Vigan is pronounced “vegan” but isn’t

Vigan is the best-preserved Spanish colonial town in the Philippines, earning it a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list. It is in the northern part of Luzon, the largest and most populous island in the Philippines, but feels a world away from the chaos of Manila 200 miles to the south.

Vigan is a tourist town but thankfully free of the hassle and over-commercialization that often chases us out of such places. Apparently a large cruise ship had dumped bus-loads of people into the town earlier in the morning but by the time we arrived it wasn’t crowded and the remaining tourists were a diverse mix from the Philippines and around the world. We enjoyed roaming the streets and peeking into the shops.

Low-pressure salesperson

We had read in guide books that one of the things to do in Vigan was to take a ride in a “kalesa” — a horse drawn carriage. One thing the guide books didn’t prepare us for was that these horses were the about the cutest tiniest horses we had ever seen. The little guys seemed to pull the carriages without too much effort even with a whole family crammed inside but we didn’t partake.

Before coming here, we always pronounced Vigan as vee-GONE, not knowing the proper pronunciation. This led to frequent confusion whenever we heard the proper pronunciation, such as in the phrase “you have to try the famous vegan empanadas!” We know that the concept of vegetarian, much less vegan, is pretty foreign to the Philippines and even vegetable dishes usually have a little pork snuck in for flavor. So hearing “vegan empanadas” raised an eyebrow until we realize that it was “Vigan empanadas.” OK, off to find a Vigan empanada!

Vegan Vigan empanadas, one stuffed with pork sausage, the other ground chicken. The little cups have vinegar for dipping your empanada. We always think of vinegar as the calling-card of Filipino cuisine.

Although the external appearance of the Vigan empanada is similar to the Latin American kind we were familiar with, when we bit in we were instantly reminded of a Chinese egg roll. The wrapper of the Vigan empanada is made with flakey rice flour and inside there are crunchy bean sprouts or shredded green papaya along with meat and eggs. Interestingly, this is the closest part of the Philippines to China and is the port where trading took place over the centuries between the two nations. Many of the people here are genetically and culturally mixed from Spanish, Chinese and native Filipino ancestors, making the Vigan empanada a perfect symbol of that heritage.

Vigan was a pleasant place to spend an afternoon. In the end it wasn’t over-tourism that scared us away, but the tropical sun and humidity. We probably wouldn’t recommend a visit here except as a stopover on the way somewhere else (and not sure where that could possibly be). But we were happy to experience it for a few hours. And almost as happy for the 90-minute air conditioned bus ride through beautiful countryside that allowed us to make our escape.

Hong Kong with parrots, not protests

We were more than a little worried about beginning our latest trip in Hong Kong. From news reports, it sounded like the city was a battleground with fire-bombed subway stations, tear gas, and streets lined with riot police. The airport had even been shutdown by protests — would our flight be able to land? Stepping off the plane, we saw a different reality. The airport was its usual modern and efficient self. The city also seemed to be humming along as usual. During our three days in Hong Kong, our Fitbits say we walked 20 miles and the only clear sign of unrest that we saw was some anti-government graffiti.

We don’t know to what extend the calm that we saw reflected our limited view of the city, or whether it is a sign that the protests are fizzling out under the relentless suppression by the government, or whether the extent of the unrest has been overblown by the media. Probably all of those were a factor.

Tourism is down because of the preception and/or reality of the unrest which is a shame because Hong Kong is still a great destination. It is such an interestingly layered city, almost like an archeological dig showing differnet stages of its development, all still present and bustling. Look in one direction and it is hyper-modern Dubai; in another direction an alleyway could be in pre-industrial China; in another, Victorian England. Add in the modern infrastructure and ubiquitous English and it is a pleasure to visit.

Hong Kong has always been a shopping destination but one change we’ve noticed since our last visit is the explosion of extreme luxury stores. Every major European fashion designer has multiple stores, many bigger than you’d find on Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue. We were in one large mall where Laurel looked around slack-jawed and said “There isn’t an item in any of these stores that would sell for under $1000.” One whole wing of another mall was devoted to high fashion for children. Who even knew that Gucci made children’s clothes?

But we weren’t shopping for couture and had seen a lot of multi-cultural urban wonders on past visits, so we focused a lot of our time walking to the major parks in the city. It is fun to be walking through a dense urban jungle and come across a real tropical jungle. Well, “jungle” is perhap not quite the right word since the plants are mostly kept tidily in their place surrounded by an equal amount of pavement. The wildlife sounds are mostly from caged birds and monkeys. But the parks were still surprisingly lush and the animals housed in surprisingly humane conditions. Two of the parks had aviaries with an assortment of tropical birds in generously sized cages that allowed the birds to fly and flock. Hong Kong Park had the most impressive aviary. Instead of a cage, an entire forested valley was enclosed by a giant net. An elevated boardwalk runs through the forest, which covers almost an acre. Hundreds of beautiful birds were roosting in the trees or going about their business. We had a lot of fun spotting the different species, some of whom were not the slightest bit shy.

Among U.S. foodies there is a cult of finding the “most authentic” Chinese restaurant. We love Chinese food but some of our past experiences with truly authentic Chinese food in China has left us wary of the real thing. We just aren’t accustomed to some of the animals or parts of animals that find their way into the dishes. But we were determined to have a great “real” Chinese meal so we found a well reviewed Szechuan restaurant near an aviary we were visiting. Luckily the restaurant’s menu had English names for the dishes but they were cryptically sparse, like “Sliced frog,” “Double boiled pig lung” and “Chilled goose intestine.” About five pages into the menu we spotted the first item that we recognized as clearly palatable: kung pao chicken, one of our favorite dishes back home. Call us unadventurous, but that is what we ordered. We were relieved when there were no nasty surprise ingredients and we enjoyed the meal.

Bunny Chow in Durban

The first stop on our Indian Ocean trip was Durban, South Africa. We took it easy for our couple days in town, mostly just getting over jetlag. But we did have one big goal — to eat Bunny Chow, a local food specialty. To make it, you hollow out a quarter loaf of bread and fill the hole with spicy curry. Our quest was satisfied in a mall food court.

The chef was a little embarrased that we wanted to take his picture with his creation.
It was surprisingly spicy and delicious (those are carrot shreds on top)

The spicing of the curry was very strong and reminiscent not only of Indian curries but also had hints of Ethiopian flavors. Speaking of which, it is traditional to eat your Bunny Chow with your hands. Our fingers were orange through several washings.

Here are some more images of Durban… mostly from shopping malls. But not just any old mall, the Gateway mall is the second largest in Africa (after one in Casablanca which we somehow missed). And we also went to uShaka, a mall/beach park.

The parts of Durban we saw were really lush and pretty. We’re told there are much grittier areas but we took some long drives and saw only leafy suburbs and glistening highrises. Both the upscale mall and the more populist beach park were encouragingly racially integrated, though with a disproportionately high number of white people at the mall and low percentage at the beach. We would have been more optimistic about the progress in the country if we hadn’t read just an article in The New Republic magazine on the long flight to Durban that described the problems of extreme economic and racial disparities in the country. And the resulting rise of demagogues, corruption and cynicism. The article made the case that South Africa is a leading indicator for the future of America.