Top Seven Memorable Moments in the Philippines

I am now back in the United States (cue fanfare) after two full months interning in the Philippines. Through my blog, I’ve captured snapshots of both my daily life as an intern at FNRI as well as some the exciting excursions I was able to take in my free time. However, it has been difficult to encapsulate all of the moments that struck me while living abroad. So, from the blissful to the bizarre to the beautiful, these have been my top seven most memorable moments from the Philippines.

7. First Walk at University of the Philippines at Los Baños

The first week of being in the Philippines feels like it was at least six months ago. However, I remember the first time the IWU interns were able to explore our surroundings on foot. It was truly akin to wandering around on an expansive college campus placed in the midst of Jurassic Park. The immense humidity, ancient trees, and huge snails greeted us immediately.

 

Over the course of an hour of exploration, the sense of surrealism and wonder grew: we would be spending sixty days in this alien world.

5.  Eating Worms

No, you didn’t read that wrong. On a weekend excursion with one of the other IWU interns and his Filipino coworkers, we went to an “exotic restaurant” in the area to try some of their unique offerings that ranged from deep fried worms to fertilized duck fetus . The waiter brought out the live, squirming worms to the table before they were flash fried. One of them crawled off the plate–presumably to escape his fate–and I had pick it up and place it back with the others. Gag.

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Thankfully, frying the worms made them shrink. The taste was better than I imagined, but that bar was set undeniably low. A healthy dousing of vinegar helped mask the earthy flavor of the worms. I can’t say I would ever order the dish again, but bragging rights linger far longer than any bizarre taste on the tongue!

6.  Corregidor

The WWII island base in the Bay of Manila was an eerie reminder of how recently the Philippines’ was granted true independence. The abandoned American bunkers–home now to wild goats rather than soldiers–stand crumbling throughout the small 4-mile-long island, fading legacies of the country’s tense history with both the United States and Japan. Our walking tour of the island allowed us to see the natural beauty of the island in stark contrast with the brutality of war, with entire concrete floors of bunkers decimated by bombs dropped over 70 years earlier, making for a striking day outside of Manila.

 

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4.  Trying Balut

Dwelling on this one still makes my stomach turn, so I’ll keep it brief. My internship supervisor, Dr. Milflor, knew how much I was enjoying trying new Filipino foods (particularly the desserts), and was adamant that at some point my coworker Ross, another IWU student, and I try balut, or fertilized duck egg. So, one day after work she bought us some balut and penoy (salted duck egg–similar to a hard-boiled egg) to try once we returned to the condo.

Randi, my roommate and our group’s proud vegan, was surprisingly eager to break open one of the eggs, curious of what lay inside. We were not quite prepared for what we found. In spite of being just a one day old fertilized egg, the duck within had a fully formed beak and wings and was covered in a thin coat of feathers.

Though the common way of eating balut is straight out of the shell with a some vinegar and no thought about the contents, it was difficult for us to get around the appearance in order to try it in this way. I tasted some of the salty broth inside of the shell, but felt too queasy to try the yolk let alone the poor bird itself. I failed to fully try the local favorite, but it certainly left a lasting impression in my brain nonetheless.

3. Pinto Art Museum 

The Pinto Art Museum is unlike any art museum I have seen before. Nestled high in the jungled hills of Antipolo, the museum boasts a large collection of beautiful sculptures and unique modern art. Equally as intriguing as the art though is the property itself. Rather than have a single building housing all of the pieces, the museum is more like a millionaires’ lavish property, with 3 acres of gardens and green space containing more than ten different pristine white house-like buildings that all feature different artists and installations.

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The art did not take the backseat to the property itself though. The galleries were vibrant and engaging, with a variety of mediums, techniques, colors, and themes. I think I must have photographed every piece in the entire museum, for every individual gallery left my mind whirring with their beautiful and wacky pieces.

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2.  Dim Sum at Din Tai Fung

For those of you who do not know: I Love food with a capital l. On top of that, I have been dreaming of trying xiaolongbao, or Chinese soup dumplings for two full years now (and that is not hyperbole). With that in mind, I was quite literally overjoyed when I accidentally discovered that the SM Megamall in Metro Manila contained the restaurant Din Tai Fung.

Present only in the United States in Seattle and southern California, I was overcome with excitement and anxiety that I had found a Din Tai Fung literally right in front of me. Thus commenced the most joyful Dim sum experience of my whole life. Dim sum is a style of Chinese cuisine usually eaten as an assortment of small plates–similar to tapas. So naturally, my friend and I ordered eight plates for the two of us. We may have been full at the end, but we conquered every plate from the specialty jellyfish to the spicy shrimp and pork wontons.

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And the famed soup dumplings of Din Tai Fung did not disappoint. Filled with warm, rich broth and salty pork, the dumplings were heaven in my mouth–particularly when paired with the vinegar and soy-soaked ginger. The truffle and pork dumplings were a personal favorite!

Additionally, the chocolate lava xiaolongbao might be my all-time favorite dessert. Like a warm hug from a mug of hot cocoa, this joyful bundle of dumpling dough and thick melted chocolate will burn your tongue and then make you quite literally hug yourself in an attempt to capture the pure bliss and comfort currently unfolding in your mouth. I am sure that if the whole world could taste this sweet dessert, war, crime, and poverty would immediately dissipate. You might think these are lofty claims, but I dare you to try it for yourself and disagree….

1.  Hulugan Falls, Laguna

As a young college student who is often wedged between immediate deadlines and looming concerns about future responsibilities, I rarely find time to pause and look around at what I am doing in the moment. I am immensely grateful for the opportunities that I have been granted this year, including the Freeman Program, but I rarely reflect on just how thankful I am to live the life that I do.

At Hulugan Falls in Laguna, I was able to focus–even if just for a few minutes–on a feeling of pure awe at what I was experiencing. This sense of amazement was spurred by my experience hiking to Hulugan Falls and swimming in the lagoon at the base of the 230-foot-tall waterfall.

A subset of the interns and FNRI employees traveled two hours south of Manila to hike down to some of the famous waterfalls in Laguna. I was not prepared for how stunning the falls would be, however. A short (but very steep!) thirty minute hike through the jungle led us to a river fed by a 70 meter waterfall.

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In spite of all of my memories of hiking and beautiful scenery throughout my life, I do not recall any one location making me so… for lack of a better word, hyper. I think I annoyed every other person in our party with the amount of times I uttered the phrase, “Oh my god, it’s so beautiful” as though I was enlightening all of them about the scenery in front of us.

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And my awe only increased when I realized that we were allowed to swim in the lagoon at the base of the cascading water. With an exuberance rarely accessible to me in my everyday life, I bounded over the slick rocks and plunged into the cold water gathered right beneath the waterfall. The large pool led right to the rocky base of Hulugan Falls, where all the interns sat in order to experience the hail-like sensation of having gallons of water slap against our bare backs.

The culmination of the stunning scenery and ability to swim under the falls itself left me giddy. I doubt I have smiled so much for so long in a many years. After my enthusiasm finally subsided (much to everyone’s relief), I began to float on my back in the cool water and attempt to look up at the falls. The sun broke over the rim of the cliff and illuminated the haze of water misting down to. With my ears submerged in the pool, I could only hear the calm roar of the falling water plunging into the pool. It was as though I was experiencing the essence of contentment intertwined with pure childlike wonder. I was fully saturated by the current moment and nothing else. No stress, no worry, no thoughts of what was later, coming up next. I do not know when or if I will enter that mental space again, but I think even having that experience once is more than I deserve to ask for in a whole lifetime.

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It is immensely difficult to rank experiences in sequential order, and much of this list’s numbering has nothing to do with exact science and everything to do with arbitrary memories and comparisons. Undoubtedly though, my experience at Hulugan Falls with the other IWU interns and FNRI employees will be a warm reminder of my time in the Philippines for a long, long time.

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