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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lutong Macau!

I really don't know where the Filipino connotation of "Lutong Macau" started. May I venture loosely into saying that we Filipinos usually use this phrase to mean that something is just made up, or that something was just cooked up, as in "cook the books." I now wonder if this is because Macau is principally a place you go to for gambling. Well, it's certainly the Las Vegas of the mainland China.

Of course, when an opportunity came up to visit Macau (read: free trip), who's to say one will not jump at the chance? With so many people I know who have been to Macau telling me that it's a worthwhile destination, I said why not? Why not indeed. And so my mother and I packed our bags for both our birthday trip and some mother and daughter bonding.

We chose a centrally located hotel in the main island of Macau. While Hotel Beverly Plaza is a
four-star hotel, it had simple straightforward amenities. I thought at first I may have made a mistake in choosing this hotel. This is because I've already confirmed our reservations when I decided to check out the reviews on the place, and the people who previously stayed there gave mixed reactions. Lucky for us, the quality of service has improved for the better. Unlike what the previous guests have been saying, the hotel staff are friendlier and more helpful. Toiletries and coffee and tea courtesy trays are complete and clean. Their breakfast buffet still needs a bit of improvement though, but on the whole, they serve a satisfactory spread of Cantonese and Western breakfast. Being a Filipino though, I was looking for fried rice. I suppose it's not a Cantonese thing. However, I got to taste a more or less authentic Pancit Canton, Macau being a Chinese Canton region rather than Mandarin or Fookien Chinese.

For people like my mother and I who do not gamble, the best thing to do in Macau is to eat! So our first destination upon arrival was to go to The Venetian and find out what is all the fuss about the place. From central Macau, we boarded the ferry shuttle to reach the station, and from there, one can choose to which hotel you'd like to go. So many of the hotels in the area offer free shuttle service to the tourists as an incentive (and may I say temptation) for people to gamble in their casinos. Once, when Macau has not opened to the world yet, there was only one casino to go to - the Hotel Casino Lisboa, which is actually a few minutes' walk away from our hotel. But when the tourist industry boomed and Macau opened its doors for foreign investors in 2004, so many casinos were built and opened. There are presently 30 casinos in Macau right now, and for a region that is only 30 square kilometers in area, the statistics would be that there is one casino for every square kilometer. And because of the competition among these casinos, casino hopping becomes easier and more convenient since they all offer free shuttle services. That's free trade and competition for you.

So, we boarded the shuttle for The Venetian with much anticipation since we first saw the hotel
from the airport. It's a beautiful and grand structure, and upon going inside, one would notice how well-thought out the floor plans are, how opulent the interiors and how they were able to replicate much of the piazzas and interconnecting bridges of Venice. Nevertheless, I'm sorry to say that it is just a copy of a
beautiful place, and if you take out the layers, it is nothing but a hotel with a big shopping mall. It is, on the other hand, a self-contained little "city".

In search for dinner, we naturally thought of trying out traditional Macanese cuisine and what better way for a first timer to do that than to go to The Venetian's food court. Macanese cuisine is much influenced by the administration of Portugal of the region for 400 years. It reminded me of how Spain influenced Filipino cuisine as well. So what is traditional in eating Macau?

Like Filipinos, their favorite meats are pork and chicken, and they treat spaghetti the same way as rice. We saw spaghetti in tomato, hot, cheesy and curry sauces. We are likewise surprised at how big their individual servings were. Certainly, no one is supposed to go hungry in Macau.
For dinner, we chose Porto Exterior where I had the Portuguese Chicken, which is much like the Filipino chicken curry we have here, but theirs have chorizos and black olives in the mix. My mother had the Fish with Cheese Sauce, which are generous portions of fish fillets breaded and fried to a crunch placed on top of rice fried in mild spices and scrambled egg bits. We had to balance our meals off with poached bok choy from Pho Hoa (yes, not really a traditional Macanese dinner, I admit). However, my mother and I were really more than satisfied with such a heavy meal and decided to walk our meal off afterwards with a tumbler of fresh fruits to take home.

We thought that our dinner was just a peculiar thing there in The Venetian, but our future meals in Macau were about the same thing - generous portions of everything. Our other meals included trying out the 24-hour cantonese dimsum place right next to our hotel. I'm sorry that I couldn't write down the name since it was only written in Cantonese. While they have a menu written in English, the staff do not speak any, and I was reduced to just pointing out the items we liked in the list as written in English while the waitstaff would read the counterpart Cantonese. Service was quick too. The food is just like what you get in the usual Chinese restaurants here in Manila - and then some. I had the crispy breaded pork chop rice meal, which they served with hot steaming broth and steamed cabbage and turnips. My mother had the beef with peppers on rice. We had the vegetable dumplings as a side with the usual soy and chili garlic sauces, but I still prefer the Filipino way of injecting kalamansi juice in the sauce for some bite and balance.
Macau as a cultural destination can be done in one day or less. I appreciated the fact that the Macau Chinese preserved as much of their history as they possibly can. The Senado square, the Maa Gok Temple (where the goddess A-ma resides) and the Ruins of St. Paul (which is the symbol for Macau) are World Heritage sites that are really worth seeing in person. As Macau thrives much on their tourism industry, it is only but proper for one to respect how organized the government is in coordinating everything well. Considering that they are Chinese whose sense of culture is quite strong and deeply felt, they also do not forget and likewise respect and embrace their historical and foreign influences. It is truly a blending of east and west.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Hitting the Road

It's been quite some time since I made an entry here and I miss it actually. It's a bit funny though that during the time that typhoons were hitting the country, the internet service in my area was working well, but when the typhoons left, my service provider chose that time to strand me, and the rest of my province. I'm still looking for the logic in that.

And so, one of the things I quite missed during those trying times was the opportunity to just get up and and drive a car to anywhere. Of course, for my part the easiest route to take would be the Manila East road, which is well maintained as you go on stretches with nary an encounter with a bump on the road. This is the only stretch of road where one feels like there are only a few people in the Philippines.

What I like about road tripping are the little surprises that you get when you just take the time to stop and be curious. On this road, there is of course, the window shops of Paete displaying their wood carvings for sale. If you travel there during the -ber months, there is quite a buffet of Santas to choose from to decorate your house. There is also the showcase of the barong tagalog and saya along Lumban. The trip through these towns are short since they are small places, but it makes for such wonderful sights to see the culture thriving along the road. Then you know that you've reached Pagsanjan as soon as you see the old but well-preserved colonial Spanish houses there and the old wall marking the province as
established during the Spanish era. Then, if you reach Magdalena, there you will appreciate at how neat and peaceful the town and its people are, with their famously old church. They even have a memorial inside it signifying the short time that Apolinario Mabini rested in probably the last of his battles against the Spanish before he expired. The blood stains on his hat and sword are still there, brown and preserved in age.

For us, the final stop would be Liliw again. One naturally lands on the town after Magdalena. It's a little uphill and into their narrow streets which curved this way and that. We reached a very charming place called Balay Celina, a Bali-inspired bed and breakfast, quite a few minutes from the center of town. We were greeted by a friendly caretaker called Lasi who took care of us the moment we entered the gates, which is a distance from the main entrance.

As we entered the foyer, we are greeted by instant tranquility from the sounds of trickling water from the indoor pond, lush colors from the variety of plants alongside it, and natural light streaming in from every angle. One gets a glimpse of the garden pushed at the back of the house, leading to the swimming pool and another cottage for bigger groups or families who would like some more privacy. Every square inch of the house is made with natural and contrasting materials that really go together beautifully.

Lasi led us to our room, which is quite big. There were two double beds, a living area and tv with cable. The bathroom is likewise spacious and can probably accomodate the toiletries of six people. Indeed, the rooms of Balay Celina are made for sharing. We weren't prepared, however, with the little detail that they dont provide basic toiletries like shampoo, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste. But towels are big and clean.

The people of Balay Celina are very accommodating that they can drive you to the center of town for your shopping and sight seeing. Even if it takes you 2 hours to get there from Antipolo, one still gets tired from driving. An added note here is that parking spaces in the town proper are quite limited, so having them drop you off and picked up later in the day is an added and much valued amenity.

Sleep in Balay Celina is very peaceful and surprisingly cool. One then understands why the owners did not install air conditioning units in their rooms. Even if you close off your glass windows to prevent a variety of bugs from coming in, there are slits on the roof that allow air to come in and naturally circulate.

Breakfast at Celina is served generously. We were served pako omellette, which was an eye opener, pork longganisa, beef tapa, fried rice, fruits and coffee. You are given as many as you are able to wolf down. It is certainly your home away from home, as they would like you to feel.

Balay Celina has turned out to be just the reward you need at the end of a road trip. We will certainly come back.