“I used to be a paramedic,” says Allan Luneta, leaning against the sliding door of our van and looking completely at ease in Bermudas and a T-shirt, his sunglasses resting on his cap. “I even worked with the city government here before I decided to change jobs.”
I am pleasantly surprised, though I can understand why Luneta left the bustle of Manila for the relaxed life of Palawan province in northern Philippines. We are returning to Puerto Princesa, the region’s tiny capital city, after a morning of snorkelling and swimming in the sea, and lazing in open cottages on the sandy shores of a pristine beach. The hunger stoked by swimming had been appeased with grilled crabs and fresh sea grapes: algae that look like a bunch of tiny green grapes and taste of the sea.
“It is a peaceful life,” says Luneta. “I lived in Manila almost all my life, and people from here go there chasing opportunities, but I decided to come here. The islands of Palawan have a lot to offer.”
Quiet in the day, Puerto Princesa’s City Baywalk Park is most lively by dusk. Food vendors open their stalls, people stroll leisurely while watching the sunset, and kids and adults cycle on rented bikes. Photo by Rumela Basu.
Since the Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park, more popularly known as the Underground River, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, travellers have flocked to the city. But Alan believes there’s much more to Palawan than the river. He has some special spots in mind. “We are known as the last ecological frontier because of the biodiversity. You can swim with sea turtles and whale sharks, snorkel to see a colourful underwater world, venture into caves and trek in a forest. It is all here. I would take people up north to Port Barton or Linapacan, which is one of the cleanest bodies of water; or, the unspoilt beaches in Corong.”
A dazzling smile appears on Luneta’s face, there’s a twinkle in his eyes. He is content with the simple life and in love with his island home. “I travel three hours south whenever I feel like getting away. Some days there is no electricity and I can stay at the beach all day, even though that’s usually where I am because of work,” he laughs.
Puerto Princesa buzzes with people and cars, and there are far fewer tricycles than there were in 2008, when Luneta moved here. “But it still has its charm,” he says. “You have to really spend time here and take it all in. Most locals are migrants and it is a melting pot of cultures. In fact, in Palawan, it is not just about the picturesque sights, it is about the people.”
According to Luneta, there is even a name for the draw of the island: “We call it the ‘come back-come back’ syndrome of Palawan,” he chuckles.
Luneta would like to travel to other Southeast Asian countries “to see what they are doing differently or better.” Or, just move farther away from the city and live by the sea.
“Kapampanga, the people of Pampanga, are considered really good cooks. I’m from Pampanga so I can say I have good taste.” Chef Jose Carmelito S. Quizon laughs a little sheepishly as I dig into the sisig he has ordered for our dinner at the Park Inn by Radisson in Clark.
Sisig, a dish made of finely chopped pig ears and face is one of Quizon’s favourite dishes and a delicacy in Pampanga, the central plains of the Philippines. According to Quizon, after the day I had just had—immersing myself in hot springs, being buried in a warm sand bath, and hiking through a forest to meet members of the aboriginal Aeta tribe—a glass of the local San Miguel beer and a plate of wok-tossed pig face is the perfect way to unwind.
Pork dominates the food scene in the Philippines, and adobo, meat marinated and cooked with vinegar, garlic and soy sauce, is famous in the country. However, when in Pampanga, Quizon insists that one must definitely try the kare-kare (chunks of beef stewed in peanut-sauce), tibok tibok (carabao milk pudding) and turon (banana spring rolls). The local dishes are often spicy, but there is also a great love for sour condiments. “However, if you go to the south, like the region of Bicol, coconut milk and chillies rule the palate. Every region has something different to offer,” Quizon adds.
While I savour a special grilled chicken dish, he tells me that food isn’t only about sustenance in the Philippines. It is “a celebration.” Quizon’s pride in his land’s bounty shines through the smile breaking across his face as he elaborates: “There is a sisig festival in Pampanga. The Binulo Festival in Porac celebrates the food of the Aetas by cooking food in bamboo. There is a tuna festival in General Santos City, a lechon festival in Batangas, a festival in Pangasinan, where they cook bangus or milkfish in different ways.”
At the sand bath at Puning Hot Springs visitors are covered with heated volcanic sand. Photo by Rumela Basu.
While Quizon dabbles in a lot of different cuisines, Filipino food is closest to his heart. “I love the comfort of flavours I have grown up eating. Filipino food, in my opinion, has the lure of the exotic. It is adventurous, like the balut (boiled duck embryo eaten from the shell) and stuffed frog legs, but it can also be very simple like the sisig or adobo.”
According to the chef, you can experience the influence of Malay and Indonesian cul-tures, Spanish colonial history,
and even snazzy new culinary technology, all on a plate in the Philippines. Yet, the charm of the country is not in the food alone. “Come here for the warm people. And try the food made by the people. Knowing their cooking techniques, the produce, and the conversation and experiments around food, you will see the essence of Philippines,” he says.
As I bite into a sweet, creamy leche flan, Quizon tells me about his daughter, who he says is not interested in burgers and fast food but curious about baking and the food her father makes. “Maybe she gets it from me,” he laughs.
Chef Quizon would like to travel to France one day to learn about the food. For visitors, he would cook kare-kare dagat, or seafood kare-kare.
The reason why Zamora D. Santiago—or Zaza as she likes to be called—became a tour guide was that “it is like being paid to go out and have fun with friends.” That was 17 years ago, and she’s been at it ever since.
San Nicolas, in the province of Ilocos Norte, is the town Santiago calls home. Ilocos Norte, its capital city Laoag, and the surrounding region have some of the best preserved structures from the 16th century, when the Philippines was colonised by Spain. “The past and present come together in Ilocos,” says Santiago. “There are world heritage sites, like the churches, and you can also go sand dune bashing in a 4×4 vehicle.”
In the city of Vigan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we walk past little stalls selling empanadas, a deep fried snack that is a legacy of the Spanis1h, and look up at the shell-framed windows and steep roofs. The Spanish and Chinese influences blend with Filipino traditions, and it is easy to understand why Santiago loves it so much. Yet, it is not just the structures that are close to her heart.
In Vigan city, one can experience Philippines’ colonial past—from 16th-century buildings and horse carriages.Photo by Akarat Phasura/Shutterstock.
“Look at the people. They are always smiling and they are always friendly. Their cultural roots are stories in themselves.”
A ride on a kalesa, or horse carriage, around Vigan can suck you into a time warp. While the horse’s shoes clatter on cobblestone streets, and church ruins tell tales of centuries past, the scent of coffee wafts out of a Starbucks housed in a colonial-style building, and people click selfies in the central plaza.
“Actually Ilocos is my favourite part of the Philippines,” Santiago elaborates. “I love it here, and this region is what I would show anyone who comes to visit me. And also stop at Aurora Park in the heart of Laoag city. The buildings that surround the park and the park itself are part of the country’s history.
Santiago would like to some- day explore faith and history in Israel.
“You should get your eyes checked! I am 60 years old.” Carlos Reyes’s eyes crinkle at the corners as he laughs at my remark that he looks much younger than his age. “I have lived in Manila for 30 years now and I have been a freelance tour guide for 10 years.”
Reyes’ sense of humour is heavy on dad jokes, but ones that makes most people laugh anyway. He keeps us chuckling throughout the day tour.
“The Philippines is a country of contrasts, and the people, culture, customs vary from the mountains to the plains, to the seas. We even have different jokes about the people from every region—the ones in the north are thrifty, the south is flamboyant,” he tells me.
As I smile at that, he tells me about his childhood. “I grew up in the mountains in Baguio. A city 5,000 feet above sea level, which is today the country’s most popular summer destination. It was a former American hill station,” he says. From the way his features soften, it is apparent that the mountains hold a special place in his heart.
The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras are a representation of 2,000-year-old agricultural practices carved into the Cordillera mountain range in Ifugao. Photo by Suriya99/Shutterstock.
“I would love to take you to the mountains in the north to see the rice terraces in Banaue, Ifugao. That is a part of the Philippines that was not built by colonisers. That is built by Filipinos. There are only seven wonders of the world, but we call this the eighth wonder because it is a living museum. The agricultural way of life from 2,000 years ago still remains today. These rice terraces are still used.”
Reyes became a tour guide because he is a “people’s person” and this job lets him meet many different people from many different places. He says he has friends around the world now. According to him it is the people that draw travellers back to the Philippines as well. “Filipinos are easy-going. Most probably when you talk to someone, they will ask you how long you are staying and where you are from. Our infrastructure is not that developed in parts, but
the people make up for it.”
“This is what the Spanish call calidad humana”, he says. “It encompasses the welcoming, hospitable attitude of the Filipinos.” It is literally the human element.
Reyes has visited Europe, Asia and Scandinavia. He would like to see India because his father, who studied in Delhi, told him of “India, and Gandhi.” However, his dream destination is U.S.A. because “we were colonised by them and their history is entwined with ours.”
“I love rogan josh!” says Chef Harry Furio at the Crowne Plaza Manila Galleria in Galleria, as we sit down for a chat after breakfast. “But in local food, I like adobo. And sinigang, especially salmon belly sinigang. I like food that is saucy, not dry.”
Sinigang, a colourful sour and savoury stew, perfectly embodies the essence of most Filipino food according to Harry. “We are extravagant when it comes to ingredients. There is no rationing in that. Filipinos love to eat. You will see people always eating from morning to night,” he laughs.
Furio believes that putting your heart into cooking any Filipino dish makes all the difference. He has worked in Manila and the Crowne Plaza for over a decade, and has seen the food scene of the capital city evolve. Different restaurants, including Indian and Korean ones, have sprung up in recent times. But local flavours still reign. “The way of cooking is still largely traditional, but chefs experiment with local flavours especially in Manila. You will see restau-rants putting a twist to traditional dishes and people love it. Travellers have often told me that some of the best experiences they have had have been with local food. Some are adventurous and will try exotic dishes like balut, and some really like the tangy-savoury flavours of our food, or even the devil’s chilli that is widely used in Bicol.”
Manila’s San Miguel by the Bay is a popular night-time spot in Manila with shops, restaurants, recreational spaces, and the city’s largest Ferris wheel. Photo by Kim David/ Shutterstock.
Surprisingly when I ask him what travellers should look for when they come to Philippines and why they should visit at all, food is not his first thought. He insists that a dip in the sea at Palawan or Boracay is mandatory, but like the others I’ve met, the first thing he mentions is the people.
“There are always smiling faces in the Philippines. We will always take care of you. And if possible, we’d like to show you every corner of the country, because there is something to see and of course something to eat in every corner. Our food, our warmth, and our smiles are things we are proud of.”
Chef Furio would like to see the cone volcano in Bicol. Outside the country, he would go to Malaysia because “it is a trending industry, and I love coconut milk and ginger.”
is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.
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