Food Tales


Starbucks being my go-to place started in Singapore when I used to live there.  An inviting and convenient place, Starbucks was a haven, offering me a refuge from the ugliness of the world, people’s prejudiced notions of people, and simple weariness. On a more mundane note, I got hooked on the offerings of beverage and pastries which were something I looked forward to seeing because there was always something new on the menu wherever you were in the world – Los Angeles, Singapore, Manila or Indonesia.

Trooping down to my usual Starbucks haunts in Bekasi, Indonesia, either at Metropolitan Mall or Grand Metropolitan, they started the first month of 2019 with a roster of new drinks – a Caramel series – and a delectable pastry cup. Having weaned myself from coffee, it would seem that I would have to give the new Caramel Pudding Frappuccino, Caramel Pudding  Macchiato, and Caramel Pudding Matcha Latte a miss until I was told that the Caramel Pudding Matcha Latte was a non-coffee drink, and that she, the barista, could bring the sweetness a notch lower. Green tea is really versatile, blending well with almost any ingredient. The melding of the matcha with the caramel pudding was simply superb – it was smooth and balanced on the palate. It is best sipped cold, I say.

caramel pudding matcha latte by starbucks
the new Caramel Pudding Matcha latte by Starbucks

The pastry display was looking a bit nondescript having grown tired of the usual chocolate croissant, dark chocolate cake, and the triple chocolate muffin. I wasn’t keen on the pandan sponge cake or the lamington. But surprise, surprise! The Raspberry Trifle Cup seemed to be doing a jig to get my attention. It got me at trifle – a sponge cake with jelly, custard and whipped cream. In Starbucks’ version, the vanilla sponge cake was cut into cubes and placed in a bed of raspberry puree then swirled with whipped cream. The final touch was a topping of crumbed chocolate chip cookie. It is best eaten chilled; make sure you slide the spoon all the way down to the raspberry for that complete sweet, fruity, and creamy bite.

raspberry trifle cup 3
a new pastry – Raspberry Trifle Cup by Starbucks
raspberry trifle cup
Dig in!

I am hooked on these new Starbucks treats and wondering what and when they will roll out the new treats.

Food Tales


Chatime was the undisputed milk tea place to get your boba fix in Bekasi, Indonesia. It is boba for the Americans and ilk while it is pearl for the general Asian market. For the Filipinos specifically, it is called sago. Whatever term is used, it refers to those dark gelatinous tapioca balls that add the chewiness while sipping the milk tea. Lately, a smaller, lighter colour version – more golden brown – was introduced by Chatime which they call golden pearl.

The only Chatime outlet then at Bekasi was at Metropolitan Mall, 25-year old mall, with its counter-bar located next to Ace Hardware. It was an instant favourite among the young and old. There are now at least four branches of Chatime, each found in the popular malls around Bekasi. Chatime is also mobile, participating in, for example, Fortals, the annual school concert of Global Prestasi School, with a pop-up tent. The catch though is that the drinks are pre-mixed so you cannot adjust the sugar and ice levels. Through the years, Chatime adds seasonal flavours to their menu such as a fruit series and, my favourite, Thai milk tea which was sold last year. This January Chatime is courting their regular and potential customers with their new mousse series – black tea, chocolate, and matcha. Ordering my regular no sugar-no-ice pearl milk tea at Chatime was a bit of a challenge for the crew and me because my Indonesian was far from smooth and their English was spotty, but we managed. They are patient.  Meanwhile, the staff at KOI take to English like fish to water.

Chatime grand metropolitan mall
the newly renovated Chatime outlet at Grand Metropolitan Mall
Chatime milk tea
regular size no-sugar-no-ice Chatime milk tea

Now, Chatime is in for some competition for star of the milk tea stage. Sometime last year, amidst the closing of old stores and opening of new ones at Metropolitan Mall, KOI Cafe opened claiming the old spot on the second floor of the first Starbucks that opened in Bekasi which had moved to the ground floor of the mall. Its name doesn’t scream milk tea – more like those orange-gold fish – unlike its rival but it is a milk tea place that is also serves foam coffee, milk tea, and tea with cream.

KOI Cafe metropolitan mall
the KOI Cafe at Metropolitan Mall
KOI golden milk tea
medium size no-sugar-no-ice KOI golden milk tea

With two places to get my boba fix, my mood dictates where to head when I am hit by a wave of boba craving. If I am not enervated, I bound up to the second floor for KOI and its smooth, silk-like texture sans the caramel aftertaste, and lighter feel on the tummy. KOI has the no sugar-no ice option for all its drinks like Chatime, but its boba is the golden one unlike Chatime which is a seasonal offer. Another push-factor is the place to sit. Given that KOI is has Starbucks’ floor plan, KOI utilized it to their advantage, taking the furniture game a notch higher by providing long sofas along with the usual chairs done in elegant ebony. Chatime at the basement of Grand Metropolitan renovated their spot to include a couple of chairs and tables, but it is not suitable, unlike KOI, for quality reading or getting some work done. The only problem I find with KOI is the serving size; they only have small and medium and the small size is smaller than Chatime’s regular size cup which, at times, is around three to four sips short of satisfying the boba craving.

Chatime or KOI? What is your mood? Settle that question and then go get your bubble tea.


Chatime: starts at Rp21, 000 (regular cup)

KOI: starts at Rp20, 000 (small cup)

Here & There


Looking up is not something I normally do. My eyes, if I am not reading while walking, are always glued to the floor. It is a habit that I never really noticed until someone jokingly asked if I was looking for something on the ground because I was intently looking at it. I missed the joke he was referring to. On the very rare times I look up, I am astonished at what I see: the modernized sign of Metropolitan Mall shopping mall, the beautiful clouds swirling against a blue backdrop in Manila or Bali, or the eye-catching architecture of the buildings in Jakarta.

Looking up is still an intermittent habit, but when I was in Makati lunching with my uncle, I discovered something aesthetically pleasing at Mary Grace’s when I looked up. The usual talking points of Mary Grace are its ensaymada and cheese roll which gives popular Goldilocks very stiff competition particularly in the ensaymada division. Mary Grace’s soft ensaymada bucked the trend of the traditionally swirl shape and instead came up with a soft bun-like shape smothered in butter, sprinkled with white sugar, and topped with grated cheese (it tastes like queso de bola). It still stays soft even after being refrigerated. Its cheese roll is similarly soft; the rectangular bread, wrapped in white sugar, hugs this smooth, forefinger-long block of mild cheese. Another, in my mother’s book, is its boneless bangus (milkfish) rice topped with egg served with ensalada and vinegar dip. For a former student, it is the smoked salmon pasta, which she says is creamy.

I am adding to the list of Mary Grace’s talking points: its ceiling decor. Inside, it is an eclectic art installation of metal birds fluttering in mid-air, capiz lamps, antique lamps, and glass bottles. Staring at it from my sofa-chair, I marvelled at how the objects were arranged in a seemingly abstract way that you inadvertently look for a pattern to follow in deciphering the whole design. The view mid-way up the stairs to the second floor of Mary Grace becomes even more fascinating with the restaurant’s lights bouncing off from one object to another that the whole design looked like it was glowing.

ceiling decor _ view from staircase of Mary Grace
a closer look at the ceiling decor at Mary Grace

Switching my gaze from the ceiling to my right side, through the painted swirls on the glass wall, my gaze fell on an enormous capiz chandelier in its al fresco section that would, without a doubt, be breath-taking at night. I have always been fascinated with anything capiz – it shouts elegance and craftsmanship – especially when they are lit from inside like a table lamp, a parol (Christmas star decor in Filipino), or chandelier.

capiz chandelier
view from outside of the capiz chandelier at Mary Grace

Sub-talking points on both the metal installation and capiz chandelier can include, after the more sublime points, for instance, where it was made, who cleans it and when, and how many bulbs are used, not to forget the usual talking points of ensaymada, cheese roll, bangus, and the creamy smoked salmon pasta.

Food Tales


It was intriguing. Who would dare sell it in the Philippines? I am talking about kisses because kisses were what zipped through my mind when I saw the banners fluttering along the drop-off point at Greenbelt 3. I didn’t see the phrase after XOXO until I saw a poster at one of the entrances to the shopping complex. The ads were not referring to smooches, but XOXO handcrafted ice cream, which had been serving cups of ice cream rolls since November 23 on the third floor of Greenbelt 3. Standing right in front of the cinemas, its black and white colours wave at you, beckoning you to try a cup of ice cream which is hand rolled on the spot. The concept, I learnt from one of the amiable trio on duty, came from Bali; the business enterprise is owned by a New Zealander and an Australian, partnering up with a Filipino for their venture in Makati. Discovery 2: the Filipino owner – a part owner, she says – is one of the crew I met that January, who learnt the craft in Bali, “chopping” and “rolling” for four days while squeezing in strolls around Kuta and its famed beach. Discovery 3: the crew is trained to be a little more bonhomous than usual, and advised to replicate what is done in Bali. Picture the crew calling out to passers-by urging them to have a cup of XOXO, asking for their names, and engaging them in chit-chat. The Greenbelt crew, the part owner shared, were a little shy, prevailed upon by Filipino culture never to really engage strangers in a conversation much more call them by their first names. Filipinos are generally trained to address people – strangers and whatnot – as Sir or Ma’am punctuated by “po“, which is short for opo, a Filipino word uttered at the end to signify respect.

XOXO booth
XOXO ice cream booth

XOXO’s ingredients are the same as the ones used in Bali – no cost cutting by finding a cheaper substitute. For now, XOXO ice cream can only be eaten from cups, but they are working on getting their waffles cones out soon. Also in the pipeline is the third outlet at BGC; a second one is already serving the delectable ice cream at NAIA Terminal 3.

I am what I yam
Care for purple ice cream? Try the I am what I yam.
prepping the I am what I yam
prepping the I am what I yam

There are 12 flavours to choose from, each one creatively titled and presented. All the flavours are the same as in Bali except for three which are Filipino-centric. The first is Mabuhay, an homage to the Philippines’ halo-halo, a snack or dessert of shaved ice and a hodgepodge of sweet local ingredients that include fruits and sweet preserves topped with a dollop of yam paste and a cube of flan, and swirled with evaporated milk. Next is “I am what I yam’, a tribute to the halayang ube, or boiled purple yam that’s mashed and mixed with condensed milk, sugar, and butter, that can be eaten on its own or paired with something like halo-halo. The last is “Manny’s Fruit Punch”, an ice cream concoction named after boxer and politician Manny Pacquiao. For the curious, the concoction “The Godfather”, a chocolate concoction smothered in crushed Maltesers, milk chocolate chips, and chocolate biscuit Tim Tam, is the most popular choice among their customers.

prepping the godfather
a few more minutes and The Godfather will be ready

Stoked to try the ice cream, I went for “La Land”, a gluten-free cup of white chocolate ice cream with white chocolate chips, and drizzled with salted caramel on my first visit with a friend. It was smooth and packed tremendous flavours, but sans that saccharine sweetness and heaviness on the tummy. My friend, Joy, chose “Matcha Lychee”, a cup of gluten-free green tea ice cream topped with mochi and drizzled with chocolate sauce. She was in seventh heaven. One visit was not enough. My second visit was with my Uncle Ric right after our lunch. We decided to share a cup of “I am what I yam”, yam ice cream topped with yam mochi and ube wafer sticks, and sprinkled with ube bits. It is a Filipino thing – your life wouldn’t be complete without ube in any of its reincarnation.

hand rolled on the spot
Hand rolled on the spot – presenting La la Land
La la land
Dig into La la Land!
Matcha Lychee
for something with a Japanese taste – Matcha Lychee

For P195 a cup, believe me when I say XOXO hand crafted ice cream is better than any kiss from a former lover.

with XOXO crew
Sharing the ice-cream goodness with the XOXO trio


Food Tales


Bottega Wine dinner table setting
All set for the Bottega Wine Dinner

To tell the story of Bottega, let us begin with the sticker. A visit to the vineyard by a commission is the first step in the process followed by wine tastings before the wines are bottled and shipped to various destinations. If the commission finds the taste agreeable, or up to standard, then the seals are issued. All Bottega wines have the D.O.C seal, a ‘sticker’ given by the government of Italy, on the bottles which attest to the vineyard having passed all the requirements set by the government, thus they are not to be sold as regular table wine. Getting the coveted sticker is not a surprise since Bottega is pernickety about making wine which begins with the selection of grapes. Take the Bottega Soave Classico D.O.C 2016, which comes from Soave City. Made from the best gargarega grape, a type sourced from the 355 varieties of local grape in Italy, it has become the quintessential soave with its medium body, flower-peach notes, and a slight bitter aftertaste of almond. Soave has been around and was very popular between the 1950s and 1960s, but the quality was mediocre. Bottega reintroduced it into the market with a taste that breathes quality.

Bottega was in Indonesia on 30 November 2018 for a Bottega Wine Dinner featuring five of their prized wines. Held at Hotel Mulia’s il Mare, it began with a pre-dinner drink of sparkling wine, Bottega il Vino dei Poeti Prosecco D.O.C., complemented by bite-size corn croquettes at the bar. Prosecco is strongly challenging the reign of champagne in the sparkling wine industry as the preferred drink for any occasion. Wine drinkers are now gravitating towards Prosecco for its fruity taste, low acidity, and low alcohol content compared to champagne. The lower alcohol content is due to the short fermentation period of only between 40 and 50 days. It fact, it is because of Prosecco that Italy has been named the largest wine producer in the world for the last three years.  Served in a large wine glass instead of a traditional wine flute, I was told it was to let the aroma waft through the air and tickle the drinker’s nose.

Bottega Prosecco
Prosecco – the national sparkling wine of Italy

Next on the menu was lobster roll with capsicum and heirloom tomatoes paired with Bottega Soave Classico D.O.C. 2016 which whet the appetite for the next dish and wine pairing of ossobuco agnolotti and Bottega il Vino dei Poeti Rosso di Montalcino D.O.C. 2015. Coming from Montalcino where only eight percent, or 24,000 hectares, of land is used as vineyards and the rest are planted with olive trees (think olive oil), grape production is very limited with each vine producing only 1.2 kg of grapes for quality wine.

lobster roll
lobster roll with capsicum and heirloom tomatoes

Close at the heels of Montalcino 2015 is the vintage Bottega il Vino dei Poeti Brunello di Montalcino D.O.C.G. 2010 which went well with the smoked grilled beef short rib with endive and mushroom that my friend had or, being a non-beef eater, the alternative dish of ravioli chicken mushroom I had. Brunello is made from a very sensitive type of grape called santroveza – its quality changes when there are changes to the area of cultivation. It must be aged for two years and resting in a bottle for four months to get that sophisticated taste and good acidity. A bottle of Brunello can be stored between 20 and 30 years.

smoke grilled beef short ribs
smoked grilled beef short rib with endive and mushroom
ravioli chicken with mushroom or what's left of it
half way through the ravioli chicken with mushroom
more Bottega wine
More Bottega wine, please!

Rounding up the wine dinner was the dessert wine Bottega Fragolino rosso and the digestif Grappa d’ Amarone Alexander, which is also produced by Bottega. The strong and smooth grappa helped to make room for the dessert soon to arrive. Fragolino is not new in the history of Italian wines. Produced from a type of grape called Isabella which tastes like strawberry, it was very popular between the 1930s and 1950s, but was banned by the government when wine drinkers decided to be wine makers in their own kitchens. In the 1990s, Bottega reincarnated it as the Bottega Fragolino rosso, a merlot cabernet-based wine infused with strawberry, which is prepared like Sangria, and mostly drank in the summer. But that night it accompanied the delectable dessert of strawberry tart with mascarpone, yoghurt mousse, and coconut snow to end the Bottega story on a sweet, fruity note.

souvenir mask from Venice
souvenir mask from Venice
masquerade vibe
exuding that masquerade vibe
grappa and red wine
grappa and dessert wine to end the meal





Year 2018 was hectic that even finding time to read posed a great challenge. Still, I persevered and carted a book or two to my reading nooks. I shuttled between fantasy and non-fantasy with the choices I made, which was a concession to brain fog. When brain fogged, I plunged into juvenile fiction, and once the brain fog lifted, I went for new authors.

Anthony Horowitz figured greatly on my 2018 reading list. It started with his slow-paced whodunit novel The Magpie Murders in which I stayed devotedly married to. My devotion paid off. The adagio pacing quickly escalated to a heart-racing ride until the last page. Tempo was fast in Trigger Mortis, his James Bond novel, which, from the get-go, reeled me in with the title’s pun. He didn’t rework Bond’s original milieu of espionage sans highfalutin technology which made it a more interesting read. It truly showed the sagacity of an agent licensed to kill. I then segued to his Sherlock Holmes novels, House of Silk and Moriarty. The former has Holmes and Watson up against a formidable enemy, which upon its conclusion, leaves one musing on the glaring similarities between Holmes’ era and modern society in terms of the depths of men’s iniquities. Moriarty, on the other hand, showcases Holmes’ infamous nemesis up close, detailing his ingenuity that was never tackled before. The Word is Murder, his latest, had an allegro tempo with a soupçon of the vibe of NCIS that I finished it in no time.


Thanks to Tom Holland’s fans I discovered Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy. I read Books I and II – The Knife of Never Letting Go and The New World – I couldn’t keep my eyes open despite the intentionally ungrammatical speech of Todd Hewitt, which is one of the drawbacks of the novels. However, it was riveting because of the motif: running away from someone who has the uncanny power to speak without speaking only to run away with that someone later. I kept thinking throughout the first two books “What is going to happen to Todd and Viola?”, so I kept reading until I hit a road bump with the last instalment. The Ask and The Answer resembled a soap opera that I put it down for several weeks and picked it up again as I waited for my flight last December.

Chaos Walking Books 1 and 2

In the interim, I went back to mythology. Rick Riordan’s newest The Trials of Apollo focused on a fallen, full-pledged Greek Olympian god banished from Mt Olympus as punishment and now endures life on Earth as a mortal on a quest. The latest addition to his fractured mythology series is juvenile, but funny. The strength lies in the characterization of an Olympian god whose stereotypical self-absorbed personality is mixed with his humanized side providing a plausible, three-dimensional character. Meanwhile, Neil Gaiman’s new book titled simply Norse Mythology tied up loose ends in Bulfinch’s Mythology. Gaiman provided a context, for example, for Loki’s mischievousness, and also established his sagacity which Odin was grateful for. Unknown to most, Loki saved Asgard more than once. Running along the same line of supernatural tales is The Shape of Water by Daniel Kraus and Guillermo del Toro followed by Aaron Mahnke’s The World of Lore. The appeal of The Shape of Water is the aquatic creature – its origin, species, appearance – as well as the mute cleaner he “rescued” from life’s mundanity. The World of Lore is less of fictional stories than a published series of podcasts on the unexplained global supernatural occurrences throughout history that defy logical explanation despite witness accounts. Spooky and intriguing!

collage 2

It was back to mystery with new authors: A Voice in the Night by Andrea Camilleri; The Lottery Winner and Where are the Children? by Mary Higgins Clark; The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware; The Builders by Maeve Binchy; and Sleep No More – Six Murderous Tales by P.D. James. Mystery to me had always meant Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, and Agatha Christie. The detectives came in various forms, experienced or not, mired in a kidnapping, disappearance, or murder, or all of the above.

Camilleri’s detective is the opposite of Agatha Christie’s classical detective, Hercule Poirot. His is a hard boiled Italian inspector named Montalban but with Poirot’s appetite and astuteness in solving ordinary murder case unlike the local police force. He is a solitary figure who does not care who he locks horns with which makes his job a lot more difficult. Clark’s detective in the first novel is Alvirah Meehan, a former cleaning lady who struck it rich in a lottery, who solved unofficial police cases with common sense. Her other novel has a criminal TV show vibe to it as a sheriff-turned-detective fight against all odds to save Nancy Harmon, their children, and their marriage when the past and present lives of Nancy collide and explode. On a similar structural plane is The Woman in Cabin 10 with journalist Lo Blacklock fighting for her life when she investigates the disappearance of the woman in cabin 10 while on a press trip on-board the luxury ship Aurora whereas the novella The Builders by Maeve Binchy travels on a more nondescript plot, featuring an unwitting detective named Nan Ryan and her new workman friend who work together to unravel the mystery behind the disappearance of the family next door. Lastly, in the six stories by P.D. James, hailed “Queen of Crime”, the detective remained in the background. With the focus on the crime or mystery behind a death, the reader became an amateur detective trying to figure the mystery crime. The unpredictable revelations were filled with psychological insights into the deep workings of the human mind.


The Woman in Cabin 10

PD James

The last two books are eclectic, The Calculus Diaries by Jennifer Ouellette and A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. Ouellette banishes the intimidating facade of integral calculus and combines it with pop culture and interesting personal vignettes, hoping to draw in people less inclined towards numbers like me. Who would have thought that the plot of Pride and Prejudice Zombies could be an effective way of explaining integral calculus and how fast a zombie infection – any deadly infection – can affect a population? Salter’s book veered away from mathematics diving into sexual love as the reader “listened” to an unnamed narrator relate the affair of American dropout Philip Dean with local girl Anne-Marie while vacationing in France. Eroticism runs the risk of descending into lewdness, but Salter is in full control of his text that it comes across as poignant in the end.

For 2019, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mystery of Udolpho is still part of the reading list. It was the book I intended to begin 2018 with but was derailed by other books. I should have finished with Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber by then.

Food Tales


Publik Markette menu
What’s on the menu at Publik Markette?

It was only when I had properly perused the menu and observed the set up did the concept of Publik Markette sink in. Located at the East Mall of Grand Indonesia, Publik Markette is perfect particularly for three hungry friends with diverse culinary tastes. Emphasizing its market concept, the menu presents a variety of cuisine especially the three popular ones in Indonesia, viz. Japanese, Western, and Indonesian, from which diners can choose from just like in a market. The idea is reminiscent of Marché which features a buffet-open kitchen set up except its menu is centered on German-Eastern European cuisine. Publik Markette’s dining space has three areas accessible through one entrance with diners passing through an open kitchen-display of roasted pork, an array of pastries (watch out for the giant chocolate chip cookie), and the cashier’s post. A diner has three options of where to sit – concave booth chairs, picnic benches, or round tables next to faux trees.

For our first appetizer, the unanimous choice was calamari. The presentation was far from the usual with the deep-fried battered squid resembling thick fries; another plus was its crunchiness throughout lunch and the smooth aioli sauce with its balanced garlic and mayo combination. The second appetizer was chicken satay with peanut sauce. Publik Markette is generous with serving size with each stick of chicken satay looking way thicker than the usual skewered scrawny chicken strips.

crispy and tangy calamari
chicken satay
chicken satay with peanut sauce

The choices for the main course were variegated. My Nori Salmon bowl was huge in portion and flavor. Vegetables – lettuce, Japanese cucumber, edamame, mushroom, squares of seaweed, and strips of nori – cradled the more-than-matchbox-size salmon that was sweetish-salty to the palate. Theresia’s choice of Publik Pork belly, sitting on a bed of baby potatoes topped by arugula and other greens, was a smorgasbord of flavors. Her silence testified to her enjoyment of the seamless melding of flavors of the perfectly roasted, juicy pork belly mixing with the crunchiness of the greens, and soft potatoes. Meanwhile, Anto’s choice of the rich Pasta Beef Ragout was a carb-filled bowl of fettuccine topped with melted cheese and succulent beef ragout guarded by a piece of garlic bread.

nori salmon bowl
something Japanese – Nori Salmon bowl
Publik Markette pork belly
a house specialty – Publik Markette Pork belly
fettuccine beef ragout
fettuccine beef ragout

Conversation flowed from every direction, from serious thoughts on world issues to simple venting out of frustrations, as we polished off our lunches. If we were in Europe, an al fresco setting would have heightened the dining experience a few notches, but Jakarta is too humid to even think of dining without air conditioning, among other things. Fortuitously, Publik Markette has successfully recreated an elegant simulacrum of market dining with its far-from-gaudy setting and a menu that elevates the taste from pedestrian to delectable. Even the escalating din from the growing lunch crowd – a nightmarish, headache-inducing occurrence – didn’t have the same impact as I had imagined it would. Absolutely nothing ruffled the muted promise of Publik Marekette of a wondrous dining experience.

table for three at Publik Markette
table for three
School Days


Although I am not a theatre major and only like to watch plays, I am tasked every year to stage a production for Global Prestasi School (GPS). There is this (mis)perception that, as a literature major, I can automatically turn my students into Broadway thespians in a few months. Fortunately, my school experiences included stage productions in elementary and high school from which I draw from extensively and dovetail it with new knowledge. By new knowledge, I mean the films I have seen and how certain actors create a character such as how Tom Hiddleston created Loki that wasn’t kitsch or two-dimensional; the news I have watched; and the books and stories I have read. Adding to that melange are the GPS students from the Cambridge Preparatory Classes who take to the stage like fish to water. It is a talented pool of students: natural actors who can go from submissive to feisty, from cruel to forgiving; musicians who play the guitar or violin with jaw-dropping dexterity; amateur singers who serenade like pros; artists who make imaginative backdrops and props; and writers with their evocative prose and wit.

Bellator by grade 9 GPS
The Prince is surprised that Ella doesn’t want to dance with him at the ball.

The 2018 production year witnessed the grades seven to nine students lock horns with the world. Through fractured mythologies, fairy tales, and legends, they tackled issues such as gender roles, corruption, racism, and bullying, which they either faced or facing, heard about, or read.  Under the title “Vox Nostra, Voice of the Youth, the Indonesian youth of GPS questioned the atavistic gender roles upheld as unbreakable in “Cinderella” by decimating the stereotyped roles of men and women, and re-establishing the might of women warriors in “Mulan”. They rallied against racism in “Pocahontas” debunking the Eurocentric precept of the white men offering salvation to the “other”, the dark-skinned savages of the wild while squashing another age-old prejudice against people with disabilities and different culture in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. They also vehemently protested against corruption and irreverence in “Malin Kundang” and made a stand against bullies in “Acceptance”.

waltz scene in Bellator
Ella finally agrees to dance with the Prince after learning he also questioned gender roles.

Without a doubt, the production would have been better left to the pros. However, there never any pretence on my part or the students that we were aiming for a Broadway debut. What the students and I create is a verisimilitude of life – what it is like to work with people they like or dislike, thinking on their feet, taking responsibility, how it is to be held accountable for something, solving problems, honouring commitments, being a professional, and having fun at the same time. Through the months spent on putting together the play, I have had a front row seat to clearly see the students becoming better versions of themselves. For example, two brothers have learned to put aside petty differences and work together. Another, both girls and boys have learned to view each other sans the gender glasses, and learn that gender is not – has never been – a hindrance to anything.  Lastly, they have learned to express themselves (in English) in agreement or in disagreement, and offer an advice or solution.

Staging a play is taxing, to say the least, but the lessons learned at the end are invaluable. Amidst the constant bellyaching (parents and students), histrionic outbursts (mine), and occasional spanners (the universe), everyone walks away a little more compassionate, knowledgeable, open-minded, and filled with a feeling of accomplishment, including the non-theatre major teacher.

GPS Producation 2018
a photo op with the stage crew of Vox Nostra before the show starts


The signs are still there that it is still Christmas. Shopping malls are adorned in glittery Christmas decor. Bright, well-designed Christmas lights festoon the islands of affluent Makati. The bus terminals in the capital city are deluged by passengers determined to get a seat on the bus to get back home while others are at the ports hoping to get a seat on a boat against all odds as tropical depression Usman makes landfall in Eastern Samar. Sea travel has been suspended due strong winds and rain brought by Usman. The roads in Manila resemble slow moving lava at night as cars crawl between 10 and 15 mph. Malls are equally packed with shoppers and window shoppers; supermarkets are still selling Christmas hams. Our doorbell is rang intermittently by young kids singing Christmas carols and hoping to be rewarded monetarily for their mediocre efforts. And the airport terminals are heaving with the arriving tourists and Filipinos working overseas. Ah, it is most definitely Christmas in the Philippines.

Christmas tree at Robinsons Magnolia mall
the Christmas tree at the main lobby of Robinsons Magnolia Mall

Yet the Christmas vibe is half vibrant, half fun. That much vaunted “Christmas is fun in the Philippines” is fast becoming a spectre – if it hasn’t already – of itself as it comes wrapped in a mantle of uncertainty. Switch on the news and it is rife with reports about petty thefts committed in the name of Christmas – the thieves didn’t want their children to be disappointed with the absence of gifts or their dining tables empty on Christmas Eve. The whole country, with the exception of the affluent sector of Philippine society who celebrate the holidays as if inflation and unemployment rate were on an all-time low, is actually struggling to keep themselves in one piece. Stretching the Philippine peso is tearing up people’s minds and souls ceaselessly in trying to make ends meet. This is because while prices of goods go up on a regular basis, the salaries of workers are never equally augmented.

Visiting shopping malls like Robinsons Magnolia buffers the harsh reality of Christmas these days. A mall keeps the gore and violence at a safe distance from the tingly feelings of happiness, hope, peace, and joy. One wallows in the comfort of shiny, beautiful things dreamt of, bright lights and fancy signs of aesthetically designed stores, the bustle of people strolling without a care in the world, and the myriad choices in continuous feasting. There is even this wonderfully assembled Christmas tableaux featuring this enormous tree and Tinker Bell appearing and disappearing in a glitter of colourful lights. For two or three hours, with that brief shopping mall Christmas interlude, everything is copacetic in the world and yours.

Christmas tableaux at Robinsons Magnolia mall
view of the Christmas tableaux from the second floor of Robinsons Magnolia Mall


It was the line of Hermes, played by actor Nathan Fillion in the movie Percy Jackson: The Sea of Monsters, which resonated when the idea of family zipped through my mind. It seemed like Hermes was talking to himself, remembering how he shouldn’t give up on his wayward son, Luke. He told Percy, “One never gives up on family.”  Given my naturally sarcastic disposition, I rephrased that into “One never gives up on select family.” Some are, as I conversed with myself, just meant to be at best acknowledged and at worse ignored.

It is quite easy to pontificate about family and how it is the very reason for one’s existence, but the ideal vis-à-vis reality is a different story. More often than not, it is family that is the very first to betray you in the face of adversity, choosing money over kin. Propinquity is automatically expected because of the same blood that runs through the veins, but reality is farther from the truth. Friends act more like family, bonding with you through your joy or empathizing with you in your tribulations, while the Tito, Tita, and pinsan (Tagalog for uncle, auntie, and cousin respectively) are nothing but perfect strangers. Complete strangers, in fact, are easier to deal with because there won’t be any love lost if verbal jousting had to be resorted to. The familial strangers are too outré, complicated even, to lock horns with because of the underlying belief that they would never be spiteful and all that jazz. Again, reality says otherwise. Family members can, in fact, be more acerbic, pointing out bluntly your inadequacies – never mind theirs – such as being single, fat, aged, old fashioned, having a nondescript job, technologically challenged, and penurious.

pancit luglug
pancit luglug by Via Mare Oyster Bar

Fortunately, Lady Serendipity was feeling benevolent and the ideal and reality coalesced. I began hanging out with Tito Ric, my mum’s older brother, who was in and out of my life when I was wee child, but in the recent years have hung out with like a kabarkada (colloquial Tagalog for ‘part of the gang’) whenever I’d be home for a holiday. The meet up would be for lunch at Makati, choosing a restaurant we both liked, and then spend the next few hours chatting away. Tito Ric and I had eaten at Museum Cafe and Razon’s before so Via Mare Oyster Bar in Glorietta was it this time. We ignored the oysters zooming straight for the pancit luglug as our main course and sotong goreng (a hint of Indonesian flavour for the Filipino-Western restaurant) for appetizer. Given that squid is a tad difficult to cook – it becomes tough when overcooked – the sotong goreng was a fantastic choice. The deep-fried battered squid tentacles dipped in chili sauce were crunchy and flavourful even to the last hour of our lunch. The pancit luglug – thick vermicelli noodles in shrimp paste sauce topped with squid rings, boiled egg, and crushed chitsaron (Filipino for pork crackling) – and the sotong goreng danced a mean samba on the palate.

sotong goreng
sotong goreng by Via Mare Oyster Bar

Our chat fest – anything under the sun as one of my former high school Maths teacher always used to say – continued, moving from Via Mare to Coffeebean and Tea Leaf. He had his Americano poured, as he requested, in his Starbucks tumbler while I had a pure double chocolate ice blended. As we sipped our drinks, I saw how the family jigsaw puzzle was getting formed with the pieces coming together with our sides of the “stories” – personal or otherwise – with the personal aspect particularly the blurry episodes in the past now making sense, familial connections and disconnections confirmed, and the family tree clearer.

Lunch with Tito proved how good company and good food will always make for a wonderful experience, and how, giving it time, family ties can only get better. Now, we are deciding where the next lunch is going to be.

lunch with Tito Ric