Thursday, March 27, 2008

Experience the Philippines

Carlos Celdran's walking tour
Malinta Tunnel on Corregidor
Pan Pacific's Lounge

Cebu-Plantation Bay Resort
Cebu-Island Hopping - beach lunch
Bohol-Chocolate Hills

Bohol-Pangloa Island Resort-view from our Jacuzzi
Bohol-Tarsiers-world's smallest mammals
Boracay-Regency Hotel

Pearl Farm Resort
Mindanao Night at Pearl Farm
Lobby of the Peninsula Hotel

"I can’t change how Manila looks but I can change how you look at Manila," explained our guide, Carlos Celdran. Manila is not a city that immediately wins one over. The heat and the traffic can be intense. The city’s colonial history was bombed into oblivion during WW II. But, our walking tour with Carlos definitely helped to change our impression of Manila. His tour starts at Intramuros, the walled portion of the city and is as much street theater as history lesson. Carlos began by leading our group of 20 in singing the Philippine national anthem. With a rapid-fire mix of history and humor he kept our attention right up to when he donned sunglasses, put a pipe in his mouth, and waving the American flag, became General Douglas MacArthur fulfilling his promise, "I shall return." The tour ended at Casa Manila, a typical upper class Philippine home of the colonial period restored under the guidance of Imelda Marcos. Carlos quipped, "She furnished it by mining. ‘This is mine. This is mine.""

One evening we went to dinner at Kaldekaldero where all the waiters and cooks took turns singing familiar American classics that are popular throughout Asia. We had adobo, the national dish of marinated chicken and pork. For dessert John and I shared Halo Halo, the yummy Philippine dessert is a that is a mixture of shaved ice, milk, sweet beans and fruits topped with ube, sweet yam ice cream. "Halo" means "mix" and the dessert could be the icon of Philippine culture. The Philippine culture is a fascinating mix of Asian, European, and American, with the American culture currently dominating. The national language is Tagalog but most people also speak English. Manila is home to the largest mall in Asia. It would be right at home in any large American city. After WW II, the American Jeeps were elongated and brightly painted to become Jeepneys that are now the typical means of inexpensive transportation. As one guide explained, "We sit knee-to-knee in the Jeeps so we call them Jeep-neys."

At the mouth of Manila Harbor sits Corregidor, the second most bombed island during WW II. I found the new tourist slogan a bit disturbing. "Visit Corregidor: A whole new fun experience!" There is a resort at the top of the "rock" and the island is promoted as a wedding destination and for corporate team building exercises. But most tourists take the 40-minute boat ride to the island to learn about the Battle of Corregidor. The guide explained, "The American base on the island was the pride of the military before WW II with the best facilities, including the Mile Long Barracks. It was considered a choice assignment. Then the war came." The light and sound show in the Malinta Tunnel tells the story of the battles on Corregidor from the Japanese and American perspective. The 835-foot long tunnel had dozens of laterals and held Gen. MacArthur’s headquarters, a 1000-bed hospital, and supplies. The war memorials and ruins of the Mile Long Barracks are a testament to the fact that there is no way to put a pretty face on war.

We were in Manila three different times and stayed at three different hotels. Some nights we sat in the Pacific Lounge on 21st floor of the Pan Pacific Hotel with a panoramic view of Manila realizing that Carlos was right, learning the history of Manila had changed our perspective of the city. Our last two nights we sat in the lobby of the elegant Peninsula Hotel listening to the beautiful live music by the hotel’s resident band realizing there are many Manilas!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Taiwan Suits Us to a "T"

Fast train to Taichung
Globee, Annie, and Blue lunch with Sandy, Alva, Jimmy, and Nick
Checking the tea plants
Teng Ting-Sou - tea ware artist
Pine House - One of Ten Rural Stay Village
Coffee plantation visit

In the 16th century, when the Portuguese visited Taiwan they named it Formosa, their word for "beautiful." The island is so green it could be dubbed the "Ireland of Asia." Taiwan is advertised as a place that will "Touch Your Heart," and it does. With an excellent road and rail system, Taiwan is easy to get around and English is commonly spoken. During our first visit in 2005, we stood in awe at the Taroko Gorge and rode the world’s fastest elevator to the top of the world’s tallest building.

On this trip Taiwan’s High Speed Train, the newest engineering marvel, reached 180 miles per hour as we sped to the tea and coffee area south of Taipei. As great as the wonders of man and nature are it is the people that make a trip memorable.

In 1865, Lin Feng-chih traveled to China to sit for the imperial civil service examination. After successfully passing the exam he returned home with 36 tea plants that were the beginning of the waves of sculpted tea plants that now cross the undulating hills. The leaves are picked by hand in the time-honored tradition but teapots have taken on a new look. Teng Ting-Sou, has dedicated his life to creating innovative teapots. "I wanted to be the first teapot maker to break away from the traditional idea that a teapot must have a spout and handle," he explained as he demonstrated his Gu-yi teapot in which the tea flows out from the bottom of the pot. Now he teaches his art to others.

At the Tea Culture Museum, our guide proudly explained more about the history of tea production and the area’s culture. "To preserve our tea tradition we teach the schoolchildren the proper way to make and serve tea."

The area is also good for producing high-grade coffee. After visiting a coffee plantation we had lunch at Shan Hai Guan Coffee Grove Restaurant where we learned coffee is not just for drinking. One of the desserts was coffee-flavored yams. Years ago, on the way to work, the owner bought small thin yams from an elderly woman. Not knowing what to do with them he started experimenting until he came up with the yummy coffee-coated roasted yams. And, it didn’t stop there; his family also makes chocolate-covered coffee beans, coffee toffee, a variety of other coffee products, and developed an inventive way to brew one cup of coffee at a time.

Nearby we visited the workshop of Mr. Tsia, a ceramic artist, who had completed the delicate face of a statue when the devastating 7.3 earthquake of September 21, 1999 stuck. The statue toppled to the floor causing the face to be flattened on one side without destroying the beauty on the other side. Lives were lost and buildings destroy but in the aftermath the government helped the hard-hit farming area by promoting agri-tourism. The statue is a metaphor for the area pointing out the good and bad effects of an event.

Our tour was one of the ten rural-stay village tours available to tourists; now we want to visit the other nine villages. We spent the night at Pine House, a modern log cabin complex that looked like it belonged in the Adirondacks. In the evening we shared dinner with our guide and several people from the community during which one guide entertained us with the song, "Beautiful Formosa."