28 January 2008

Man-made Wonders

Tonight, as with most other partiesI go to, I expect to be asked to share about my travels and all the wonderful man-made marvels I have seen. Not that I travel that often, but because I love storytelling, and I enjoy sharing about my experiences. My friends know how I like to get into all kinds of situations.

As it has been with other friends in the past few weeks, I expect my friends to be a bit disappointed about my apparent frankness in expressing my lack of enthusiasm on the famous places I have been to in the past few months, expecting my usual animated and excited storytelling.

You see, I have come to feel somewhat apathetic about some of the landmarks I have been to. I realized that most of these 'works of art' were the outputs of some man's egoistic trip, and I have grown annoyed when people want to know more about them. I wonder if these people realize that these wonders were mostly tombs, or places of sacrifice, or battle trophies, or harems?

Once I talk about the spiritual places I have been to, on the other hand, most of them suddenly lose their want for my stories.

For I am awed by the creation which man cannot replicate, that which can be made only by God.

And it is what we can build deep inside ourselves, rather than that material wonder that is build outwardly for all the world to see and marvel at, that really matters. For as we nurture that light within us, the universe will notice.

23 January 2008

Old School #1: My Antique Wristwatch

Every year for the past 3 years, I have made a ritual of this queer habit: Once the wind starts shifting from the east, and the breeze brings with it memories of time gone by, I start wearing my old Omega Seamaster 30.

Although it is not an heirloom, in fact a purchase on eBay along with 2 other timepieces, I somehow feel more attuned whenever I wear this watch.

The watch isn't made of gold, it isn't even an eye-catcher, it doesn't have a day or date indicator, it has to be wound often and is definitely not as accurate in keeping time as the chronometer on my BlackBerry which synchronizes with an atomic clock. I was told that it was manufactured around the 1940s or 1950s. That even makes it old.

The watch is much, much older than I am, but wearing it makes me feel staunch.

Other than that, I can't explain why I do it. Sometimes, I lay in bed thinking of the reasons why. I think I feel a bit more connected with the past, empowered by the resilience of the object and awed by the external simplicity of such a complicated device.

Maybe that is what I want to be: timeless, strong from within and glowing with inner beauty. I may not live as long as this watch can and will, given the proper care, but something in me will definitely live on, be it my spirit or fruits of my work.

I guess that is it. This simple object reminds me that I can be more than what is seen from the outside.

13 January 2008

Singapore Restaurant Favorite

During my last trip to Singapore, I simply had to drop by one of my favorite restaurants. I discovered this place when a family friend took me there on one of my previous trips.

I do enjoy it when I am taken to a pure vegetarian restaurant by my hosts, but I enjoy it more when ordinary, everyday restaurants offer vegetarian options. In this way, my companions have the option of eating non-veg if they really want to and I also don't feel like I am imposing on them. What is important for me, more than the food, is the companionship and good conversation.

The Eastern & Northern Dumpling Restaurant on East Coast Road has pure vegetarian options which include that of their famous dumplings. Now, I really have no idea how their normal dumplings compare to their veggie counterparts since during the few times I went there, my companions all decided to order all-vegetarian dishes too. Their dumplings, I was told, are farily popular and the vegetarian ones I've tried were superb.

For this particular trip, my friend and I had two orders each of different varieties of their steamed vegetable dumplings, a bowl each of Homemade Noodle Soup and barley drinks. To these, we added an order of shredded potatoes. The last time I had a dish similar to this, which I believe to be whole potatoes, shredded, and served raw, was when I was in Shijiazhuang, Hebei, China. The version here, in comparison, looks like it was quickly stir fried with slivers of bell pepper and cucumber.

All the dishes we had were wonderful. The dumpling filling was really tasty, definitely authentic tasting, and the wrapper was the perfect consistency. The noodles, broth, and all the vegetables that topped it were really fresh and subtly but tastefully seasoned. Our gastronomic experience was all the more heightened by their black vinegar and homemade chili sauce. I have since tried to replicate the chili sauce back home, and I'd like to think that I have successfully captured its flavor.

I have to mention as well, that I appreciated the system by which orders are placed, which was probably borne out of the fact that the attendants don't have a good command of the English language. For each dish on the menu, most of them with pictures and english translations included, unique numbers are assigned. A slip of paper, or rather a form, with numbers printed on them is then handed to you, each number corresponding to a dish on the menu, whose description is in Chinese. Using the menu and the numbers assigned to the dishes as reference, you then tick each item you are ordering on the form and hand it back to the attendant. I like this mode of taking orders since the probability of error is greatly reduced, usually attributed to the order-taker. Because I could recognize Chinese characters, and being the auditor that I am, I naturally first double checked the accuracy of the numbering on the order slip against the items on the menu, and they did match perfectly. This system would definitely work anywhere in the world, eliminating much of the frustration attributed to mistakes in order-taking.

The ambiance of the place is not exactly chic, but the place is airconditioned, clean and comfortable. And although the place is not exactly of the hawker feel, it still is unmistakeably Singapore.

I believe that the owner is some famous basketball star in or from China, as the posters all around the place suggest. Being basketball illiterate, of course, I couldn't recognize him from Adam. He was tall, though. Hehe.

We managed to spend a total of S$27.20 (roughly US$18.00) that day, which is not bad for a Singapore resto.

07 January 2008

How I Quit Smoking

In 2001, after 13 years of smoking, I finally kicked the habit.

I had figured that the pleasure I derived from puffing just wasn't worth it anymore. I saw the father of my friend suffer from emphysema, and it wasn't pretty -- both for him and his children. Imagine living off tanks upon tanks of medical oxygen, not to mention the frequent episodes which I was told felt like drowning.

It didn't help that my fingers stank, stained yellow; I reeked of tobacco and had a perennial case of smoker's cought; My breath was undesirable and my teeth started turning hue. On top of it all, I just couldn't hold up to the same physical activities I was formerly used to.

The first step was wanting to quit. It came to a point where I decided that I would somehow quit, and soon. It was then that I started to psyche myself up by reading health books and articles on the internet related to how bad smoking was. I slowly started imagining the time when I would be free from this bondage, and all the benefits that wouls naturally come with quitting: fresher breath, sweet-smelling clothes, beautiful surroundings, longer life.

The opportunity came when I went down with the flu, coughing like mad. I tossed my half-consumed pack of Lucky Strike and stopped Cold turkey. No conditions. On the second day, my hands were shaking from the withdrawal. I kept my mind focused on how it wonderful it would be like to be liberated.

I got through the first three horrid days without a cigarette. Then 5 days. By the time my flu was gone, it had almost been a week.

Then I realized that the hardest part of quitting was keeping away from the stick during the times you would typically take a puff, such as in the can, after eating, driving with your windows rolled down, drinking alcohol, having long chats, etc.

They say that the first week is the most critical period, and I think that is partly true. After that, it is no walk in the park; What you need to get rid of is that force of habit or even rote muscle memory, to go and grab a stick. They say that anything done for 21 days becomes a habit. It takes the same time to kick a habit. I knew I had to be staunch during those 3 weeks.

Here is what I did to stave off the temptation during that critical period:
  1. I threw away all my lighters, even my Zippos. :-(
  2. I surrounded myself with sweet-smelling aromas such as potpourri, aromatic oils diffused with ceramic lamps, essential oils mopped on the floor, a drop or two of patchouli on an incandescent bulb before lighting it up, scented candles, fresh flowers or whatever it took to satisfy my senses. It helped that I spent my first week on the farm, where a prolific "Dama de Noche" was in full bloom. I also used incense a lot, especially when I was in the can, and I still do.
  3. I avoided rolling down my windows during car rides, and chucked in a canister of my favorite 'new car scent'. That kept my windows up, not wanting to waste good air freshener, so that it would keep for a long time. Keeping your surroundings smelling good decreased my tendency to look for a cigarette to mask any offensive smell I might come across;
  4. Now, the after-eating bit is the hardest to stave off, so I did gain a bit of weight during this ordeal, but for this I simply had to invoke my will power again and drink lots of water after my meals. Afterwhich, I would gargle with some strong mint mouthwash. That really helped. I eventually did lose the weight again, and much more, with the new-found control I had over my desires, something my battle with cigarettes taught me.
  5. When one goes drinking, the tendency is to steal a puff, especially when you lose a bit of yourself in the buzz -- and believe me, many have fallen off the path in this way. What I did was to carry some mints. Whenever the urge came to mask the aftertaste of alcohol on my palate, which really is a sweet sensation, I would pop a mint in my mouth. It did help to stay off alcohol and smoke-ridden places for a while until I was confident in my ability to resist temptation.
It has been 7 years since, and I have successfully stayed off tobacco, never to come back. I still smoke the ocassional cigar, mostly during special ocassions, but that's about it. No more pangs, no more addiction.

I must admit that I get the infrequent dream about going back to smoking, lighting a stick and enjoying it. I would wake up frightened, terrified, believing that the habit came back.

There, there, it was just a dream, just a dream.

Another benefit I did fail to mention, was financial. I used to smoke a pack and a half a day. Given the prices at the time, not including inflation and cost of money, I must have saved more than P50,000.00 already. Now, where did all the money go? I really don't know. Maybe vitamins, food, lunch subsidies; Maybe that little extra something I woud treat myself with ocassionally. I know it must have been put to good use somehow. Not that it really matters that much. After all, I do not reek of cigarette smoke anymore, I am not a bad example to my children, I do not stink up the bathroom anymore, in fact my entire house smells better. I feel and smell cleaner and I am happier with my surroundings. I also probably averted pneumonia, lung cancer, a stroke or even death.

I can now, literally, stop to smell the roses, subtle as its aroma may be.

(Note: For those smokers who are thinking of quitting, you can do it. All it takes is a bit of will power, patience and some of the techniques I mentioned here. My wish for you: all the best in your new challenge.)

My Secret Veggie Source

In the Philippines, where almost all food is laced with some form of animal-based ingredient, if not made entirely of flesh, vegetarian options are hard to come by. From the usual fish sauce (Patis) or fish paste (Bago-ong) commonly used for dipping or cooking, to the roast pig (Lechon), eaten in its entirety, rarely will you find a savory dish in this country suitable for vegetarians, much less for vegans. Although there are many dishes that can be decently prepared without meat while remaining fairly true to its original flavor, it is rare to find them readily available.

So, with our usual family fare of pasta, pakbet, labong, adobong kangkong, pansit, fritters, munggo, lumpia, torta, curries and oh so many more, all eaten as-is or with rice, and prepared with absolutely no meat or animal-based products, it is nice to break the monotony and try something different now and then.

There is this place I go to in Makati, where I secure practically all of my vegetarian products from. The place is called Veggie Boutique and the reason I choose to go there instead of the other shops deep in QC, Binondo or Laguna is because of two important factors: Accessibility and Price. The products I get there allow me and my family to prepare something out of the ordinary.

It is there that I get my fresh tofu, magic meat, mushroom sauce and other supplies. They have frozen items too, my favorites being the barbeque (P50 for 4 sticks) and mock corned beef (P60/200g pack), which are both home-made. Other home-made items are also available, such as frozen ham (P130/500g) and ready-to-eat chicharon (P20). They likewise carry imported vegetarian products, mostly from Taiwan, and organic products such as brown rice (P80/2 kilos), mascovado (P80/Kilo) and virgin coconut oil (P120/500ml.). Condiments available include home-made catsup (no onions or garlic), vegetarian seasoning, mushroom oyster sauce, veg patis and a whole lot more. Take note, as a meat replacement, Gluten costs just P90 a kilo, much less than flesh meat but more filling and definitely healthier, unless of course you are allergic to it. Another wonderful alternative is Meat Magic, a dehydrated protein-rich mix of seaweed, wheat and other ingredients that, once rehydrated, is good in stews and other dishes we all but grew up with. At P130/500g dehydrated, that is cheap. Try rehydrating some and see how much more they weigh out.

With all these, I am able to add that little new ingredient to Kare-kare, or prepare adobo sans the meat, Paksiw na Veggie-fish, that little something extra to Sinigang, Pochero's slew of vegetables + 1 new entrant --- I know, it may sound weird to most people, that someone would go veggie but look for meat dishes. I say, look at it from a different perspective, and that is partaking of the traditional dishes of your country, taking in the flavor, less the flesh. After all, isn't it the peanut sauce that gives flavor to the Kare-kare, vinegar and soy sauce to the adobo, onions and soy sauce to the Bistek, Sampaloc to the sinigang, Gata and dahon ng Gabi to the Laing, Suka, luya and bawang to the Paksiw, Tomato sauce to the Kaldereta and so on?

Which is why I always keep some of their products in stock at home, also because Veggie Boutique's prices are comparable to those at source, as I have been able to benchmark with other shops. More than just a business, I believe that this is an advocacy of theirs, which is why the prices need not be exorbitant.

They also offer vitamins and supplements such as Fern-C and Homeopathic first aid alternatives. A health drink made from pure Noni juice is also available there.

Pleasantly, it is run from a home in Palm Village, Makati, near the corner of EDSA and Estrella Streets and is also a stone's throw away from Rockwell mall. Being located in a village, I have never had problems with parking, usually able to pull my car right in front. It is open practically all day, even during weekends. I usually call though, before dropping by, just to make sure.

Veggie Boutique is located at 532 Camia St., Palm Village, Makati City. Tel. No. +632.896.1215.

05 January 2008

To Each His Own

When I was still a manager of a tech company, one of my key consultants complained of not receiving the profit share level promised a year ago by the President of the company. As a manager, I felt obliged to protect the company and its officers. I argued to my subordinate that we should just be patient. What he said in response struck me deep to this day.

He said that unlike other people who had other means of livelihood, had huge savings or who probably earned more than him, he had no other source of revenue except for this job. He explained to me that he took those promises seriously and planned his future based on the previous year's prononouncements, and he was in a bind because of it. All of this, in spite of the fact that my group had met our deliverables.

I then understood that one cannot make empty promises, for those words do affect the lives of people in a sometimes significant way. It was then that I realized that people's circumstances are different from each other, and one cannot assume to understand another person's condition.

Reading the news header a few days ago on our public school teachers delayed P1,000 poll allowance, I cannot help but empathize, no matter how small I THOUGHT the amount was.

03 January 2008

What If

Being such the pack rat that I am, I sometimes meditate on how different it would be for me if I were in a completely unimaginable situation, something I would normally choose not to think about.
How would I feel if I suddenly had no money at all, no possessions, no friends and no family;
What if I lost them all?
Or if I now had to beg for alms or food, and someone I knew saw me? And all the food I could eat would be leftovers, spoiled and dirty.
Or if I didn't have a roof over my head and I was forced to sleep in the dump --- rain or shine? No toilets, no showers, no soap, no toiletries, no clean water, no laundered clothes; Stinking to high heavens.
Basically having nothing, no one and not even my good health.
With no one to care for me if I got sick and couldn't move even to help myself.
With some form of pain that never goes away.
Worse, what if I were a vegetable, paralyzed and no one around for me?
And to add to the pain of it all, being in this position after growing up not wanting much.
It kind of makes you think, doesn't it?
Of how blessed and fortunate we are. To have food, a home and loved ones that love you back --- whatever the kind.
But of how at the end of our lives, these are the very same things we need to let go of anyway --- our health, wealth and loved ones.
In a more practical sense, I think exercises like this remind us that we are, after all, no different from one another. The only difference being money, something you leave behind when you die, should be no valid point of differentiation. But sadly, it is.
The best we can do, really, is to count our blessings and give as much as we can to uplift the lives of those less fortunate than us.
This New Year, my call to action for you is: "Let us get rid of all our excesses and deposit them where they are needed most."
And more importantly, to "Learn to slowly let go of all our worldly connections, for we will anyway have to do so someday"
(Blog Composed and Posted from somewhere in the world on my BlackBerry Wireless Handheld)