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.

Friday, May 25, 2012

In Search of the Perfect Ceviche (Nicaragua)

From my TravelOkcity column, May 2012

Still life in Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Bright red slices of tuna, firm pink slivers of salmon, and tender flaky grilled marlin - these were the things we dreamed of everyday, weeks before our trip to Nicaragua. Because of the country’s expansive coastlines, with the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the East, and because it is home to the largest lake in Central America, we anticipated a fish and shellfish fiesta. We tasted succulent shrimps and crunchy fish tacos in our mouth every time we discussed our itinerary. And did I mention the lobster? Sweet whole lobsters in shiny red shells danced before us, haunting even our waking moments. Then we landed on the Corn Islands, east off the Caribbean coast, and discovered that it was not the season for lobster. In fact, there was hardly any seafood to be had.

Chalice of joy at Tranquilo Cafe, Little Corn

The Farm Peace and Love hosted our first dinner that night. An Italian lady was preparing an authentic Italian meal and on the menu: chicken. What else was there, we prodded, hoping for some mussels or shrimp in the pasta.  The answer:  primavera. Of course. 

All throughout our stay in the Corn Islands, we encountered a similar scenario.  One delicious disappoint after the other in the form of fried plantains and beef in tomato sauce. But on our last day in Little Corn, we found ourselves a sweet spot at the Tranquilo Café in front of the dock while we waited for our boat to Big Corn Island. Fresh Ceviche was on the menu.

A Creole cleaning his catch.

In most of Central and South America, the raw fish or seafood marinated  in citrus juices is known as ceviche, cebiche, or seviche. In Guam, it is called kilaguen. In most parts of the Philippines, it is kilawin. In the local regions, it’s kinilaw.  The Hawaiian version is poke. For us, dreaming of a seafood smorgasbord, it’s called: “I could eat this every day”.  It was our heaven in a goblet, everything we’ve dreamed of since we planned this vacation, served in a tall martini glass. It was the cup of promise, chunks of fresh kingfish marinated in lemon and spiced with chili peppers, onion, salt, cilantro, and pepper topped with a flaky cracker. Every bite was tender, juicy, and citrusy, full of the flavors of the ocean. If we couldn’t have the ocean bounty we were promised, we could have a spoonful of the sea anytime with ceviche. From then on, we searched for it in our every stop.

Our cup runneth over at Big Corn Island

At Big Corn Island we were served a helping of seafood salad: fish, shrimps, and lobsters. It went down well with a glass of margarita. We topped a cracker with a mound of the ceviche and enjoyed every morsel, believing that the piece of fish melting in our mouth had been caught just a few hours ago in the beach that we were currently looking out at. We thought it was the perfect companion while we watched the changing warm colors that the sun left on its wake.  Maybe it was the effect of the  sunset, bathing us  with an ethereal glow, or maybe it was because we had been so deprived of seafood after all the anticipation that made us think that it couldn’t get any better.

Back in the mainland, in Managua, in our effort to escape nightspots choked with cigarette smoke and blaring 80s disco music, we found the quiet Restaurant Gallery on top of the Seminole Plaza Hotel.

The perfect bite.

Beautiful white chunks of fresh water bass were brought to us lying on a lettuce leaf in a crystal cup. A slice of lemon on the rim indicated the promise of a refreshing experience. It did not disappoint. The briny sweetness of the sea spiked with a subtle tanginess and the surprising crunchiness of red and green peppers made us smile. Never mind that the fishy taste and smell lingered the entire night on our tongue and lips, the brand of guilty pleasure.

The peeling and weathered paint makes pictures look like Van Gogh paintings.

When we headed to the colonial city of Granada, every beautiful door opened to more fresh servings from the Pacific, the Caribbean, and Lake Nicaragua. Without a doubt, our cup runneth over. Again, never mind that the strong aftertaste haunted our senses. It even seemed like our fingers smelled.

In search of perfection by the Parque Central

At Nuestra Mundo by the Parque Central, we sat outside to watch the horse-drawn carriages while sipping on Coke and Flor de Caña rum and enjoying a generous  heap of ceviche.
Every day, it was one chalice of joy after the other. Could it be that every serving presented to us was perfection? We couldn’t decide which one we’ve had so far was better. Not one won over the other; each one had something slightly different to offer but always satisfying and always leaving us with that strong taste in the mouth that reminded us of the marine life of Nicaragua. 

A walk back in time.

Near the conclusion of our holiday, we discovered La Gran Francia right off the main square, a stately ancestral casona painted in yellow and accentuated by white washed balconies, wooden beams, and terracotta tile roofing, built just a few years after the founding of Granada in 1524. Inside is like a museum of colonial history. Massive paintings and relics adorn the walls and statues of saints look down with disdain on guests. We learned to ignore the ornamentations once the salmon Carpaccio was served at the table - a wonderful blend of smokiness, saltiness, and a whisper of sweetness that played with our palate.  We took our time before we ordered, looking out at the narrow streets of Granada, knowing that our reliable chalice of bliss would not disappoint. For a second it did though as we perused the menu, our eyes flying through many European dishes and then suddenly realizing with dismay that ceviche was not in the list. We looked at our waiter, Juan, perplexed. With a knowing smile he responded: “I’ll ask the chef to prepare one for you.


It stood tall and regal crowned with a purple frill of lettuce, sharply cut avocadoes, and firm tomatoes giving color to the precious white meat swimming in opaque water that almost looked like coconut milk. The first spoonful brought forth a swirl of flavors like rushing water in the mouth. The mild taste of fish was sweet and exciting with the piquant juice that oozed out of it, punctuated with a burst of cilantro sunshine.   Whether  it was the strong shot of lime or cilantro, I’m not sure, but there was hardly any of that pungent taste that seem to linger in the mouth. The experience was as spirited, smooth, and clean as the glass of mojito that we were having with it. The search was over, we thought. We had found the one. We asked   why such an exquisite dish was not in the menu. In broken English he replied, “It’s made on special request for preferred customers.”

The saints were smiling on us that day.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Siquijor: Bewitched by her Fire (Central Visayas, Philippines)

Published by Action and Fitness Magazine, 2008

Be warned: Siquijor can bewitch.

 Her name is Siquijor, a powerful and beguiling enchantress. She is known for her curses, black magic and powerful potions. Considered as the marine paradise of Central Visayas in the Philippines, Siquijor can be reached by sea through the provinces of Cebu, Dumaguete or Tagbilaran in the Visayan region. Before my visit, Siquijor was an island I would never have dreamed of visiting. The fear of being cursed had little to do with it. It was simply because I had no reason to see her. Siquijor was a fearsome and mystical island because she was distant. For me, she was nothing more but a name that was uttered in dramatic whispers. 

Charmed by Cambugahay Waterfalls.

But fate would conspire with the elements to change my mind, and the wind took me to La Isla del Fuego, or Island of fire. In the 1600s, the Spaniards first set foot on the virgin island and called her the island of fire because of the eerie glow that surrounded her.  Siquijor’s radiance, a glowing mist around her head, turned out to be the light from clouds of fireflies that swarmed the numerous molave trees on the island.

I was enchanted. She bewitched me not with magic potions or curses, but with her quiet beauty and charm. Circling the small island in one day - the lush roadsides, the clean quiet streets occasionally disturbed by crossing chickens, the archaic churches sitting on rolling hills, reminiscent of old European structures, the charming locals, the verdant mangroves in the middle of the beach and the calm pastel sunset - showed me a different kind of Siquijor.

Looking out from the St. Isidore Labradore Convent,
                      the oldest in the Philippines.
    La Isla Del Fuego revealed the beautiful face of magic and witchery, the kind that is calming, spiritual and in no way fearsome. Her fire burned my picture of a western witch with long claw-like fingers, a sharp crooked nose and a black pointy hat. Instead, I saw a sorceress that is one with nature. She works not with toad’s eyes and human fetuses but with the whim of the wind and sea. Her powers are not brewed in cauldrons but in the force of her waves, the light of the moon, the energy of her sunsets and the secrets of her caves. She does not cast spells to covet or harm, rather she protects and heals. Beautiful, nurturing and beguiling, Siquijor offers a respite away from the horrors of the metropolis.

Open and inviting, Siquijor is not only an enchantress, she is also a mother, embracing her citizens and guests in her bosom, characterized by hilly and mountainous terrains and bordered by tranquil beaches. She protects her people from the full force of typhoons and blesses them with bounties from the coast. White sandy beaches make up most of her 102-kilometer coastline. But Siquijor shies away from the noise of typical commercial white beaches. She doesn’t flirt with loud club music and fancy resorts, rather she beckons with quiet mysteries I have never seen in any beach in the country before. Once, during low tide, she invited me to walk far into her beach with the water reaching only up to my ankles. On some patches of sand, I found army crabs. They skittered on the soft ground in organized groups, burrowed, then disappeared all at the same time. It was a strange but astounding phenomenon. I stood still for a few more seconds, and a new batch surfaced from another direction.

St. Isidore Church sits on a hill in Lazi.

Vast blue skies serve as backdrop for Siquijor’s tranquil beaches. Generous mangroves sprout in the middle of its waters. At sundown, I sat in the water, kissed warm by the sun. It was like a therapeutic bath as I watched the day disappear in swirls of pinks, yellows and blues. From a far distance, fishermen’s children sang joyously about how life is more colorful with a bowl of vegetable soup.

Enchanting Siquijor offers more than just the idyllic life. Her coral reefs are also ideal for water adventures like snorkeling and diving with spectacular wall drop offs, sloping terraces and World War II dive wrecks. Siquijor has two known dive resorts, Kiwi Dive Resort and Coco Grove. Kiwi offers quiet charm and personalized service while Coco Grove boasts of high-class commercial amenities.   

Warmed by the water and the setting sun.

 To explore Siquijor’s various terrains, all we needed was a day and a little jeep that runs on gas sold in Coke bottles. The driver often also serves as the tour guide. We started out the tour at the little town of Lazi, located at the southern tip of Siquijor. Lazi, with its small town charm and quiet appeal, keeps a big secret. The St. Isidore Labradore Convent, the biggest convent in Asia, sits atop a hill in Lazi. The low rise two story structure was once used as a vacation house for friars and priests. Built in 1857, St. Isidore is also known to be one of the oldest convents in the Philippines. A walk inside the ancient building told of its age and history. The ground floor is made of thick stone while the second floor is made of hard wood panels.  It was a precarious walk   on the second floor where some of the wooden floor planks were missing. Bright light, coming in from generous windows, washed the stained stone columns with some colour, bringing life into its otherwise sagging condition.

I crossed the road fronting the convent and found the St. Isidore Church. The 19th century church is made of coral and stone. The rust tinted roof and the moss growing between the stone cracks, gave life to a structure hundreds of years old. Inside, shadows hid several delightful surprises. Period pulpits, intricately hand carved renditions of the station of the cross on the windows and hardwood floors with herringbone patterns speak of the church’s old grandeur. Up in the belfry, the antique bells silently echoed St. Isidore’s pride. Outside, the grassy slope led us to a garden with gracious acacia trees hiding the path down to a mini amphitheatre.  In this green alcove, you can get lost in the past when Spanish friars and locals once tended the gardens while the image of the Virgin Mary silently watched.

Mystic Siquijor’s hilly terrain also has something for the adventurous heart.   Her rock formations had been gently shaped by the cold wind to form over a dozen caves, rivers, waterfalls and springs perfect for trekking and spelunking. The Cantabon cave is one of the most famous caves of Siquijor. It has a little bit of everything for the intrepid spirit. The one and a half trek took us on an uneven shadowed path beside mini streams and tiny waterfalls, through pitch dark chambers, and around protruding stalagmites and crystal white stalactite formations hanging overhead. Deep within the cave, a pool invited us to take a dip to wash off the grime we had acquired from the trek and more importantly, the worries and stresses of the city. Locals said that no one has ever ventured to go far into the cave’s bowels perhaps out of fear of dark spirits that may be lurking there.

Spirits seem to roam everywhere in Siquijor. I could feel them in the trees and in the wind, singing us songs of enchantment. At Tigbawan in Lazi, we took a refreshing stop at the Cambugahay Waterfalls, rumoured to be charmed with its multi tiered  water cascades. Then there was the century old Balete tree in the Campalanas area. The tree revealed hundreds of years of history in its roots and vines hanging from its branches. The knotty whorls on its bark, told of the magic it had witnessed through the ages. Below it, running water flowed, heading straight to a manmade stream.

On my way home, I didn’t stop to buy a bottle of Siquijor’s famous potions.  What I brought home with me was far more powerful than her concoction of roots, barks, leaves and fairy dust. I brought home her spirit, which will forever remind me that there is still such a thing as magic.

Friday, May 11, 2012

When Success is in the Bag (Rafe Totengco and his designs)

Yes, Ana Viajera does fashion too. From Louis Vuitton private screenings to Garfield clothing fashion shows (my very first assignment as a writer, which never got printed!), I've done it all!

Published by Rektikano Magazine, 2010

An artist and a traveler: my kind of designer! (photos provided by Rafe)

Jessica Alba wears him. So does the Hilton sisters. Even Lindsay Lohan carries him around wherever she goes. Not bad for someone who started out by designing teachers’ school uniforms back in fifth grade.  

Spring 2010: Don't we still love the boho look?

Ramon Felix Totengco, a Lasallian student who used to design prom outfits back in La Salle Bacolod, is more known in the fashion world as Rafe Totengco: the most sought after bag designer based in New York. He has garnered several designer awards and credits his international success to his inspiring conversations with his namesake, Br. Felix, a lot of hard work, and a bagful of chutzpah. We recently had an interesting chat with Rafe, and he gave us a peek of what’s in the bag and the latest in accessories.

He travels for design inspiration! Chek out for the latest collection and travels!
How do you think did your Lasallian education help in your climb to success?
I went to La Salle Bacolod, from prep to high School. I graduated in 1985. I was fortunate to receive the level of education that I received in La Salle. I’m certain that it opened doors for me when I moved to the US.

Who do you remember was most inspiring or encouraging back in La Salle?

My teachers were very encouraging and supportive of my talents early on. They allowed me to dream that everything was possible if I truly wanted it. My classmates were also quite special, because they always had my back. Growing up ‘artistic’ and ‘different’ was quite a pleasant experience for me, because I felt nothing but love and support from everybody.  Brother Felix always made me feel welcome to talk about anything, and he was never judgemental about our conversations.

Rafe Totengco is also a Lasallian!

Can you remember a project back in school that was a sign of the path you are taking now?
I’ve loved fashion since I was in fifth grade, so you can say it was pre-destined. I designed costumes for school plays, prom outfits, teachers’ school uniforms… you name it, I did it. I joined every art contest there was.  I believe one of my wining pieces still hang in the high school library.

Any advice to those who are just about to start with their own brand?
It’s a business first and foremost with real deadlines and calendar dates you must abide by.  Do something that is true to yourself, because at the end of the day that is what it boils down to.  Buyers can spot something that isn’t authentic a mile away.

Rafe has created a collection that imbues the easy-breezy, casual bohemian soul.

What difficulties or road bumps did you have to go through to penetrate the fashion industry?
Every day is a challenge, and there are fires to put out on a daily basis. It never ends. But that’s what makes it even more rewarding when you achieve something.

To what do you attribute your success?
Sincerity, integrity, talent, and chutzpah.

What are some of your proudest moments?
When I received the TOYM in the Philippines, when Target asked me to be their first accessories guest designer, and when American Express chose me to be in their advertisement.