Of mooncakes and bookends: celebrating Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival in Manila

Of mooncakes and bookends
By Walter Ang
September 26, 2001
Philippine Daily Inquirer

The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is always fun. At the very least, it gives you a day where you can pig out on great food. On a more formal note, this festival that falls on the 15th lundar day of the 8th lunar month is a day to think of family. Sometimes mistakenly called the Moon Festival; the festival is a day for reunion, with the round shape of the moon symbolizing family, abundance and prosperity.

If you think about it, a day where it's "official" to have a little fun with family isn't so bad now that the world isn't feeling so cheerful. Chinoys (or the much longer label, "Filipinos of Chinese descent") around the country have a chance to bond and strengthen a few cultural roots.

Kids get to play a popular dice game that involves confusing dice combinations that will either win you a dinky consolation prize (usually a ballpen) or the biggest, grandest pot of the day (which could be a new cd player if the sponsors are generous). Regardless of the prizes to be won however, it's the coming together that's important.

What's most funny about the Mid-Autumn Fest (among other Chinoy celebrations) is that usually, most of my Pinoy friends are more excited about it than I am. They're the ones who are the first to look for mooncakes. Whenever the festival looms close, morning greetings are punctuated with "And don't forget my mooncake!" All in good fun, of course.

Sweet treats
You can't live in the Philippines and not know about mooncakes. Sweet treats that come in round-shaped bronze-colored pastries filled with sweet lotus seed or red bean paste. Tons of the stuff are sold in Chinatown a couple of weeks prior to the day of all days. Sidewalks are lined with metal tins and whatever new containers they've thought up to make the stuff hipper for the younger crowd. I've heard of mooncakes with cartoon character faces ? I guess the novelty cake concept has spread to these kinds of sweets as well. People descend in droves into the little streets of Ongpin in Chinatown and leave with armfuls, bagfuls or car trunks filled to the brim with the stuff.

As for my friends, I'm happy to oblige their requests for mooncakes. After all, food doesn't taste as good as when it's being shared with good friends and sprinkled with great conversation and stories. Speaking of stories, there's a funny one about the ubiquitous fruitcake. There are only ten fruitcakes in the whole world and that nobody really eats them, they just get circulated from one family to the next. There are times when I tend to think that the same might hold true for mooncakes.

The first few pieces you get to eat are always fun, but once you realize you're left with a dozen or so of the stuff and you can't give them away anymore because it's too late, it's not so fun anymore. You have to endure several days' worth of eating mooncakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner just to finish off your surplus.

Sometimes, you have to think creatively to get rid of excess mooncakes. Of course, one can always go the altruistic and magnanimous route and donate to charitable organizations. Then, there's always your classmates, orggmates or officemates.

If you're having problems with one of your subjects, you can always give a couple to your teacher to help sweeten her disposition. Also, you can give one to your boss if you're positioning yourself for a raise. Just make sure you don't wait too long after the Mid-Autumn Festival, otherwise she'll figure out you're just using her to get rid of your leftovers. Her disposition may just turn sour instead of the desired sweet!

We could probably even contribute to the world of science using mooncakes. Scientists who study microscopic germs like Neisseria gonorrhea, Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Aaron Carter need to grow the germs first. They use a growing concoction they call "culture media". We all know what kind of stuff can grow on leftover food if you leave it out for too long (it's not a pretty sight), perhaps scientists can use it as a new kind of culture medium.

At the end of the day, if you still have a couple of cakes left, I suppose you could use them as hockey pucks, doorstops, paperweights, or as fancy bookends. Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

Butterfly farm and crocodile farm in Palawan

A Visit to Paradise 
By Walter Ang
September 19, 2001
Philippine Daily Inquirer

This is your intrepid 2bU! correspondent traversing the lush island paradise of Palawan. We have come to conquer the city of Puerto Princessa via an Air Philippines flight from Manila. To rest up for the adventure ahead, we spent the night at the tony Spanish villa- inspired Asturias Hotel. We all had a short nightcap at the lobby's Scenario Bar before turning in for the night.

After devouring a hearty breakfast, we dropped by the butterfly farm first. They showed a video of the butterfly's life cycle that we all thought was hilarious. We felt like a bunch of kindergarteners with this video voice over telling us not to do this and not to touch that and all sorts of other precautions.

I grew up in fume-filled Metro Manila, so butterflies were, and still are, a rarity. It was interesting to see all these colorful flying insects hovering about. There were plates laid out with gumamelas and sliced bananas to attract the little creatures but all you had to do was look up and they were all over the garden. You just had to look a little harder for the ones that were camouflaged like leaves.

The highlight of the morning was when our guide showed us two butterflies that were, well, in flagrante delicto. The garden boasts of its Yellow Breadwings, the second largest butterfly in the country, but it also has a few other creatures that call it home. If you loved the movie "A Bug's Life," then this place will give you a chance to see those computer generated bugs for real. They've got big, juicy millipedes, a walking stick and some fantastic Malay scorpions, among other creepy crawlies.

Crocodilus Park
Moving on, we ventured to the Palawan Wildlife Refuge and Rescue Center, more popularly known as The Crocodile Farm. The skeleton of the largest crocodile ever captured in the country greeted us as we entered the center. All 17 feet and 6 inches of its hide was stretched across the wall like an ominous welcome sign.

When we got to the holding area for the adult crocs, it felt like we were in Jurassic Park ? there were metal walkways and everything. There were so many crocs that were just lying there and not moving at all. Our guides Glenn Rebong and Rene Baylon explained that these reptiles stay very still because of their opportunistic nature. They're all waiting for the first piece of food to come along. That's when the action gets going.

Of course, our guides were quick to dispel the myth that crocs are manhunters. They only attack when they're hungry or protecting their young. They can't even tell the difference between humans and the rest of the animals they usually munch on!

We also had a peek at the infirmary where injured crocs and those born with congenital defects (like missing tails) were kept. 2bU!'s favorite was a croc who had a calcium deficiency and, as a result, had no teeth. Although it is still fed regularly, it looked so forlorn. And who wouldn't be melancholy if the rest of your kind can go through 3,000 teeth in a lifetime and you had none!

Baby, baby!
At the nursery, baby crocs were placed in tubs all lined up in the warehouse. We got a chance to hold one, but to make it safe, its snout was held together with rubber bands. The tiny little thing wriggled as I held it by its neck and tail and it gave out the cutest little croak when we took pictures.

The croc's underside was smooth and it reminded me of Zoology class with all those frogs we had to poke, prod and dissect. Baby crocs are a lot less slimy and messy than frogs, I assure you. But, just like frogs, they do move a lot. Unlike the adults, these were hyper little devils and would snap and scatter every so often.

Their sudden movements would elicit screams from the correspondents as we jumped with fright. The Center is currently being funded by the DENR, but proposals have been made to let the local Palawan government have a bigger hand in running the center to attract more tourists.

I wish we had enough time to explore the underground river, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It would also have been fun to visit the Vietnamese refugee camp and taste their cuisine, which a friend has done and bragged about. But then, it gives me a great excuse to visit Puerto Princessa again.

2bU! readers can get the best deals on trips to Palawan by getting in touch with the Network of Independent Travel Agents. Call 522-2434 and they'll refer a travel agent nearest you.

Nature Trip to Coron

Nature Trip to Coron 
By Walter Ang
September 12, 2001
Philippine Daily Inquirer

2bU! arrived as the sun was setting into the earth, casting a glow across the clouds. After landing in Busuanga Island (found at the northern tip of Palawan) via a 19 seater Seair plane, we took an hour jeepney ride to Coron town. We used air, land and, finally, water transportation (a 5 minute boat ride) to reach DiveLink Resort.

Nestled into the hillsides of Uson Island, the bright yellow color of the resort's jetty was already visible from afar. Welcomed by the indefatigable resident manager Maween Reyes, we shared dinner and stories that night. Buffet was served in a charming miniaturized boat as 2bU! and other members of the media were told of the exciting activities that were lined up for us.

In the light of the morning sun, we were able see our cottages in their full Caribbean colors of red, blue and yellow (as are even the bathrooms tiles). Cristina Matta (whose husband Noel co-owns the resort along with Bobong Velez and Henri Blasckiewicz) said the colors were chosen to make the resort "a happy place." The cottages, with endearing fruit names (I stayed in Buko), contain no aircons and television sets. "And they can never, ever have one," said this gracious lady. "The lack of amenities is meant to encourage guests to come out and bask in nature."

Treasure hunting
Dapper Noel Matta, who also heads the security committee of the Palawan Provincial Tourism Council, gave us the lowdown on why Coron is such a hotspot for divers. In 1944, as the second World War was coming to an end, freight ships of General Yamashita docked in Coron.

The ships supposedly carried treasures that the Japanese army looted from Indochina (Cambodia, Myanmar, Burma). Some were even disguised as Red Cross ships but Gen. William ''Bull'' Halsey sent his planes to bomb them anyway since Japan never signed the Treaty of Paris.

There are now 37 total wrecks with 14 diveable sites ? certainly a haven for divers and treasure hunters. We were told of fake "treasurehunters" who buy cheap vases, allow coral to grow on them for about three months and claim these "artifacts" were scavenged from the wrecks. Caveat emptor!

And speaking of buyers beware, since the tourism scene in Coron is pretty much still in its infancy, have the resort arrange any tours or diving trips you wish to take. They know which establishments and operators are reliable and safe. You wouldn't want your day ruined by hooking up with inexperienced or unsavory characters.

Even if Coron is a divers' hotspot, it accommodates non-divers as well. Our multi-talented guide Robert Agusto prepared a whole day of non-diving activities. We started off with swimming at the Twin Lagoons where the water was a clear, rich blue. There were magnificent limestone cliffs all around us; giant monolithic sentinels guarding us as we swam.

Next up was kayaking at a lush, picturesque mangrove that was so serene and teeming with a silent energy. For a city slicker like me whose main form of exercise is channel surfing, the kayaking was quite a workout for my biceps and triceps!

Nothing will compare, however, to Kayangan Lake, an Hall of Famer for being one of the cleanest lakes in the country. This fresh-water lake is accessible by a short climb up a small hill, then down again. When I caught a full view of the lake on my way down, I had to stop in my tracks. It was just oh-so-beautiful.

There we were, appreciating this piece of untouched nature. The silence punctuated by our "Oohs" and "Ahhs." All day long, you could hear people say "Ganda, ganda!" ? and you could only nod in agreement. It was wonderful to just bob contentedly in the water with our orange life-vests (aside from the safety, you needn't tire yourself out so you can concentrate on looking at the sights).

We kept joking that this would be a perfect spot to shoot a porno movie. Both Maween and Robert seem to recall that someone already did. It was supposedly called "Bakit May Pakpak Ang Ibon" ("Why birds have wings," but the sexual innuendo is completely lost in the translation.)

To the ends of the earth
Last stop for the day was Maquinit Hot Springs where we settled down in the fantastic hot salt-water. There we soothed our muscles ? so unused to that much physical activity. And as the sun was setting yet again, I thought to myself, "So this is what an eco tour is like!" You hear about it all the time, but when you actually get to see nature at its best, you gain a deeper appreciation for the word. More people should get to see Coron; let's just hope they keep it clean!

Foreign tourists, mostly Italians and French, have come to visit Coron's beauty, but its guests are still primarily local tourists. The owners are appreciative of the WG&A vessels now plying the Coron route. "For around P6,000, you leave Manila Friday night after school or work and rest on the ship. Spend two days here with all meals and tours inclusive. You leave Coron Sunday night and arrive in Manila early Monday morning. It's great for the weekend market." For those without sea legs, Seair flies to Busuanga from Manila and Puerto Princessa.