Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mexico: Trajinera ride & mariachi bands in Xochimilco's Aztec canals

As a neophyte to Mexican culture, I had no idea what mariachi bands were. Sure, we all hear Mexican music every now and then. But I was quite clueless. Friends who found out we were off to Xochimilco told us to make sure we get serenaded by mariachis.

The Aztec canals and floating islands of Xochimilco are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List together with the Centro Historico of Mexico City. Xochimilco, one of the delgaciones of D.F. (pronounced de efe) or the Distrito Federal is about 1 hour and 30 minutes from the Centro Historico via the Metro and the connecting Tren Ligero. Stepping out of the Tren Ligero station in Xochimilco, we were met by really helpful local guides outside and at every street corner who pointed us towards the embarcaderos, the docks where the trajineras are located.

Trajineras are small non-motorized boats that were used to transport goods along the canals of Xochimilco. Today, these boats no longer serve that purpose and are instead used to take tourists for leisurely rides along the canals. In the olden days, these boats used to be decorated with flowers and juniper branches. But those have long been replaced by arches painted with really colorful designs. Each arch has a name on it, usually the name of the boat or a significant someone.

The highlight of any visit to Xochimilco are the trajinera rides through its historic Aztec canals. Nothing much to see as we walked to the embarcaderos. So I was anxious to find out what this was all about.

We finally made it to Embarcadero Belem, one of the nine trajinera docks in Xochimilco. They had fixed rates per person and we opted to take the 45 minute ride since it was already late in the afternoon and we simply wanted to experience these famed rides, even just for a while.

Of course, my first question to our trajinero (I would think that's what they call the trajinera drivers) was "Where are the mariachis?" He pointed towards the direction we were going to and said they were further ahead. Like a gondolier, our trajinero weaved through the ancient canals built by the Aztecs. But he didn't sing though. That was the job of the mariachis.

As we entered one of the main canals, we saw even more of these colorful local boats. And there in one of the boats was a mariachi band dressed in suits and tuxedos. Ah! They were the vital element that added charm to an otherwise uneventful experience. As we got nearer, I felt the festive atmosphere these bands created. Indeed, I was in Mexico!

Their boats would dock with another boat filled with picnickers and they'd render some classical Mexican songs for a tip of course. But bystanders like us got showered with graces as we passed by boat after boat of these musical ensembles. Many locals would rent these trajineras for hours to enjoy a lazy Sunday afternoon with food and drinks in tow. If you don't have food and you suddenly get hungry, floating stores and hawkers are all over the place.

By the time we knew it, our time was up and we made our way back to the embarcadero. After enjoying a home-cooked meal at one of the residences which dished up some food for visitors (now that's tourism helping the local community), we made our way back to Mexico City. Then it hit me, our Mexican adventure was about to go full steam ahead.

How to get to Xochimilco
Xochimilco is conveniently connected to Mexico City's Metro. Take the Metro to Tasquena (MX$3) and transfer to the Tren Ligero to Xochimilco (MX$3).

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Four-day long weekend from August 27 to 30, 2011 (National Heroes Day and Eid'l Fitr)

Long-weekends have become scarce with a change in the holiday economics policy in a year when most holidays fall on a Saturday or Sunday. So the upcoming four-day weekend will give holiday-starved Filipinos a welcome respite from work and a chance to travel. National Heroes Day on August 29 (Monday) has previously been declared a non-working holiday as part of Proclamation No. 84. Malacanang is also set to declare August 30 (Tuesday) a non-working holiday to mark the end of Ramadan or Eid'l Fitr. We're just waiting for the official proclamation. In the meantime, here's the list of Philippine holidays and long-weekend schedule for 2011.

"Anyone for Filipino?" in Esquire Magazine UK Edition / Tom Parker Bowles visits the Philippines

Philippine cuisine finally makes it to the pages of Esquire Magazine UK Edition. Several months ago, I was invited by British food editor and writer Tom Parker Bowles to introduce him to the food we have on a regular basis, street food if possible. I didn't realize that he was the stepson of Prince Charles until several weeks after our meeting, while I was on tour in Mexico.

I took him to Market! Market! which to me is one of the closest things we have to a hawker center, featuring the different regional dishes and delicacies of the Philippines. It's fairly obvious that sisig is our bestseller! We then met up with my tokayo Ivan ManDy in Binondo for some Tsinoy food. But it looks like he left this one out of his story save for the balut under the tulay in Quiapo which was his special request.

Of course Claude Tayag never fails to impress! Too bad I had to leave for the U.S. the next day since I would have loved to have another meal at Bale Dutung.

Since Esquire Magazine UK Edition is quite scarce in the Philippines (it's the US Edition you see everywhere), here is the article which introduces Filipino food to readers in the UK. Hopefully Fully Booked still has copies in their other branches if you like to own your own copy.

Update: To those asking about my comment on Mindanao, we had a very long conversation and many of the things I said were shortened for the article.

Context is impression on Manila is affected by negative news from Mindanao (e.g. Abu Sayaff kidnappings or Maguindanao massacre). I told him that the problem is when the international community hears about kidnappings or terrorism in Mindanao, they think it's the entire Philippines. But it happens only in some areas of Mindanao. So while the problems are down south in Mindanao. It's not even the whole island.

There are so many places worth visiting in Mindanao. My personal favorites would be the Agusan Marsh and Lake Sebu. I've even been to Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan as a tourist! Check out my visits to Mindanao here.

Monday, July 18, 2011

United States: Baltimore, Charlottesville, Philadelphia, Miami Beach, Key Biscayne, Washington D.C. & Guam

To get to Mexico, I had to pass by the U.S.A. Here are photos from places I visited in the United States including Baltimore, Maryland; Charlottesville and Mount Vernon, Virginia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Miami Beach and Key Biscayne, Florida; and Washington, D.C. After flying back to Manila, I visited Guam. Here are photos from the two trips which are now in the Ivan About Town FB page.

April 17 - Baltimore, Maryland, USA
May 12 - Charlottesville, Virginia, USA
May 13 - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
May 16 - Miami Beach, Florida, USA
May 17 - Key Biscayne, Florida, USA
May 18 - Mount Vernon, Virginia, USA
May 20 - Washington, DC, USA
May 25-26 - Guam, USA
May 27 - Guam, USA
May 28 - Guam, USA
May 29 - Guam, USA

Friday, July 15, 2011

Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hue, Hoi An & My Son

It was my sixth time (technically seventh if you count immigration stamps) to visit Vietnam. And finally, I had the chance to fly over to Hanoi from Ho Chi Minh City. Too bad there are no direct flights from the Philippines. I also got to return to Hue and Hoi An and visited Ha Long Bay and My Son for the first time. I actually coined my own term and refer to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, Hoi An and Ha Long Bay as the 5Hs of Vietnam, the five must-visit places when planing a trip there. So before I forget again, here are photos from the trip which are now in the Ivan About Town FB page.

June 23-25 - Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
June 25-27 - Hanoi, Vietnam
June 27 - Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
June 28 - My Son and Hoi An, Vietnam
June 29 - Hue, Vietnam
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