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!

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