Monday, November 28, 2011

time to go back to [my] real world

After two weeks with my parents, brother, aunts and uncles, and cousins, it was time once again to fly out and go home. The past few days were like a dream. While approaching the queue for the security check at the San Francisco International Airport, I just had to look back at some of the highlights:
  1. I went into discount shopping boot camp.
  2. We mulled over the mysteries of defying gravity.
  3. We became Cirque du Soleil fans.
  4. We walked on the edge at the Grand Canyon west.
  5. Daddy's car went off-road for the first time, ever.
  6. I went around the world through food.

Some fog, finally!

In some ways, going home was like waking up... or driving through fog.

When the fog cleared, I was back in tropical Manila, jetlagged but raring to go back to work, back to driving through heavy and chaotic traffic, and to heat and humidity.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

my first Thanksgiving ever

I kept wondering why there were lots of displays of vegetables and fruit at the Bellagio's Conservatory at this time of year when we toured the Las Vegas Strip. The pieces of the puzzle fell only when Thanksgiving Day arrived: this holiday is the USA's version of a harvest festival! 

This was my first Thanksgiving celebration. And I celebrated it with relatives (plus a whole lot of people who I've met for the first time -- they're mainly my cousin's girlfriend's family) in Sacramento. So basically, what I witnessed was the Fil-Am version of the holiday.

As with any feast, there was an abundance of food and of beverages, just as I always see on tv shows. But instead of having a sit-down dinner, we celebrated it less formally: with the food presented buffet-style over lunch and with everyone eating where there's a spot to sit on... very much like the way parties with lots of people are done in my family back home. On tv, the turkey was the star of the feast; but in my family's celebration, it was just one of those served because there were a whole lot of other food on display. Trying to be a good guest, I brought in something I made myself, some smoked salmon and cucumber maki. My mom, on the other hand, prepared the Pinoy classic, pork sinigang. These distinctly Asian dishes didn't mix too well with the Western cuisine and so were saved for later... My cousins eventually had the sinigang with bread because there's no rice! 

The people who came before me were right. Thanksgiving in the USA was like Christmas in the Philippines... it's a special time of the year when family ties are renewed and strengthened.

Lion King, the Musical

The Lion King is one my favorite cartoons of all time. So when I saw that the musical version was being presented in Las Vegas by Disney Theatrical at Mandalay Bay, I just had to convince either (or both) of my parents and my brother to watch it with me... the other option, which was also good, was Cirque du Soleil's The Beatles LOVE at The Mirage. The Lion King eventually won because my mom opted to go shopping that afternoon and LOVE did not have a performance before my brother's flight back to San Francisco.

One thing I noticed about The Lion King musical: it was a crowd-drawer. Families came in droves to watch it! No surprise there. The puppetry and the costumes were great; the stage decorations and the lighting did not draw attention away from the characters; and the actors -- particularly those behind Timon, Rafiki, Simba (the cub and the lion), Scar, and Zazu -- were superb. Then there were the songs; aside from Timon and Pumbaa's "Hakuna Matata" and "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" duets, I liked the songs that had a strong African feel to them... it's as if I were sitting on the grass amid the giraffes, zebras, antelope, rhinos of Pride Rock.

At the heart of all these creative inputs, what make The Lion King the success that it is is its beautiful story: a child had run away from his problems but he eventually returned to face them and to take his rightful place in the Circle of Life.

With that being said, I still couldn't get over the elephants walking down the aisles of the theater.

Great show. Catch it on its final stretch in Las Vegas! Curtains close a final time on December 30th, 2011.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Midnight snack: Mitchell's ice cream

I love watching travel shows on tv, "The Lonely Planet". A few years ago, I was watching a feature on San Francisco (with Justine Shapiro, if I remember it correctly) and an ice cream shop was featured in that episode. I eventually forgot the name, of course, but what struck me was that this particular shop served ice cream where some of the flavors are of Philippine fruits.

While planning my California vacation this year, my mom supplied the name: Mitchell's Ice Cream. Yes, that's the one! I was curious because it's also in the to-do list for San Francisco tourists and residents alike.  It must be so good. Luckily, on this third visit, I was able to drop by the quiet corner of 29th Street and San Jose Avenue on that cold evening after I ate at Asmara with Biboy and his friends.

Even at the late hour we arrived, people were still lined up and others still were on their way! I was becoming more convinced that the ice cream must really be yummy: people on midnight runs were snacking on Mitchell's ice cream even when it's freezing outside...

With a lot of flavors to choose from, I opted for something that's not from the Philippines (because I was flying out soon): GRASSHOPPER PIE.

Grasshopper pie
Intriguing name, right? I've never heard of it before. But it's really delicious! Grasshoppers were in their minds, most likely, when the ice cream makers combined mint and chocolate together into this swirly mix. It is one of my favorite flavor combinations; in fact, I used to frequent Baskin Robbins for cookies-and-mint ice cream. I love the contrast between the sweet and syrupy chocolate and the cool and refreshing mint.

My cupful of Mitchell's ice cream also brought back good old winter memories of tubs of Peters ice cream that I used to buy in Newtown and of scoops of Royal Copenhagen ice cream in waffle cones at the Broadway Shopping Centre. 

Yum yum. What a way to end a food trip!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

dinner at the Asmara Restaurant

I've tried African food at Le Kilimanjaro in Newtown, NSW as a student at the University of Sydney a few years back. But I could not remember if the items in the menu were identified based on the regional divisions of such a big continent. And so when Biboy told me that we were eating Ethiopian food, I did not know what I was in for. I just guessed that coconuts would somehow be involved.

Diego and Lisa, Biboy's friends, went with us. The first restaurant was closed when we stopped by so we drove on to Asmara Restaurant in Oakland, CA. The first thing I noticed was its Central Asian feel (or at least what I think is a Central Asian feel): dim yellow lights, dark wood tables and chairs, and the strong smell of spices. The vivid colors of the paintings, however, reminded me that we're supposed to be in Africa... to be in Ethiopia and Eritrea, in fact.

Ethiopian food

The food was as colorful as the paintings. We got an appetizing platter of a number of items covering the different food groups. In the dim light (and with my handy camera phone), the photo above does not give justice to the lively colors of the carrots and the potatoes contrasting to the greens of the vegetables and the browns of the meat. Topping all these was a generous serving of goat's (I think) cheese.

My question was: how do I eat all this food? It turned out that we were supposed to scoop the meats and the veggies using a sourdough flatbread called "injera". No utensils came with the bread so we just dug into the platter. With no rice anywhere near the platter, I thought that I would need to eat something else to consider myself full... but as we were finishing up, I realized that this meal was very heavy.

Aside from liking the meal, I enjoyed eating at Asmara because the staff and the manager were friendly. The manager even took the time to explain what the ingredients were for the injera. And as we were leaving, he even waited at the door to say good bye. What a nice chap, he was.

I don't think that coconuts were used as an ingredient in cooking the meats we ordered.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

at the Grand Canyon West

me at Guano PointBiboy shadowJoshua trees in shadowme!view from Guano Pointwith Mommy and Daddy
huli ka!Eagle PointPasawayCactusSquirrelMaya?
Biboy at the Eagle Pointfamily picMommy and DaddyKuya Nat's photo opBiboy, Skagen modelEagle point
Mojave desert terrain

The Hualapai Indians have ring side seats to some of the breathtaking views of the Grand Canyon! I'm happy that they are sharing these to tourists.

One of the highlights of my 2011 visit to the US... definitely.

Cirque du Soleil's "KA"

A theater experience that defies the laws of gravity. That description got me curious about the show we were flying all the way to Las Vegas for. And so a few days after we saw Totem, I was in queue to watch my second Cirque du Soleil show this week: KA.

It's my first time in Vegas. Although I've seen the city several times on tv and in movies, it was still a different experience to be actually in it. For instance, the venue of KA, the MGM Grand, lives up to its name. The building is huge! Nothing about it is small: the golden lion statue, David Copperfield's intent stare, and Twin Brother's sideways glance are all larger than life. 

hello, giant kitty!
The MGM facade, as seen from Excalibur (across the street)
At its core, KA's story is about siblings who got separated and lost their home. Thrown into the "real world", they learned about life and love, ultimately fighting for the home that was stolen from them.

A usual story about going against all odds and succeeding, alright. However, Cirque du Soleil transformed such a stereotypical story into a jaw-dropping, gravity-defying spectacle through the use of high-tech engineering and amazing visual and sound effects combined with awesome feats of acrobatics. 

Watching KA was a wholly different experience from Totem primarily because the theater is much bigger; KA is being performed at the MGM Grand while Totem is under the Grand Chapteau (which is a giant tent). Because of KA's larger venue, I was seated further away from the stage. From where I was at, it was really easy to be amazed by the technical aspects of the staging: the movements of the stage, the flight of the acrobats, the light effects; however, these things easily distracted me from the story and the characters. I couldn't see the their faces as clearly as in Totem

Despite being far away, I was still amazed. What an awesome performance! I now feel bad that I missed out on Cirque du Soleil's Varekai when it made a stop in Manila a few months ago. Next time that this circus is in town, I'm going to make sure I'll watch it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cirque du Soleil's "Totem"

TOTEM traces the fascinating journey of the human species from its original amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly. The characters evolve on a stage evoking a giant turtle, the symbol of origin for many ancient civilizations. Inspired by many founding myths, TOTEM illustrates, through a visual and acrobatic language, the evolutionary progress of species. Somewhere between science and legend, TOTEM explores the ties that bind Man to other species, his dreams and his infinite potential.
                                                     --TOTEM website 

I've heard of Cirque du Soleil before but this was the first time that I was actually going to watch its show... and under a circus tent too! TOTEM was a good choice for our first Cirque du Soleil experience, I think, since it's about Man's evolution. And so I trooped to the AT&T Park in San Francisco with my parents and my brother. I just wish that our sister, Anna, was here with us as well. We're sure she'd enjoy the show as much as we would.

Share photos on twitter with Twitpic

Because the Grand Chapiteau was smaller than I expected it to be and we were seated somewhere in the middle, I felt like we were very close to the acrobats. The proximity allowed us to see the facial expressions of the characters all throughout the show. It also allowed us to see the costumes properly: it was amazing to see how intricate the details were on the bodysuits worn by the cosmonauts and the unicyclists, for instance. And who could forget how shiny and sparkly the costumes of the Crystal Man (who lit up the world) and of the Crystal Ladies (who emerged from the fiery core of the Earth) were?

Then there's the set. Aside from the turtle shell and the reeds (which also hid the live band), the visual effects made the stage alive. The lighting made the colors and the sparklies pop from the performers' clothes. 

TOTEM's interpretation of the story of Man's evolution did not follow Darwin's outline but this was briefly touched before all the monkeys and hominid characters went bananas, and before the businessmen started going up the pole. Instead, it injected elements of origin myths from what appeared to be Native American Indian cultures. 

I enjoyed watching TOTEM immensely. After seeing this, I am now looking forward to see KA, another Cirque du Soleil production that I'd be seeing on this trip.

Monday, November 14, 2011

mystified by The Mystery Spot

November 13, 2011.

Hidden away in the forests of Santa Cruz, CA is a location frequented by tourists willing to be baffled for 45 minutes. This area is aptly called Mystery Spot and was one of the first destinations I had on my list of things to see during my vacation. It's literally off the beaten path (and is reached by taking a relatively rough road) but it's worth a visit for people who are interested in the quirky and the strange.

As we entered the park, we were welcomed by a gentle giant, the tourist spot's very own Mastiff. After a short wait, we began the walk around the mysterious spot, trying to decipher how we could possibly lose as quickly what we have gained. The path going up the slope was steeper than one would expect and only a few people could claim that they haven't taken an extra effort to climb it. Once up the path, visitors are given a treat: a tilted house where people could stand at an extreme angle and not fall off, jump off tables and land where we least expect it, and hang on handlebars at a weird angle. It's nothing short to being inside a 'walk-through'... or a traditional funhouse.

No wonder the guides kept asking if we were still thinking. To baffle us even further, they kept showing their bubble levels, throwing us off even more about our sense of balance.

What makes the Mystery Spot more fascinating to people who are willing to suspend logic for a few minutes, is that this is where laws established as scientific truths seem to be violated. People become taller or shorter at a blink of an eye; water flow upwards rather than downwards; and thumbs don't count as fingers... now that's weird.

I think, however, that the Mystery Spot's not as mysterious as the guides claim it to be. The "gravitational anomaly" that it seems to be may be nothing more than an optical illusion. The grade of the terrain as well as the tilt of the funhouse disorients people effectively; hence, the optical illusion. However, I will not destroy the child-like wonder of being in such a novel place by finding extensive scientific explanations to nature's mysteries.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

"Shopping is a sport"

And I quote Ate Grace for that.

If the guys were all about watching Manny Pacquiao's boxing match, we girls travelled for about two hours south to Gilroy CA to go shopping at the Gilroy Premium Outlets.

I was in the presence of some of the best bargain shoppers I know: my Mom, Tita Babie, and Ate Grace.

It's been almost a decade since I last bought really good clothes. At that time, my Mom had said that it's better to pick quality pieces that just need to be mixed and matched. Since then, work and grad school got in the way of shopping and I never had to worry about my clothes because they're mainly durable. Recently, though, I had to let go of many good pieces because the colours have already faded or the fabrics have already become tattered (particularly the pants).

This shopping day was very productive because I bought many pieces and didn't go over half my budget. Every store we got into had clearance racks (I couldn't deal with so many clothes crowding these racks so Mommy and Ate Grace searched them) and clothes that weren't on these racks were tagged 30-40% off. Plus another 15% discount on some brands thanks to Ate Grace's coupons. The price reductions are really good because the brands where I got good fits in are those I deem to be too expensive back home... if they're available back home (definitely more expensive than my staples Bayo and HerBench). However, I couldn't get good fits in pants and so I decided that I'll be buying them when I get back home.

At the end of the day, I was exhausted from all the shopping, the fitting, the walking. I couldn't believe that my shopping buddies were still very energetic after all that. If shopping were really a sport, they're world-class athletes.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Vietnamese-fusion at Saba Cafe

Redwood City.

It was about a two-hour scenic drive from my family's house. The fiery colours of the trees along the way made for a sharp contrast to the overcast skies but did nothing to warm me up on this cold and rainy day. After the long drive, and a few minutes searching on the internet, Biboy found the perfect spot for our family's lunch: Saba Cafe (

According to reviews, Saba Cafe is classified as "Vietnamese-fusion". I have no idea what "fusion cuisine" actually means but I have tried Northern Vietnamese cuisine in Hanoi last year and loved the pho ga. Perhaps, by "fusion", Saba Cafe mixed elements of American cooking into Vietnamese food. Since I am no culinary expert, I decided to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the food regardless of the regional influence.

That turned out to be a great idea because I was STARVING.

Everyone enjoyed our starter: the kaffir lime chicken salad. The kaffir lime in the dressing contributed a distinct Southeast Asian flavour and a lightness to the crunchiness of the mixed greens and the almonds. The chicken was heavenly! It was a refreshing dish, certainly mouthwatering, and was the perfect beginning to our lunch on this cold Friday afternoon.

Kaffir lime chicken salad

As usual, I checked out the pho list. There were several variants in the Saba Cafe menu, including filet mignon and rare beef steak versions... food that I see more often in Western cuisine than in Asian ones. Then there's the seafood variant as well. Sticking with what's familiar (and avoiding rare meat), I got the pho ga, the chicken noodle soup.

Chicken breast noodle soup

The Saba Cafe pho ga was certainly different from what I've tried in Hanoi and in Manila. The broth was sweeter and there's a lot more bean sprouts and basil leaves on the side. Definitely as yummy as the previous interpretations that I've tasted. And the serving was HUGE: one serving here is good for two people back home!

Great food. If I ever visit Redwood City again, I'll make sure that I drop by Saba Cafe.

Saba Cafe is at 823 Hamilton Street. It's right around the corner from the Fox Theater.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Family bonding in Jollibee

I flew halfway across the globe to breakfast at... JOLLIBEE!

Yes, my first breakfast in the Bay Area was, unbelievably, at one of the most recognizable restaurant brands of the Philippines. That, after stocking up on cheese-flavoured french fries and cheeseburgers in the Philippines just a few days before I flew in fear of missing the local fastfood.

I ended up in Jollibee because while my brother and my dad were thinking of places to eat at such an early hour (we had dropped my mom off at her office), the name Jollibee cropped up. I didn't believe that there's now a branch near my parents' house because the closest one, three years ago, was a few hours away. I even entered an argument with my brother who knew the place better. So just to prove their point, they brought me to Seafood City in Concord, CA.

Lo and behold! It was as if I never left the Philippines... as if I never left my hometown! Seafood City had some of the other famous Pinoy food brands too: Chowking, Red Ribbon, Goldilocks. Aside from the well-known brands, there's a restaurant called Manila Sunset. I heard the bulalo is good but it's hardly a good idea to try it out at breakfast.The customers eating at the time we were there were mainly Filipino-speaking Filipinos as well.

As I munched into the familiar flavours of Jollibee's Crispy Bangus, I remembered the good old days when Jollibee Crossing Calamba used to be our family's place to eat on special occasions (like birthdays) and to celebrate high grades in grade school.

Jollibee also used to be our school's field trip hop-on point for students living in Calamba. With all that time spent there, my siblings and I grew up playing in the playground in that branch.

Beginning with such familiar food, I have a feeling that this visit will be like being home away from home... only with outdoor air-conditioning (I realised later that I arrived in winter).

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Train: Save Me, San Francisco (Golden Gate Edition)

Not thinking too much about what I was doing, I bought a CD of Train's "Save Me, San Francisco (Golden Gate Bridge Edition)" on the same day I bought Maroon 5's latest CD. I was so happy that I found one because it's been a challenge to find a Train CD where I shop; it's been five years since I started looking for the band's CD which has "Drops of Jupiter" (one of my favorite songs -- it was one of only five songs in my playlist when I was adjusting to grad school life -- thanks to a fellow student at that time, Ali).

Fast forward to 2011: "Save Me, San Francisco" has been test driven. The songs were relaxing... perfect for an easy drive on a relatively empty freeway. "Hey, Soul Sister" is as upbeat as the Glee version while the country vibe of "Save Me, San Francisco" makes me stomp my feet in time as I drive. Train's rendition of "Umbrella" is also good -- I like it better than the original, actually... maybe because of the way the band arranged it. The tracks are aptly closed off by "Marry Me", which is a bit more serious in tone. The proximity to Christmas was emphasized by the lively "Shake Up Christmas", which has been picked up by Coca-Cola as it's holiday jingle. Overall, I've enjoyed listening to the CD.

A few weeks after my first listen to the CD, I boarded a plane headed to the band's inspiration. As it prepared to land, I realized that I may be able to see the locations that made Train sing! Hmm... I'll be counting how many places in Train's latest CD I will be seeing on this trip. :)