Visit to the International Rice Research Institute

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is about a 1.5-2hr drive from Manila.  I took a group out there this weekend to explore their facilities and meet some of the staff.  It turned out to be a great day!

IRRI was founded in the early sixties to help increase rice yields and improve rice production worldwide.  Their facility is huge with funding and staff from all over the world.  The compound includes offices, laboratories, housing and recreational facilities as well as acres and acres of experimental rice plots that monitor the growth of different rice varieties grown to combat challenges such as drought, soil salinization, pests and diseases.

Acres and acres of experimental rice crops

It also has the world oldest continuous rice cropping experiment which has been running since 1963.  For almost 50 years, the paddy has produced 3 crops a year in an experiment designed to teach scientists the effects of intensive cropping on long term sustainability and soil quality. It was developed with grat foresight in an era where sustainability was not a common area of concern, and has been a useful tool in combating some of the negative effects of the 1960s rice revolution that dramatically increased rice production by introducing new, higher yielding, non-local rice varieties.

Continuous high yield paddy

The long-term high yield experimentation fields

As these new, “super” varieties were introduced, IRRI also started a program to collect samples of ALL rice varieties from all over the world in an effort to save them from extinction.  They realized that varieties long grown in a specific location may offer have developed resistances to local conditions that the new “super” varieties had not.  Local varieties were disappearing and along with them their local “knowledge”.

The IRRI Genebank now stores over 117,000 varieties of rice in specially designed cold storage rooms.  We visited the Genebank and stepped inside the 4 degree Celcius storage facility, which was like a library with rows and rows of silver pouches, each containing samples of a different variety of rice.  Interesting but too cold to hang out for long!

The last educational part of the day was a hands-on trip outside to learn about planting and cultivating rice.  Our group got to experience pulling a plough behind a carabao, as well as an power cultivator.  Others planted rice in the prepared mud.  Messy for sure, and a bit hazardous, as the carabao frequently stopped to “fertilize” the mud as he worked….but a lot of fun for those that didn’t mind getting muddy.

IRRI threw us a really nice lunch in their recreational area.  They were such great hosts and I know everyone really appreciated it.  The kids got to swim in the pool and cool off and around 2.30pm we sent off for the last part of the day – a short tour of the Makiling Botanical Gardens.

The tour lasted around an hour. The gardens were pretty, but more of a nature park than a botanical garden, in my view.  But certainly worth seeing and they made a pretty ending to a well-balanced day.  Great day out!

Community Welcome Party

Every year, most new families arrive in the Summer.  We were Winter rotation and sort of showed up incognito, and had to learn alot of the “how to” and “where to” information about Manila on the fly.  This was nothing new to us, as prior to the foreign service, every time we changed country we were on our own to figure that stuff out.  So, it was sort of a surprise to us that the foreign service has a sponsor system utilizing families with experience of the post to show you around, plus different events to help you acclimatize.

Vendors setting up filipino goodies to sell

One of these events is held in September to welcome new families with filipino food, vendors, and a little filipino culture.

Tailors, vet, spas, local associations and others came to show newcomers their services

Organizing it was a real group activity with the ates (cleaners/helpers) doing lots of creative decorating with palm fronds, crepe paper and coconuts.  They built a simple nipa hut serving the traditional halo halo desert, a mixed concotion of shaved ice, fruits and evaporated milk.  A team of two filipino cooks prepared a filipino menu that included pork asado, chicken adobo and banana turon, all filipino favourites.  (We had been shopping for the food a few days earlier). Newcomers are sometimes immersed up to their necks in the challenges of settling into their new home and aren’t always the most appreciative of your efforts, but we had a pretty good turnout and I only heard good things from the crowd.

For me, the highlight of the day was the kids from the local elementary school who came to present a few traditional filipino dances and were just so adorable.  They were excited to come to the Embassy and did a really great job of dancing pretty intricate steps in gorgeous costumes.  They just lit up the room!  It wouldn’t have been the same party without them.

Discovering Divisoria

Part Two of our marathon party shop last week was to buy party decorations and other supplies from Divisoria, a sprawling street market, where you can buy anything and everything in different colours, shapes and sizes at vastly lower prices than anywhere else in Manila.   I’ve lived here for almost two years and yet last week was my first visit.  I’ve wanted to go for a while, but I knew it was best to tackle it with an experienced person (at least at first) as I don’t exactly blend in around there.  Pickpockets abound, not all vendors are honest, and its a real labyrinth if you don’t know your way around.

Its an assault on the senses in every possible way.  We visited after the heavy rain, so were lucky to find the streets unflooded, just really muddy.  Garbage is piled high in the middle of the streets, making the center traffic islands smelly and slippery.  Careful crossing the street!  Drains are clearly blocked by the debris, dramatically compounding the flooding problems.

Street with garbage-strewn centre island

Fortunately, the market wasn’t too busy.  At 10am it was still fairly civilized.  We picked our way through the narrow streets past distinct groups of different vendors:  car parts, fruit sellers, shoes, you name it.  It was hard to stay focused and move purposefully ahead with all the shiny objects beckoning in your peripheral vision, but we were on a mission looking for arts and crafts supplies, cheap toys for race prizes, and fruits and vegetables for the community dinner.

Meanwhile, my inner child is streaming my brain with dialogue like: Oh look at those shiny beads.  Why didn’t I realise before that I need shiny beads in fourty five different colours?  Wow, they’re so pretty.  I want to touch them. What can I make with all those beads?  I should learn to make jewelry…Oh look at those feathers… forty five different kinds of feathers….  But the first rule of shopping in places like this is to stay focused and look purposeful, so inner child suppressed, we headed in a small covered mall that sold crafts and toys.  I squeezed down the narrow rows between the warren of stalls and we found everything we were looking for within a few feet of each other. Goodness know how far back the labyrinth went, we never went the full distance in.  Instead we doubled back and headed to the fruits and vegetables.  The difference in quality between what I find in the grocery store and here was astounding.  The produce didn’t have the fresh dew still dripping from the stalk like in Greece, but I’m guessing most stuff was picked yesterday, not last week, unlike the unhappy looking veggies we so often see in S&R.  The prices were dramatically different too:  seedless grapes in Divisoria 120 pesos/kilo, in S&R about 300/kilo.  Carrots here, 30 pesos/kilos in S&R, 110 pesos/kilo.  Everything was considerably fresher and at least half the price.

Unfortunately, like the meat market earlier that day, going to Divisoria is a production and you need a crew to help.  So its not a weekly option for me.  However, I will certainly return before we leave, perhaps to look again at some of those shiny beads and heaven knows what else!

Shopping Like a Local

I’ve always shopped in the markets in different countries I’ve lived, or if I go to visit a new country, I make a b-line for the market to learn more about where I am through what’s available to eat.  As all market lovers know, its usually the best place to get the freshest food at the cheapest prices.  One of the challenges of living in Manila for me has been the strong lines of distinction that exist between expat shopping and local shopping – that’s geographically, product availability, and prices. Its not that we can’t shop in local markets, its just that after the first few months of making the effort to do so, it became more and more of statement rather than a practical way of getting in supplies.  It just isn’t easy.  There aren’t any within easy reach and people who live in upscale areas (like us) simply have a full-time cook and maid to do it for them.  Or they order from fancier grocers.  The rents are sky high here too, which makes it unaffordable for retail outlets to sell everyday items.

So I was glad to have the opportunity to go market shopping last week with a couple of filipina helpers from Embassy families who were helping us with the food for the Community Welcome party menu.  The first stop was a meat market in Pasay where we stopped to buy chicken and pork.  I’ve been to these markets before.  If you haven’t experienced the world of raw meat without refrigeration, stainless steel and gloves, it can come as a bit of a shock.  At each vendor, all parts of the dissected carcasses are piled — by body part — in large piles next to each other.  Aside from the usual cuts of breast, thigh, wing etc., you could buy chicken feet, necks, blocks of chicken blood (for bbq I learnt) and various cleaned innards.  Scrap bags were also for sale, containing odd trimmings, bones and discards from other sales for the poorest customers to make a broth.

Price was by negotiation, always.  Our cook haggled in Tagalog at several different vendors for 6 kilos of chicken, and finally settled on one that gave her the best price.  This guy however gave her a hard time.  He didn’t want to let her pick the individual wings and wanted to pour the raw “juice” in the tray onto the scale to include it in the weight.  She gave up on him in disgust and found a more helpful vendor who worked with us to prepare the chicken order.  It took quite a while and my eyes strayed around me to watch all the different scenes going on.  Butchers carried whole pig carcasses over their shoulder.  Customers rummaged through the raw meat on display like they were picking through the sale rack at Nordstroms – arm deep in different choices – seemingly unaware that they were handling raw meat.  Across from us a chicken vendor was piling cooked rice on half a dozen battered metal plates.  I wondered what he was up to until I notice a single burner and saucepan bubbling below the counter.  He’d been throwing meat scraps into the pot and was now ladling chicken bones and broth on to the rice plates.  Breakfast for the workers, I guess.  You would have to be very hungry to find it tasty, so I was in no position to judge.

I would shop here if it was easier and I had a little more time and training from a local.  You’d need to know who the better vendors were and learn how not to pay the expat premium prices.  Its not a realistic option this time around though.  Hope I can crack that nut in Nepal.

Trip to Eagle Point, Batangas

This is going to be a review of Eagle Point Resort in Batangas, a resort about a 2 hr drive from Manila. I don’t usually do reviews as such, but I thought it would be interesting to explore my very mixed feelings about the place.

Have you ever gone to a site like TripAdvisor and read a number of reviews about somewhere, and been in totally in awe of how one person can say “five stars, the food is fabulous” and another can say ” food was terrible. 1 star. yuk!”   Its unhelpful and confusing to read such conflicting opinions but not too hard to understand that we all have different expectations, experience levels and criteria when we visit somewhere.  In these situations what most of us do is just look at the general concensus: 100 people reviewed and it gets 3.8 stars. Must be an acceptable place.  However occasionally that logic doesn’t always work.  After all if 100 people reviewed and 50 people gave it 1 star and 50 people gave it 5 stars, you would end up a with a 3 star rating on a property that no one felt was average.

Eagle Point, for me, is kind of one of those places.  I’d heard drastically differing first-hand opinions on how wonderful/dreadful it was.  Could it really be so wonderful/dreadful as they say?

I visited over Labor Day weekend taking a tour group for work.  R and L couldn’t come.  Its primarily a diving resort.  So I’m a single, non-diver alone in the rainy season in a pretty remote place.  And, yes, it was raining.  Heavily.  So there’s my unique situation.  I’m sure I would be viewing it somewhat differently should just one of those pieces change, but I believe I’m also capable of applying objectivity filters.

It was neither wonderful or terrible.  They did a good job on the room.  It was clean, nicely laid out and modern with a large shower, large balcony and a fair amount of space to walk around.  Everything worked.  However, the sewage smell was strong and hit you in the face like a door when you entered.  The balcony’s solid high wall meant that you could only enjoy the beautiful sea view when you stood.  Reading a book and looking out to sea couldn’t be done simultaneously for very long.  A missed opportunity I thought.

The restaurant was attractive and the food was pretty good.  Not wonderful, but decent.  The tables had great views out to sea.  The swimming pool was clean and quite large.  The architect had created two levels and a connecting slide which would be fun for kids.  However, there was no lounging area by the pool to set up camp for a couple of hours to relax.  And no shade.  So unless you actually wanted to swim, there was no incentive to stay.

Reef Pool

They offered snorkeling for non-divers with a reef pool so you could view baby sharks up close.  But the shore was rough, shallow rock with murky water and no evidence of much sea life, again with no beach and no place to hang.  Getting into the water was only for the tough soled or reef-shoe clad.  The water in the reef pool was green enough that I had no interest in going in.  However, the resort offered short boat trips over to a nearby island for a picnic lunch.  There we found a reasonable beach, snorkelling and good beach facilities.  Hammocks hung from the walls, there was toilet paper in the clean facilities, the beach was raked and clean, and the freshly cooked bbq lunch was very good.  Now there was a good hang out spot!

My verdict?  3 stars.  (1 star and 5 star reviewers be damned.)

A Development on Development

Ok.  Its been a while.  Over six months I think.  A lot can happen around here in six months, construction-wise at least.  Sim City (or Fort Bonifacio as it is officially known) continues to fly up in front of our eyes.  I’ve never been able to get a number of given construction projects going up at any one time, but its a lot and there appears to be no end in site.  No end, that is, until you count the end of our residency here, which now has a concrete finish.( If you pardon the pun.)  We now tend to separate buildings into those that we expect to see completed and those that we don’t.  Regardless, the city has changed enormously since we arrived in December 2010, and will continue to do up to and after we leave.  I’m sure we wouldn’t even recognize a good deal of it if we came back to visit 5 years on.

Probably the most collosal under development right now is the SM Aura building that started construction a couple of months ago.  Here is what is envisaged:

(Don’t be deceived by the green park-like surroundings.  I wish.  This is strictly artistic licence.  There’s plenty of existing concrete now and more surrounding development planned that certainly doesn’t involve park creation.)

As of today, here is the explosion in a cement factory that’s going on right now.  This photo only takes in the front short side.  The building stretches an entire block. I think it would be good to do a blog revisit of this one before we leave, by which point it could be high enough to see from behind the buildings that are currently obstructing my view:

Sept 2012

Developments continue to be a mix of residential, commercial and retail.  A lot of new buildings are a mix of all three.  Back in March 2012, the restaurant end to High Street hadn’t opened yet and we were still just looking at the construction sidings:

Now the siding is down and a restaurant centre with trees and graduated amphitheater seating has sprung up with more trees than you can see anywhere else in the city.  A central water feature sprays up in the middle courtyard after dark, keeping the kids busy while the parents dine.  One of the best changes I think. 1 year ago it was just a field.

One more…  March 2012:


Same area Sept 2012. (Pic taken from last block of non-developed/developing land in the area)

Lastly, for consistency, here is the view from my kitchen window in March, and now again in Sept 2012.  Not so much difference at first glance, after all with 75% of the view blocked, most of the action is going on behind.  But if you play “spot the difference” with some of the taller buildings at the back, you can see a different skyline from just six months ago.

March 2012