Moving House

As you probably know by now, I like moving. So this week I will be vacating and moving to

All the old posts have been transferred, and my next article will be posted to the new address.

Hope to see you there!

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Body Language

Today I had to give my fifth speech for Toastmasters International, a club for learning to become a better public speaker. I had it all planned and prepared, and then this morning, over a cup of coffee, I opened the guide book to check I had everything covered.

Speech Five was entitled “Your Body Speaks”. I was to use stance, body movements and gestures to convey my message, and movement should be smooth and natural. Well, I thought, I can’t do it. Why not? Because I have been crippled by my personal trainer and body language is beyond me. It’s all I can do to stand up straight.

So, you probably need to know a bit more about me. I am a pretender. As in: ‘pretending to be Australian.’ As you probably know, all Australians love sport. My family did. My parents still play tennis every week. My brothers kicked footies and swung cricket bats. My sister played everything and still travels everywhere by bicycle. They watched cricket all summer and Aussie Rules all winter, even if it meant taking it in turns to prop up the coat hanger that doubled as a TV aerial.

I didn’t. I hated cricket and rugby and badminton and horse racing and snooker and soccer and swimming… although I have to admit, I do enjoy watching my sons play basketball. I play really bad tennis as rarely as possible. I don’t like exercising. I loathe sweating. I am not even an armchair sportswoman. I read books. I like Scrabble.

Once I had removed myself from the school netball team (totally feeble, no stamina and I hate bashing frozen fingers on the ball) my only exercise was riding to school. Two whole blocks. And that was simply to disguise the fact that our puppy had eaten my school hat. Both of them, summer and winter. And they were too expensive to be replaced just for Milly to chew them up again.

I continued to ride my bike until I left Australia. Not for the exercise I hasten to add, but because they were the only wheels I had. For years, this minimalist approach to exercise was fine. I had a fantastic metabolism. I could eat anything and everything without gaining weight. Through three pregnancies my friends laughed at the basketball on a stick. Then it all went pear-shaped. Literally.

Three kids, thirty-(late)-something-ish, and we had moved to the UK where I discovered Sainsbury’s cheese counter. My o-so-brilliant metabolism went screaming off down the aisles. I gained more weight than I care to admit. Suffice to say that one basketball had multiplied into four. Curvacious? Nope. Circular. I had lost my waist and gained huge thighs. Moving to Sydney was no help. While the rest of Australia was jogging along Bondi Beach ten times a day, I was sitting behind my computer working on my Masters and drinking too much wine.


I surprised myself. I was lunging, lifting, leaping, and loving it. I had the sweetest trainer: enthusiastic, energetic and encouraging. I wouldn’t say the pounds were melting off, but I was slowly toning up and discovering muscles I never knew I had. By the time I followed the boys to Manila I was looking less rotund and feeling much better. And I wanted to keep it up. I had worked too hard to want to go backwards. Our apartment block had a great gym and I found a good trainer.


A year on, and I was bored. Let’s face it, gyms are boring. I took the boys to Cebu for a week. Then my trainer had a week off. I lost momentum. So, on Monday, I decided to ‘act on yesterday’s good intentions’ (Toastmaster’s saying for the week) and I hit the gym again. Or rather, it hit me.

Lunging, lifting, leaping and definitely NOT loving it! At the end of the session I nearly fell down the stairs my legs were so wobbly. Today it’s worse. My legs are stiff and sore and cannot climb stairs.  My shoulders and stomach muscles ache. I can barely raise my arms.

And they want a speech with fluid body language? Sorry, that won’t be happening. Their bodies may be able to speak. Mine is just screaming… for a massage, a bath and bed.

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Manila: City of Contrasts

An oxymoron is something that consists of incongruous, disparate or contradictory elements. For me, the word oxymoron describes Manila perfectly. And the first jarring disparity struck me almost the minute I stepped off the plane at Ninoy Aquino International Airport: namely the extreme juxtaposition between rich and poor.

Five star luxury

On the one hand, the luxury lifestyle of the upper class inhabitants of gated communities like Dasmarinas, Forbes Park or Rockwell: the huge houses; the staff; the top of the range imported SUVs; the State of the Art schools for their kids. On the other hand there is the stark contrast of the cut and pasted tin shacks in shanty towns like Tondo, where there is no running water, erratic electricity and transport that consists of one’s feet, a rickety Pedicab or the brightly painted but antiquated jeepneys. Schools? Well, let’s just say there is nothing State of the Art about the rough and ready orphanages for the homeless street kids.

As I have become more familiar with Manila, so I have become more and more aware of its oxymoronic nature. Consider the weather. In the rainy season, the heavens open and the deluge could knock you off your feet. You wonder if the torrential downpour will ever cease as the typhoons rampage through the city, and the skies seem to be permanently overcast. You find yourself on the lookout for sandbags or an ark – even on the 32nd floor! And then suddenly it’s over, and for months the sky is crystal clear. Not a drop of rain. Not a whisper of a cloud.

Then there is the popular perception of the Filipinos as friendly and hospitable, the image of the ever-present smile, the warm ‘Mabuhay’.  All of these are valid, but all are in sharp contrast to the ever-present security guard, the personification of suspicion and mistrust.

High security batons

There he is at the entrance to every shopping mall, waving his magic baton over your bags in the expectation of finding a knife, a gun or perhaps a hand-grenade. Or alternatively the security guard that checks your shopping bags ten metres from the checkout, in case you have somehow managed to top up your shopping with pilfered goodies in those final five paces to the exit.

The most fascinating incongruity I have uncovered, however, is that of religion and capitalism.  In the sixteenth century the Spanish colonists arrived and quickly converted the Filipinos to Catholicism. Since then, Manila has become a devout and devoted City of Churches. On a recent exploration I discovered more than half a dozen churches only a stone’s throw from our apartment, from the garishly gilded to the starkly simple. I have watched penitents crawl on their knees to the altar, and children decked out for their first communion. I have seen hearses crawling through the streets of Angeles while relatives and friends trailed behind on foot. I have queued at the airport while a woman tried to gently arrange the family saint through the scanner on its way home to the provinces for the All Saints day holiday. Four hundred years later Christianity is still alive and well in the Philippines.

SM Mall of Asia

Yet, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Americans arrived to colonize and capitalize, and Manila also became a city of shopaholics and shopping malls.

But the Bible suggests that we can only serve one master, either God or Mammon; spirituality or greed and materialism. Jesus threw the shopkeepers out of the Temple. Still, in South Australia in the 1980s, the shops closed at noon on Saturday and didn’t re-open until nine o’clock on Monday morning. Sunday was a holy day; a day of rest quite separate from a weekday, and never the twain shall meet.

So imagine my surprise, during my first weekend in Manila, to discover a chapel on the top floor of the Power Plant Mall. The congregation had overflowed onto the concourse, where the faithful leaned on the railings listening to the service through loud-speakers while surreptitiously watching the shops and the shoppers out of the corner of their eyes.

Later I discovered Greenbelt mall. Arguably the most attractive shopping centre in Manila, Greenbelt consists of five buildings filled with fine restaurants, bars and designers shops, clustered around a lush green linear park. A chain of ponds run through the centre, bejewelled with goldfish, ducks and turtles. And at the top end, like a hovering space ship or a giant water lily, is the Santa Niño del Paz Community church. On Sunday, this open air chapel fills and spills its congregation across the bridges into the park. Hymns waft through the air, and an unlikely peace descends on the park, the worshippers and the shoppers.

Yet, while I may find this contradictory – church and mall intertwined – the Filipinos seem to take it in their stride and seem to see no incongruity in serving both God and Mammon. As reflected in their eclectic food culture and their heterogeneous race, Filipinos are adept at blending black and white into all shades of the rainbow. It is a national trait.

So a local website describes the Greenbelt chapel as ‘a blessed pause with the Lord for the busy office workers, the tired shoppers and the nearby dwellers.’  It is truly a piece of heaven in the middle of a shoppers paradise; spirituality in the midst of materialism. An oxymoron? Not in the Philippines!

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Jamming at the Fruit Garden

The rule is: jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today

So says the White Queen to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’

For those of us who like jam every day, I would like to introduce you to Pierre Marmonier and his wife Andrea. Foodies of long-standing, the couple recognized a niche market in luxury, locally made jams that used neither additives nor  preservatives. After some experimentation, they tested twenty flavours on a bunch of their friends. The Fruit Garden’s first products appeared in October 2009.

After years of working in the tobacco industry in Europe, Africa and Asia, Pierre finally settled down in Manila two years ago with Andrea and their two daughters. At this point Pierre decided he needed a sea-change. “I always wanted to do something on my own,” he shared.

The inspiration for jam-making came from his childhood. “My mother always made her own jams” he explained. Years later, living in Paris with his own family, he would take them out to the country every Summer to go strawberry picking. And they always collected extra to make jam.

The Fruit Garden jams are sold in pretty jars that come all the way from Italy. Pierre is determined to recycle, so every Sunday morning at the Legazpi market you can return your empty jars. And the hotels that serve Fruit Garden jams are also trying to implement this policy.

Flavours? There are plenty. Currently, the range includes strawberry (forever a favourite with the kids), pineapple, mango and a dalandan marmalade (dalandan is a native orange). And it doesn’t end there. The pineapple jam comes solo or accompanied by mango or coconut rhum. Strawberry jam is blended with mango, or with mint or banana. And there is a glorious range of mango jams, where mango is combined with ginger, white chocolate, vanilla, papaya or spices. My personal favourite is an interesting mango and lavender.

The range also includes a delicious pure honey from Abra, fruit chutneys and a special collection of jams made with seasonal fruits. In a recent new development, the Marmoniers are hoping to produce soy based candles in chocolate and vanilla.
Thinking Christmas? There are also beautiful boxed gift sets.

So where can you find these mouth-watering jams? Try the Legazpi Sunday market or the American Women’s Bazaar. They are also available at the Bacchus Epicierie at Power Plant Mall; The Market Deli in Salcedo Village; the Dusit Thani lobby delicatessen, and Paris Délice . Further field, look in True Deli, Victoria Tower, QC, Deli Boys in San Juan, Manila Airport and even in Cebu, Baclod and Borocay. And I noticed that the honey even put in an appearance at the BWA Afternoon Tea recently. So here’s to the Marmoniers and their scrumdiddlyumptious jams!

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Who Will Buy?

The Flowers
All the names I know from nurse:
Gardener’s garters, Shepherd’s purse,
Bachelor’s buttons, Lady’s smock,
And the Lady Hollyhock…
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Well, we didn’t find Lady’s Smock or Hollyhocks, but then the Dangwa market is a million miles from London’s Covent Garden, somewhere in the wilds of Manila. To be precise, it is tucked behind Tondo, north of the River Pasig from Intramuros, and about a 20-40 minute drive from Makati depending – as always – on the traffic. And it gets its name, less-than-poetically, from the Dangwa bus depot in Santa Cruz and Sampaloc.

Dangwa is Manila’s largest fresh flower market. Reputedly set up in about 1976, it was then surrounded by middle class neighbourhoods, obviously all on the look-out for freshly cut flowers to fill their homes. The market rose to glory during the Marcos Era, when it provided vast quantities of flowers for the florists who stocked Malacanang Palace. By 1994, the market was open 24 hours, 7 days a week, with flower deliveries arriving mostly in the late evening to ensure freshness and longevity.

Flowers pour in daily from all over the Philippines, and from as far afield as Ecuador and the Netherlands. And this wholesale market is still a popular source of fresh flowers for local florists. Peak seasons include Holy Week, Valentine’s Day, All Saints Day, Mother’s Day, and Christmas, when prices soar. On Valentine’s Day, customers will flock to the market until almost midnight.

It has been suggested that late evening or very early morning are the best times to visit, but we ignored all such ridiculous advice and arrived at the more civilized hour of 10am. A small boy ushered us into a parking space outside Chow King and then attached himself to us for the morning. This young but cheeky guide then proceeded to present us with single red roses and pink carnations, till we had to tell him to stop pilfering the stalls.

The market stalls spread up and down several streets. We began our walk at a covered market, wandering past banks of vividly coloured daisies and walls of roses. Glorious arrangements for weddings and funerals were set up on bamboo tripods down the centre of the street, and clusters of smaller, rainbow-coloured table decorations dotted the pavements. We cheerfully acknowledged a stray poinsettia, gerberas, irises and carnations.

It was fun, too, to introduce ourselves to the tropical plants – note that these will last longer in the heat than the more vulnerable imported flowers.

~ See those soft, velvety, tightly crimped celosias in musky pink, dusky red and dusty orange?

~ And the banana-coloured ‘Mickey Mouse ears’? Although, personally, I think they look more like giraffe heads.

~ And look at the extraordinary, prickly red pineapple flower!

One stall was choc-a-block with greenery – ferns, variegated leaves, grasses – another boasted a pool of blue chrysanthemums. We found huge white orchids bowing gracefully from terracotta pots; fragrant, butter-coloured cassia in vast, grape-like bunches; numerous varieties of regal heliconias, with their distinctive geometric stem pattern some that can grow as tall as 30 feet. Some looked like bright orange crab claws, others resembled pink flamingos. We stroked the watermelon pink torch ginger, soft and girlish, but with a slightly unpleasant scent. And I love those lanky shower heads – some kind of water lily..?

We wandered down the two or three streets that are closed to cars, but the river of flowers didn’t end there, flowing down the narrow pavements along the traffic-laden roads. As we dodged jeepneys and pedicabs, potholes and puddles, I suddenly realized why it might be better to come earlier. Gradually our arms filled with newspaper wrappers. I couldn’t resist the deep marmalade rose buds, despite knowing they would wilt like braised cabbage in a couple of days. They did too – not lasting even a day, but drooping limply over the edge of the vase like languorous ladies-of-leisure before dinnertime. But they did smell sweetly nostalgic.

I also acquired some hardier flowers which are still standing upright a week later. Much to my delight, I discovered stalks of achuete – like pod-shaped rambutan – feeling very proud to recognize them after only being introduced in Pampanga quite recently. I had to ignore the lilies, they give my husband instant hay fever, but I found some interestingly pale, corn-coloured flowers, stiffly shaped like a fossils or a centipede on a stick – but actually, I later discovered, nicknamed for the rattlesnake.

And everywhere we looked we saw those waxy red anthuriums with the large stamen you need to touch every time to check they are not made of plastic. We nodded to stately vases filled with white calla or arum lilies that I hadn’t seen since I was a child, when they grew under our almond tree, happy feasting for snails. We also unearthed some mini ones in daffodil-bright-golden-yellow, and others of a dusky claret or mangosteen.

By the time we decided to flee from the heat, the boot of the car was heaped high with flowers of all kinds and colours. We gloated over our purchases which included a couple of tall and promising vases. Now if I only had some talent for flower-arranging…

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Volcanoes in Salcedo!

Once upon a time, an Aussie wandered east to California, to train as a chocolatier. Returning to Sydney some time later, he launched a range of chocolate dipped fruit, fresh, dried and glace. He dubbed them Naughty Fruits and supplied them to delis and cafes across Sydney. Then he packed his bags for Melbourne where he and his family wove their magic to create the Chocolate Fire Coffee Lounge to captivate the chocolate capital of Australia.

Now, grab my hand and we will whizz through time to September 2011. Chocolate Fire has vanished in a puff of smoke from central Melbourne, and has magically reappeared in the heart of Salcedo Village in Manila.

“Why Manila?” you ask? So did I. As the magician’s daughter Koby was upstairs designing a chocolate wedding cake, her new husband Casey related the family history.

The Parcell family first came to Manila in the early 80s. A far cry from chocolate-making, Peter, our audacious chocolatier, was now on a mission to run around the world. This particular chapter involved running the length of the Philippines, from Ilocos Norte to the Malacanang Palace in Manila. During this episode, Peter and his family fell in love with the Philippines and the warmth of the Filipinos. So they stayed on and made an early attempt to start a business here with “Fudgies.” Despite the infamous Filipino sweet tooth, the locals weren’t too sure what to do with fudge and the idea never really took off. In the meantime, however, running became a family pastime. To celebrate the fifth anniversary of Peter’s first run Koby’s sister, aged only fourteen, ran the length of the country with her father, at the particular request of President Corazon Aquino.

Several years later, with the success of Chocolate Fire in Melbourne, investors suggested developing the brand internationally. After much debate, it was decided that Asia might just prove to be a better market than the States, and Manila, (strategically placed, English speaking, and still friendly) could be the best starting point. The café in Melbourne was sold, but the family took the name and the product with them and Chocolate Fire opened for business in the Philippines in March 2010.

Walking into Chocolate Fire is a delight, even if you are not a chocoholic. Slabs of chocolate, truffles and cakes elbow for room inside the glass display counters. And I was like a kid at Christmas even before I started to notice a vein of Aussie nostalgia running through the cafe.

Chocolate frogs and chocolate crocodile lollipops; chocolate crackles and cornflake crackles, the mainstay of every 70s children’s party; chocolate dipped ANZAC biscuits; a slab of chocolate bark called True Blue seething with Macademia nuts (yum!) AND the honey comb crunch, a firm favourite with every visiting Australian, and a close relation to the long-time Aussie favourite, Violet Crumble.

The chocolate dipped fruit strikes a chord with the locals: Californian strawberries, orange slices and dried figs, as well as seasonal favourites such as pineapple, mango and papaya.

Kids love the chocolate lollipops and the Baby Chinos, and the coffee is the best I have found in Manila.  Planning a romantic tête-a-tête? Try the chocolate fondue for two with a bottle of wine.  Or for ladies-who-lunch, there are fabulous toasted sandwiches, something I fear I will be revisiting on a daily but doubtless calorific basis! Perhaps you are thinking of Christmas? There are some lovely boxed treats for family, staff and friends. And there are some great little dome-shaped, muffin-sized cakes nicknamed ‘blobs,’ that come in chocolate, banana and carrot.

Chocolate Fire also supplies other cafés, and is happy to cater for private events in the upstairs lounge. An earlier dip into the World Wide Web found Chocolate Fire starring in popular Filipino blog ‘Our Awesome Planet’ as the venue for a baptism party, complete with white-chocolate-Angel-cupcake. My son recently celebrated  his sixteenth birthday there, and had a brilliant evening. Simple but sweet: Spaghetti Bolognese and chocolate fondue – at the same time, if you don’t mind!  But, I hasten to add, at his guests insistence, not Koby’s.

Koby apparently excels at creating buzz for the café. “Twitter is a really strong tool for us” says Casey. And new creations pop up on their Facebook page daily, although Koby laughingly says she’s run out of room on the register and has told Peter to slow down on the inventing.

When dropping in for the BEST mortadella paninis, I asked my sons if I could pick them up some treats. ‘What is your favourite?’ I foolishly asked. Anything and everything it seems. “Mum, its chocolate!” came the heavily sarcastic “der” response.

And my favourite? Without a doubt the pyramids of dark chocolate heavily flavoured with chili to make your tongue tingle, known as Volcanoes. Happy days…

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Drifting Down the Mekong

Flying into Saigon provided a stunning aerial view of immense snaking waterways, twisting and turning through the city and surrounding countryside.

Growing up in a South Australian city that boasts only a narrow creek, I am always impressed by the presence of real rivers, and Saigon is generously endowed with these, situated as it is on the Mekong Delta. (Please note that I will continue to call it Saigon – it sounds much more romantic than HCMC, and the locals don’t seem to mind.)

On day two we boarded a bus to visit it eye to eye. Our guide lugubriously warned us that the bus trip would be long and slow, the floating markets were ‘not for tourists,’ so there would ‘not be any souvenirs for sale,’ and a number of other equally dismal messages that I couldn’t decipher over the crackling of the microphone. As a result, we felt mutinously cheerful that the day would be fun. Luckily for the reputation of the tour company, it was! Our guide got us to the river in less than the anticipated 4 hours (managing expectations, perhaps?) and our boat was waiting for us at the pier as we descended stiffly from the bus, thanks to the whiplash-inducing potholes in the road.

The Mekong River is considerably wider and faster than the Pasig at this point, and the water is the colour of turmeric. Our boat was powered with a clamorous 2-stroke engine that set our teeth on edge, and we perched precariously on folding wicker dining chairs on the highly polished deck. For US$1.00 I had purchased a traditional Vietnamese cone hat at a street stall – a very wise extravagance as it turned out – and off we went, to find the not-for-tourists floating markets. As we turned off the Mekong onto a slightly narrower tributary, the river started to resemble EDSA at rush hour.

Barges and boats cluttered the water and the riverbanks. Many sported eyes similar to those of the ‘wide-eyed boats on the Yangtze River,’ and announced their wares by hanging them from poles on the deck. We looked about and saw mostly potatoes and pumpkins on display. Not for us, of course, but for the local shopkeepers to buy wholesale. Many of the traders were sprawling nonchalantly from hammocks strung across the decks, as we wove between the slumbering flotilla, making our way upstream to a handicraft market that was, unquestionably, designed for tourists.

Here we were enticed to buy all sorts of artifacts crafted from polished coconut shells, while admiring the skills of local sweet makers. We then took a short walk along a riverside track, hemmed with rockeries of coconut husks and hillocks of rice. Through the village, we were dodging bicycles and motor bikes, chickens and children, morning glory vine winding itself exuberantly around fences and trees.An open-sided café produced a cool place to sit and sip local tea, sweetened with honey.

Later, suitably replenished, we wove our way between the staring barges and headed back out on the Mekong. There the 2-stroke and the current hurtled us down the river to a creek which narrowed rapidly as it was squeezed between walls of invasive jungle. At this point we were unceremoniously unloaded, four at a time, into roughly made wooden gondolas, where we sat in single file, every one of us bedecked in a borrowed cone hat – for those of us that hadn’t sensibly invested earlier! Our gondolier stood calmly at the rear of boat, resting on two long paddles, until we were settled. He then steered us smoothly upstream to our lunch.

This was a simple repast on the shady verandah of an elegant, old wooden house. After our rice and chicken we could choose to board either an old, but sturdy black bike, or a string hammock. Given barely half an hour before we were due to head homewards, three of us cycled furiously up the road, standing on our pedals to push up and over several hump-backed bridges, until we reached a small village and a curious little white church. My companion, a very efficient girl guide, earned her cyclist’s badge by cleverly contriving to tie up my recalcitrant bike stand with a piece of yellow string she found on the verge, which thankfully saved my ankles from further bruising.

We made it back before our guide could miss us, to join a throng of nervous tourists admiring the length and weight of a 3-year old python caged at the gate. Only a handful of us was prepared to make his acquaintance, but I have a photo to prove I was one of them, as we draped him round my sagging shoulders like an 18th century milkmaid’s yoke, and attempted to keep his tongue out of my ear. He was surprisingly heavy; a long, length of rather soft muscle, as indeed who wouldn’t be after spending his life in a 5 foot cage?

The return trip was long, and seemed longer. Many dozed on the boat, many more snored on the bus, but we finally made it back to Saigon in time for a late, lazy dinner, tired and sunburnt and culturally satiated!

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Cooking up a Storm in Saigon

Our day started at dawn. We were to meet Chef Bao from the Vietnam Cookery Centre at the Ben Thanh Market in downtown Saigon. Chef Bao proved hard to miss. Dressed in his white chef’s jacket, he was shaped just like the cook in The Magic Pudding: a roly poly puddin’ of a man, the polar opposite of his companion Miss Khanh, our petite and quietly spoken Interpreter and guide.

Ducking through the crowds, we followed our guides through the market, examining longan and rambutan, jackfruit, dragonfruit, durian and marvella – or gac in Vietnamese which you say in the back of your throat without any vowels, like you’re choking.

We trawled through the seafood where live soft-shell crabs were being packed on a tray like packs of cards. Surprisingly, they don’t run away: apparently they are too weak. However a hefty, blue-pincered crab, despite being tied up with string, was hanging from the side of the basket by one huge claw. I suggested a rescue mission, but the stallholder merely shrugged and went on gutting fish. We inspected an assortment of fish, many still alive and squirming in an inch of water. There were shellfish of all shapes and sizes, and buckets of giant, British-racing-green garden snails.

Then a stall of offal had to be deciphered, as I was not familiar with pig’s womb, its intestines, stomach, or gizzards. And what was this? I asked, pointing. A ball of cooked blood, of course. Good for soup I am told.

Vegetable stalls abounded with green leafy plants such as water spinach and morning glory. There were knobby Lotus roots, hairy Indian taro and gourds called bittermelon that looked like elderly, wrinkled cucumbers. One stall was overflowing with a wide variety of bean curd tofu (dau hu). Another was crammed with small sacks of different-coloured rice, jars of sharks fins and dried sea horses, crystallized ginger and crates of small dried fish. It was like something out of Diagon Alley: myriad stalls brimming with exotic ingredients for Potions classes.

Miss Khanh was finally forced to deflect my barrage of questions and take us to the cooking school. It seems Chef Bao came in even earlier to buy the ingredients for today’s class, so the shopping was done. A short taxi ride ended down a pot-holed lane at the wide, open doorway of the cooking school, an old-fashioned, wooden structure with a cool, dim interior. There was a distinct lack of the stainless steel we are used to seeing in professional western kitchens. Instead all was polished wood, ceiling fans, pretty blue and white china bowls, clay pots and coconut shell stirring spoons.

We joined the only other student at the dining table – another Australian – and together we explored a large bowl of favourite Vietnamese spices: cinnamon or cassia sticks, fresh chillies, turmeric, star anise, cardamom, gingko and galangal. The three of us were then encouraged to don aprons and look at the day’s menu. Chef Bao took his place on the dais and we sat down obediently at our stations as Interpreter Khanh took us through the ingredients we were to use: ingredients which had already been prepared earlier by the kitchen fairies. The tiny bowls were filled with chopped garlic, slices of ginger, fish sauce and Thai basil.

Vietnamese cuisine may not yet be as well-known, globally, as Chinese or Thai, but it is rapidly rising up the charts. Here in South Vietnam the food bears a distinct family resemblance to Thai, with undertones of Chinese, which is hardly surprising after more than one thousand years of colonization, (from approximately 200 B.C. to 1000 A.D.) Stir-frying, egg noodles and Buddhism have made their mark. Buddhism dictated strict vegetarianism, which led to the evolution of many delicious vegetarian dishes designed to tempt the carnivorous locals.  In the south, Indian immigrants arrived with the French in the nineteenth century and introduced hotter, spicier dishes than can be found up north. And indeed, freshly chopped red chillies glisten brightly in one of the bowls at our station.

From the French, the Vietnamese took bread, coffee and dairy products which are still very popular here in Saigon, if the number of bakeries and coffee shops around the city are anything to go by.  We discovered a special local coffee named ‘Weasel’ because the beans have been eaten and regurgitated by rare Vietnamese weasels. This cycle radically alters the taste of the coffee resulting in a strong, smooth coffee with appealing hints of chicory. The French influence also means that here in the south, sautéing is often preferred to wok stir-frying.

In general, the Vietnamese use oil lightly and heavy sauces are rare. There is a profusion of vegetables, eaten raw or lightly steamed, and an abundance of fresh salads that often include fruit such as pomelo or mango for that popular combination of sweet and sour. And like many South-East Asians, the Vietnamese prefer grazing over a feast of small, shared dishes rather than indulging in individual plates heaped with food as we do.

So, back in the kitchen we began to create our own Vietnamese feast. Chef Bao started us gently with a yellow soy bean sauce to accompany the fresh spring rolls we would make next; an easy enough exercise to follow the Chef’s instructions step-by-step. The fresh spring rolls proved a little more problematic. Apparently we had to dampen the rice paper first, before folding in the edges and arranging the prawns, pork slices, rice noodles and julienne of egg omelet on top. All of us made the error of using too much water and ended up with a limp, sticky sheet, but we salvaged what we could and learnt a valuable lesson before wrapping a second, and a third. Each ingredient was settled in place like a mosaic on the slightly damp rice paper. I was pleased to be able to adjust the ingredients, as the spring rolls we had eaten in the market earlier had been heavily over-worked with Thai basil, and other more delicate flavours were lost. Our results may not have been perfect, but we were pleased with our efforts nonetheless.

We then gathered around Chef Bao to watch him prepare the rice, just a little differently from me with my electric rice cooker. The rice was rinsed three times and poured into individual clay pots which were then placed in a huge steamer, a couple of knotted pandan leaves tossed in for extra flavour. We were then asked to produce what I understood was a dish of salty chicken with ginger, until I later examined the recipe book: Miss Khanh was actually saying sautéed chicken!

Ginger was common to all the recipes we were using, so each of us cheerfully adapted the quantity according to our personal tastes. We marinated our chicken in a long list of ingredients, before stir frying it in a small clay pot until fragrant scents began to waft temptingly under our noses. Our final task is to prepare the soup: mustard leaf soup with minced pork. The minced pork gives the stock a light, salty flavour, but I think next time I will strain it out before serving, as it is too inclined to become over-cooked and then the texture becomes rubbery and unappetizing.

At last the feast was complete and we carried our various pots to the dining table to test what we had created. Thumbs way, way up for our spring rolls and the chicken dish, and I haven’t eaten such sticky steamed rice in years – the sort that only needs fingers and a good appetite. There was not time for us to make the pudding as well. Too much talking, perhaps? Instead we were given ones the kitchen fairies prepared earlier.  Familiar with the moreish rice cakes available in Manila, I was the only one who enjoyed the sticky corn pudding. Admittedly the rice looked a lot like Clag paste, but it was gently flavoured by the sweet corn, and it cleared the palate effectively after all the garlic and spices we had used. I am truly sorry this was one dish prepared beforehand, as I would love to have learned how to make it.

As a grand finale, Miss Khanh had prepared a short presentation. We arranged ourselves before Chef Bao and took it in turns to pose for a formal photograph on the dais as he shook our hands and presented our certificates. Chef Bao beamed at us, obviously delighted with his excellent students. I am very envious of those who are living in Saigon, and who are now contemplating a different class next week. Maybe I could fly back for the day..?

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Sailing across Lake Ta’al

As a relative newcomer to Manila, I have been trawling the guide books and the memories of long term residents for good day or weekend trips out of Manila.  I quickly discovered that Tagatay and Lake Ta’al tend to be at the top of everyone’s ‘to do’ list.

Lake Ta’al (two syllables) is approximately 60 km south of Manila, and encircles  an island where the smallest but most active volcano in the Philippines resides. To prove its potency, recent rumblings led to the evacuation of the seventy-odd resident islanders. Over the centuries, volcanic eruptions have buried numerous lakeside towns under volcanic ash or submerged them under rising waters, so they were hardly over-reacting.

Barely a fortnight earlier I had driven up for the day with my son and his grandfather, daring him to accompany me on the flying fox across the gorge at Picnic Grove. That adventure has yet to be realized as we were frog-marched off to the shores of Lake Ta’al by two eager guides. Apparently, a trip across the lake to the volcano would suit our spirit of adventure much better.

So instead of the anticipated flight across the canyon in a hammock-like harness, we found ourselves driving down a steep and tortuously winding road to the shore, past a dozen or more mad cyclists pedaling furiously UP. From there we tottered aboard an outrigger boat and headed across a white-capped lake to the island.

The ride across was unexpectedly rough, thanks to a wildly exuberant wind. Draped in tarpaulin sheets that gave us no protection whatsoever from the tidal waves sweeping over the sides, we were rapidly drenched, as the captain dodged and bounced over white-capped waves.

Eventually, saturated to the bone, we landed on the island’s grey beach, hair dripping into our eyes and shirts clinging, thankful only that the water had proved unexpectedly warm. But as it turned out, we were also thankful for the natural air-conditioning from our wet clothes. As we set off up the hot, dusty track to the edge of the crater, we were degrees cooler than most in the late morning sun – and far more comfortable than those who chose to clamber onto the backs of the bony Korean ponies that limp back and forth up the track, their riders often visibly heavier than their steeds, their feet dragging in the dirt.

We also rejected the overtures of a dozen local salespeople determined to sell us their protective surgical masks.  Their sales technique failed dismally, as they were all wearing their own bandanas which they cheerfully  admitted were “much better ma’am!. So we battled on without assistance, although we were occasionally forced to duck low and blink furiously to avoid handfuls of swirling volcanic dust entering our eyes, mouths and nostrils as the ponies skidded past us down the narrow track.

Fortunately, we were soon clear of the dust and skimming along the ridge path, with sumptuous views across the island to the lake, and across the lake to the hills and the sea beyond. Despite the growing heat – “mad dogs and Englishmen” began to reverberate in my ears – dodging the galloping mustangs and frequent photo opportunities to slow us down, the end came in sight sooner than I had anticipated. A final clamber across volcanic rocks and we were greeted by the cloying scent of diluted sulphuric acid and the deep blue waters of a lake within a lake within a sea. We ignored the ubiquitous t-shirt stalls to pose against the railings and admire the view…

And then we raced back down the hill, reaching the beach just as our jeans had finally dried out, in time to leap up the ramp onto the boat and get soaked all over again. The guides were right. It was a hell of an adventure.

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Housekeeping in Tondo

Brigada Eskwala is an initiative designed by the Philippine Department of Education (DepEd) and organized by the Head teachers, to clean up and refurbish schools for the beginning of the school year. As part of a nationwide effort to raise the levels of basic education, this project encourages local communities to actively – and practically – support their schools. Students and staff, church groups and local government officials, parents and friends voluntarily come together to repair and repaint, tidy up and improve their schools.

Yesterday I travelled to Tondo High School with a team from the Australian Embassy to see how this project really worked. Tondo – for those of you who have not driven further west than Intramuros – is largely a shanty town. Many dwellings are cobbled together with sheets of cardboard and tin. Even those made of brick or concrete seem precariously balanced. Small children play naked in the road. Chickens peck between packing boxes and fruit stalls. Our large American 4-wheel drive was totally at odds with the bicycles and jeepneys that clog the narrow roads.

On reaching the school, we joined the city of Manila’s Mayor, Mr. Alfredo S. Lim and the school principal Dr. Arnulfo Empleo at the front gates to await the arrival of His Excellency the Ambassador to Australia, Mr. Rod Smith. While we waited in the heat, I talked to several parents, students and volunteers from the Mayor’s office.  One parent explained that there were around 4,000 children in the school aged from 12-16, with 70 kids per class. The principal later verified that there were currently 4,750 students attending Tondo High. Classes are conducted in shifts between 7am and 7pm each day,  to avoid crowding all 70 children into one classroom at the same time. Everyone was keen to talk to me about the conditions here and pose for photos. As the time passed, several parents and embassy volunteers wandered off to man paintbrushes and rollers.

At last the Ambassador arrived to greet the crowd of waiting staff, students and local dignitaries. TV crews and photographers herded the triumvirate of Ambassador, Mayor and Principal (in almost comically descending height: the Ambassador is approximately 6’4” the Principal about 4’6”) through the school. We crocodiled past a brass band hired especially for the occasion (of course the school can’t afford to fit out its own band) and a student dance group practicing near the stage, to an almost bare top floor classroom.

One could easily be a little cynical about the marketable photo opportunity as senior officialdom took up positions with paint rollers and began to paint the back walls. In fact it was a moving display of community solidarity, much appreciated by the parents and staff who gathered to watch and encourage. All three men made the effort to paint two main walls while the paparazzi flashed away furiously behind them. Staff dragged chairs out of the way and quips from the Ambassador kept the crowd entertained.

And even that one coat of paint brightened up the basic and rather grim classroom considerably, although there was no escaping the bare walls, concrete floors, barred windows and broken glass. One narrow desk for the teacher, thirty battered wooden chairs, two scratched green boards, and one small ceiling fan completed the furnishings, while the brass band in the playground continued to accompany the workers’ efforts. For those of us who have enjoyed education in Australia and New Zealand, it was humbling to remember how extraordinarily privileged we are.

Eventually the walls were done and the painters duly christened in cream paint. We were then taken downstairs for the formal proceedings in the New Room: a tiled hall complete with air-conditioning. Here merienda had been laid out on two long tables, while a third had been set up for the visiting dignitaries and senior staff. As we settled ourselves around the edges of the hall, two rows of smartly presented student arranged themselves in the centre.

The formal proceedings included speeches from the Principal, the Mayor, the Chairwoman of the Philippines-Australian Alumni Association, Inc. and of course our Ambassador who began and ended his speech in Tagalog to delighted applause. He talked of helping to build schools, the community and the quality of basic education in the Philippines. In between speeches we were entertained by the school choir, a duet and the group of traditional dancers we had watched practicing earlier. The Head Boy and Girl then invited everyone to share merienda.

Finally, after every group had had its requisite photos taken with the Mayor and Ambassador, I was able to get a quiet moment with Mr. Smith and the AusAid representative Elaine Ward, Counsellor for Development Cooperation. Loud music from the sound system didn’t make this easy, and we were often interrupted by parents and staff keen for a couple more photo opps, but it was sufficient to fill a few large gaps in my knowledge.

The Australian Embassy has been actively participating in the Brigada Eskwala scheme for two years. This week eighty embassy staff members and their families will visit eight schools in Metropolitan Manila, while funding is provided to the tune of Php 2.5 million to support the refurbishment of 50 schools across the country that are in serious need of repair. Each school receives up to Php 70,000 to purchase cleaning products and materials for renovation, and equipment such as electric fans.

The Ambassador also talked fervently about other projects the Embassy is involved in.

I have to admit to being a complete fraud. I had assumed we would all be given a brush and a tin of paint, and I would contribute to freshening up the dingy grey classroom walls. In fact I picked up nothing but my pen. Yesterday, it turned out, was more about publicity than painting. Nonetheless, the message was strong, and the response from the school community was incredibly positive and enthusiastic. I was swept up with the Embassy staff and thanked profusely several times over for making the effort to come along and write about the event. I came away feeling utterly humbled by the gratitude that was poured upon us for giving of our time and attention to help them improve their school. It was a very heart-warming, touching experience, and I found I was being equally as effusive and sincere in my thanks to them for having me, and extremely proud of our government’s involvement in improving education in the Philippines.

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