Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part Seven: Rice Paddies

Down in the low lands, rice is a big part of the economy in the Philippines. My brother-in-law has been managing the family farm inherited after my wife's father died when she was just a little girl. Recently he has been trying to get it deeded over in his name so that it is his legally too. In the photo above, you can see his land in the strip where I am standing. The strip is about 40 feet wide and extends through the submerged rice paddy all the way to a distant strip of taller grass near the trees in the background. The other strips of land to the left and right of my brother-in-law's strip belong to other farmers.

In the Philippines, land is more community based that here in the States. You still physically own the land and farm it but there aren't many fences and nobody really cares if someone walks across your paddy on the way to their paddy. You will see big fields of these paddies belonging to many farmers who live nearby.

In the off season, it is common to see carabao (water oxen seen above), cows, goat (seen below) or other animals grazing away in the paddies. When it gets close to planting time which coincided with my visit, they will prepare a paddy among all the paddies and sew rice seed thickly in it. When the rice sprouts and gets to be about 8 or 10 inches tall, it is pulled in clumps and divided among the patty owners who will then plant it in their paddy in more orderly rows spaced out a couple inches or so. Before they plant their paddies or even flood them with water, the earth is first tilled with small tractors and equipment. This kills all the weeds growing in the paddy and loosens the soil for the next step.

Once the earth has been tilled, the paddy is flooded with water pumped in from a nearby stream. The farmer will then get his kuliglig which is the device seen in the picture above. It is similar to a tiller but with reel like blades (similar to the old lawn mowers) on each side in place of the wheels. An engine powers those reel blades which stir up the water and the loosened dirt into a mud slurry. Once the slurry is thick enough, the farmers take the clumps of rice grown from see and they poke them roots first into the slurry as they are doing in the picture below. There they continue to grow as the slurry dries out and eventually are harvested.

Traditionally the farmers lived on their land in nipa huts similar to the one above. These structures were build on bamboo poles stuck in the earth and had suspended floors that kept the occupants dry above their paddies. I still seem some of these in use in the rural areas but most of the farmers now live off their paddies in nearby houses looking like the one seen below. The nipa huts that I still see around appear to be shade relief for the farmers out working in their fields. The one above that I took through the windshield of a moving car is actually in a harvested tobacco field which you see here and there throughout the Luzon province. Another fairly common crop you see if cassava and occasionally dragon fruit. I also saw a few paddies of corn too. I'm not sure if it was the field corn variety or what passes for sweet corn in the Philippines. Their sweet corn is more like our field corn, tough and no sweetness. It really blows their mind when they sink their teeth into some Iowa grown sweetcorn. I usually cook two or three times more corn than I would for native Iowans and they will go through it all in one sitting like crack junkies three days after their last high.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part Six: The Eating of Food

After the lengthy post that I wrote previously on the ins and outs of shopping for food, I thought I would show you a few miscellaneous food pictures that I took during the course of our trip. Above is a plastic bag of quail eggs which we boiled and snacked on. It was my first time to eat them and while they were similar in taste to a boiled chicken eggs, their texture was creamier and not as dry as a chicken egg. In fact, I liked them better than hard boiled chicken eggs though you had to peel three or four to equal one chicken egg.

Fresh shrimp cooking on a little charcoal grill on the patio. Many Filipinos use these as a sort of summer kitchen to keep the heat outdoors.

Above is dragon fruit which has a taste and texture similar to kiwi fruit. I saw numerous dragon fruit plantations as we were driving around. They consisted of a field of posts set into the ground about five feet apart with a used motor cycle tire fasted to the top of the post in a horizontal position with a cross brace. The dragon fruit plant was a cactus like plant that would be tied to the center post and as it grew up and through the tire would drape over it. I'm not sure when harvest season was but I didn't see any plants with fruit on them while I was there.

When is the last time you had bottled pop? For me, I'm guessing my last time was nearly 20 years ago when I was in college. I was happy to see that bottled pop is still alive and well in the Philippines. The only drawbacks were that it came in teeny 8 oz bottles which are shadows of their American plastic counterparts and that the servers inevitably stuck a well used and recycled straw in it when serving it to me. I always took the straw out and just drank from the bottle because I'm guessing the straws were probably never sterilized or even rinsed.

Road side vendors abound on the island and you are never more than a stones throw from food if you want to pull off to the side. Many times the vendor isn't there but if you pull over a honk your car horn, one will quickly appear and quickly open up a buko (young coconut) or as in the picture above, wrap up some tupig in a plastic bag to eat on your journey. Tupig is just one form of a gelatinous rice and coconut mixture that is found in snack type foods. In this case it is wrapped in banana leaves and grilled. Another form called tinubong finds it in the cavity of a bamboo shoot and steamed. In all cases it is a sweet and tasty snack.

When visiting restaurants in the Philippines, everything is served with rice as can be seen in the above photo. This platter of food was served family style for about a dozen of us and we quickly went through all the mountain of rice seen above and ordered and consumed a second mountain to go with the BBQ meats, salads and sides. I think it cost me about $25 for everything.

While in Baguio, my mother-in-law wanted to throw my oldest daughter a Filipino birthday party at their most popular fast food restaurant Jollibee. The two pictures above and below are their versions of the happy meal. The one above is fried chicken, a cake of rice and a side of gravy. In the picture below the cake of rice has been replaced by spaghetti. I have eaten pretty much everything put in front of me during my time in the Philippines but I have yet been able to try fast food spaghetti. I chose the option above with the rice cake and it wasn't too bad though I was confused about what to do with the side of gravy. I ended up pouring it on top of my rice.

Above is charcoal grilled squid purchased from the wet market earlier in the morning. Below is a pinakbet pizza which we saw while driving though a town and bought for a snack along the road. Traditional pinakbet contains fish sauce, bitter melon, string beans, tomatoes and a few other ingredients and is served as kind of like a stew eaten with rice. The pizza form which was a first for all of us, American and Filipino alike, was pretty tasty.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part Five: Foraging For Food

Most houses that I have been inside in the Philippines have refrigerators but they aren't utilized like their American counterparts. In America, a typical refrigerator would have staples like milk, butter and eggs along with meats, vegetable, cheeses and leftovers from previous meals. Filipino refrigerators have the staples but none of the rest. They are much smaller and are not the central part of a kitchen like they tend to be in America. I write all of this to say that most Filipinos tend to shop at markets on a daily basis or several times a week. Their food is fresher than the freshest of American food found in the supermarket often picked, caught or killed that day. 

If they aren't buying fresh food to prepare, they are buying prepared food from food vendors like the one in the photo above who make it fresh every day. This particular stand is owned by my wife's uncle and is in Manila. As I sat inside eating breakfast and talking with my wife's uncle one morning, a constant stream of people stopped by picking up 'sack' lunches to eat later at work. They would inspect the contents of the pots and select the ones they wanted which were scooped up and ladled into plastic bags that were then knotted and put into a larger plastic bag with other selections. The other common method of dining there was to bring your own rice, though rice was also served, and to pay for a ladle full of a dish to be put on top and then eaten right there at the counter.

When dining in America especially at quick eating or fast food places, the food is often made in advance of your arrival and kept warm on hot plates until served. While this is also the case in similar restaurants of the Philippines, all you have to do is ask and almost all of them will make you some fresh food. At the above stand in a block of the town of Vigan that served every kind of empanada imaginable, I ordered some fresh empanadas for lunch. The empanada dough was made from rice flour and the filling consisted of papaya, longanisa (similar to a sausage) and an egg and then fried. They were outstanding and worth the wait.

I would say that the hardest aspect of food for someone used to living in a first world country like the United States to adjust too is how meat is sold in the Philippines. There aren't any refrigerated cases full of styrofoam and shrinkwrapped trays of meat, or at least that I have seen. If there are, I'm sure it is way beyond the price of the average Filipino. They instead by their meats or seafood in 'wet' markets which are usually nearby to their produce markets. They are open air stalls and nothing is wrapped. In fact, the pig, cow, or chickens were probably slaughtered overnight or early that morning and by the time we get their near dawn to buy it, they are still processing it into the cuts you see above. All these stands have a bloody wooden stump in them where they can cut up your purchase to your desire and the meat is put into a plastic bag and knotted at the top.

The most common question or concern I get is about food born bacteria being present in this situation. While I'm sure there are bacteria present, there are several factors that prevent them from getting you sick. First, the meat is super fresh so any contaminant is probably only on the outside of the meat and easily rinsed off before cooking when you return home. Second, rare or medium rare aren't terms used in the Philippines. Everything is well cooked thus killing any bacteria present. Third, most of their meats are cooked with preservatives like vinegar or soy sauce that are acidic and salty and adding another level of safety. In all my time in the Philippines, I have never gotten sick from the food. I have had my run ins with bad water but that's another story.

Being a poor country, no part of an animal is wasted, including the tails of cows which can be seen in the blue plastic tote above. The man in the picture just finished up scraping the hair off the tails in the big container of water right next to it and they will be chopped up and put in plastic bags when purchased where they will most likely be made into a Filipino dish called kare-kare. He was right in front of the meat store in the preceding picture and when he was finished, he took a few cans of water from the taller container near the street to wash the hair and blood on down the sidewalk... right where we walk. Like I said, it makes my mind squirm thinking about these things but I've never gotten sick from the food.

More appealing to me are the seafood sections of the wet markets because the fish and seafood are all freshly caught. In fact, if one travels the roads leading up the mountain to Baguio in the wee morning hours, they are full of trucks of fish, veggies and other perishable items that are creeping up the mountain in low gear heading for the markets where the fish will be sold and consumed later that day. These fish are nothing like the ones you find in an American store which are frozen and then thawed and days if not weeks old. Just one whiff of your nose will tell you that these things are super fresh. Again note the presence of the bloody wooden stump and plastic bag seen on the right side of the photo.

For other perishable goods and some non-parishable stuff, you can go to the rest of the market area in town. In Baguio, the market area comprised about four or five blocks of alleyways covered with tarps like what is seen above or roofed open air areas. Merchants set up their stands  to hawk their wares to passersby and like the wet market, everything is very fresh. For the most part, you only see what is in season at that moment. Although technically illegal, you also find many private individuals who will set up shop along the side of the street every morning selling the produce they picked from the night before or early that morning that was ripe. Nothing is priced and there are dozens of people selling the same thing so much time is spent shopping for the best foods and haggling for the cheapest price.

For non-perishable goods, there are a few stores that are similar in nature to American grocery stores. They are full of rows of shelves of boxed, bagged and canned goods that you can select, put in your cart and pay for in the checkout lanes. However there is one noticeable exception. I am taking this picture from the far back corner of the store. If you were to walk all the way to the far wall seen in the distance, hang a left and walk another length of distance, you would reach the checkout area. Where I am standing when I took this picture was the end of the line of people waiting to pay for their items. Seriously! The line wound left and right through the aisles between here and there and probably had at least 300 people ahead of me. No more will I get impatient when I get to a checkout line in America and there are more than a couple people ahead of me.

The best strategy to minimize the wait to pay was for at least one other person to shop with you. One person would get a cart and immediately go to the back of the store and get in line to pay. The other person would grab a hand basket and make forays into the aisles that we passed getting the necessary food items and occasionally come back to dump it in the shopping cart as it slowly advanced in line. After about 40 minutes in line, I finally turned the last corner to the checkout lines seen below. It looks chaotic but was actually fairly organized. All along the way in line, there were store employees stationed to help people find the end of the line and prevent people from cutting in line. During the 40 minutes I pushed the cart slowly forward in line, three other people tried to cut in line in front of me and were quickly collared and shown to the back of the line. Once you got to the end of the line, another store employee would usher you to the first empty checkout line available. Once again, all your groceries were put in plastic bags for you to carry out by hand. The carts were not to leave the store.

One thing that I found funny is that we bought some eggs at this particular store and when we got up to the counter, they asked which price I wanted. One price was for the eggs and another price was for the eggs if you kept the carton they were in. I'm not sure what would happen if you selected the cheaper price sans carton but I'm guessing it involved a plastic bag. We paid the higher price and got to keep our eggs in the carton so I never found out the answer.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part Four: The Airport

I never have any pictures of the international airport in Manila. One reason is my camera is packed in the bottom of my carry-on so that even if I lost every single bag (which happened twice this trip), I always have my camera and pictures that I've taken. Bags and clothes can be replaced but pictures can't. Another reason is that after 30 hours of being inside airplanes and airports, I'm ready to get out into the other world and I am in no mood to take pictures. The third reason is that the Manila airport is a full on assault to my rural Iowa senses, very crowded and full of people who like nothing better to do than to lighten a 'rich' white guy of his belongings. This means offering me taxis, carrying my luggage which everyone knows is full of pasalubong/gifts, picking my pockets or stealing a large camera hung around my neck. For those reasons, I just keep my camera safe at the bottom of my backpack strapped securely on my back.

Upon arrive and once you clear immigration and customs, you immediately find yourself outside the terminal and in the midst of  a huge crowd of porters and taxi drivers. A very tall white guy stands out as an easy mark and thus I tend to get a lot of unwanted attention. I don't blame them because if I was in their shoes and only making a few dollars a day in wages, I would want to hit up the people most likely to give me big tips for my services. In most airports, this is the area where you would meet the people who are waiting for you to arrive on your flight but not in Manila.

The first time I ever flew in to that airport, I spent a half hour standing there fending off all the taxi drivers and porters while waiting for my fiance to arrive and rescue me. What I didn't realize is that I had to cross the street and go down a large ramp and cross yet another street before I reach the barricaded area where all the families are waiting for arriving passengers. There it is truly a free for all of people and noises which combined with the hot humid air full of exhaust fumes, assaults me like nothing else can. Fortunately for me, I'm a tall white guy in a land of small brown skinned people so the people searching for me generally see me well before I see them and rescue me. Soon I am settled into the average minivan with twelve other people who came to greet me and heading towards the mountains of Baguio. In the Philippines, aunts, uncles and long lost cousins want nothing more to do than spend ten hours round trip in a van going to the airport to see a family member.

On the return trip back through the airport heading home, the Manila airport is also unlike every airport I have ever been too. When we pull up to the terminal entrance and unload our luggage onto carts to wheel into the airport, we can only get as far as the door and then they are immediately scanned with x-ray machines, along with all your carry-on items. The worst part is that your luggage carts can't make it through this area so you have to pile up your luggage on the backside of the x-ray scanner conveyor belt and find another cart to pile them onto. Your next stop is to check in at the desk where you get your tickets as far as the first layover in the States and your luggage is checked in. Then you head through a myriad of check points where your tickets are checked, your passports checked, your carry-on luggage is scanned again and finally you make the extortion booth. The Manila airport is the only airport I have ever been too where you are forced to pay to go between the check-in desk and the departure gates. It costs about $12 per person to leave so I always have to keep a pocket full of pesos to make it through that area.

Once lightened of the pesos in my wallet, we once again have to make it through two more security check points where they check our tickets and passports. Once we arrive at our gate, we must first have our passports and tickets checked a third time and then at the bottom of the stairs, our carry-on luggage is searched by hand. Finally you reach a room full of seats where you can await for your flight. However if you need to use a restroom or get a drink of water, you must go back through two or three layers of the security (bathroom two layers, drink three layers as I found out with two kids) and repeat them on your way back. The worst part about it all is that I really don't feel anymore secure than I do at airports with less checkpoints and layers, only inconvenienced. The only explanation I can come up with for all of it is that there is such a huge amount of unemployed people willing to work for next to nothing that it is the governments way of subsidizing the poverty by creating all these jobs in airport security. So if you are ever flying out of Manila, make sure you double or triple the normal amount of time you think you need to get through all these checkpoints before you reach your departure gate and make sure you save P500 in local currency to make it through the extortion booth.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part Three: City In the Mountains

Once I survive the 20+ hours of flights along with time spent on layovers and getting through immigration and customs at Manila, my journey still has a long way to go. My wife is a native of Baguio City which is in the province of Benguet in the mountains of central Luzon island or the main island of the Philippines. On paper, it is a 160 mile drive along a fairly direct route but in reality it is a five hour journey via minivan.

The reasons for the length of time can be saved for a later post but part of it is the last part of the journey where we transition from the lowlands and rice paddies to the mountain tops. It is about an hour and a half slog up winding mountain roads no matter which way you come from to reach Baguio, the summer capital of the Philippines. This mountain top city had highs of 76 and lows of 68 the entire time I was there while in the lowlands the temperatures were in the mid 90's for highs and maybe got down to the mid 70's at night.

Most of my trips to the Philippines have me arriving at the airport late in the evening meaning by the time we reach the outskirts of Baguio dawn is just thinking about breaking. Many of our journeys to other places during our stay often start in the wee hours of the morning to maximize time spent at our destination and to avoid the worst of the traffic. As a result, I rarely get to actually see much of the view as we wind up the mountain roads. However on this trip, we did make one short trip down the mountain during daylight hours and I was rewarded with the view seen above.

Baguio is unlike any city I've ever seen, here, abroad or even in the Philippines. It is a city clinging to the sides of mountains and seems very precarious in nature. The only flat spots in the entire town are the two soles of your feet and even they aren't often on the same elevation. Houses are often three, four and five stories tall to conform to the side of the mountains but often are probably about the same square footage as many suburban homes. My mother-in-law's house can be entered in from street level on the fourth floor where the kitchen, living, dining and master bedrooms reside. We stay up on the fifth floor in a suite of bedrooms, while the third floor contains a sort of efficiency suite and the second and first floor small apartments that are rented out. Because of the close confines of everything and the steepness of the surroundings, it is hard to photograph her house and get a real sense of what I am talking about but I was able to capture a picture of a similar residence seen above while driving around Baguio one afternoon.

Baguio City covers about 20 square miles of mountain side and has a population of about a third of a million people. If you count the interlocking barrios, I'm certain that it is closer to a million. During my time of coming to Baguio over the last decade, the population has exploded. Places that were tree covered mountain slopes on previous visits are now packed with houses and roads. It went from a bustling mountain town to a crowded city seemingly overnight. Smog is already a big problem and will probably get worse before it gets better. I tolerate it for my short stays but I definitely would never want to live in Baguio City full time unless I want various lung and breathing ailments later on in life. In the picture above, I'm fairly certain that the mountain in the background now covered with houses didn't look like that on my last visit. It probably had houses back then but not nearly as densely packed as they are now. That and the lack of trees always drew my attention to it whenever we drove by.

This picture was taken with a telephoto lens of the mountain in the previous picture. It certainly gives you a sense of the vertical nature of Baguio and the density all in one photo. Unfortunately the smog problem gives it a foggy appearance.

Most of Baguio City however looks closer to this picture. It is still very densely populated and steep but there are pockets of foliage here and there and larger trees sticking up above the houses. While you see lots of tropical trees like avocado, foliage like bamboo, you also see lots of pine trees which is why Baguio is known as the City of Pines among other names. The view out my bedroom window is of pine trees that whisper in the breezes and being on the edge of town, mercifully free of smog most of the time. Baguio is also known as the strawberry capital of the Philippines though in all my times, I have yet to see actual strawberries growing anywhere. This trip I cam close and saw some strawberry beds being planted in the bottom right corner of the picture at the head of this post.

While visiting a new museum on the edge of town, one of the balconies on the third or fourth floor (at road or entrance level) offered a view outside of town and into the sparsely populated mountains outside of town. I have only made one overnight trip into the rural mountains on my first trip to the Philippines over a decade ago and after this trip where I explored more of the coastal and lowland regions, I wish to explore the rural mountain regions more in the future. They are largely blank on the detailed maps that I bought of the country but I know in a country this populated, they are full of invisible people.