Join me in my wanderings around the globe via these online ramblings in far off places....

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Raja Ampat: Paradise of Birds





New Guinea is the primary home of the Bird of Paradise. Whether in the east in Papua New Guinea, or over in the west across the border in Indonesia's Papua provinces, references and imagery of the Bird of Paradise are found everywhere.  Papua New Guinea’s national flag contains the bird, Air Niugini, PNG’s national airline bears the bird in it’s logo. Hotels, schools, products, restaurants, companies across the entire island use the bird as it’s symbol. And despite travelling extensively through New Guinea for 15 years now I have never once come across one of these elusive birds in their natural habitat.


250px-Air_Niugini_Logo.svg_ Air Niugini’s Bird of Paradise Logo


image Indonesia’s Cenderawasih University logo (literally Bird of Paradise University)


product_03b PNG’s Goroka Coffee uses the Bird of Paradise on their logo


There’s a couple of reasons for this, one primarily being to see the Bird of Paradise in the wild you generally have to get up very very early in the morning, trek into the jungle away from populated areas, and be at a known “mating ritual” site by sun up, to see the males arrive and perform for the females. The males are the brightly coloured and decorated ones, as so often happens in the bird world. They use these features to impress the female and win her over for mating purposes. As well as the need to arise before dawn and trek into the jungle, I have never really been big on birds. “Twitchers” or what ever it is they call bird watchers and “Twitching” has never really been my thing. But when I was guaranteed a sighting of this magnificent bird during a visit to Indonesia’s West Papuan regency of Raja Ampat, I couldn’t really say no.


Raja Ampat Over 1500 Islands of varying size make up Raja Ampat


Raja Ampat Map Map of the Raja Ampat regency in West Papua (from


bird of paradise mapNatGeo Bird of Paradise distribution map


Raja Ampat SunsetOne of Raja Ampat’s trademark sunsets


Ironically the entire island of New Guinea is said to resemble the shape of a Bird of Paradise. The area I was visiting sits off the area known as the “Birds Head” in the far west and looking at a map of the island one must admit there is a certain resemblance to the shape of a bird. I was staying in Kampung Yenwaupnor (Yenwaupnor Village) at the bottom of Pulau Gam (Gam Island) in a beautiful little guest house, run by a local Papuan lady Maria and her extended family. My bungalow sat out over the crystal clear blue water. Raja Ampat (Four Kings) is the name of the regency made up of four main islands and many smaller ones, numbering in total well over 1500. It encompasses more than 40,000 km² of land and sea, and also contains Cenderawasih Bay, the largest marine national park in Indonesia. It is a part of the newly named West Papua Province of Indonesia which was formerly Irian Jaya. The islands are the most northern pieces of land in the Australian continent.

      175861_10150113584701118_522021117_6514200_314759_o Beautiful setting of the Yenwapnor Village Guest House, Raja Ampat


173009_10150113584476118_522021117_6514197_5416464_o Beautiful setting of the Yenwaupnor Village Guest House, Raja Ampat


176536_10150113523426118_522021117_6513488_5225074_oYenwaupnor Village girl fishing for her breakfast


Yenwapnor Village Yenwaupnor Village


We set off before dawn on our trek to the bird’s known mating site, the site which pretty much guarantees a sighting, as much as anything in nature can be guaranteed. It was an uphill trek over rough bush tracks in the already high humidity, with my local village guide and an interpreter originally from Savu (see earlier blog post: Savu! Sabu! Sawu!) who was travelling with me for business. The local guide powered up the hill in the semi-darkness with ease and exhibited the skill of not making a sound with his feet on the ground as he walked, essential if hunting for your food and handy for sneaking up on Birds of Paradise. Not long into our trek the local guide commented how he was impressed that this large white man was keeping pace with him in the jungle and also managing to keep quite silent at the same time. It was too difficult to explain to him through the interpreter that I had spent many hours trekking through the jungles of New Guinea way to the east of here hunting for my own food just like he would do every day. He would no doubt be surprised if he was to learn this.


Yenwapnor Hunter The only other locals we saw on our early morning trek had much more practical purposes for slogging through the jungle so early, such as this villager hunting for wild pigs


It wasn’t long before we reached an area where we could here the calls of the Birds of Paradise as well as the sounds of many other birds calling to greet the sun as it slowly climbed into the sky. Homing in on the calls of the birds we were soon standing under a slight opening in the canopy high above where one could clearly see half a dozen or more males “performing” for two females casually perched observing the show. I haven’t quite worked out if I was looking at the Greater Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea apoda) or the Red Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea rubra), both of which are found around this area where I was.


Yenwapnor Birds Not the easiest thing to photograph in the low light of the steaming jungle early in the morning


Yenwapnor Birds I am not sure if these are the Greater Bird of Paradise or the Red Bird of Paradise, both of which are found in Raja Ampat


Yenwapnor Birds The males “performed” for a good hour or more as the sun began it’s climb into the sky


When first described by early explorers and further compounded by New Guinea locals who supplied specimens to early scientists to ship back to Europe for some reason with the legs removed, the original, and somewhat bizarre, western belief was that the Bird of Paradise had no legs and they where held for ever aloft by their exquisite plumage until their death. The exquisite plumage of these birds has long been used in the traditional dress of various different tribal groupings right across New Guinea and into the nearby Maluku islands, where two species of the bird are found. Several related species are also found on mainland Australia, such as the Riflebird for example.



Milne Bay Head DressBird of Paradise Head dress in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea


Yamdena Head DressBird of Paradise Head Dress, Yamdena, Maluku, Indonesia


Greater Bird of ParadiseGreater Bird of Paradise, originally described as legless (


So finally after years spent wandering around New Guinea, without too much effort I had now seen the elusive Bird of Paradise, doing it’s thing, in it’s natural habitat. Raja Ampat has much more to offer than just the Bird of Paradise. The area sits in the heart of the coral triangle and provides incredible diversity in coral and other marine life. The people are super friendly with their own rich culture and the beauty of the region is postcard perfect. If you can find your way to Raja Ampat, the rewards will flow…………..


Willy Wag TailNot as spectacular as the Bird of Paradise, this Willy Wagtail has built it’s nest out over the water in the support struts of the guest house bungalows


Raja Ampat Raja Ampat


176469_10150113523181118_522021117_6513484_5263917_o Glorious Raja Ampat



Yenwaupnor Village, Gam Island





Friday, 25 February 2011

Filipinos: Snack or Insult?!?

….and the 25th Anniversary of the greatest People Power Revolution in history….

Filipinos Header

A couple of months back, being passed round various “Facebook walls” of Filipino friends of mine, was a short story on some European cookies going by the name of Filipinos. The question was posed regarding the appropriateness of calling a snack food by the name of a nation’s peoples. None of my friends were personally offended by the notion but reading into the history of these cookies did amaze me somewhat.


It seems back in 1999 then Philippine Congressman Heherson Alvarez, claimed that the name of the cookie was offensive due to the apparent reference to their colour, "dark outside and white inside". His resolution stated "These food items could be appropriately called by any other label, but the manufacturers have chosen our racial identity, and they are now making money out of these food items." On August 26, 1999 then Philippine president Joseph Estrada called the brand "an insult". So the government of the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest with the government of Spain, the European Commission, and then manufacturer Nabisco Iberia. Wow……


President "cookie" Estrada Former President Joseph Estrada

Now lets look into these snacks a little more. The Philippine National Historical Institute has stated that they believe the history of these round cookies with a hole in the centre is linked to the “Rosquillo”, a traditional snack made in Iloilo and Negros. There are other claims they originated in the Liloan area of Cebu, where they have an annual Rosquillo Festival, however since the National Historic Institute has them coming from Iloilo and Negros, I’ll run with that. The twist to the commercially produced variety is that they are dipped in chocolate. And herein lies the apparent controversy, some say, that by calling these cookies Filipinos there is an analogy to Filipinos being dark on the outside, yet striving to be more “white” on the inside…… These kind of food analogies are not new. In the 1990’s British born Jamaican Reggae Deejay Macka B sang about black Jamaican Yuppies in the UK being nothing more than a Chocolate Bounty, black on the outside but white they want to be.


Macka B once sang “Black on the outside but white you want to be, just like a chocolate Bounty”
But surely we are taking this too seriously. It would appear to me to be more a tribute, a sign of respect more than anything else. Even Market Man, writer of highly recommended Filipino food blog Market Manila touched on this subject back in June 2006, and although he did state “I still don’t know whether to be offended or bemused” he did seem to take it a bit lighter than the government of 1999. Worth noting that the then foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon was rather reluctant to be involved. Siazon had reportedly said "he saw nothing wrong with the use of 'Filipinos' as a brand name, noting Austrians do not complain that small sausages are called 'Vienna sausages.' Exactly! Do citizens of Berlin get upset that they gave the name to the Berliner pastry? What about the Danish and the Danish Pastry? Or Cubans becoming the generic name for all cigars from that country? Would someone like the Philippine’s national hero, the great Jose Rizal if he were alive today seriously be offended by a biscuit named after his people?
So what do they taste like, that is the question? One of the things I love about the modern globalised world we live in is that national boundaries are mere lines on a map with tools such as the mighty internet at our disposal. Tapping into my own global network it didn’t take long to track down someone in Europe to rapidly dispatch some Filipinos over to me (and big thanks to those involved in sending those cookies my way). Well they are ok, they are as good as a factory made chocolate dipped biscuit can be, but I don’t think they are worth getting into international disputes over…….
DSC_0959 Filipinos, fresh off the boat
DSC_0960 Historically rooted to the Rosquillo, but dipped in chocolate

As I write this, nations in North Africa and the Middle East are in the middle of major people’s revolutions against their tyrannical governments. Some like Libya have delivered bloodshed, and others like Egypt have shown the world the power of non violent people power. These current ongoing revolutions have been dubbed the Facebook or Twitter Revolutions, with their messages driven by the power of the internet and social media. We should take this time to remember, in a time long before social media, that one of the great people power revolutions, peaceful non-violent uprisings, originated in the Philippines. February 25th 2011 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Peoples Power Revolution in the Philippines that toppled President Marcos in 1986. Ordinary everyday people braved facing Marcos’ tanks and artillery, bringing food and drinks to support troops that deserted the government to support the revolution. The power of the people facing off against their own people manning the tanks and guns of the regime shone through then, just as it did recently in Egypt. So on the 25th Anniversary of this remarkable event, should we worry that a tasty popular snack takes the name of a nation’s people? A nation’s people who have regularly shown their strength and resilience, through such events as the People Power Revolution, the inspiration that is still liberating peoples of the world today.



The power of the internet, the power of the people, the power of the biscuit?

the Philippines




Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Balut! Balut! Balut!

Balut Balut Balut Header

“Balut! Balut! Balut!” From city to province, all over the Philippines in the late afternoon, early evening, you’ll start to hear this call. Balut is probably now the most well known food to come out of the Philippines, thanks to modern TV programming with people like Anthony Bourdain and shows like Fear Factor and Survivor, all featuring Balut in recent times. For example contestants of The Amazing Race Asia 2 had to eat 8 Baluts as a team before receiving their next clue.This common snack food in the Philippines consists of a fertilized duck or chicken egg with a nearly-developed embryo inside that is boiled and eaten in the shell. It’s also popular in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Balut or Balot, has it’s name rooted in the Austronesian languages of the region, and literally means “wrapped”.

I decided long ago that I needed to sample Balut but that's easier said than done. Overcoming the psychological barriers to place a Balut in your mouth was a lot tougher than I imagined it would be. I first attempted to sample a Balut in 2007 on Manila’s old Bay Walk. I say “old” Bay Walk as at that time there were restaurants and bars with heaps of entertainment right along the waterfront of Manila Bay. But a change in local government power brought in a new mayor a few years back and he shut down all the venues along the waterfront (personally I think that action destroyed the best attraction in all of Manila….). Despite the removal of all the restaurants along Bay Walk, you can still find plenty of Balut vendors along there in the early evening. So this first attempt back in 2007, even assisted by ample San Miguel Pilsener, ended in me backing out unable to get over the visual effect of the embryonic duck.

Old Manila Bay Walkthe old Manila Bay Walk was alive with colour and movement well into the evening, until a new Mayor ordered it’s shut down a few years back.

 Manila Bay SunsetSunset from Bay Walk, over Manila Bay. A popular place and time for the consumption of Balut.

San Mig with Balut  Balut goes well with Beer!

So that brings me to this current visit to the Philippines. With the rising global awareness of this delicacy, Balut has become Haute cuisine of late within the Philippines itself. In Filipino restaurants, Balut is now often served as appetisers, fried in omelettes, cooked adobo style and numerous other methods. So when I saw a Sizzling Balut and Tofu dish on offer on the menu at Gerry’s Grill on Macapagal Avenue near the giant shopping complex Mall of Asia, I realised it was now or never to finally get over it and consume some Balut. I don’t know whether it was the imaginary comfort zone of sitting at a table with friends as opposed to being on a street with a road side vendor, it just seemed the right time to eat Balut for me!

Sizzling Balut Gerrys Grill Sizzling Balut at Gerry’s Grill Manila

Such has become this pop-culture icon of bizarre foods, that it’s starting to turn up everywhere., the remaining remnants of what started as “Mad Magazine copy cat Cracked”, recently listed Balut in it’s top six list of most terrifying foods. Cracked went on to say :

“actually, marketed properly, these eggs could be a damn good motivator. When you've looked death in the face at breakfast time, what the hell else can the day throw at you?”

So what does it taste like? It tastes like a hard boiled egg! Which when you think about it, is exactly how it should taste. Sure it’s got some lumpy bits, and some crunchy bits occasionally, but lets face it, it’s just an egg.

Tanduay Dispenser (Photoshop) Photoshopped image of another popular drop to consume with Balut, the local Rhum, Tanduay!

Now if the Balut is allowed to grow into a live chicken, there are several paths in the Philippines it could take. As with many parts of Asia, Cock Fighting is a popular past time. Evidence of cock fighting certainly predates European arrival in the Philippines. Right across the archipelago, you’ll find cock fighting venues packed to the rafters. Some cities, like Cebu, have massive stadiums for huge tournaments. And outside of Balut, once the chicken grows it can then be made into many awesome Filipino dishes from Lechon Manok, charcoal roasted marinated chicken with local herbs and calamansi, to Chicken Adobo the national dish, being chicken in vinegar, soy and black pepper.

Filipino RoosterChickens, or more specifically Roosters, are prized for fighting in the Philippines

dsc_0213-2.EDIT Cock Fighting at Cebu’s Galleria Stadium

DSC_0217-2 Crowd going wild during Cock Fights in Cebu

DSCN0240 If you can’t stomach Balut, wait till it grows and eat it as Lechon Manok

So when the chance arises for you, and you are offered the opportunity to try Balut, do it! It’s just another type of hard boiled egg! And remember when you've looked death in the face at breakfast time, what the hell else can the day throw at you?”

the Philippines

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