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Food and Leisure

Like Europe without the euros

- Mary Ann Quioc Tayag -

Remember that American Express credit card tagline “Don’t leave home without it”? I say “Just bring your most comfortable shoes and run away from shops” is a better mantra. But seriously speaking, having worked for 18 years in an airline and now married to a peripatetic husband, whose feet itch every so often, my best travel tip is, “Go only with the right attitude.” It does not matter where you are, who you are with and how much you have. Observe and compare if you may, but just to learn and be amused — not to find fault and criticize. Travel with an open mind and you will enjoy every moment. And your hosts will love you for making it easy for them because — remember — playing host can be a daunting task. All these I taught to my son Nico, who from age five was my best travel companion. And I am proud to say that, as a kid, he was happy wherever he went and never whined nor complained, especially in another house. (Until he became a teenager with expensive tastes, that is; but that’s another story.)

Claude and I were in Ilocos Norte for the Guling-guling festival recently. It is like the Fat Tuesday of New Orleans. The Ilocanos dress in their elaborate clothes made of their fine abel fabric (traditional handwoven in Ilocos) and dance in the streets. Like the folks of New Orleans, our Ilocano brothers prefer bright colors. They drink and become very merry for the following day, they start their 40 days of Lenten abstinence and fasting.

Ilocos Norte is very interesting and much credit goes to Governor Michael M. Keon. Among the many good things I heard about him were tales of his legendary putanesca pasta. I cannot help but compare Ilocos Norte with Europe. To start with, one third of the passengers on our Cebu Pacific flight to Laoag were Caucasian backpackers. If Sweden is the cleanest city in Europe, I would vote for Laoag as the cleanest city in the Philippines, probably neck and neck with Puerto Princesa. The moment you step out of the Laoag International Airport (which by the way has now a mini baggage carousel — a sign of progress, indeed), you know it is a clean city even if you are blind. The air you breathe is light and crisp.

The Ilocanos are very clean and hardworking people. Their homes, their streets, their yards and their wet markets are litter-free — not even a cigarette butt in sight. I noticed there are also no beggars to which one Ilocano proudly said, “Nakakahiya kaya ang mamalimos.” Ilocanos are known to be tightwads; they even joke about it. They say because of their frugality they never dispose of anything — not even litter, and this is not a good locale for beggars because you cannot extract a cent from Ilocanos.

I thought I was on the streets of London. Five days on the road and not once did I hear a car honk, even when there was lots of traffic. At the market, Claude bought a nice buri hat for P30 and I bought a pretty all-cotton abel blanket for P200. The three octogenarian women selling, who neatly folded each piece before handing them over, conversed with me in fluent English. I suspect their generation is more comfortable with this language than our own Tagalog. I thought I was shopping in Portobello Road Flea Market.

Like Italy and France, the quiet town of Adams (Ilocos Norte’s last town which is at the foot of Cordillera mountain ranges) also has a winery. Lola Ingga’s rice wine, called tapuey, is made from sticky rice inside her small hut while Carmelita Abnasan makes a red wine called bugnay from handpicked wild berries in her well-appointed house. Their specialty wines are sold only in Adams and occasionally at bazaars and they share their brewing techniques with guests. If in Spain, one has to ask for chorizo for breakfast; in Ilocos, they enjoy their wonderful strong garlic-flavored longganizas dipped in their naturally aged sukang ilocos from breakfast till dawn. Only their drink changes from strong black coffee to tapuey and bugnay.

If Switzerland has the Alps, Adams too has easy-to-trek mountains. We traveled and hiked for three hours, crossed two hanging bridges and rewarded ourselves with a sumptuous lunch by a waterfall. As Anthony Bourdain said, “the farther it is the better the food.” We ate by a waterfall; the water was so cold it would freeze your behind. This is such an experience, the hiking and the lunch. Neighbors prepared us home-cooked dishes I had neither tried nor seen before. I still remember the alluring taste of balbalosal — small round wild eggplants that Claude said tasted like capers. I likened them to Greek kalamata olives, but even better. And I am not exaggerating. And if frogs’ legs are an expensive delicacy in France, they are humble farmer’s food in Adams. And we had them really crispy, light and nice.

 Forget about Europe for now and take advantage of Cebu Pacific’s low promo fares. And don’t forget your laptop; all the hotels where we stayed and the restaurants we visited, even the Laoag Airport, had free WiFi. In Laoag, you can stay at Balay da Blas, a charming new hotel with traditional all-Ilocano furniture. To me they have the tastiest miki, Ilocano’s most popular noodle soup that you can either describe as pancit palabok with soup or lomi with thin noodles. In Paoay, choose to stay in Casa Doña Emilia Hotel, a clean, garden-set small hotel with friendly and eager-to-please staff who will surely serve you Ilocano longaniza for breakfast. And in Adams, they have clean, basic homesteads.

In Currimao, stay at the awesome, out-of-the-way Sitio Remedios, my favorite place in the whole of Ilocos Norte. The setting is old, traditional and romantic. At night only scattered tealights light the pathways. It is ideal for honeymooners, anniversary couples or those who just want to be alone and appreciate silence. There is no TV and radio in the whole of Sitio Remedios. One can only read and daydream.

In my five days in Ilocos Norte, I ate more vegetables than my regular yearly diet. The pinakbet, boiled layer vegetables with bagoong; inabraw (vegetable soup); katuray (vegetable flowers in vinegar); KBL for kamatis, bagoong and lasuna (small red onions); and thank God for the bagnet (fried pork belly) are served at practically every meal. And the best place for bagnet is still Herencia Café, across the 16th-century Paoay church.

Preciosa Café, an established restaurant serves the best poke-poke in town. It was after all invented by the late Preciosa herself. How a dish of eggplant and egg got a name as strange as poke-poke must be an example of Ilocano humor. Saramsam Café is a nice folksy restaurant with an extensive menu both traditional and innovative. But what really tugged my heart was the “Kalti” (from the Ilocano word kinalti). It is warm panocha (palm sugar) with coconut milk to dip just about anything. We had bilo-bilo (fried plantain and kamote). Oh, it was really heaven. I would go back to Ilocos even just for Kalti (and empanada).

One must not go home without eating the Ilocano empanada, which is hawked everywhere by late afternoon. The Ilocanos have perfected it so that they all taste excellent. Though the word empanada came from the Spaniards, I do not think they have an empanada that tastes as good as the way Ilocanos do it. The empanada is made of crispy, fried-rice flour, stuffed with grated papaya and mung bean sprouts, Ilocano longaniza and egg and eaten with spicy sukang iloco (vinegar). I always order double-double, which means two longanizas and two eggs.

For the active with good strong legs, do not miss the Adams trek and request the same lunch as we had. And do not go home without your abel, chichacorn, crispy Pasuquin biscocho and bagnet. Your best contact in Ilocos Norte is Rene Guatlo, the friendly and witty Provincial Tourism Officer. E-mail him at rene.guatlo@gmail.com. He will hook you up with all the best people, from the empanada vendor to Tina Tan, the friendly adopted daughter of Adams.

Five days of “Europe Experience” without spending euros and having to pay to use the toilets. If you know how stingy I am, that means I had more than a wonderful time. My spendthrift husband calls me his Ilocana wife and not because he has other wives. Funny but even Rene Guatlo, a true and dark-blue Ilocano, asked me during one of our long tête-à-têtes, “Are you sure you are not Ilocano?” And like the true Ilocanos, I take that as a compliment for it is indeed a virtue and I hope to pass this on to my son.

ADAMS CEBU PACIFIC EVEN ILOCANO ILOCOS ILOCOS NORTE RENE GUATLO SITIO REMEDIOS
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