember Babeth. More recently, we-reconnected in Facebook, and the distance between us had been narrowed.

I may also visit my other hometown of Samal, Bataan, where I studied high school. St. Catherine of Sienna Academy, my HS alma mater, had grown larger from the time we graduated there in 1964, say my classmates. That school was the best in that province during our time. Founded by a former Catholic military chaplain, SCSA was like a military school for boys and girls. It was the only private high school in Bataan that required students to learn two years of Spanish (conjugations, mostly), and attendance in Sunday Mass every week. One of my classmates, Lito Villanueva, a vaunted basketball player during our time, had sent word through a classmate who is based in Chino, that he would want me to visit Samal during my Philippine vacation. Looking back, I tend to favor his invitation because Samal, a seaside town, holds a lot of culinary memories for me. This is the place where I learned the value of self-reliance and culinary training. I used to fish its many bangus (milkfish) ponds, catching giant tilapia with a bamboo fishing pole when the owners were not around. I had caught hundreds and hundreds of blue crabs by hand there when the sea was on low tide, and I had ridden shotgun with a fisherman in his pumpboat, while trolling for gasang (tiny seashells) that were fodder for the ducks in the town's many duck farms.

The trolling method of fishing is indiscriminate, catching all forms of sea creatures, including sea horses, shrimps, and many kinds of fish, big and small, and it was my duty to sort them out, separating the edibles from those that were considered trash.

Samal is also the town where I learned to cook pesang karlitan (poached baby shark with bok choy and cabbage), and pinais na page (stewed skate with alagaw leaves, illustrated above). Living in California, I pine for these traditional seafood dishes that only Samalenos can make. This is another reason why I would consider visiting Samal. I would like to eat pinais na page and pesang karlitan in a home setting in its place of origin.

I have many more stories to tell about the places of my youth. But they would take so much space and test the limits of your concentration. So I will say adieu for now, and leave some morsels to your imagination. Until next blog. Bon appetit!