So, many of you know my BFF, J, who has spent most of her life somewhere mid-flight between Ninoy Aquino and Los Angeles International Airports…OK – a bit of an exaggeration, but the truth is that my deep love for this crazy country is embedded in my deeper love for that girl, who has been my best friend, my bosom bud, my pain-in-the-ass and my confidant since the ripe old age of ten-and-a-half years old. When I made my way to this side of the globe the last time, we were super sexy 18-year olds, and J had already found the man she would marry 12 years later. Knowing my BFF as only a BFF can know another, and – as any of my dearest girlfriends will telly you – bearing in mind that when it comes to my girls’ men I can be as fierce as a momma lion, I can say beyond the shadow of a doubt that I loved G from the moment I met him, and could think of no man who was more deserving of the second-most important woman in my life.
Fast-forwarding a bit (just a bit), the last year and a half has been significantly more than eventful for these two…they have (ahem): gotten hitched, conceived and given birth to the sweetest little sugar cube you’ve ever set eyes on (whose smiles often begin with a wrinkled nose…I mean, seriously – is anything cuter than that in the whole world?), applied for and gotten a visa for G to live and work in the U.S., and moved his butt to L.A. to finally finally FINALLY after all this back-and-forth, here-and-there, waiting-hoping-waiting, start their lives together once and for all. A happy day, indeed.
Which is why it was so incredibly, inconceivably excellent to have the chance to pop by Manila en route to Coron Town such that we could celebrate G’s birthday/despedida (farewell party) and do something J and I have only dreamed of heretofore: hang out with both of our men at the same time. Sounds simple, but of course, it never has been, so that was pretty darn special…with J’s little bumpkin in the mix, I would have been hard-pressed to think of anything that could have made the time more perfect, but there it was…we got to hang out with her amazing aunt and uncle, whose names both begin with L, so that’s going to be a bit confusing…
Suffice it to say that this couple is pretty much the pie-in-the-sky we all dream about…they have it all – beautiful, talented, hard-working children, incredible taste that seems to come right out of a magazine, a level of emotional and spiritual peace most of us can’t even imagine (yet), and – maybe the best part for me, personally – all the hard work that proves they earned every ounce of the blessings they now enjoy…which is, no doubt, intricately related to the aforementioned peace.
Rewinding a bit to my previous venture here all those years ago, 1998 (yikes…I’m seriously feeling old) was, as some of you may recall, plagued by El Niño, which meant no rain here, and seriously hot nights. To escape the oppressive heat, J’s barkada (Filipino for crew or gang, but not in the vato sense of the word), which included me for those brief months, would pile into the van at 11 or midnight to head to Tagaytay, where we would drive up to People’s Park, the former “Palace in the Sky,” which would have been (yet another) home to the Marcos family, but that never came to fruition. It’s now a tourist site, but, as I’m sure you can gather from our timing, we weren’t intent on tourism. No – we would literally park the van on the side of the road, where at that time of night not a single car passed, to escape the air, light and noise pollution of the city and to enjoy the cool, fresh breeze of the hills. Sadly, I don’t think we ever went up before sunset, so I never got to enjoy the breathtaking views and the lush greenery of the town. It really has a beach-town feel to it, sort of sleepy and colorful and just generally lovely. J’s Aunt and Uncle L-squared have their place up there, so we were able to really take it all in as they hosted us overnight…they spoiled us with delicious Filipino vegetarian fare, and I’m kicking myself HARD because I could have quite literally done a whole post with pictures of all the incredible dishes we had with them…not to mention the yummy vegan pancit – Pinoy chow mein – that J ordered for me the night of G’s 2nd b-day/despedida party…unfortunately I was so preoccupied with the sarapness of it all (sarap=tasty) that the only thing on my mind went something like this: “mmmm-hmmm-rmph-mmm-ccchhhmmm-rhph-mmm,” and so on. Three highlights from the food we had (sadly sans pictures – except a couple we got from the Greenhouse Bistro):
1. The Greenhouse Bistro: A super lovely open-air veranda overlooking the garden that actually fills your plate…I had squash ravioli and Chris had the same with spinach-and-ricotta, but he rued his choice when he saw G’s salmon and J’s bangus (milk fish)…the meal was perfected by a gorgeous salad, which is more of a treat for us than you can possibly imagine…lettuce doesn’t do so well in super hot, humid climes, but Tagaytay provides the perfect setting for a light, fluffy leaf.
2. Dinner at Tita L and Tito L’s house: Vegetarian dinuguan, or “bean-uguan” as Tita L referred to it…Dinuguan is black pudding (aka blood pudding), but unlike its UK counterpart, in the Philippines it’s served runny. This one was made from black beans and veggie meat and was super delicious. Plus pasta with three sauces – chicken, tuna, and veggie…end of the meal and the chicken sauce had barely been touched! Dessert consisted of not one – not two – pero three desserts, pare! Suman, which is sticky-almost-gelatinous rice cooked in a banana leaf, is prepared differently in every part of the Philippines. In Mindanao, it’s usually street food, already sweet and about an inch in diameter, 6-inches long. But in Luzon, it’s not yet sweet, and it’s more the size of a pastry. One unwraps the banana leaf and then smothers it in a coconut confection that in this case was ever-so-gently spiced up by anise seeds…wow. We had that again for breakfast. Tito L brought out a slice of chocolate tiramisu which was decidedly not vegan, and so I don’t know how it is that I can tell you that it was delicious, but if anyone asks, just say you know nothing. The last part were these hand-wrapped milk-and-something sweets that Chris and J adored…but having sinned already I kept my distance.
3. Lunch at Sentro 1771: Boy-oh-boy…where to even begin? All the things I never can eat, done to perfection vegan style…like tofu sisig (which is a sizzling dish usually prepared with pork…fat, really, plus eggs on top), vegetable sinigang, a soup I remember from my childhood when J’s grandmother would come out to visit…she would make it with fish – halibut state-side, bangus in PI – simplicity at its finest, it’s a gorgeous soup with big hunks of veg in a tamarind broth. Plus lumpia, which anyone who’s got a Pinoy friend will know, but this one had pumpkin and green beans in it, and came with a gorgeous vinegar-based sauce…and kare-kare, which is a sort of peanut coconut curry…and bihol (like glass noodles) with spinach…we were overwhelmed. For desert we went back to their place and had Tito L’s favorite – banana-cue and camote (sweet potato)-cue, which is pieces of the aforementioned fruit and veg covered in caramelized sugar…divine.
We stayed at Happy Coconuts Hostel in BF Homes – not far from where J’s house was when she lived here – and while we didn’t see much of it as J and G (and little Baby S) kept us super busy the whole time we were here, I can tell you it was super clean, exceptionally cheap, and really close to the airport. We’ll definitely stay there again.
And my meeting went really well – I was asked to send across my Terms of Reference, and, generally speaking, Chris and I were feeling pretty excellent as we boarded the plane to make our way to Busuanga Island…