December 31, 2012

Travel Bites: Lovely Laguna

YOU don’t have to ride an airplane to take you to the loveliest places in the Philippines. There are quite a number of them just literally in your backyard. (If south of Manila is your idea of a backyard, that is.) 

A road trip to the charming province of Laguna—with its many interesting cultural, historical and artistic points—is a definite must-do for those who want to see more of the Philippine countryside. 

Laguna offers rustic accommodations, the tastiest Southern Tagalog cuisine often flavored with coconut milk, and the most attractive destinations that soothe the world-weary soul. 

You can go on a day trip or stay overnight in one of the many affordable accommodations in the province. 

Must-see's

(The Rizal shrine in Calamba, Laguna. Photo from Vista Pilipinas.)

Homage to a hero. History buffs should drop by the Rizal Shrine in Calamba City, Laguna, to discover how Jose Rizal, as the boy Pepe, lived, and how his surroundings shaped him into becoming a national hero—dying for his convictions and for the hopes and dreams for his country to be free from corrupt foreign dominance. 

The house that stands on the property was actually reconstructed from the original structure, which was destroyed during World War II. A stark white affair topped with red-brick roof shingles, reconstruction of the house was directed by the hand of the National Artist Juan Nakpil. 

Into the woods. The Makiling Botanical Gardens at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños (UPLB) is actually part of the forest reserve of Mount Makiling, an inactive volcano shaped like a sleeping woman, which has spawned an indeterminate number of myths, folk tales and short stories of its fabled resident and protector, Maria Makiling. 

On Mount Makiling thrive rare plants and endangered flora. There are also a number of medicinal and ornamental plants that UPLB Forestry students have planted around the reserve, while orchid societies have donated several native species. 

Grim Reaper’s trophies. In Nagcarlan, one can visit the town’s underground cemetery, which is the only one of its kind in the Philippines. Declared a national historical landmark in 1978, the Nagcarlan Underground Cemetery built in 1845 holds tombs of rich Catholic families in the area from the Spanish period. 

(The Nagcarlan Church or St. Bartholomew Parish Church is supposed to be connected to the underground cemetery by a secret tunnel. Photo from Philippines Travel Online)

Locals believe that there is a secret tunnel that actually connects the underground cemetery to the Nagcarlan Church (Saint Bartholomew Parish Church), founded in 1583, as most churches in that era usually had underground cemeteries. 

The Underground Cemetery was also used as a secret meeting place of the Katipuneros during the Spanish period, by Filipino rebels during the Filipino-American War and by guerrillas working hand in hand with Americans trying to outwit the Japanese military during World War II. 

A lake with a view. In San Pablo City, Laguna, one of the most relaxing pastimes locals engage in is to sit by the glistening Sampaloc Lake, and enjoy a picnic lunch. In the morning, some run the five-kilometer stretch around the lake, the smallest of all seven lakes of the city. A few, on the other hand, sit on the many park benches dotting the paved area around the lake, and just take in the sight, breathe in the crisp air, getting lost in their own thoughts. 

It can be crowded at times, especially on weekends and holidays, but the view of majestic Mount Banahaw, and the lesser Mount San Cristobal, can be the most tranquil of diversions. Once or twice a month, at dusk, with the glorious golden moon rising above Mount Banahaw and casting its alluring reflection across the lake, the sight can literally take your breath away. 

Must-do's 

Attend a fiesta. San Pablo City comes alive during Good Friday, when a procession of images of saints, the Holy Family, and that of the passion and death of Jesus Christ is held. 

The images paraded are truly remarkable feats of Filipino craftsmanship and design. The elaborate detail in the clothing of the santos (saints), like those of the Blessed Virgin, for example, are also testimony to the adoration of its owners and the dedication to their faith. 

(The Good Friday procession in San Pablo City is one of the most popular attractions in Laguna, during the Holy Week.)

Take care of your feet. Filipinos are some of the most inveterate consumers of slippers—whether it be the Brazil-branded beach flip flops, the furry comfortable kind for the bedroom or the cushy type with prints used everywhere in the home. 

Liliw is the “footwear capital of Laguna” with its many stalls along Gat Tayaw Avenue selling slippers, shoes and sandals of all types, whether they be staid and simple, florid or flirty. Slippers here go for 3 for P100, while you can buy leather shoes for as low as P500. The annual Tsinelas (Slippers) Festival is usually held in August. 

Also check out the St. John the Baptist Parish Church for its red-brick walls. 

Buy some art pieces. The woodcarvers of Paete are famous around the world for their fine craftsmanship and keen eye for detail. Many of their work stand in churches, or displayed during fiestas, while furniture made with painstaking detail make their way homes in the United States and Europe. 

Paete is also famous for its taka or papier-mâché pieces such as religious items, masks and animal replicas, most of which are now exported to the United States, Germany, Spain and Japan. These folk-art pieces are still handcrafted around molds some of which are probably antique and have been in the taka-making family’s possession since the founding of their businesses, and dried under the sun. 

Around this time, you will probably be able to pick up a number of papier-mâché Santa Clauses, reindeer and other Christmas fixtures, which are from the excess production of the exporters. 

JV Quesada Street is a stretch of ateliers and shops selling wood sculptures and taka

While in town, also drop by the Saint James the Apostle Church with its elaborate San Cristobal (Saint Christopher) murals made by artist Jose Luciano Dans, and intricate carvings of saints. The church itself, built in 1846, is designed in the usual baroque style of the time. 

Eat! Along the national highway in Barangay Dila, Bay, is Kamayan sa Palaisdaan sa Bay, a floating restaurant that serves an assortment of rustic Filipino cuisine like Ginataang Hipon (shrimp served in a coconut milk-based broth), Crispy Pata (deep-fried pork hocks), Sinugno na Tilapia (grilled tilapia sautéed in coconut milk with mustard greens). No pretense-cooking at reasonable prices, albeit the sometimes long serving time. 

Si Christina Gateau Sans Rival (6 Rizal Avenue, San Pablo City) is a great place to have coffee and dessert after a day of sightseeing. Its specialties are red velvet cupcake, New York cheesecake and sans rival, to name a few. It has pastas as well, and an interesting array of Italian sodas. 

Have lunch or dinner in the calm, lush surroundings of Café Lago located across Sampaloc Lake. It serves Filipino food common to most of the restaurants in the area, but what makes the meal special is a history of Sampaloc Lake and San Pablo City by the café owner Mandy Mariño, a retiree from the US. If he sits with you long enough, he also might be persuaded to tell you his colorful love life. Sir Mandy can also give you tips of other unique places to visit or other sites of interest. 

The original store of Colette’s Buko Pie (52 San Rafael Street) can also be found in San Pablo. 

(The infinity pool at Sitio de Amor in San Pablo City.)

Where to stay: Casa San Pablo (Gomez compound, Barangay San Roque, San Pablo City, (CP# 0917-812-6687) is a quaint inn in the heart of San Pablo, operated by gregarious businessman Boots Alcantara and his warm and winsome wife, journalist and author An Mercado. Their good nature and hospitality are part of the charm of staying there. 

Each room in the inn is designed with its own artistic motif, and uses antique pieces and lumber from old houses and repurposed as accessories or structural pieces. 

The inn serves homecooked dishes, such as the Kulawo (grilled eggplant in smoked coconut milk), a great favorite among diners. 

Guests in Sitio de Amor (Km. 88.8 Maharlika Highway, San Pablo City (http://www.sitiodeamor.com) are assured of seclusion and privacy so urgently needed in our harried lives. The rooms are located far apart across the farm so guests usually see the other visitors only during mealtime, or at the languid infinity pool. 

Owners Jorge and Amor Bondad are the most hospitable and friendliest of couples, sharing stories from their lives and how they came to setting up their resort. Amor is also quite the whiz in the kitchen as she ably whips out a welcoming feast of dishes using local ingredients with just an hour’s notice. 

Every August, guests can pluck rambutan from the Sitio’s trees and eat them as the resort celebrates the Rambutan festival. 

(Paete is home to many of the country's wood sculptors, painters, and taka makers.)  

GETTING THERE 

To Calamba: Take a Green Star Express bus along Taft Avenue, Pasay City, or HM Transport bus from Edsa, Cubao, Quezon City, going to Santa Cruz and Calamba. By car, just take the South Luzon Expressway (Slex) and go through the Calamba Exit. 

To Los Baños: Take the same bus above to Santa Cruz and tell the bus driver you want to go down at UP Los Baños. By car, also take the Slex and the Calamba Exit. The town after Calamba is Los Baños. 

To Paete: Take any bus going to Santa Cruz, go down Barangay Biñan in Pagsanjan, then take a jeepney to Siniloan. Alight at Paete town proper. By car, it is fastest to go through Rizal via the Manila East Road, with Paete only four towns away from Tanay. 

To San Pablo: By bus, take any bus bound for Lucena City; it will pass by Maharika Highway and take you through San Pablo. If driving, from the Slex, use the Alabang-Calamba-Santo Tomas Expressway and go out the Santo Tomas, Batangas Exit. When you reach the junction across the Light Industrial and Science Park III, turn right on Maharlika Highway, and keep left going toward SM San Pablo. 

To Nagcarlan, and Liliw: Using the same bus to Santa Cruz, get off at the town proper, then take a jeepney to Nagcarlan or Liliw. By car, from the Slex go through the Calamba Exit and at Santa Cruz, turn right to Nagcarlan and on to Liliw. (For more on Laguna attractions, check out http://www.lagunatravelguide.com.) 

(My column, Travel Bites, is published every Monday in the front page of the BusinessMirror. This feature on Laguna was published on Nov. 26, 2012. Photos by the author unless specified.)

This executive paints his stresses away

THESE days, you can almost never find a corporate executive who isn’t either into golf or marathons. Though considered sports or hobbies, these weekend activities invariably still end up being an opportunity for networking with their peers or targeted clients. 

So it was quite refreshing to discover that Alex Chan Lim, Philippine country manager of MoneyGram International, spends his weekends with his family teaching modern Chinese brush painting to a diverse group of students. 

In his private studio in Pasig on the recent Saturday I visited him, there were about seven students gathered, mostly merrily chatting away, some with their Chinese brushes still in hand, gently working these on rice paper to create art. 

(Alex Chan Lim, Philippines country manager of MoneyGram International demonstrates his Chinese brush painting techniques to participants and interested onlookers at a recent exhibit of the Chan Lim Family of Artists and students.)

There was no perspiring here, no racing heart rates, nor a push to perfection. It was just a cheerful, relaxed atmosphere as the students leisurely practiced their brush strokes. As with most Chinese brush paintings, the artwork invariably depicted are lightly tinted flowers, horses, bamboo, or lush landscapes in bold vibrant colors. 

It was a casually attired Lim who met me with a welcoming smile and warm handshake, and after our initial greetings, he led me around the room introducing some of his students. Among them was an ex-president of a bank, an airline official, and two smiling Korean ladies whom I was told later, hardly spoke English but just enjoyed coming to class. His family was also gathered around, including his wife Ester, who helps in teaching the students, their daughters Kaye and Kyra (the eldest Geoffrey wasn’t around), and his father Jose. 

Lim says throughout the different stages in his career, what has remained constant is his painting, which he has been doing since he was 11 years old. “It is during weekends I forget about work. [Painting] is my anti-stress.” 

Unlike most traditional Chinese families where the children are conscripted to work in the family business during weekends or long school breaks, Lim says his parents instead encouraged him and his siblings—Felix, Rolex and Jolex—to study Chinese painting during summer. His father, Jose, also paints although he does so using oils and is a painter more in the Western style. “I used to wonder why we had to do it; all my childhood friends [in Caloocan] were playing with their Lego sets. It was only later that we were thankful we studied it because no one really does Chinese paintings [anymore].”  

But he asserts that it never entered his mind to paint professionally. “Not at all. We really focused on painting during summers, and then we took up our college degrees which were non-painting related. It was quite a good match, it was a good partner. We were very happy. It was something that we wanted to do but not to earn a living.” (Like him, Lim’s brothers are also engineers and work for various multinational firms. They continue to paint to this day, and Felix even teaches Chinese brush painting part time at Stanford University.) 

(One of Mr. Chan Lim's works of art.)

Though his father wanted him to take over the family’s plastics business, Lim didn’t want to fearing that he and his three younger brothers would just fight over the company someday. After graduating with a mechanical engineering degree from the Mapua Institute of Technology in 1986, his parents grudgingly allowed him leave for the US to work and pursue a post-graduate degree. (With the success each sibling has reaped since then, he says his father “is now very happy” his sons made the right decision in their respective careers.) 

Lim came home in 1990 when his mother Rosa passed away, and has been based here since. He has worked in various “intensive” industries, making full use of his engineering background. He designed distribution centers for Levi Strauss Philippines, handling systems for DHL, and packaging for integrated circuits for Advantek. Later, at Ausenco, a mining services firm, he became a project manager—“a good learning experience” but, he says, it was “not my cup of tea,” understandably due to the inherent controversies in the industry. 

In April 2011 Lim made his first foray into the financial services world when he was appointed Philippine country manager for MoneyGram, the world’s second-largest global money-transfer company headquartered in Dallas, Texas. The next month, he set up the company’s very first office in Makati, in recognition of its burgeoning remittance business in the country. 

Under Lim’s helm, the business grew over 30 percent in 2011, which is no small feat considering that the entire remittance industry in the country only grew by 7 percent. This can only mean that MoneyGram has eaten into the market share of its main competitor. “We are happy with our volumes. The increase is too significant, I could never have imagined it!” With a new advertising campaign launched in March using actor Robin Padilla as a celebrity endorser, he says, the uptrend can only continue. “We’re still projecting a double-figure growth this year.” 

While it may not be immediately apparent, Lim’s creativity as a painter has actually enabled him to “think out of the box,” he says, in solving problems at work. Also, it has helped him in the marketing and advertising aspects of the job, enhancing his ability to judge whether a TV commercial being produced for the company’s brand awareness campaign is up to par with the company’s standards of excellence and good taste. 

There are also times when his work at MoneyGram fuses with his painting. Back in January, for instance, the company supported an on-the-spot Chinese lantern-painting contest at the SM Mall of Asia to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The winning entries were later exhibited along with those crafted by his own family members and students. 

The Chan Lim Family of Artists and Students were also in Davao City in October to exhibit their works and conducted workshops at SM City and Marco Polo Davao Hotel. Lim is ecstatic that a lot of institutions have recognized their group and regularly invite them for exhibits. 

He believes that anyone can do Chinese brush painting. “There’s no special talent or skill needed. One just needs the passion and the interest to learn.” 

(My column Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This profile on Alex Chan Lim was published on Nov. 23, 2012. Photos from Mr. Chan Lim's and the Chan Lim Family Facebook accounts.)

Travel Bites: Bohol has got it all

(The tarsier is the smallest primate in the world and on the endangered species list. These are nocturnal creatures and are easily stressed by loud noises and sudden movements.)

IT’S probably unfair to compare Bohol to the largest shopping-mall brand in the country, as the province is certainly far from being commercial. 

But there is probably no other province in the Philippines other than Bohol that has a surfeit number of tourist sites and activities to choose from. 

The culture and heritage enthusiast can count on old Spanish-era churches to admire. 

The environmentalist can check on the cute furry tarsiers endemic to the island and swim with whale sharks and dolphins in its cool, clear waters. 

The beach bum has a wide stretch of white sand on which to tan himself. 

Those inclined to music can listen to a popular children’s choir, while house tunes are all the rage in nighttime entertainment spots. 

And yet, Bohol still manages to keep its trademark quaint laid-back calm, such that tourists in need of solitude and sanctuary still have quite a number of places to call their own. 


Must-See’s 

Historical churches. According to Visita Iglesia Bohol: A Guide to Historic Churches, by Regalado Trota José, there are more than 40 churches, many of them standing since the Spanish era in the Philippines. 

Most popular among the tourists due to their accessibility and inclusions in most day tours are the Baclayon and Loboc churches. 

The Baclayon Church (Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception) is one of the oldest built from stone, and most-preserved, Jesuit-founded churches in the country. 


(The Church of the Imaculate Conception in Baclayon is one of the oldest built from stone, and most preserved, Jesuit-founded churches in the country. It features a huge fortress-like bell tower to its right, an adjacent convent, and a museum housing antique saint images and religious paraphernalia.)

The exuberance of floral decorations in the retablos surrounding the altar of the church is a very Filipino interpretation of the baroque design. Baclayon Church has an adjacent convent and also houses a collection of antique saint images and religious paraphernalia in a museum. 

Completed in 1734, the Loboc Church (The Church of San Pedro) is unique because behind its stone façade is another stone façade, yellowing with age but ornately decorated with the faces of saints. 

The interior features a large bamboo organ, which looms above the heads of parishioners sitting at the back of the church. Cebuano painter Canuto Avila painted the ceiling with various images of the Virgin Mary carrying her different names. 

The Loboc Church also features an extensive collection of religious pieces, including saints, colorful and intricately designed dresses of the Virgin Mary, chests and missal stands. 

Other old churches worth visiting are Church of Our Lady of Light in Loon; Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Dauis, Panglao Island; Maribojoc Church in Maribojoc; and Saint Agustine Church on Panglao Island. 

Tarsier watch. You can’t claim to have visited Bohol, unless you’ve seen the tarsier. Considered the smallest primate in the world and on the endangered species list, these sleepy furry creatures are found at the 134-hectare wildlife sanctuary operated by the Philippine Tarsier Foundation Inc. in Corella, about 30 minutes away from Tagbilaran. 

The hills are alive. Long a hallmark of many Philippine postcards, these enormous “Chocolate Kisses” are still a wondrous sight to behold. The sweeping vista before you can be viewed from many angles at the nearby lookout point. 

The best time to visit the Chocolate Hills is in the summer when the grass that grows on them turns brown. The rest of the year the hills are a lush green and are still quite a breathtaking sight. 


(Over 1,200 dome-shaped hills dot the municipality of Carmen, comprising what is known as Chocolate Hills. During the dry season, the grass on these limestone formations turn brown, thus its name. The rest of the year, the hills are a lush green but are still breathtaking to behold.)

Other points of interest in Bohol are the man-made Mahogany Forest and the Simply Butterflies Conservation Center in Bilar. 

If you don’t want the hassle of commuting to these tourist spots, or joining other people in group tours, hire your own private car for 24 hours, which costs about P2,000 (excluding gas). Call ERB Rent-a-car (0949-6547654/0915-6590705). 

To-Do’s 

Water world. Named after the sexy starlet of the 1970s, Alona Alegre, the white-sand Alona Beach is a haven for scuba divers and snorkelers because of the extensive coral reef just off the shore. (Balicasag and Pamilacan Islands are other popular dive spots, as well.) A list of dive operators and schools can be found at http://www.scubadivingbohol.com/

Most tourists grab a beer from one of the many bars along the way, plunk themselves on the sand and drink ‘til sunset, or get a massage, while tanning themselves under the sun. 

A great way to explore the surrounding waters of Bohol is to go a on a whale-, whale-shark- or dolphin-watching tour. Most of these guided tours take off from the Baclayon Pier, and will take guests to Pamilacan Island whose waters teem with these creatures. Expert tour guides with excellent spotters are plentiful in Tagbilaran and Panglao Island. (Check out http://www.boholtravelguide.com/dir/tour_op/index.shtml for a list of tour operators in the province.) 

Take the plunge. In the last two years, the municipality of Danao has been attracting extreme-adventure tourists. Its adventure park offers tourists the thrill of plunging in a free-fall canyon swing, the exhilaration of crossing the Wahig River in what is reputed to be the longest and highest zipline in the country (“Suislide”), and opens up a new interesting world of stalactite formations on spelunking trips.

More information on the heart-thumping activities in Danao at http://www.eatdanao.com

Listen to angels. Tourists are welcome to watch the internationally renowned Loboc Children’s Choir rehearse after school, from Monday to Friday. The choir—comprised of boys and girls studying at the Loboc Central Elementary School with ages ranging from five to 13—was founded in 1980, wowing audiences in the US, Europe and Asia. They have won local and international awards and even bested the more famous Vienna Boys Choir in a competition in Barcleona in 2003. Their angelic voices soothe the soul after a weary day of touring. 


(The seaside view from the Lantaw restaurant at the Bohol Bee Farm.)

Where to stay: In Tagbilaran, the MetroCentre Hotel & Convention Center along C.P.G. Avenue offers travelers comfortable accommodations at reasonable rates. Though the hotel is a bit dated, the service is impeccable with the staff always ready to meet the needs of its guests. It has limited choices for breakfast, but has free Wi-Fi connection (a must these days for most travelers), and is just a hop away from a 24/7 supermarket. 

On the ground floor of the hotel is the Club Sphere, which pulsates to house music, making it a perfect place for nighttime revelers to dance their cares away. Adjacent to this is the Atmo Bar where guests can play billiards or shoot darts. There are rooms available as well for those serious with their singing.

Bohol Bee Farm and Resort on Panglao Island offers a different kind of tropical vibe for tourists with an organic food and environmental bent. Its rooms are spacious with some providing an amazing view of the sea. Guests will enjoy the resort’s seclusion (a short tricyle ride away from Alona Beach) as well as its unique dishes made with fresh ingredients. 

The staff are all so helpful with guests’ requirements. The resort also arranges tours to various favored destinations within the province. Highly recommended is the mesmerizing Firefly Tour along Loboc River. 

Getting there: All major Philippine carriers—Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific, Air Philippines and Zest Airways—fly a number of times daily from Manila to Tagbilaran City (Bohol’s capital), while Mid-Sea Express flies three times a week from Cebu City and Davao to Tagbilaran. 

Bohol is also accessible by fast and regular ferry services from Cebu City, Dumaguete, Siquijor and Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte via SuperCat, Ocean Jet, Weesam Express, Kinswell Shipping, Starcraft and SeaJet. (For transportation particulars and other information on Bohol, click on http://www.bohol.ph/article107.html.)

(Travel Bites is published every Monday in the front page of the BusinessMirror. This feature on Bohol was published on Nov. 19, 2012. Photos from the web.)

From tennis aficionado to bourse chief

WHEN Philippine Stock Exchange (PSE) President and CEO Hans B. Sicat was growing up, he recalls his siblings and himself being always riveted by the debates around the dining table, particularly those between his father, renowned Marcos-era economist Gerardo Sicat (whose groundbreaking 1980s textbook, "Economic", is still being used by many economics students today) and his equally accomplished mother, the late Loretta Makasiar, a political science professor. 

“It was very interesting to listen to these political discussions because my mom was a political science professor at University of the Philippines [UP], which is essentially leftist in outlook and anti-any administration. They would talk about—my dad’s a free market economist and my mother’s a political scientist, and she would say, ‘But that doesn’t redound to the benefit of the masses!’ Then at some point, my dad joined the [Marcos] administration,” Sicat, 52, recalls with a chuckle. 

“The irony, too, was that my maternal grandfather [Felix Makasiar] was a Chief Justice on the Supreme Court for a while before he retired. That made it doubly interesting, because there was a specific period when at least two people related to my mom were in the administration then. And she was an outspoken political scientist who thought capitalism wasn’t the answer,” he remembers, amused at the thought. 

The eldest of five siblings, Sicat says it was these discussions at the dining table, which became heated on occasion, that “helped define what we were, and what we [my siblings and I] were doing. At the beginning we had no clue, but as we got older, I began to think it made for a good foundation.” No doubt, it was his father who influenced Sicat’s foray into the world of economics while a student at UP, and, later, at the University of Philadelphia for his PhD. 

But Sicat confesses that he actually didn’t know what course to take in college, and was actually debating whether he should become an engineer or a medical doctor. To defer making a decision, he took math instead—which allowed him to play a lot of tennis. 

“Since we were young, I already liked to exercise a lot, play tennis, run or whatever. I was always trying to figure out what was the least amount of schoolwork I could do so I would have more court time. Oh, boy, the political science and the humanities [students], they’re always reading, so much reading! I would think back then, maybe if I go into physics or engineering or something like that, if I could get through the problem sets more quickly, then I would have more time to play!” he laughs. 

While Sicat may not have ended up at Wimbledon with all those exertions on the court, he did become an age-group tennis player, and was a member of UP’s varsity tennis team. 

“As it turns out, the training [in math] is also very good—not necessarily because of the specific knowledge that you take, but because it teaches you how to think of problems or issues. I think I have a decent balanced view,” he says. “I don’t know a lot of the answers but I think I can help figure out how to get to the answer. It puts a framework [on the way you solve problems].” 

Prior to his affiliation with the PSE (he also served as its chairman and independent director from 2009-2011, then had a first term as its president in January 2011), Sicat was an investment banker for over two decades, during which time he had helped sell “the predecessor” of the mortgage-backed asset securities, or what he jests, “the structured notes that blew up the world”. 

But he playfully distances himself from any global economic catastrophe by stressing that “when we were doing it in those days, the leverage was 2 to 1, the structure was much simpler - no one was pushing the envelope.” 

One of the more interesting deals he worked on while at Citicorp was the privatization of Segba, Argentina’s power utility in 1992, which he describes as a “complex situation” due to the massive amount of work put into discussions with the Argentine government and prospective buyers. 

At Salomon Smith Barney, Sicat helped launch the $1-billion 100-year global bond issue of the Philippine central bank in 1997 – only one of two other countries (China in 1996, and Mexico in 2010) to have done so. “That was the time we were doing 100-year bonds for Coca-Cola, Walt Disney, etc.” 

The tall and lanky Sicat has a daily exercise regimen where he runs and hits the gym every morning. “I feel funny if I don’t do it [exercise].” 

Sicat’s wife, Regina, is CEO of their family-owned LegisPro Corp., a legal-process outsourcing firm. They have three children—Kimberly Isabel, 19, a sophomore at Brown University; Katerina Mariel, 17; and Matthew Alexander, 16, Grade 12 and 10, respectively, at the International School Manila. 

If Sicat seems to have an extra spring in his step these days to go with his usually cheerful demeanor, you can bet that there are only good things happening in the stock market. 

Since 2010, the bourse has been coming along nicely, and was the best performing stock market in Asia, and third-best in the world in 2011. The PSE index (PSEi) closed at a new all-time high on Nov. 5, bucking the general decline across other markets in the region, which were focused on the leadership transition in China, Greece's debt struggles, and the US elections. 

The bourse kicked up 33.31 points to close at 5,457.82, or 0.61 percent higher from the previous close of Oct. 31. The Nov. 5 close was also up 1,085.86 points or 24.8 percent higher, year-to-date. The PSEi has broken through new record highs for a total of 24 times since the beginning of 2012. 

Sicat attributes the bourse’s exceptional performance to the country’s sound economy—with inflation benign and interest rates at their lowest levels—as well as strong corporate financials. 

With the renewed confidence in the market, he is quite optimistic that more companies will be raising their needed capital via the exchange. In 2011 the amount raised reached P107.5 billion—almost 27 percent higher than the previous year. For 2012, Sicat projects the amount to hit P197 billion, or almost double the amount raised in 2011.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This profile of Hans B. Sicat was published on Nov. 16, 2012. Photo courtesy PSE)

Travel Bites: The allure of Vigan

(The belfry of the Shrine to the Nuestra Señora de la Caridad offers an amazing panoramic view of Vigan.)

SOMETHING old, something new.

Visiting Vigan, the capital of Ilocos Sur, takes hardy sightseers to a time long forgotten, but it may also satisfy their hunger for more current attractions. 

The city appeals to both lovers of tradition and culture, as well as the young ones looking for an exciting, new unforgettable experience. So it is not uncommon to see droves of families from three generations traveling to the city as they indulge their respective thrills and fun-filled adventures.

Aside from the visit to ancestral houses, there is a zoo with the most exotic of animals roaming freely about, as well as a wide array of delectable Ilocano treats that will appease the discriminating palates of travelers. Make sure the batteries of your digital cameras are well-charged because this is probably one of the most picturesque towns in the country.


MUST-SEES 

A time gone by. A visit to the Vigan Heritage Village transports travelers to a world chockful of history and tradition. 

There are old Spanish-era churches such as the Vigan Cathedral (St. Paul Metropolitan Cathedral) across the Plaza Salcedo, and the Shrine to the Nuestra Señora de la Caridad (Our Lady of Charity) in the town of Bantay, with their earthquake baroque architecture, and simply decorated altars. Climb the red-brick belfry of the Nuestra Señora de la Caridad to see the centuries-old bells, and for an amazing panoramic view of Vigan. 

Drop by the Pagburnayan in Barangay 7, where sturdy clay jars (burnay) continue to be churned out by hand with craftsmen still using a potter’s wheel. Most of their jars, I am told, are transported to Manila for private individuals and commercial buyers. 

The Mestizo District (“Kasanglayan”—Sanglay, being a Spanish term for natives of China) with its cobblestone streets where Chinese merchants once owned stalls, is the epicenter of the Heritage Village. Here, two-story houses owned by the merchants had their stores located on the ground floor of the houses, while the living quarters were on the second floor. These days, stores selling souvenir items—T-shirts, native bags, woven Abel Iloko blankets and linen, antiques—and restaurants occupy the ground floors of these ancestral homes. 

(Mang Bongbong, descended from a long line of potters, demonstrates how to make a burnay. Made from clay found in the soil of Ilocos farms, the burnay is said to be more sturdy than those made from terracotta.)

If you could talk to the animals. Both kids and adults will enjoy a visit to Baluarte (“bailiwick”), the mini-zoo that sits in the vast estate owned by Ilocos Sur Gov. Chavit Singson in Barangay Salindeng. 

Here, miniature horses and alpacas roam, freely interacting with visitors. Also on display in cages are two hefty Siberian tigers; an albino python and an assortment of reptiles; and butterflies in a covered sanctuary. Best of all, entrance is free. 

Weaves of wonder. Aside from burnay, products made from handwoven cotton or abel (now marketed as Abel Iloko) continue to be in demand among tourists. At Barangay Camangan, just a short ride from Plaza Burgos, is where a lot of the weavers do their work, spinning yarns of cotton into comfortable pieces of bed linen, towels, robes and tablecloth. Guests may buy the handloomed items at very attractive prices. 


TO-DOs 

Unearthing the old. “Antiquing” or scouring for old furniture, home accessories and kitchenware is a favorite pastime of many tourists to Vigan. 

A few of the stores along Calle Crisologo and adjoining streets carry some wonderful vintage finds (e.g., charcoal iron presses, gas lamps, blue and white china, stained-glass windows made into dividers, etc.) that may be repurposed as accessories in one’s home. 

As is our usual Pinoy custom, haggle like there’s no tomorrow. Most often, the price these “antiques” dealers quote on an item you fancy will be double than what they are actually worth. 

Taste tests. Like its sister to the north, Ilocos Sur, especially Vigan, has its own culinary finds. 


(Crispy fried Irene's empanada w/ longganiza Vigan, veggies, and egg, is the best Ilocos empanada for me.) 

Gaizel’s Carinderia along Gen. Luna Street (077-722-1041) is a good place to start one’s Ilocano food adventure. It is a popular eatery because it offers home-cooked dishes served in aluminum casseroles, turo-turo style, at very reasonable prices. Have a taste of its seaweed salad, dinengdeng, and, of course, the famous longganiza Vigan, a personal favorite among native sausages. (The city celebrates its Longganiza Festival during its annual weeklong fiesta usually from January 19 to 29.)  

Aside from the longganisa, what creature can resist the allure and deeply satisfying heart-stopping goodness of the bagnet (twice-fried crispy pork belly)? Get it from the Vigan Public Market; ask the friendly locals for stall referrals to make sure the bagnet you get is fried in fresh oil, not stale cooking oil. 

When dipped in the local vinegar (sukang Iloko), the crispy fried empanada (Irene’s Empanada, Calle Crisologo) filled with skinless longganiza Vigan, vegetables and egg, makes a delectable afternoon snack after a half-day of sightseeing. 

Another wildly tasty treat is the Royal Bibingka made from glutinous rice flour and baked in ovens. There are three outlets that sell the Royal Bibingka —Tongson’s (Crisologo Street) is said to be the pioneer, followed by the breakaway group of The Sisters (Naguiddyan, Bantay) and Marsha’s Delicacies (National Highway, Bantay).

Where to stay. Villa Angela Heritage House (26 Quirino Boulevard) offers value-for-money accommodations to travelers who want to relax in spacious rooms with the Spanish era-theme. 


(The Mestizo District with its cobblestone streets was home to many Chinese-owned homes and stalls during the Spanish era. Calle Crisologo, is the most popular these days with its stalls selling tourist souvenirs like Abel Iloko weaves, native bags, souvenir T-shirts, and antiques. Some stalls serve Ilocano dishes like the famous Vigan empanada and Longganizang Vigan.)

Its staff are “notorious” for being very accommodating, engaging and friendly to guests. What’s more, the breakfast is authentic homey Ilocano, which keeps guests hankering for more. The inn is also popular because it is where American actor Tom Cruise stayed while filming Platoon. So if you’re a fan, it would be a real treat if you could book the same room he stayed in. 


Also steeped in Spanish colonial architecture and furnishings, Vigan Plaza Hotel along Mena Crisologo Street is well-liked by tourists for its central location. 

The hotel has modern amenities and uses secure SIM card-based system for its doors. It has Internet connection and cable TV. It also offers in-room massages, perfect for those tired aching feet from the heritage walks. Make sure to reserve a room with windows. 

Getting there. The fastest way to get to Vigan, Ilocos Sur, is to take an hour’s flight to Laoag City in Ilocos Norte (via Philippine Airlines or Cebu Pacific), then get on a bus for a two-hour ride to Vigan. Among the major bus lines plying the Laoag-Vigan route are Partas Bus, Fariñas Transportation, Maria de Leon Bus Lines, Florida Bus and RCJ Bus Lines. 

If you want the slow, scenic tour from Manila, check out the eight-hour daily trips offered by Partas Bus, Dominion Bus, Aniceto Bus and Viron Transit. For more details, check out http://www.vigancity.gov.ph


If you don’t want to be a slave to a bus company’s departures and arrivals schedule, take a road trip on a sturdy SUV with friends or family. The route is easy; you take the North Luzon Expressway, then use the SCTEx to head out to Tarlac, then traverse the well-paved Manila-Ilocos highway to reach Vigan. That way, you can stop at leisure at roadside stalls that catch your fancy, at restaurants for your meals; and for those all-important pee breaks. Best of all, you get to see the splendid vistas unfold in the countryside. 


More on Vigan at http://www.vigan.ph

(Travel Bites, is published every Monday in the front page of the BusinessMirror. This piece on Vigan was published on Nov. 12, 2012.)

Travel Bites: It’s not just Marcos country anymore

The Northwind Bangui Bay Project, or simply the Bangui windmills, faces the South China Sea and generates electricity for the province.

FOR the longest time, Ilocos Norte has been known as “Marcos Country,” or “Ilocoslovakia,” terms that emphasize the insularity of the province from the rest of the country in terms of progress and special benefits accorded it during the administration of strongman Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s. 

While the Marcoses continue to rule the province, tourists now have a wider array of destinations to choose from as well as a myriad of activities to engage in. 

The visits to the Marcos Mausoleum and Museum (Barangay10-N Lacub, Batac City) where the late dictator's body is on display, and Malacañang of the North (Suba, Paoay), the official residence of the Marcos family in its heyday, are now mere historical footnotes and no longer the overwhelming reason for tourists to visit the province. 

Aside from the numerous destinations to explore, the delectable dishes and Abel Iloko woven products make for a compelling reason to visit the north. Eat bagnet (the name in Ilocos Sur for this crispy, deep-fried pork dish but which is actually known in Ilocos Norte as sitsaron or chicharon) with your favorite sawsawan (dipping sauce), and everything is all right in the world again. 


MUST-SEE’S 

Wind-blowing wonder. While it is a modern invention, the Northwind Bangui Bay Project, or simply the Bangui windmills, is quite an amazing view to behold. About 20 huge wind turbines painted white, tower on the shore of Bangui facing the South China Sea, as they try to harness the power of the wind into renewable energy for the province. Netizens will understand when I say a Facebook cover photo of the breathtaking site will definitely make it an interesting conversation piece among friends for days. 

Religious heritage. Completed in 1710, Paoay Church is on the list of Unesco’s World Heritage Sites for baroque churches in the Philippines. It is impressive in the way its builders tried to make it earthquake-proof as much as possible, fortifying its structure with bricks and coral. Its façade is washed out and no longer of the stunning red-brick color it may have originally been, and is dotted with floral renditions in stone almost Javanese-like in interpretation. Inside, the walls and retablo are simple with only the florid iron pulpit built in 1891 remaining as a reminder of the edifice’s former splendor. 


Bleached by the sun, the Kapupurawan Rock Formation in Burgos, Bangui.

White rock. Gazing up at the majestic Kapupurawan Rock Formation in the town of Burgos is almost a spiritual experience. It’s as if an unseen hand has sculpted the magnificent white limestone, making it stand out from the rest of the scenery. Hewn by the wind and the sea, and bleached by the sun, the white rock (kapupurawan meaning “whitest” in Ilocano) can be seen from a viewing deck or up close, being reachable via short horse ride. 


TO-DO’s 

Be a beach bum. The white-sand beach of Pagudpud is about an hour-and-a-half drive from Laoag City and now has numerous reasonably priced resorts catering to tourists. The trick, however, is to find the less rocky portions in the water, but to be sure, bring your surf shoes to protect your feet. 

What’s great about Pagudpud, specifically in the portion known as Saud beach (where the resorts are), is that it is quite easy to choose a deserted spot to put your things down, lay out your beach mat, and just go for a nap after a refreshing swim. The only noise is from the surf (careful…it is strong this time of the year), and the handful of people enjoying its crash on the shore. Anti-Boracay? If it’s peace and quiet you want, Pagudpud is definitely the beach to consider. 

Shop for weaves. The public market in Laoag City or Laoag City Commercial Complex on Abadilla Street is the best place to secure your Abel Iloko woven products. A number of stalls provide the itinerant purveyor of provincial souvenirs colorful pillow cases, traditional blankets in all mattress sizes, foot rugs, and the like. Go early in the morning, at about 8 to get the best buena mano bargains from the elderly grandmothers who still run a few of the stores. (I paid only P600 for a double-sized white blanket and four standard pillow cases–a real steal!) 

Of course, tourists can also buy other items from this market such as traditional food delicacies and souvenirs for pasalubong for your loved ones, as well as wet-market food items for one’s Ilocano cooking experiments. 

The white-sand beach of Pagudpud, is at the northernmost tip of Ilocos Norte. 

Gorge on sitsaron/chicharon. Whoever invented this delicacy is most certainly a food god and needs to be properly revered in a temple of culinary good taste. There is nothing more comforting than a huge slab of succulent pork belly with its luscious fat deep-fried to a crisp. I personally like eating it with garlic fried rice along with another immortal Ilocano dish, the vegetable-laden pinakbet (from the Ilocano word pinakebbet or shriveled, so-called because the vegetables are cooked until they are shriveled), to help the heart recover from the cholesterol shock. 

Other celebrated Ilocano fare are the fresh ar-arusip (seaweed mixed with ripe tomatoes and onions), Dinardaraan (the Ilocanos’ version of dinuguan or pork blood stew), poqui-poqui (grilled sweet eggplants with garlic, shallots and tomatoes), lomo-lomo (soup made of pork tenderloin and innards), among other delicacies. 

There are a few restaurants in Ilocos Norte that are noteworthy to try (Johnny Moon Café at the La Tabacalera Ilocano Lifestyle Center, along Llanes and General Luna streets in Laoag City for the bagnet sandwich; Herencia Center across Paoay Church for the pinakbet pizza), but in reality, visitors can only get authentic Ilocano fare in the house of a local. In my group’s case, former banker and city tourism officer Oesperanza Senen graciously plied us with wonderful Ilocano treats during our stay in Laoag City. (I am still trying to get her to divulge her source of suman ube, another lip-smacking local delight!)

Other interesting activities in Ilocos North include sand-boarding at the Paoay Sand Dunes, and playing the card tables at the Fort Ilocandia Resort and Casino. (Click http://tourismilocosnorte.com for other interesting activities and places to visit in the province.) 


WHERE TO STAY 

THE sprawling Fort Ilocandia (Barangay 37 Calayab, Laoag City) is still the only five-star accommodation in the province, which offers guests a grand view of the sea amid ultra-luxe accommodations. Its breakfast buffet is quite hefty and affords guests a lot of choices, and has a swimming pool and mini-zoo to keep the kids entertained. 

What’s conspicuously missing, however, are free Wi-Fi connection and a full-service spa, which is part and parcel of any decent five-star hotel these days. 


Completed in 1710, Paoay Church is on the list of Unesco’s World Heritage Sites for baroque churches in the Philippines. The structure is fortified with bricks and coral in an effort to make it earthquake-proof.

Hotel Tiffany (Gen. Segundo Avenue and M.H. del Pilar Street/) is for the budget-conscious traveler and is centrally located in the city proper. It has clean, spacious rooms and has free Wi-fi access (just make sure you tell the hotel reception to book your room near the router). 

Another option is to homestay. There are a few furnished houses for rent in Laoag City (about P1,000 a night) which offer anywhere from generous two to three rooms and bathrooms, with Wi-Fi access to the Internet. Just google. 

For more recommendations on accommodations in Ilocos Norte, go to http://tourismilocosnortehotels.com

(My column, Travel Bites is published every Monday in the front page of the BusinessMirror. This feature on Ilocos Norte was published on Nov. 5, 2012. Copyright of photos owned by the author.)

December 30, 2012

Healers

THE nursing profession was one I never actually considered when I was mulling back then what career path to take. 

After all, I’d always seen nurses just as “assistants” to doctors, helping in carrying out the course of treatment for the patient, but never the actual “star” when you think about the healing profession. If ever, given my temperament and constant strive for superstardom (hala!), I would have loved to have been a doctor. (Of course, not being smart in science and math, as well as being usually impatient with most people, I would have made a very bad doctor.) 

But in the past few months that I’ve been in and out of hospitals on account of my mother’s illness, I’ve found a new and healthier respect for the nursing profession. Not that I ever disrespected nurses before. It’s just that at this point, after having dealt with them on a more extensive basis, I can only say to them, “Bow ako sa inyo.” It is a job with a special calling, much like the religious vocation. Many have applied to become one, but few actually pass to become efficient and caring professionals. 

In truth, nurses are not second-class citizens in the health-care sector, because without them, even the doctor’s world wouldn’t really revolve as smoothly as it’s supposed to be. Behind every successful doctor is a most efficient nurse. The nurses I’ve met at the Philippine Heart Center (PHC) and at the National Kidney and Transplant Institute (NKTI) are not only the most competent but they are the kindest as well! 

Each day that Mama was cooped up at the hospital, she just brightens up whenever her nurses would come in to check on her. I have never seen a more lively, happy, and sincere bunch!. I cannot fathom how they, despite being underpaid and undermanned on some days, or nights, can still smile, joke with their patients, go about their repetitive and routine business, and still perform at topnotch levels. (I’m sure they let off steam with one another when dealing with particularly difficult patients, but they have been trained very well not to let their personal issues get in the way of their job.) 

Someone like me who has been trained to smell BS from the people I interview, I could not detect any falsity or fakery in these nurses’ behavior or attitude toward Mama. They appeared very genuine in their concern for her—always making sure she was at ease or far from discomfort when they stuck a needle in her, or took her blood pressure, or did some other tests. Believe me, it isn’t easy to deal with a makulit old woman like my mother—as well as her attendant boisterous and equally makulit entourage (meaning us, her children and grandkids)—but these nurses just passed with flying colors each time. 

Some of them even went the extra mile just to make sure Mama was well cared for even when they were no longer on duty. J. for example, was supposed to have ended his shift already when Mama was about to undergo an important procedure in another building of the hospital complex. Instead of leaving her in the care of the rest of his colleagues, he helped wheel her bed to the surgery room, going on unpaid overtime just to ensure she would be alright. 

He and Mama had formed some sort of cute bond—J. who was openly gay, would always joke around with her using his gay lingo which helped ease her gloominess in being stuck in the hospital. He would carry on the banter especially when she would be putting on her lipstick or doing some other kikay ritual. (Okay, my mom is obviously vain. But I subscribe to her same belief that just because one is sick and in the hospital, you don’t have to look ill and pangit.) 

Then there was also this sweet girl L. who was always so super efficient—she would write down all instructions we should follow to continue our home care for Mama, and photocopied each and every test result for us, without having to be prodded. 

Similarly, L. went the extra mile for Mama, and went to bat for us when she found out that one of our doctors had charged us P10,000 for his professional fee when he only saw Mama twice. (Apparently she protested to the doctor’s secretary that he only came in once to see Mama, as per the nurses station’s entry.) I mean, how could we not love this nurse?! She was just mortified that the doctor could be so financially demanding. 

Privately, and away from the ears of these super-nurses, we as a family would often wonder what would happen if we were in some European country or some hicktown in the US where their citizens still dominated the local nursing profession? Yes, Mama would probably get the same standard of professional health care from those nurses, but what she definitely won’t receive is that extra cariño, that familiar Filipino concern for others. It’s that extra affinity or empathy from Filipino nurses toward their patients that make them of course such a hit abroad, that foreign hospitals just can’t hire enough of them. 

What’s sad about this episode though, is that I knew J. and L., as well as their other colleagues, would still make their way to hospitals abroad, as they search for a better life for their families who will be left behind. As we left the hospital, I told L. as she pushed Mama’s wheelchair to the car and helped her in the backseat, “Please wag ka na umalis. Kawawa naman kami ’pag lahat ng katulad mo mag-abroad.” 

L. didn’t respond. It was as if her fate was sealed. She would leave this aging government hospital, and go care for richer patients abroad. Those patients will be lucky to have such a fine young woman, who would give them expert care with an extra dose of genuine concern. How unfortunate for us though to lose her and many of her colleagues. 

But, my hats off to all you nurses. You may not be recognized as the stars in the hospitals you work for, but in my book, you are tops. Your healing touch is what makes every patient’s hospital confinement less miserable. I especially want to make a shoutout to those who took care of Mama at the PHC and NKTI...if you ever read this, you know who you are. Thank you for your warmth and special regard for her. You’re the best!

(My column Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece on the nursing profession was published on Sept. 28, 2012. Photo from InterAksyon.)