Hello First-time Travelers!

Are you going on a trip to a particular place for the first-time? Will you be setting foot in a foreign and unfamiliar soil? Rest assured that you have fellow travelers on the road who are embarking on new journeys.

I have been to many places, and the first time I stepped into unfamiliar territory I had to feel my way and rely on what I have on-hand especially when all I had were travel books, maps and print-outs from the web. My friends and I make our own itinerary. It is truly advisable to check out anything about the place before going on a trip.

Yet, you need not necessarily hire a travel agent or tour guide to get you around every time you visit a place for the first time. A little help from locals can add spice to your first-time travels. It can give you the freedom to explore the place and enjoy the feeling of not spending much, based on my own travel experiences.

You can take my word on some tips and information on the places I visited but feel free to be creative and be adventurous. I may offer some advice here and there but, as they say, “experience is the best teacher”. So, read on and find out more about my first-time travel adventures.

I want to make things easy for you. If you want to view the articles I wrote in this site, click the Table of Contents tab.

Photos used in this site are taken by the author, unless otherwise indicated.

And since I’m from the Philippines, I invite you to travel to my country as well.

Video taken from the Best Destination Travel TV site.

Tom N Toms Coffee: A Touch of Korea in Bacolod

Who would have thought that a South Korean brand will arrive in the quiet city of Bacolod and give a jolt to the already vibrant food scene in the City of Smiles? Tom N Toms Coffee, which first opened ApGuJeong-Dong in Seoul in 2001 and now in the US, China, Australia, Mongolia, Qatar, Thailand and Singapore, chose Bacolod as the first location in the Philippines to have its doors open.

Tom N Toms Coffee has arrived in the Philippines! In Bacolod City, to be exact.

Tom N Toms Coffee has arrived in the Philippines! In Bacolod City, to be exact.

Its doors are finally open.

Its doors are finally open.

But why Bacolod? According to Tom N Toms Coffee CEO Kim Do Kyun, who flew all the way from South Korea to Bacolod, said that the people in the city are nice and friendly (oh yes, I totally agree!) For Peter Kim, Tom N Toms Coffee Philippines President, he simply quipped during a small chat before the press conference “because I live here!”

Tom N Toms CEO Kim Do Kyun (left) answers questions from the media.

Tom N Toms CEO Kim Do Kyun (left) answers questions from the media.

Tom N Toms Philippines President Peter Kim is a Bacolodnon by heart.

Tom N Toms Philippines President Peter Kim is a Bacolodnon by heart.

Tom N Toms Coffee is strategically located on the corners of 26th and Lacson Streets, a major highway, and is easily accessible to various kinds of public utility vehicles and is in close proximity to residential areas, schools, offices, hospitals, hotels, tourism attractions, and several notable businesses and establishments. The store is a two-storey, 700 square-meter building that can seat as much as 260 people. It’s a relaxing place to hang out and enjoy a quiet afternoon or coffee with friends, while it is also ideal for small celebrations.

The Tom N Toms Coffee executives with Bacolod City first lady Paching Fuentebella (third from left) and guests.

The Tom N Toms Coffee executives with Bacolod City first lady Paching Fuentebella (third from left) and guests.

The spacious ground floor.

The spacious ground floor.

The store includes seating areas designed for a group of three or more customers, semi-private business rooms with separate electricity outlets, high-speed wireless internet, adequate parking spaces, smoking and non-smoking areas, and various seasonal promotions, among other services.

A place to relax with friends over coffee and pretzels.

A place to relax with friends over coffee and pretzels.

The Korean staff.

The Korean staff.

When it comes to drinks and food, Tom N Toms Coffee definitely has an edge among other known coffee chains. Since it was the first to establish its own roasting factory in the industry, it brings 100% fresh Arabica beans to each store. With its coffee academy, it can carry out continuous product research and development in order to provide the best quality to its customers. Plus, it is the only coffee brand that serves freshly-baked pretzels with its set of signature recipes. Not to mention, its soothing smoothies.

Making an Italian Pretzel.

Making an Italian Pretzel.

Sweet potato pretzel with dips and the Dog Pretzel.

Sweet potato pretzel with dips and the Dog Pretzel.

Corn Pretzel.

Corn Pretzel.

Hot Pretzel.

Hot Pretzel.

Yoghurt Smoothie.

Yoghurt Smoothie.

I’m glad to have another food joint here in town, with a bit of Korean flavor at that. Bacolod is happy to welcome another restaurant, eatery or coffee shop in its midst as it grows to become a food junkie haven here in the Philippines.

For more photos, check my Facebook page album.

Eco-journeys and Environmental Education

It was the right call at the right time. A former colleague from the development industry gave me a ring one morning. “Claire, I’m in Bacolod!” she exclaimed. She was to attend the 8th International Conference and Scientific Meeting (ICSM) that was being held in Talisay City, the city north of Bacolod.

A few hours before that call, I woke up early to accompany one of the Trustees in the organization where I work for a TV guesting at the local morning show. In the same episode, the host also interviewed the president of the Philippines Network of Educators on Environment (PNEE) and students of the Carlos Hilado Memorial State College, co-organizers of the 8th ICSM. When I heard them say that their guest speaker would be ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation, Inc. Chairperson Gina Lopez, I instantly thought of my friend.

And there she was at the other end of the line, telling me about the conference. After a few chit-chat, she asked me to join her at the conference venue and invited me to listen to Ms. Lopez who would be speaking that day. I readily agreed as our organization also supports environmental projects and I personally have a strong conviction in helping endeavors leaning towards saving the environment.

As Ms. Lopez arrived, she was immediately introduced to the audience and readily took the stage. Her first lines were “I am convinced that we can get our country out of poverty.” As silence greeted her, she added, “What I plan to do in the next 25 years is to build model communities.”

Ms. Gina Lopez presenting the efforts of ABS-CBN Foundation Bantay Kalikasan in promoting sustainable eco-tourism.

Ms. Gina Lopez presenting the efforts of ABS-CBN Foundation Bantay Kalikasan in promoting sustainable eco-tourism.

What she presented next were interesting as she showed case studies of communities, which have tourist attractions in their area that drives visitors, yet have not alleviated these communities from poverty. But through the help of the ABS-CBN Foundation Bantay Kalikasan’s Green Initiative, these communities were trained on how to develop their areas; how to be social entrepreneurs; and how to be ecological warriors through their sustainable eco-tourism projects.

1. Ugong Rock, Palawan – families living in the area used to have difficulty sending their children to school. This despite the fact that they have centuries-old rock formation in the area that could be an attraction to tourists. ABS-CBN Foundation helped the community in putting equipment for spelunking and zip lining. Locals benefit directly from all the earnings received from visitors. Now, they earn from USD200 to USD400 a month and their savings increase year after year.

Ugong Rock in Palawan.

Ugong Rock in Palawan.

2. Iwahig River and Firefly Watching – the place is more popular as a penal colony. But with many social enterprise in the area, Iwahig has become a tourist destination in itself. Like Ugong Rock, the community has increased its earnings since ABS-CBN Foundation helped them develop their eco-tourism activities.

The river in Iwahig Penal Colony.

The river in Iwahig Penal Colony.

3. Sibuyan Island, Romblon – I have joined one of the maiden voyages of the Foundation last year and I was amazed at the rich biodiversity in the island, particularly with its many waterfalls.

Sibuyan Island is rich in waterfalls and other natural resources.

Sibuyan Island is rich in waterfalls and other natural resources.

4. Sarangani – Have you ever tried white-water tubing? This is one of the adrenaline rush adventures that awaits you in Pangi River in Sarangani.

5. Mindoro – visit the Silonay Mangrove Conservation and Eco-Park and orient yourself on the important role of these mangrove trees in our ecology. You can also visit Tukuran Falls or snorkel in Maestre de Campo.

They are also developing model communities in Sorsogon, Masbate, Samar, Leyte, Guimaras and other areas in the country. The basic requirements for these projects are: 1. they benefit the community; 2. they save the environment; and 3. they enhance the creativity of the people. For the communities, Lopez challenges them to be fully transparent, especially when it comes to opening their books, to be fully committed to the project, and to be good role models for others to emulate.

After her presentation, I felt the hunger to explore the other areas in the Philippines which have not been frequented by tourists and to support the initiatives of the communities in uplifting their lives and in taking them out of poverty. Surely, responsible traveling should be able to create a positive impact to our ecology and to our society.

First-time in Imbiss

If you happen to be in Bacolod and you want to go German, there’s a great place for you to dine in. Literally means “snack” in the German language, Imbiss offers mouthwatering gourmet sausages and delightful food.

The very unassuming facade of Imbiss. A home seems to wait for you as you enter its doors.

The very unassuming facade of Imbiss. A home seems to wait for you as you enter its doors.

When a former colleague and friend visited my home city to attend a conference, I was excited to show her my city, even for a few hours. She told me that she has a friend who owns a restaurant but her friend was not in town at that time. “He owns Imbiss.” I was more excited than ever. I have read about this restaurant but never got around to visit the place, despite my sister’s campaign that we try the different dining places in our locale.

So we drove from her hotel, taking the main road, Lacson St. Then I turned left to the narrow 10th Street just across the old PNB Building. You would be surprised that just a few meters from the city’s main artery is a very quiet nook, you would even think you are dining far from the urban center. But that’s our city, Bacolod. The city has a vibe but it also has a serene and simple pace of life you would want to settle here for a more quality way of living.

The colorful interiors of Imbiss.

The colorful interiors of Imbiss.

A small bungalow with a lighted signage indicated that it was already Imbiss Sausages and Steaks Resto-Bar. Looks to me like a house that was converted into an eatery, which makes the restaurant exude a homey feel. The interior was filled with paintings and art objects. One inner room even had bikes on display. We sat on a table against the wall. As we went through the menu, I observed people coming in and disappearing to a small door. It seemed that there was a small beer garden behind the restaurant.

Is this a bike room?

Is this a bike room?

I got the Cervelat while my friend opted for the Hungarian Spicy and the Imbiss Salad with ham, cheese and olives. The food definitely tasted delicious and the portions were enough for a meal. Looking at the menu, I could say that prices in Imbiss were quite right. Our sausages cost P135 to P140 (USD 3 to 3.11) while appetizers, like the onion rings, English chips (fat fries), and potato salad cost P95 (USD 2.11) only.

The delectable Imbiss salad is a great way to start a hearty meal.

The delectable Imbiss salad is a great way to start a hearty meal.

The staff were also very accommodating and friendly. I noticed more people arriving at Imbiss, and seems very at home as they enter, as if the place is their favorite hang-out place. But despite the increasing visitors and guests, the restaurant was not noisy, even when space was limited.

That's my Cervelat.

That’s my Cervelat.

Later on, the staff brought us avocado cakes and brewed coffee, courtesy of the owner who informed them that my friend was dining there. The cake was fantastic – not too sweet, which is appealing to my palate.

Oooh, what a way to cap our dinner. The avocado cake and brewed coffee are heaven sent.

Oooh, what a way to cap our dinner. The avocado cake and brewed coffee are heaven sent.

It was a great dinner as we took our own sweet time talking about common friends and common causes we support. And in laid-back Bacolod, time definitely ticks very slowly. I brought my friend to her hotel without any traffic jam on the main avenue. I drove home sated and excited to tell my sister about Imbiss, a new discovery which I hope to revisit very soon.

By the way, the owner told me they hold various art events here and he invited me to one set on February 28, 2015. For more details about the restaurant, you may contact them at (+63-34) 435-0945.

Iloilo: A Neighbor Beckons

Old buildings and heritage houses, the sweet delicacies, the sweet-natured people, the sing-song language — there are so many things that Bacolod City shares with its neighbor across the seas, Iloilo City. And rightfully so. Many prominent families in Negros Occidental trace their roots in Iloilo. Through the years, residents of both cities frequent the other especially with only the one-hour distance by fast-craft ferry.

The streets of Iloilo City.

The streets of Iloilo City.

It is such a wonder, I now realize, that I have only been to Iloilo a few times, the number I could count with just the fingers of my one hand. But having lived in the capital, Metro Manila, for two decades, Iloilo became a distant place but a place that is “just there”, like a next-door neighbor. And though I have my sights set on this heritage-rich city after I moved back to my home city of Bacolod, I never got around to really take time to explore it.

The fountain in front of the Provincial Capitol Building.

The fountain in front of the Provincial Capitol Building.

Educational trip

My first trip to Iloilo and its neighboring towns was when I was in sixth grade. It was our customary educational trip at school and it was a fun experience riding the boat with hundreds of other kids. The better part was that we devoted days to visit old churches and other interesting sites.

I remembered passing through the town of Dueñas, visiting SEAFDEC, a lace-weaving/barong-weaving institution, a very old church, a school, and a resort. I was only 12 years old then, so I could only have pieces of the trip in my memory.

A school gate near Plaza Libertad.

A school gate near Plaza Libertad.

Tailing after my father

I was in high school when my father had a business trip to Iloilo. Since it was just a ferry away, my mother decided that we follow him during the last days of his trip. And while he was busy with meetings and conferences, there we were, roaming the streets of Iloilo, eating in local food joints, and enjoying its native delicacies and pastries.

A store I saw along the way.

A store I saw along the way.

By then, I was feeling at home in this city, which resembled my own homeland. I must admit that Iloilo was a bit advanced, with large department stores and fast food chain brands landing on its shores. That was to be expected because in Western Visayas, or  Region 6, where provinces in Panay Island (Iloilo, Antique, Aklan, Capiz) and Negros Occidental belong, the political center is Iloilo City.

Business trip

I was already working when I had the opportunity to return to Iloilo. But it was only a day trip and most of the days were spent cooped inside the meeting venue.

We did sneaked out and went to a furniture shop, which was closed when we got there. But we passed by old houses and a church before we headed to the airport. So there I was, leaving Iloilo unsatisfied.

Government papers

I came home to Bacolod taking the nautical highway, driving my car from Manila and loading it port-to-port. We had to traverse through Panay’s highways but the lateness of the hour prevented us to explore further. Besides, we never got the chance to go to Iloilo City as we boarded the RORO (Roll-On, Roll-Off) boat in Dumangas.

The new Iloilo Ferry Port.

The new Iloilo Ferry Port.

Finally, I had the opportunity when I needed to process government papers related to my work. With Iloilo City as the political center of our region, most regional government offices are based there. My sister accompanied me in this trip as she had been there several times these past years.

We took the Weesam Express ferry at 6:20 am. We already purchased round-trip tickets to save on cost. It was a smooth ride as the sea was calm in this early morning. The sun was rising as we got to the new Iloilo Ferry Port. The silver statue of a lady atop its city hall shone.

The city hall across the river.

The city hall across the river.

We went to the city proper and old buildings lined up the streets. They were not only lovely to look at but they also evoke a sense of longing of the past. Plaza Libertad, right across the new city hall, was still a sleepy square at that time, with only a number of people sitting around, mostly elderly men, who seem to be up than their younger counterparts. Remnants of the previous week’s Dinagyang Festival still filled the city’s vibe.

As I needed to go to the DSWD Regional Office, we headed to Molo, passing by the University of the Philippines Iloilo campus and Sarabia Manor Convention Center. After I was done with my official business, we walked a few blocks towards the Molo Church. It is the St. Anne Parish Church that was constructed in 1831. Across the church is the Molo Plaza Park while right beside the church is the Convento de Molo.

The Molo Church.

The Molo Church.

After spending time inside the church, we went to SM City in Mandurriao. But it was in Plazuela de Iloilo, right beside the mall, where we had our lunch.

The Pison Muscovado Mill monument.

The Pison Muscovado Mill monument.

As we had to head back to the port to catch the next ferry trip, we traveled back to the city proper. Again, it was a short trip, spending only a few hours in this lovely city. But I know that Iloilo will call me back, and I couldn’t wait to return and unearth the beautiful stories and sights of Iloilo.

Healthy Buys at the Organic Market

Ever since I became a partner blogger of the Negros Island Organic Farmers Festival, I have become more exposed and more aware of the great benefits of consuming organic products. Truly, there’s no better way to live this life than to go natural. Although, I cannot fully walk the talk because I am surrounded by the many “instants” in this world and I’m still used to that comfort of having whatever is available within my vicinity.

The Organic market at the District North Point.

The Organic market at the District North Point.

Good thing ONOPRA is holding an Organic Market at Ayala Malls’ the District North Point in Talisay City.  Thanks to the invite by ONOPRA President Ramon “Chin Chin” Uy Jr. I learned about this event. So on a breezy Saturday morning last January 24, I went to the weekend organic market accompanied by my sister.

Fresh produce at your fingertips.

Fresh produce at your fingertips.

We were able to buy so many vegetables and food items – from mushrooms to okra to carrots to fresh tomatoes, and so much more. We went home with bags of organic produce that we bought at the Organic Market.

Great organic finds!

Great organic finds!

 

The highlight of our organic shopping spree was the very enlightening Organic Health and Wellness talk by Rapha Valley owner Dr. Albert Jo. It opened my eyes to many things and made me more conscious of my food intake.

More veggies, fruits, root crops...what a harvest!

More veggies, fruits, root crops…what a harvest!

If you weren’t able to go the Organic Market, don’t worry as it will be happening again on February 21-22 and March 21-22.

Textile-making demonstration.

Textile-making demonstration.

My Papal Visit Experience

The first month of the year 2015 is a great kick-off for the Visit the Philippines Year. January is full of festivities, and religious celebrations, at that. Throngs of people were expected to gather in Manila for the Black Nazarene,  in Cebu and Kabankalan for the Sinulog, in Iloilo for the Dinagyang, and in Aklan for the Ati-Atihan. But the most-watched event was the State and Pastoral Visit of Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church.

When his visit was announced publicly, I thought that I had to be there. Having settled back in my home city of Bacolod, booking a flight and accommodation is a big consideration. Nonetheless, my sister and I were compelled to go to the capital for this rare opportunity to see the Pope.

It’s not just about a mere “catching a glimpse” of Pope Francis. It is more than that. But let me not delve into my faith as that will require a different blog entirely.

And so, my sister and I prepared for this special religious journey.

World Youth Day 1995

I have to backtrack 20 years into the past. There I was, a freshman in college, enjoying my university life in the capital, and very eager to try so many things. As preparations for the World Youth Day in 1995 was underway, I enlisted in an Opus Dei study center as a media volunteer as this was more aligned with my interest as a Broadcast Communication student then.

Never have I realized that my Media Volunteer ID would give me a pass inside cordoned-off areas, getting near Pope John Paul II, now Saint John Paul II, and an opportunity to be one of the ushers in the Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA). We were assigned at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) where the media action was electrifying. On the streets, we would interview foreign delegates and submit daily articles for the organizers’ event newsletter.

I couldn’t count the times I have seen Pope John Paul II and in most of those encounters, I was a few feet away, sometimes, almost an arms length. When he arrived in PICC for the CMMA, we were at that special entrance door where he would be entering. In Luneta, where millions attended, we stayed at the media box, a steel scaffolding of about two-storey high. We had a good view of the Quirino Grandstand and the crowd but being up there was also scary.

The theme song “Tell the World of His Love” made a great dent in my memory and in my heart. And though I cherished all the moments of my WYD’95 experience, it was unfortunate that my camera film (digital cameras where not yet a thing then) got destroyed and everything just went black.

Papal Visit 2005

This time, I have no Media Volunteer ID to get me close to the Pope, so we had to grab every opportunity we could to be where he was. Since we booked our flights before the official schedule was announced, we realized that we wouldn’t make it to the Sunday mass in the Quirino Grandstand as we had to be in the airport by then to catch our plane going back home.

We planned our itinerary. Early Friday morning, we made our way to the Manila Cathedral where the Pope would be saying mass to priests and the religious. I knew we would be staying outside the Cathedral and I was prepared to squeeze in the crowd. That was even a small crowd and quite manageable but, still, when you are right there in the middle of action, you just have to go with the flow. We had to change locations several times, until we found a better spot near a building. Quite far, but better.

The mass itself was moving and we didn’t mind seeing Pope Francis from afar when he walked from the Cathedral and crossed the street to the Tulay ng Kabataan Center that housed street children. When the crowd dissipated, we walked towards the Mall of Asia (MOA) direction. I thought that walking the whole stretch of Roxas Boulevard would not be that hard. But after walking only a block, our legs were already aching and we decided to take a pedicab.

We asked the driver to take us to the nearest area where we could grab a jeep or a cab but he brought us at the corner of Quirino and Taft Avenues and charged a hefty amount. We bargained and he was left without a choice but accept our payment. Though we never planned to be in this area, we decided to wait there as it was near the Apostolic Nunciature. We found a great spot and when he passed by, we had a good view of him.

As the crowd broke, we knew we had to be walking again and we decided to pursue our plan to go to the MOA. We were able to get a jeepney but we had to go down a long way from MOA since most of the roads were closed. From Libertad, we crossed Roxas Boulevard and walked towards Macapagal Avenue. Tired, exhausted and famished, we decided to instead have dinner at the Project Pie in the Blue Bay Walk. We were resigned to the idea that after eating, we would just head home and get some rest.

Alas, as we were finishing the last of our pizza, the crowd cheered outside. I went out towards the highway and a few seconds later, Pope Francis passed by, waving at us. It was an exhilarating feeling.

If you are going to a large religious celebration, whether it is a Christian gathering or otherwise, these are things that you should bear in mind:

1. Wear clothes that are appropriate to the occasion. If there will be prayers or rites, be sure that what you wear is not offensive to the local faithfuls attending the gathering. Also, wear shoes that are comfortable for walking or standing.

2. Pack light. You wouldn’t want to carry that heavy backpack while the crowd squeezes on you and you have to walk several blocks to get you to your destination and back, right?

3. Bring the essentials. You should have an ID there, in the first place. No large amounts of cash, especially if you are a foreigner attending a local religious celebration. Be mindful only of those that are allowed in the area. For this Papal Visit, for instance, umbrellas were not allowed.

4. Check the weather. If it will rain and it’s an open-air venue, know where you can take shelter. If it is a closed door affair, know the times to get there so you can avoid an impending rain.

5. Find a good vantage point. Being near sometimes is not strategic. Oftentimes, you have to take a few steps back, find a higher ground, and you’ll get a better view of the happenings.

6. Eat, drink, and go to the toilet beforehand. If you have to camp out hours or a day before, have a food available in your belongings. If going to the toilet before the celebration begins can’t be avoided, always try to look where the toilet is and situate yourself not too far from it.

7. Look up. If the crowd is too tight and you feel you can’t breathe, look up so your nose can breathe the air above you.

8. Be friendly. Fights often erupt when people push each other. Be nice to those around you. Sometimes, you’ll need their help. Besides, it is always good to spread positive vibes.

By Sunday, while everyone was camping out in Luneta, we attended a quiet morning mass at the historic Malate Church. Getting into the airport was such a challenge but we were thankful we got there early.

The messages — his words, his smiles and gestures, the whole scenario, the people enduring in the rains — they all burn in my heart after this experience. The joy, the blessing, and the sacrifice are indescribable. Witnessing the realities of human nature, the need to be in front and near the Pope, yet the ability to reach out and lend a hand to a complete stranger, they touched me in a humbling way. It was not all merriment, it even rained on the parade, literally. But the happiness of standing up and expressing my faith…

Now, words fail me. Delving into my faith do not require more words. I find comfort in the silence of my heart.