This was not the first time I tried to go to the Philippines. A year earlier, I was packed up and ready to go- only to not get on the flight. Something that is always a possibility, but in actuality rarely ever happens when traveling on my flight attendant benefits is that I might not actually get a seat. I was a little wary of planning the same trip all over again, what if it was cursed or something? This time around, I had a close friend who turned out to be a good luck charm, because we made it without issue.
The night before, I was packing suitcases full of everyday items, things that are likely mundane to the American eye, things that we have grown up with easy access to and probably take for granted. Instant oatmeal, hand sanitizer, orange juice, hair dye, expired centrum silver vitamins to fortify fighting chickens (don't ask), flannel pajamas, pantene shampoo, and crest toothpaste, among many other things. Similar to how you don't show up to a dinner party empty handed, you don't make a trek from the US to the Philippines without a Balikbayan full of hard-to-score western items.
I am what I like to refer to as an "invisible Filipino". Being only half, I guess it just doesn't show up very well. In response to the "what are you question?", wherein I usually respond with "guess!", not one person in my entire life has ever guessed Filipino. I've been told before that I am privileged in this respect. To have the ability to blend in. So after 30 years of this, I wondered if anyone would see it in me. Would anyone be able to piece together that we were related when my grandmother and I traveled together for the next 10 days? Like I expected, we did receive many questions trying to get to the bottom of how we were related. But only because Filipinos are among the most nosy people on the planet.
El Nido, Palawan is not very easy to get to even if you're not coming off a 17+ hr journey from the states. After a quick one hour flight from Manila to Puerto Princessa, you will find yourself in a quaint little airport with a tour booking office located just outside baggage claim. Here you can book your journey to El Nido for less than $20USD. It's about a five hour bus ride on a mix of paved and unpaved roads, and the bus will likely not leave until they have collected enough passengers to fill it up completely. A stop at the halfway point for snacks makes it more bearable. All of this is more worth it than you can imagine.
On our first full day there, we took an island hopping tour that took us to an immaculate lagoon, caves, several islands, and we had a delicious seafood lunch on a pristine private island. All hotels in El Nido will arrange tours with varying itineraries for you depending on your interests. When it comes to El Nido, and the Philippines in general, its best to wait and book excursions when you arrive.
When you've woken up from your post-adventure nap, head into town for dinner just before sunset and look for a waterfront restaurant where you can pick seafood (I sure hope you like seafood if you plan on going to Palawan) you would like, and take a seat and enjoy some cocktails while you wait for your food to be grilled. We went there every night, and I've never seen my grandmother so happy!
Bibingka is my favorite filipino dessert because I just love chewy things and I especially love coconut desserts. The best way I can describe bibingka to someone who has never had it before is if Mochi and a lemon bar had a coconut flavored baby. Since it's so easy to make, I decided to add a little retro- American twist to it by making Pineapple Upside Down Bibingka. Since coconuts and pineapples compliment each other, it turned out really well!
WHat you'll need:
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 lb sweet rice flour
2 1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1 can cream of coconut or coconut milk
1 cup evaporated milk
5 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup coconut flakes
1 stick butter, melted
1 can pineapple rings, cut into wedges
1 cup brown sugar
coconut jam, optional
Beat butter and sugar together until light yellow and fluffy. Add in eggs, rice flour, baking powder, milks, vanilla, and coconut flakes and mix until fully incorporated.
Divide melted butter, brown sugar, and pineapple slices evenly between all cupcake cups in a cupcake pan. If you're adding the coconut jam throw some in there too at this time.
Top with batter, and bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or until the cakes are golden brown and a toothpick inserted comes out clean.