Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Bicol Express - As much as we could in two days (part 1)

Whew! What a weekend! Since we flew out in the wee hours of Saturday morning until we left Bicol yesterday (again in the wee hours), it was non-stop activities. K writes freelance for the in-flight magazine of our national carrier so we were toured around by the friendly folk of the Department of Tourism there.

Bicol is one of the 16 regions in the Philippines and is on the Southeastern tip of Luzon (Luzon is one of our 3 island groups. Manila, where I live, is also in Luzon. The other 2 island groups are the Visayas, where Boracay and Cebu are, and Mindanao, where Zamboanga is. Just to give you a little orientation…).

First stop - Camarines Sur, one of the 6 provinces in Bicol, to see the Camsur Watersports Complex (located in Pili) and its much-lauded cable park (built by their young and spirited governor, who also happens to be a wakeborader). Wakeboarders from all over have already flocked here to board in what is arguably the best cable park in the world (with the cheapest rates!). If you are a wakeboarder (or water-skier or wakeskater) this is definitely a place to visit. C used to wakeboard but I, regrettably, could not master a water sport (ok fine, any sport) to save my tush. So I just had their laing pizza which was absolutely delicious and made me forget all about my woe at not being a Billabong-babe!

Laing is a typical Bicolano dish make with dried gabi leaves (taro leaves) stewed in coconut milk (another very typical ingredient in Bicolano cuisine), and because it’s Bicol – home of the spiciest cuisine in our country – a bunch of chilies. The laing pizza is loaded with laing, then sprinkled with Bicol Express (another regional dish…more about this later), and topped with mozzarella cheese. This may sound beyond bizarre to some of you but it was GOOD. Just think of it as a, um, spicy spinach pizza.

After the laid-back, “life’s-a-beach”, vibe at the cable park, we headed to Naga City proper to witness the grand fluvial procession of the Pe├▒afrancia Festival. No two activities could be more different. When we reached Naga things were already reaching a fever pitch. Devotees were flocking to the Naga Cathedral, and to every open space by the river, to watch Our Lady of Pe├▒afrancia pass by en route to the Basilica Minore. Referred to by Bicolanos as Ina (mother), they come from all over (even out of the country!) to see her. A legion of long boats line up on the river to pull her barge. We were able to get a prime spot on a third floor balcony to watch. We stood there for 3 solid hours waiting, not daring to move lest we lose our precious vantage point. The soles of my feet were crying out in protest but still I held fast. The people below us by river had been standing there for much, much longer. Finally, we heard a series of kwitis (some kind of firework) sound off, signaling her arrival on the pagoda that would take her down the river towards us. The excitement in the crowds was palpable as we craned our necks to see, even though we all knew she was still too far away. At last the barge that carried her came into view, filled to the brim with people and devoted followers hanging off the sides. Everywhere you could see, people were enthusiastically waving white handkerchiefs and shouting Viva la Virgen!. Suddenly the soreness left my feet and the tiredness left my body. And to be totally honest, I felt the prickle of tears behind my eyes. It is one thing to have faith, and it is quite another to see it physically manifested in such magnitude, sweeping you up in a wave of emotion you have neither the wisdom nor experience to understand. To say I was moved would be an understatement.

Tired yet exhilarated, we made it back to our hotel (charmingly called Pepperland – we were in the region of chili peppers after all) at the end of the day, where the luxury of a hot shower, and an even hotter dinner, awaited us. We decided to have laing and Bicol Express – two dishes which seem to embody Bicolano cuisine. Laing I have already mentioned above. Bicol Express is a dish of pork and chilis (lots of them) stewed in coconut milk. What gives Bicol Express its distinct flavor (aside from the chilis) is balao, a shrimp fry mix similar to bagoong but with slightly bigger fry and less salty. Now, there is much debate over the origins of the dish and its name, but I will not get into that here. Suffice to say that we loved it and had it with every meal (except breakfast) and never grew tired of it. Personally, it would be very hard for me not to love Bicol Express as I already love its basic components – pork, chili, and coconut milk. Again, chili and coconut milk (coconut being a huge industry in the region) make their presence felt throughout Bicolano cuisine…and I am only too happy to partake.

That’s all for now! I’ll be posting about Day Two of our trip soon :) Do we finally get to see Mayon Volcano? Stay tuned!


veron said...

I've never been to Bicol - but I love Bicol express - have not had it with Mozarella though. Love getting the virtual tour from you - and I miss those moments when you see the faith in people and get overwhelmed with such feelings - beautiful!
Waiting for day two!

Marvin said...

Wow, seems like you packed in so much in your first day. Can't wait to see what happened on day 2. I've never had Bicol express either, I'm not even sure I've even ever seen it, but I've read so much about it.

Manggy said...

A spicy spinach pizza? I'm game! Teka, I hope you didn't tire of Bicol Express while you were there.. Careful with the gata! That's very artery-clogging!

spanx said...


Mariang Magayon was pretty shy, wasn't she.

told you, she'd want you back to see her in her full glory ",

katiez said...

I love this little vicarious tour! I'm amazed that you had a chance to eat at all!
All of the food you describe is soooo interesting...I need to travel outside of my known universe...

Kelly-Jane said...

You packed soo much in! I'm glad you had a fab time :) Especially like your second picture (of the trees) at the beginning, they look surreal, and your experience at the festival, wonderful :)

Belinda said...

What fun, Joey...you packed a lot of diversity into your two days...and this is just part one! I can't wait to read part 2 of the trip report. The photos are gorgeous, as are all of your photos, and I've enjoyed reading about your adventure so far...just wonderful. :-) I have not see an post from Christine recently...do you happen to know if all is okay with her?

Midge said...

Hi, Joey. Glad to hear you enjoyed your trip to Bicol. I am a certified laing and Bicol Express junkie, so the laing pizza really piqued my interest. (A trip down south in the offing? Most probably, yes!)

canDIshhh said...

I love Laing - and Laing Pizza? Not a bad idea!

Can't wait for the next post!

ChichaJo said...

Hi Veron! It may sound strange at first but it's a really good combination (on the pizza) :) Seeing the devotion during the festival was really quite overwhelming!

Hi Marvin! Everything was back to back...but we were up for it :) I love to explore parts of the Philippines! Bicol Express is such a simple dish but so darn addicting! At least to me :)

Hi Manggy! I ate so much Bicol Express, but no, I definitely haven’t tired of it :) Maybe I’ll even try to make some here! As for gata being an artery-clogger…I love chicharon and most everything pork (plus bone marrow and foie gras)…I think I may have bigger and badder things to worry about ;) Oh boy…pass the granola please!

Hey Spanx! She sure is! She hid behind her “veil” the whole time!

Hi Katiez! Glad you’re enjoying it :) Some Filipino dishes can be a bit daunting for the uninitiated but there is always something for all kinds of tastes :) One of the things I love about food blogging is that it let’s me “travel outside my known universe” for free!

Hi Kelly-jane! Thanks! Those trees were at the cable park…they look surreal because the weather was overcast…I love seeing palm trees though, whatever the weather :)

Hi Belinda! We sure did a lot…it was non-stop! Thanks :) Christine’s been really busy with work plus out of town trips, and she was also feeling a bit under the weather…but she is feeling better today and I might see her tonight…will send her greetings from you! :)

Hi Midge! Go! There is lots to see in Bicol…we didn’t even get to see half of it! The laing pizza was a revelation :)

Hi Candishhh! It is such a yummy combination – I would never have thought of it :)

Em Dy said...

I always order Bicol Express when it's on the menu. What restaurants in Metro Manila serve good Bicol Express?

Rasa Malaysia said...

I am jealous...I love islands so much if I were in PH, I can visit one island every weekend. ;)

Amanda at Little Foodies said...

Sounds like a wonderful weekend with your best girlfriend Joey. Always amazing to see festivals like that and feel the emotion of it all. Look forward to part 2.

ChichaJo said...

Hi Em Dy! Those were our thoughts exactly as we were flying back to Manila! We are looking as well so anyone out there knows please drop a comment here! :)

Hi Bee! I know what you mean! I try my best taking into account work/budget/distance :) Gotta take advantage of archipelago life!

Hi Amanda! It was a wonderful trip :) And yes, it is really something to see the emotions in these festivals...I'm glad I got to experience it :)