Funemployment Diary, Entry #16: Commence Secret Side Trip!

I’m in Tampa right now, but I won’t be for long. Later tonight, after a quick bite at the Cheesecake Factory (a guilty pleasure of mine), I’m boarding a US Airways flight and heading…somewhere…until Friday. I’ll go into more detail later, but it should suffice to say that the local climate calls for a hoodie and the trip may or may not be concerned about changing my funemployed status. I’ll be back in Tampa this weekend, when I have a visit to a giraffe farm on the agenda.


Funemployment Diary, Entry #15: Bohol Bee Farm

Dirt road leading to the entrance of Bohol Bee Farm

My cousin suggested that while we were on the island of Bohol (which I talked about earlier here, here and here), we should visit Bohol Bee Farm, a small agricultural project that combines beekeeping with sustainable farming, ecotourism and support for a local crafts industry.

Herb garden at Bohol Bee Farm

Since bees and pollination go together, many apiaries tend to either place themselves close to a farm that grows plants or operate as part of  one. At Bohol Bee Farm, they grow a number of flowers that bees prefer to pollinate, but they also grow herbs and lettuce.

Selection of herbs in my hand

Romel, our tour guide, gave us samples of the herbs they grew and challenged my nephews to identify them. Among the herbs they grow are cilantro, mint, basil and lemongrass.

They also grow arugula, romaine and other varieties of lettuce here. I was a bit surprised by this, as leafy green salads aren’t traditional in this part of Asia. Romel said that they’ve been catching on in recent years and that we should try their house specialty salad at the restaurant, which is made with the lettuce and other fruits and vegetables grown on the farm.

You can’t visit a bee farm without actually getting up close and personal with some bees, so here I am doing just that. Note that I’m not wearing a beekeeping hat or any protective gear.

The bees were pretty mellow, concentrating more on their work rather than us. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you, Romel assured us, especially since these were European bees, which have a reputation for being less agressive than their Africanized counterparts.

There’s a lot of hype about Africanized bees that comes from disaster movies like The Swarm, the way they’re often referred to a “Killer Bees” and the  familiar tropes of good peaceful Europeans versus bad violent Africans as well and the discomfort some people have with interracial dating and marriage. The term “Africanized bee” has little meaning today because there’s no generally-accepted genetic definition for what one is and because they’re hard to identify — you can only tell the difference through statistical analysis on micro-measurements of their wings (Africanized bees have slightly shorter wings) on a reasonably large sample.

They practice organic farming at Bohol Bee Farm, so they produce their fertilizer through the use of animal manure, composting and vermiculture.

In addition to agriculutre, Bohol Bee Farm has a number of arts and crafts projects where they produce goods made from local materials such as raffia palm, coconut and seashells.

They’ve also opened up a hotel on the property. The farm is pretty close to the ocean and some good places to go diving (the water’s quite clear and warm, and a “shorty” wetsuit is all you need), so they’re taking advantage of it.

As with the arts and crafts, they’ve taken great pains to built the hotel out of locally-available material wherever possible. It’s not just green, it’s also a good way to stretch their limited budget.

Pictured above is the side wall of the hotel. From a distance, it looks like stones set in mortar. But take a closer look:

They’re actually coconut husks!

I have no idea how long they last, but it’s a pretty interesting way to set up a facade for a building. It looks much better than simply having a pre-stressed concrete wall.

Looking out from the hotel grounds, you can see the Bohol Sea.

It provides a great view for the restaurant.

The menu offerings looked pretty good, so we decided to have lunch there.

In the farm’s spirit of “we make as much our stuff as we can”, even the menu was produced by the craftspeople on site.

The salad was one of the standout parts of the meal. It was made with greens, fruits, edible flowers (flowers pollinated by bees are generally edible) and goat cheese, all of which were made on the farm, and served with a honey mustard dressing made with the farm’s honey. It was excellent, and we all had seconds.

The other standout dish was their homemade squash bread, a sweet, hearty loaf served with three kinds of spreads: a mango spread, a pesto spread and a honey spread, made with their own honey.

Before I left, I picked up a few items in the gift shop. One of them was bahalina, a wine or arrack made from coconuts. On my home island of Luzon (where Manila is), there’s a similar drink called lambanog. Bohol Bee Farm’s bahalina is reddish in colour thanks to the inclusion of mangrove bark and has a fair bit of honey in it, making it rather mead-like. I brought a bottle back with me to share with Anitra, and it goes really well with Chinese food.

If you’re going to Bohol to enjoy their beaches and diving, make sure to add Bohol Bee Farm to your itinerary. It’s an interesting place to visit, a great place to take the kids (they’ll even learn a thing or two), they’ve got a great restaurant with a nice view, and their shop has a lot of crafts and food that make excellent souvenirs or gifts.


Funemployment Diary, Entry #14: Flying Home (if Only for a Day)

Manila skyline

Manila skyline photo by Henno Kruger. Click to see the original.

All trips have to come to an end, and my trip to Manila ended yesterday with my flight home. In total, my trip lasted a little over 24 hours with me arriving at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) on the 4th of July at 8:30 a.m. Philippines time (8:30 p.m. on July 3rd Eastern daylight time) and having cleared customs, grabbing my luggage and hopping into a cab at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson Airport on the 5th of July at 9:15 a.m. Philippines time (9:15 p.m. on July 4th Eastern daylight time). I went to bed last night around midnight and woke up at 6:30 this morning, which I hope means that I’ll adjust quickly to North American time.

Large billboard ad inside Ninoy Aquino International Airport featuring Paris Hilton promoting a new condo

Terminal 1 is NAIA’s international terminal, and one of the first things you’ll see is Paris Hilton. Right now, the big billboard that you see after crossing the security threshold at the door (where all your bags, including checked luggage, get x-rayed) is an ad for some new condo development somewhere in the Metro Manila area for which Ms. Hilton is a spokesmodel. She really does get around.

Sign: "Bullets not allowed for carriage / Offenders will be prosecuted by Hongkong police upon landing in Hongkong"

Here’s something you’ll see if you’re flying Cathay Pacific from Manila: a reminder that you can’t bring ammunition on a flight to Hong Kong, whether it’s as carry-on or checked luggage. The rules seem to allow guns, however; you just can’t bring bullets.

This is just plain wrong. Yes, the evidence of millions of flyers every year suggests that packing heat is quite unnecessary for air travel, but there just might come a time when I need to blast some chump, and what am I going to do then, hippie?

Terminal 1 lobby at Ninoy Aquino International Airport

NAIA’s Terminal 1, which serves all the non-Filipino international airlines, is totally ghetto. In fact, it’s infamous for being terrible, having been ranked #1 in Sleeping in Airports’ 2011 “Worst Airports” list as well as appearing in Frommer’s recent “10 Worst Airports” article. It’s poorly organized, sloppily run, terribly lit and plagued with the ambience of a flea market. Don’t get me wrong: I like the flea market vibe, but not at an airport.

Cathay Pacific ticket counters at Ninoy Aquino International Airport

You could pluck someone from 1985 and drop them in the present-day counters at NAIA and they wouldn’t know anything was amiss until they saw someone pull out a mobile phone. There are no advance check-in terminals to speed up the process, and even with a dozen counters, each manned by more than one person in the make-work tradition of the Philippines, it’s still slow going.

Luckily, in one of its few concessions to actually being in the 21st century, NAIA has free wifi, and I amused myself by reading an article that attempted to explain why there isn’t a word in Tagalog for “efficiency”.

Whiskey and cigar bar at Ninoy Aquino International Airport

This is Asia, so every airport has to provide some kind of place within the airport to smoke. In NAIA, it’s a combination whiskey and cigar bar.

I made my way down the long hallway leading to the gates…

Hallway leading to gates at Ninoy Aquino International Airport

…and was disappointed to find that they still hadn’t changed the way gate lounges work.

The set of chairs around each gate is cordoned off. You can sit only in the seats near the gate for your flight; you have to show your boarding pass to be let into the cordoned-off area for those seats. Each cordoned-off area has some airport workers acting as gatekeepers (again, more Filipino make-work).

"Velvet rope" cordoning off departure gate seating area at Ninoy Aquino International Airport

Of course, the washrooms and snack bars are outside the cordoned-off areas, so if you want to relieve yourself or get a drink, you have leave the cordoned-off area, which requires leaving your boarding pass with the area’s gatekeepers, and reclaiming it when you return.

Gate 6 lounge at Ninoy Aquino International Airport

Naturally, there are no power outlets in the waiting area. It’s all part of the “third world country in the 1970s” vibe that NAIA seems to be going for.

like visiting the Philippines, but I hate that ghetto airport.

Cathay Pacific 747 parked at Ninoy Aquino International Airport

Soon, it was time to board the flight to Hong Kong. It’s probably the most travelled-to destination from Manila, which is why it needs a high-capacity jet like a 747, even though it’s barely a 90-minute flight, well within the range of a regional jet.

Cathay Pacific entertainment system showing a Linux boot screen

The inflight entertainment system needed a quick reboot.

Cathay Pacific entertainment system start screen

Much better!

This plane’s inflight entertainment system was an older one from the previous decade, before they made the switch to touchscreens. It had one of those old-school controllers with a phone and “TV remote”-style controls on the front…

…and a QWERTY keyboard and game controls on the back:

I tried a few of the games, and they were terribly clunky and pokey, as if I was playing on a bargain basement PC from the early 2000s. Which, in fact, was what I was doing.

Hong Kong’s airport may be only an hour and a half away from Manila’s, but it’s worlds away. It gets consistently good reviews on Skytrax, and with good reason: it’s bright, clean, spacious, modern, efficient, full of amenities and comfortable. It also has some spectacular views of the mountains and the harbor.

Tarmac at Hong Kong airport, with parked planes in the foreground and mountains and a plane taking off in the background

Long gate hallway at Hong Kong airport

I love the airport’s huge windows:

Large windows overlooking the tarmac and runways at Hong Kong airport

The central hub is like a high-end shopping mall, and there are plenty of places to get all sorts of food there:

"Global Flavors" - ad for restaurants at Hong Kong airport

If you’re running short of time, there are also restaurants by the gates. “My Nosh” — a great Engrish name for a place — was one of the spots near my gate, but I chose to go to the noodle place across the hall:

"My Nosh" restaurant at Hong Kong airport

I’m a bit of a planespotter, so I spent a fair bit of time just looking out the window and checking out the jets. There are all sorts of airlines that you don’t normally see in North America, so it was a bit of a treat. Note the China Airlines jet in the background — that’s one of the Airbus A380 monsters.

Hong Kong airport tarmac - EVA Air jet in foreground, China Airways A380 in background

Once again, it’s an Asian airport, so there has to be a smoking room. This one was packed:

Here’s the noodle place where I grabbed some lunch, which was thick noodles and char siu pork:

Tables with TV screens at Beef Noodle restaurant in Hong Kong airport

Each of the tables came with a complete set of condiments: salt, pepper, soy sauce, two kinds of chili oil, sugar, sugar substitute, non-dairy creamer and a TV! I caught a bit of a medieval Chinese drama. Couldn’t understand a word. but there was a cool chase scene with some soliders.

Here’s the Boeing 777ER that took me from Hong Kong to Toronto, non-stop:

Cathay Pacific Boeing 777ER parked at Hong Kong airport

It’s a 15-hour flight. Luckily, I had reading material on my iPad and there were a number of good options on the inflight entertainment system (this flight had a more modern one with a touchscreen).

Here’s the view from my seat (made up of a set of stitched-together photos):

We took off from Hong Kong…

Cathay Pacific entertainment system map showing plane over Hong Kong

…passed by Taiwan…

Cathay Pacific entertainment system map showing plane approaching Taiwan

…swung east of Japan, after which I decided to finally watch The Hunger Games (not bad)…

Cathay Pacific entertainment system map showing plane passing east of Japan

…and about fifteen hours later, we landed in Toronto.

Cathay Pacific entertainment system map showing plane approaching Toronto

I’m back in Toronto as I write this, but not for long. Tomorrow, I’m off to Tampa to catch up with Anitra and be her date for a wedding on Saturday, and shortly afterwards, I have to make a quick jaunt over to the west coast…for reasons I’ll reveal soon. I may be funemployed, but I’m certainly not idle!


Funemployment Diary, Entry #13: Touring Bohol

The Chocolate Hills

The Amorita Resort, where we stayed while we were in Bohol, provides its own tours and guides for its guests. Me and my family — mom, sister, bro-in-law and her kids — signed up and got a guide named Cathy and a tour van to take us around. Our first stop: the Chocolate Hills.

Bohol, with its combination of rolling hilly terrain and being an island sheltered by large islands or island groups, would be a great place to hold an Ironman triathlon. It’s got all the challenges for the athletes and for the spectators, it provides a lot of breathtaking views.

Creative Commons image courtesy of Wikipedia. Click to see the original.

It took a while — the better part of an hour — to get from the resort to the hills, but it was worth it for the view.

The Chocolate Hills set Bohol apart from just about anyplace else on Earth. They’re naturally-occurring cone- and dome-shaped hills formed by the erosion of the island’s mostly-limestone geography. They get their name from the colour they get during the Philippines’ dry season (October to May), when the sun dries their vegetation to a chocolate brown.

We’re currently a month into the wet season, so our tour guide said that right now, they’re more like the Pistachio Hills.

Between the hills are lush green valleys, like the one pictured above. To get a better view, we were taken to an observation point atop the highest hill in the valley. The staircase below took us up to the top:

From there, we got a commanding view of the surrounding hills:

Here’s a shot taken from where all those other tourists were posing for photos:

Here’s the obligatory self-portrait:

After a little looking around, it was time to head back down to the road where the van was waiting:

Before heading to our next destination, I took one last photo from road level. There was a great view of some of the hills and a lot of the surrounding greenery:

The Tarsiers

Creative Commons image courtesy of Wikipedia. Click to see the original.

Tarsiers are weird little creatures — they’re the smallest of all the primates. They’re found only on a number of Southeast Asian islands, including Borneo, Sulawesi, Sumatra and in the Philippines, where they live on the island of Bohol.

They’re tiny little monkeys with big eyes (each eye is about equal to the size of their brain). The eyes are a product of evolution and their being nocturnal. They prefer to stay in forests with small branches, as they climb only those things that they can wrap their fingers around.

They don’t move much during the day, which made it possible to get some pictures of them at their sanctuary. Of the four tarsiers we managed to see, only one was awake, but he was positioned in such a way that it was only possible to get backlit photos of him.

Loboc River Cruise

The Loboc River on a sunny day.
Creative Commons photo courtesy of Wikipedia. Click to see the original.

After the tarsier sanctuary, our next destination was the Loboc River, a slow-moving river and tourist attraction. There are as many as a dozen riverboats taking tourists up and down the river, many of which are floating restaurants. In addition to being part of our tour, it was also our lunch spot.

These boats — basically platforms mounted on two large outrigger boats and pushed by a small tug — carry about fifty passengers, not including the crew and serving staff.

Lunch is served from a buffet and is made up of classic Filipino comfort food: chicken and pork adobo, shrimp, pinakbet (a stew of vegetables including bitter melon, okra, string beans and eggplant), philippine barbecue (grilled pork kebabs), fried chicken and all sorts of tropical fruit.

This was my view from where I ate:

Once again, the obligatory self-portrait:

The boat travels about an hour upriver while the passengers eat, after which it reaches this point and turns around:

On the way back, we made a stop at this floating platform to catch a performance by a chorus of two dozen women, each one playing a ukelele, all performing pop songs that anyone from North America (or steeped in its culture) would recognize:

When we arrived, they were playing The Everly Brothers’ classic, Bye Bye Love. We hopped off the boat and onto the platform, caught a few more numbers and then continued downriver:

Seeing our boat, a number of stray dogs gathered nearby on the shore:

They’re used to getting scraps thrown to them from tourists on the boats, so they all sat at attention, waiting for their lunch. After a while, about eight or nine dogs had gathered, some scrapping with each other for the best spot on the riverbank:

Next: More beach bummin’


Funemployment Diary, Entry #12: More Beach Bummin’ in Bohol

I am now living in a beer commercial. Those are my feet in the photo above, and just past them are the sands and waters of Alona Beach on the island of Panglao, a satellite island of another island named Bohol, which in turn is one of the islands in the Visayas region of the country where I was born: the Philippines. In the distance are catamarans which take tourists farther out to sea to visit some of the neighbouring islands or go snorkelling, scuba diving or dolphin watching. Above me is the welcome shade provided by palm trees. To my right and out of the shot are a couple of ice-cold cans of San Miguel beer.

The view above is the fulfillment of a promise I made to myself when my view was the one below:

This view is from “my hospital week”, when I spent in the ICU shortly after getting separated (“dying of a broken heart” is no longer an abstract concept, as far as I’m concerned). Fever-induced delirium — and hey, I’ll admit it, fear also played a role — makes you do things you normally wouldn’t, and I remember putting together a mental list of things that I would do if I got out of the hospital alive. If you noticed that I’ve been living larger than usual over the past several months, you now know why.

One of the items on the list was to visit the Philippines and go to a beach there with my family. My prior situation was such that I’d made peace with the fact that I’d never see the homeland again, but after twelve years, I’m back.

I stayed at Amorita Resort, which is located atop a cliff on one end of Alona Beach. The photo above shows a view of the beach from the resort.

The photo below was taken from the same vantage point, just with the camera panned slightly to the right:

The months of June through September are the lean season for this area; June is the start of the wet season as well as the school year here, so there’s elbow room aplenty. For every occupied lounge chair on the beach (which are mere steps from the water, yet quite well-covered with shade), there were two free ones.

There were more boats moored offshore than there were people swimming. It was probably as close as I was going to get to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’s private beach setup (he just bought most of the Hawaiian island of Lanai).

I took the photo above from the same lounge chair where I took the first photo for this article. Amorita Resort is at the top of that small cliff.

As you walk farther down the beach, you’ll see all manner of places to eat. Most of them are cheap, cheerful and locally owned — no chains like McDonald’s here — serving a mix of Filipino food as well as half-decent approximations of “foreign” food. A couple of places are owned by expats who married Filipinas, moved here and set up shop, so there’s a place that bills itself as a bierstube as well as a joint run by a French guy who includes crepes suzette and coupe denmark (which is really just a French fancypants way of saying “chocolate sundae”) on his menu.

If dining on sand and patio furniture is too much like roughing it for you, there are other places on the beach that might be more to your liking.

Sunset happens more quickly as you get closer to the equator, and the effect is kind of magical. It’s even more so on the beach.

At night, the restaurants turn on the lights and the beach becomes a patio party.

We had dinner at one of those cheap-and-cheerful places on the beach. This one has plenty of freshly-caught fish on display; you could point at one and they’d happily grill it for you. I picked out a red snapper and fifteen minutes later, it came to me simply and perfectly grilled with a bowl of a soy sauce/fish sauce/chopped tomato/chopped onion mixture and a heap of garlic fried rice on the side.

This was my view at dinner:

All in all, a very nice Tuesday.


Funemployment Diary, Entry #10: Seen at the Fitness Center

The executive apartments where I’m staying in Manila — The Ascott — has a pretty nicely-equipped fitness center. Here’s a photo I took of its entrance:

Note the refrigerator to the left of the reception desk. I decided to zoom in to get a closer look:

Nothing tops off a good workout like a pint of Haagen-Dazs!


Funemployment Diary #8: Random Stuff, Then Back to Accordion City

What’s Up

I’m back in Accordion City (as seen from my seat on Tuesday’s flight)…

…but I’m only here until Sunday.

I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks with Anitra, this lovely lady…

…as part of my summer vacation. I’ve been enjoying myself, relaxing…

…but also teaching myself how to write apps for the iPhone and iPad…

…and doing some behind-the-scenes hustling:

Click image above to download my resume (107KB PDF).


If you like the grand old American tradition of the all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant, you should try Der Dutchman, who have a branch in Sarasota. It blends the American buffet line and its ridiculous amounts of food with down-home Amish cooking.

We were there to see the Ringling Museum and Ca’ d’Zan, the mansion of John Ringling, one of the Ringling Brothers who created the circus of the same name. In a time before the internet, television, film and even radio, circuses were probably the most spectacular and compelling form of entertainment, and it made John Ringling incredibly rich.

It’s right on the water, and has some stunning views:

But this view’s my favourite:

Ah, the couple self-portrait. Once a tricky thing before phones with cameras on both sides, but still tricky when it’s a windy day:

The wind was a little more cooperative with this snapshot:

We made our way to Sarasota’s boutique drag afterwards…

…where we had a nice dinner at Cafe L’Europe, complete with Crepes Suzette for dessert. Table-side flambe cooking may be considered to be gauche by some of the snootier people in the foodie crowd, but I think it’s due for a comeback.

Neil Diamond

Photo from Crunchy Granola Suite. Click to see it at the source.

Anitra managed to snag some tickets for the Neil Diamond concert on June 3rd, and wow, did he put on a great show! He was in fine form, his voice was still like the recordings, and he sang and played pretty much non-stop for two straight hours, which included an encore and three reprises of Sweet Caroline (he knows it’s a hit and that many in the crowd would have listened to just that song all night if given the chance). I hope I’m as in good shape when I’m 71.

Here’s a shot of the venue — the Tampa Bay Times Forum, where the Lightning play — which I took after the show:

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a concert where the vast majority of the audience were older than me. This crowd came in nice cars — Mercedes, Cadillacs and Lexuses — and I don’t think I’ve ever been to a rock concert where so many guys were wearing khaki shorts and Topsiders. And instead of lots of beefy security guys, there were lots of beefy paramedics:

More Food

Anitra and I hit a lot of places and ate all sorts of food, from Ted Peters’ Smoked Fish to Cally’s Sticky Bones barbecue…

…to chateaubriand at Vizcaya to a great birthday dinner for her at Six Tables to the Florida steamer basket at Shrimp and Co. in Ybor:

Gotta love the down-home signs hanging on the walls at Shrimp and Co.:

We also got to hang out with Anitra’s friends, and I got to sample sangria-in-a-juice-pouch, something we badly need here in Canada:

Heading Home

After 18 days in Tampa, it was time to head home. There was stuff to take care of at home, and I have to pack for my next trip!

I saw this sign at a construction site on the way to the airport:

One of the perks of flying about as much as I do on Air Canada and Star Alliance is that you get Elite status, which got me bumped to the coveted exit row, with legroom to spare.

So much better than United’s “Economy Minus” seating:

We departed on time in clear skies…

Sayonara, Tampa and Anitra. I’ll see you both in July.

As I write this, I’m folding up my aloha shirts for my next destination…