Summer Dreams 2014

coming soon

Granada Nicaragua

In Search or the Perfect Ceviche and other adventures out soon in my TravelOkcity column, Leisure+Adventure Magazine, and here.

Marshall Islands

Got Wasabi? (A deep sea fishing adventure in the Marshall Islands)

Prairie Dog Town

Adventures in the city of Oklahoma and beyond in my travel column, TravelOkcity.

Hefner Lake Park

Adventures in the city of Oklahoma and beyond in my travel column, TravelOkcity.

Huahin, Thailand

The warm hospitality of a boutique hotel in the beach resort town of royalty in the northern part of the Malay Peninsula.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Taking the First Dive (Anilao Batangas, Philippines

Published by Oklahoma City's The Tribune in my TravelOkcity column (December 2010).

The days are beginning to get colder and shorter, making me long for days under the sun and the feel of the warm tropical water on my skin.  To briefly escape the snow flurries and the blustery wind, I’d like to take you with me on a little diving expedition in the Philippines where the water is friendly and as blue as the wide open sky. 

                               One of the first wonders I saw was a clown fish welcoming me to its world.                                          Photo by my gorgeous ninang and dive instructor Susana May.

An archipelago of 7,107 islands covering a land area of 115,739 square miles and a coastline twice as long as the United States, the Philippines is an ideal place to explore sea life with 40, 15,444 square miles of coral reefs teeming with underwater creatures, a universe so different from ours.

To my dearly departed friend Zen Robleza (in striped shirt) who started this adventure with me.

If the cold has not frozen your sense of adventure yet, take off your mittens for  a moment, slather on some sun block, and defrost with me as I take you on my first diving adventure...

Celebrating after my check out dive aboard the Strega de Mare.

Taking the First Dive

The sun was blissfully burning my cheeks as Strega de Mare, the white witch of the sea, sped past the island of Sombrero. We were a few meters away from Beatrice, our first dive spot in Anilao. 

Getting suited up.

Located 140 km south of Manila, Anilao Batangas is known as one of the best dive sites in the country. It does not possess the powdery white sands and the lush resorts of other beaches in the Philippines, but its treasures can be found down below,  in the coral slopes and the shallow gardens with about 34 dive sites offering countless wonders.  I couldn’t get over the fact that in a few minutes, this secret world would be opened to me.  As the white washed boat slowed to a stop, I got ready for my first dive.

Resurfacing after the plunge.

All geared up, I jammed the regulator in my mouth and bit on the rubber fitting awkwardly. My first whiff of air from the mouthpiece sounded hallow. It was unnatural. Why was I breathing air from a 5.6 liter cylinder tank when I could breathe the salty air freely without this intrusive contraption in my mouth? Instinct urged me to breathe through my nose. I gagged as my inhalation came up with nothing. The rim of the mask bit into my cheeks as the deep breath vacuumed the mask tightly on my face. It took every ounce of will power to stop myself from yanking off all the tubes from my face. I breathed again from the regulator. And again. Nothing changed except for the fact that I was able to push panic a few inches away from the safety line.

Starting the descent.

To distract myself I looked around and observed the rest of the dive crew busy with their last minute set up. There was no room for fear or anxiety. It was either jump or suffer the humiliation while sweating in a dry wetsuit. One by one they toppled over on their backs and disappeared into the water until there was no one left but me. I had no choice. Fear was taken over by pride. I may be a 95 pound weakling, but I was not a coward. At least not from the outside.


I held the alternate regulator against my chest, secured the regulator and mask on my face with the other palm, leaned back and let gravity do its work. Before the plunge, my neck was burning softly under the sun’s rays and my body was slowly warming beneath the tightness of the body suit. Suddenly coolness embraced me. It was actually quite a relief. Hundreds of tiny bubbles kissed my cheeks and for a moment, cold dark silence engulfed me. I flailed my arms to find balance and kicked to seek solid ground. Anything to anchor and stabilize me. From somewhere I heard my instructor Susana in her heavy Mexican accent, “Very good! Relax!” Suddenly I remembered one vital thing that I forgot to do: breathe. I sucked air through my mouth and heard that alien vacuum sound again as if Moby Dick was breathing beside me. I clamped tightly on the mouth piece of the regulator, afraid that water would seep in. Oxygen in my head got me thinking again as I slowly regulated my breathing. All of a sudden, without effort, my head bobbed above the water’s surface. As sunlight hit my face, the world made sense again. All these happened in a matter of seconds.

How beautiful the work of your hands.

As I breathed more regularly and as the coolness of the water soothed my skin under the neoprene material, my fears started to melt. Slowly we descended into the water, holding on to the anchor line. An inch at a time we descended deeper. We didn’t dare move faster afraid we would suffer from nitrogen narcosis or decompression sickness as the pressure of the water increased.

I uncovered one of God's greatest secrets in the form of this little slug.

I could see nothing but midnight blue, the color that dreams are made of. And it did feel like a dream as we moved in slow motion. Our bodies floated, disfigured by the moving water. We almost looked ethereal, illuminated by transmuted light from above. Somebody signaled to look down and suddenly I was transported into another dimension of my dream. The world below was awash with muted colors, unimaginable shapes and rich textures. I was supposed to check my gauge regularly to watch my rate of descent and the air level in the tank but the world beneath me was too distracting. I couldn’t take my eyes off it for one minute. I thought that it was unfair that this was kept secret from the rest of humanity.

Read the rest of the story  in my travel column, TravelOkcity, at Oklahoma City's The Tribune

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Holiday Banner 2011

Again, thank you Cheriecity for helping me with this banner!
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Wherever I go, the holiday cheer is evident. I can smell it too, even at home. I decorated the house with garlands from our Christmas tree, and when you walk in, you could smell the distinct fragrance of pine. After our first real Christmas tree two years ago, I don’t think I can ever go back to plastic.  And while there are advantages to having a fake tree, nothing beats the fresh sweet smell that comes from a real one.  For me, having a fake tree is synonymous to decorating your home with plastic or silk flowers. But then, if we live back in the tropics, it would be an entirely different story. Maybe we can make do with a palm tree.

I love how the star seems to float over our tree.

But I digress. This is after all about My Desk and not about the tree. The garlands on the banner are some of the branches that we trimmed off the tree which I dressed up with pine cones and red balls. I didn’t want to go overboard with the Christmas decor lest we forget that this is still a travel site and not a store display window.

The gift that keeps on giving: Last year he was the best gift under the tree. He still is.

Aside from the garlands, the one recurring theme on the desk is the trains. The holidays is all about trains for me, especially since aside from the birth of our Savior and my mother (I wish I can just take the train to see her this Christmas), we are also celebrating the birth of our son. Since he came into our life, I had developed a fascination for steam locomotives. The interest in trains was further heightened by Paul Theroux’s (one of our favorite travel writers) The Old Patagonian Express, narrating his travel across the U.S. and Central America aboard different trains.

The inside of The Old Patagonian Express is the inspiration for my son's room.

The inner part of the cover, illustrating the route of the Old Patagonian Express on a map, is the inspiration for the nursery. In fact, one wall of the room is covered by an old world map, and all over the room are different modes of transportation, including choo-choo trains.

This Old World wallpaper which I also use for the banner is inspired by Paul Theroux.

The tiny choo-choo train across the journal is a vintage candle holder which I got for my son. The other train resting on the Amtrak  magazine is a Christmas tree ornament for this year. It will be a tradition to get a train ornament for him every year until the tree will be encircled with trains aside from the one on the floor.

This train in his room goes underneath the tree every Christmas.
Incidentally, the first part of Theroux’s trip was taken aboard the Amtrak from Boston. This is why I included the Amtrak Magazine (40th Anniversary edition) in the banner.  We picked it up from the recent OKC annual Train Show, because we’re planning on a short trip in the next few months via the Amtrak. Perhaps to Fort Sill. This will be quite the adventure as I have never been on an Amtrak, and I haven’t been on a lot of train rides either. The most significant one so far is when we took the direct sleeper train from Singapore to Malaysia.

Every year we will get a train ornament for the tree. This one was from last year.

A longer trip to Nicaragua can be seen in the horizon, and I find it interesting that Nicaragua was one of the countries that Theroux skipped  from El Salvador because of the unrest that was happening back then. And so we will venture where Theroux did not dare go in his great train adventure. We chose Nicaragua because it offers two worlds: the colonial culture and the Creole and Caribbean culture. Of course all of these trips will depend on my son (If we can find someone to watch him for a couple of weeks or perhaps more importantly, if I can condition myself to be away from him for that long). Those of you with kids know that having children pretty much dictates your plans including your vacations.

Father and son at the Train Show.

Wherever we’re going in the next few months, I will be sure to take you with me. In the meantime, I hope you travel the path of peace and joy this Christmas.

All aboard!  

Aboard the Parlor Car at the Science Museum


As the seasons change, so will my desktop banner. I will be adding little touches to it, moving the items around, and customizing it for the season. I will archive its transformation on My Desk. 

Read more about how I put the banner together and how my real writer's desk looks like at My Desk. And tell me how your desk looks like, and I will tell you who you are.

Fall Banner 2011

I am falling in love with this season. The colors are uplifting, and I love how the cool air feels on my cheeks  while the sun blesses my face. 

Thanks to my web developer for her untiring dedication in helping put this desktop together.

It took me awhile to find the perfect leaves for the desktop. But alas, maybe leaves don’t fall so gracefully where I live. Still, I hope this banner reflects the rich colors of the season, including the red Moleskine, the legendary notebook used by artists, travelers, and thinkers, they say.

Red is quickly becoming one of my favorite colors (although olive or moss green will always be up there).  The crimsons also remind me of our breakfast nook (which is where I take the pictures of the desktop). We wanted it to look like a quaint cafe in Firenze.

The best thing we got for this nook is the highchair and the little boy.

The notebook is a gift from my darling friend Nana. She said she bought one for me and one for BenCab in Hong Kong. Somehow the sound of my name uttered in the same sentence with the National Artist tickles me cherry.  As always, thanks for the love Nana B.  The first inspired word I write on this one is for you.

There were two important things that I failed to include in Ana Viajera’s launch banner:  a book (fiction or travel of course) and an item to honor a good friend who helped make this website possible. Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun takes care of both and more. Cherie, I know how much you wanted this book, and when you do come back, this book is yours. Thank you for your love and patience.  May you be covered with lots and lots of ladybugs soon!

We went picking for leaves at the Oktoberfest!

And although my husband has already been to Tuscany, he would love to go back to take me to Florence the birthplace of the Renaissance, so the addition of this book on the desktop is perfect, I think. In place of the laptop is the 4G smartphone he recently got for me, so I could check on Ana Viajera anytime, anywhere.

Finally, I also included the rosary not only because October is the month for it. The last time I flew home to the Philippines, my tatay gave me this rosary from Rome, made of rose petals. My mother recently suffered a stroke. The one thing that showed her swift mending was her clear utterance of the word “rosary”, wanting us to pray it with her. The rose rosary is also an ode to my patron saint, St. Therese, who has journeyed with me always. And yes, I always bring a rosary with me whenever I travel. I usually pray it during long haul flights.

This banner won’t be up for long as I can already feel winter in the air. But for now, let our adventure continue and the falling in love begin again.


As the seasons change, so will my desktop banner. I will be adding little touches to it, moving the items around, and customizing it for the season. I will archive its transformation on My Desk. 

Read more about how I put the banner together and how my real writer's desk looks like at My Desk. And tell me how your desk looks like, and I will tell you who you are.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

When Kare-Kare Gets Stylized (Manila, Philippines)

Published by AsianTraveler Magazine,  2009

The moment the appetizers – finger foods in shot glasses – were served at the table, I knew this was going to be a different culinary experience. The fist sampling was a tiny rice basket stuffed with a crunchy and tasty filling. I followed the bite with a sliced quail egg resting at the bottom of the shooter. The taste was strangely familiar yet new and exciting to the tongue.  Chef Rolando Laudico saw my smiling eyes and then with a knowing grin revealed: “sisig”.

A shot of chorizo, anyone?

Here, where the black-and-white checkered floor compliments the subdued yellow walls, is where art and cuisine merge. Here, where the gleaming green Swarovski chandelier evokes an Old World charm, is where a new culinary experience unfolds. Here under the light linen canopy anchored by dark kamagong beams is where one can have a taste of global dining through local flavors. Here is Chef Laudico Bistro Filipino, Chefs Rolando and Jacquline Laudico’s fine-dining Filipino restaurant that advocates native dishes presented in an artful and modern way.

The perfect gift under the tree for this Christmas (Photo courtesy of Chef Laudico)

“For a time when I worked and studied abroad, I’ve always had this frustration whenever people would ask where I’m from. They had zero idea on what Filipino food is,” Chef Roland explained as he sets the Prito Trio on the table, an appetizer of crispy fish, shrimps and squid. I dipped the fish in garlic aioli and savored the smooth but strong flavor of the dip as he continued to explain the beginnings of Bistro Filipino. “I decided to make it my goal to make Filipino food more recognizable and more presentable to other cultures,” said the chef who has an impressive resume starting with a degree with honors at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and a long line of experience working with renowned chefs in France and Australia.

It’s all about refinement and creativity, the chef explained as he urged me to try the ubod (heart of coconut palm) spring roll. It wasn’t your typical lumpia as this one was cone shaped and served in a tall and thin shot glass – of course. I hesitated, a bit confused on how to make the first bite. He piled a little mound of crushed ice over the still warm roll and motioned for me to take a bite.  The grated ice turned out to be vinegar. The spicy coolness of the vinegar sorbet competed with the warm richness of the ground meat in my mouth. The distinct smokiness of the chorizo was also a nice surprise. Talk about awakening the palate!

Interiors: definitely Filipino!

Chef Jackie credits her husband’s quirky food presentation to his love affair with street delicacies. He is fascinated with Pinoy street food fare and always wondered if there was a better way to consume lumpia without the sauce dripping all over the place. From this dilemma, Chef Roland improvised his design. “How we approach our food is very visual.  If you could do it with French, Chinese, Japanese, you could also do it with Filipino. You could do it practically with any cuisine. There is no limit to the creativity,” enthuses Chef Roland.

Chef Jackie compliments her husband's creations with sweets. (Photo courtesy of Chef Laudico)

Art plays a definitive role not only in the dishes, but also in the interiors. The thick abaca rug that serves as a wall divider - offering  privacy from the outside, the capiz chandelier that hangs over the foyer, the antique hardwood furnishings, and the oil paintings of tropical fruits, were all carefully chosen to evoke the old Filipino elegance with a modern flair, complementing the menu’s traditional yet contemporary offerings.

The menu is a feast of native cuisine that makes use of only two main ingredients: the best and the freshest and superb and artful execution. Each dish is as surprising as the next from the prawns laing tempura to the chicken tinola salad. The finest wines and signature drinks and cocktails – all Filipinized and modernized, of course – are complementary to the flavors. The perfect conclusion to such an artistic meal is Chef Jackie’s inspired desserts. She is particularly proud of her handmade Belgian chocolate truffles infused with indigenous flavours. Calamansi truffles, anyone?

Art everywhere: on the plate, on the walls, hanging from the ceiling.

Indeed, with the Laudicos’ masterpieces, every mouthful comes with a surprise.  I bit into a smoked milkfish ball and was surprised with the creamy and smoky center. The tinapa balls were stuffed with mozzarella and glazed with pinakurat. Pinakurat vinegar is made of fermented coconut nectar and spices. “Kurat” in Cebuano means “spice,” and the spicy vinegar glaze truly gave a zing to the salty tinapa ball. Each bite, I thought, was perfectly orchestrated, starting with the saltiness of the milkfish, the unexpected punch of the spicy glaze and capped off with the cheesy center, to temper the salty and spicy taste.

To allow our stomachs to settle for a bit, the chefs served a sampler of designer soups. The beauty of dining at Bistro Filipino is that you can sample most of the dishes with options of ordering dishes in tasting portions.

The Trio Soups, for instance, allows the diner to choose any three of the soups in the menu in sampler sizes. Our trio – shitake mushroom cappuccino, paella arroz caldo and beef nilaga consommé – was served in tiny cups. Being a fan of the fungi, the mushroom soup called out to me. The shitake was cooked adobo style to give the smoky earthy taste a more pronounced saltiness. The brothy flavor was further enhanced by the creamy garlic foam. A drizzle of white truffle oil strengthened the soup’s pungent flavor without making it overwhelming.

Assorted handmade chocolates by Chef Jacqueline Laudico.

After a refreshing plate of mesclun salad tossed in Dijon bagoong vinaigrette, Chef Roland brought out his pièce de résistance: kare-kare. Not shying away from Western influences, the chef’s own version of the classic Filipino dish is not made of the usual local meat, but prime U.S. Angus beef. The beef is served on a bed of turmeric rice with a layer of creamed banana heart. On the side is a serving of grilled eggplant chutney and garlic pechay sauté.

Bistro Filipino is elegantly Pinoy

What makes the classic kare-kare dish so special is the bite of the bagoong paste that is usually served with the dish. Unfortunately, many diners that are new to the dish are not too enthusiastic about the shrimp paste’s overwhelmingly pungent smell. More often than not, they pass up on the dish, afraid to try out this seemingly unusual and unappetizing delicacy. This is where Chef Roland’s expertise and ingenuity comes in. “If you’re given a Filipino dish, sometimes you don’t know how to eat it. You don’t know what it is; it doesn’t look as appetizing but definitely the flavors are there; the tradition is there.”

While the shrimp paste is usually served on the side, Chef Roland mixes the bagoong with the sauce.  It’s a little bit sneaky, but the technique works. Foreigners gobble up the dish, enjoying the rich peanut sauce, not knowing exactly what they’re having until they ask.  This is the chef’s idea of refining a dish to make it more appealing to a global market.

Tanglad and salabat are some of Chef's Jackie's unique chocolate flavors.

The sad reality is, the Filipino flavor is still not in the menu of top restaurants all over the globe. For the Laudicos, the challenge is how to make what most Filipinos consider as everyday home-cooked fare into world-class gastronomy. “If you can get the taste of tradition and present it as modern and more applicable to what’s current now, then the Filipino cuisine will have a chance,” said Chef Roland who, in spite of his training abroad, and in spite of his expertise in international cuisine, still prefers to be known for his delectable native dishes. With their goal, the Laudicos are gearing up to open branches abroad starting with Singapore and Hong Kong. They’re also releasing a book titled Bistro Filipino – Tradition, Innovation. The book focuses on contemporary Filipino cuisine based on traditional recipes. It’s an effort to encourage Filipino chefs to take the Filipino dishes to another level.

It may all seem a bit too ambitious, maybe overly patriotic. Whatever the case, there is no stopping this young and innovative couple, and the Laudicos are on their way to taking Filipino flavors  to world-class standards with every U.S. Angus beef kare-kare and beef nilaga consommé served at the table. I raise my glass of wine – made of the local berry, duhat – to the Laudicos.