What Christmas is like for a Pinoy Expat in Jakarta

3 days before Christmas: Work is still up to my ears here in Jakarta.  Whilst Manila is already on holiday mode, I’m in back-to-back meetings, with a Christmas tune in my head (Chestnuts roasting on an open fiiiiire…).

To be fair to Indonesia, it’s not all that bad. Luckily for the expats here, although Indonesia is a Moslem society, there is more religious tolerance compared to other more conservative countries.

christmas-tree_wmYes, people, we are allowed to celebrate Christmas here, in case you are wondering. Both my office and apartment buildings have towering Christmas trees.

I usually come back to Manila for the holidays, but this is the first time that I’ll be touching down in Manila exactly on the 24th, so I will be missing a lot of the Manila festivities.

How does it feel, apart from getting homesick? I had a few realizations and musings, between wrapping Christmas presents, rushing to meetings and daydreaming of chocolate batirol.

  1. You miss the pre-Christmas party lunches, dinners and reunions. For the friends and friends_wmex-colleagues who miss you, they either Photoshop your face on the group photos, or in my case, they made videos and placed my name on their group shots. The upside of missing out? Less calories to burn post-holiday season.
  1. You miss Simbang Gabi. Ergo, you miss all the other good stuff that come along with it: bibingka, puto bumbong, taho and that Christmas cool air that greets you when you go to church at 4am. There is this distinct Christmas air that you feel in our country that you won’t feel anywhere else. I know so, having been able to celebrate the holidays in other countries. It just feels…different.
  1. You create your own Christmas traditions with your circle of friends in your second city. As you cultivate friendships along the way and create your own inner circle, you get to create new Christmas traditions. In my case, it’s the annual Christmas champagne brunch where I get to exchange Christmas presents with my friends and one-on-one Christmas lunches with other colleagues before we all fly out to our home countries.
  1. When you finally, finally come back home to Manila for a very short holiday break, you get to appreciate all the little things that make Christmas such a huge deal: misa de gallo, hot chocolate and queso de bola for Noche Buena, the mess of ribbons and wrappers after opening the presents, little kids singing Christmas carols in the streets, the shopping rush at S&R a few days, or even a few hours, before Christmas – all of it. You miss all of it.
  1. In the end, though, your sense of gratitude for being an expat throttling between two cities heightens. I miss Manila and I will always miss it, but being an expat increased my gratitude for all the things that I experience and even the things that I miss out on. I get to miss my favorite things in Manila, but when it’s time to face the music again, I feel great that I can go back to the other favorite things that I became fond of here in Jakarta. Would you believe that I’ve been chowing down sambal and Indonesian food in the past few days because I’m gonna miss it when I come home to Manila? I guess I will carry this dichotomy for as long as I call these two cities my home, and truth be told, it sits with me just fine.

To all my fellow Jakartan expats, enjoy all the lechon, queso de bola and kakanin back home.

To everyone, may this season bring you and your families joy, faith, hope and love. Maligayang Pasko sa ating lahat!

The Almond Zucchini Experience: Of Cooking Lessons, Chardonnay and Dinners


I wanted to celebrate my birthday this year in a unique way.  After a quick beach trip, I invited some friends to a cooking class that will segue’ to a  dinner celebration at Almond Zucchini. If you are looking for a unique experience with your friends – something fun, something playful and something gustatory at the same time – I highly recommend that you book Almond Zucchini for your special occasions. It’s an experience worth trying more than once.

Did I say we were drinking chardonnay while cooking?

I found Almond Zucchini online when I was looking for cooking lessons that I can sign up almond-zucchini-signage_wmwith during the weekends, since that’s the only time I can spare for such activities. I found their web site and sent an email to inquire about the schedule and what kind of cuisines they are teaching.

I received an e-mail within the day informing me of their group classes and cuisines.  Rianto, the owner of Almond Zucchini and Pantry Magic (they actually cross-promote each other), was delightful to talk to. His response time was fast and he was patient when I had delays in my replies when I was traveling.

In the course of our conversation, I found out that they can also host private lessons amongst friends or for bigger groups as a team building exercise. I chose the package with a maximum of 6 people.  The choices for cuisines are Indonesian, Italian, Thai and a slew of desserts.

Since I really wanted to learn how to cook Indonesian food, I chose the Nasi Bali menu, consisting of:

  • Nasi putih – white rice
  • Jukut urap – blanched vegetable salad with fried chili dressing
  • Ayam pelalah – shredded chicken with chillies and lime
  • Sate lilit – minced seafood skewer
  • Sambal matah – Balinese chili
  • Dadar gulung – pandan pancake with coconut and palm sugar filling


I chose the 4pm slot in time for dinner. Upon arrival at the Almond Zucchini Studio, we were greeted with a platter of fried zucchini covered with ground almonds and a pitcher of cold apple juice.  It was a good first impression. It also assured us that we won’t be starving while preparing our own dinner!

While munching on our fried almond zucchinis, we asked Chef Cindy why the studio was named as such. Apparently, and this one is a good trivia, it means that the cooking studio has everything, from A to Z. Smart and creative, if you ask me.

The cooking studio was very clean and organized. When we arrived, the lobby had several lockers where you can put your bags and things so they don’t get in the way of your cooking.

We were each given bright orange aprons and we were handed copies of the recipes.  All the ingredients, kitchen utensils and cooking paraphernalia were all prepared for us on the kitchen counters.

april-cooking-the-herbs-for-sate-lilit_wmSince there were only four of us, including my husband, we each chose one dish to prepare and cook. I chose the sate lilit and sambal matah since I was most interested in these two dishes.

Each of us was assigned a cooking station, armed with our laminated recipes. Chefs Cindy and Nurman were assisting us in cutting, slicing and dicing our ingredients. For my sate lilit, I had to use the food processor to ensure that my shrimps and fish are all properly minced.  I didn’t realize sate lilit was the most complicated to prepare! Nevertheless, I had fun preparing it.

Almost all of us were foreigners trying to cook local food so we all had a lot of questions. rinda-preparing-to-blanch-her-vegetables-for-jukut-urap_wmOur chefs were very patient in answering the barrage of questions we had, including where to source the local ingredients, some of which I have never seen in my entire life. Chef Nurman told us that we have to go to the local market for these, which was not surprising because I don’t see them when I buy my grocery at the Ranch Market.

While the chefs were guiding us in preparing and cooking our dishes, a staff was also arshad-cooking-dadar-gulung_wmgenerously pouring us our chardonnays, which added more fun in the process.

We managed to finish our dishes and plating before 6pm. To our delight, all the dishes were successful and more than edible. They were actually delicious!

Our table was set and we were served the dishes that we, ourselves, prepared and cooked in the afternoon. It was a lovely, unique experience. Of course, it was extremely satisfying that despite being newbies, we managed to cook decent Indonesian dishes.

mark-in-charge-of-the-plating_wmOverall, everything was done with the best and highest level of professionalism. Rianto, Chefs Cindy and Nurman and the rest of the staff were all gracious and accommodating. Almond Zucchini not only exceeded my expectations, but also made me want to do the experience all over again. I highly recommend this to friends who want an intimate way to celebrate milestones and occasions with a twist. In fact, I’m already thinking of another reason (or excuse) to do this again!



For more information on Almond Zucchini, you can send an e-mail to: info@almondzucchini.com.

Their cooking studio address is:  Almond Zuccini, Jl. Prapanca no. 6, Jakarta Selatan

Phone numbers: +621 7399303 or +6281 330 179 342

Rating of the experience: 


A quick birthday weekend getaway to the Gili Islands



Gili Trawangan’s crystal blue water“

If you have 4 days and 3 nights that you want to spend frolicking on white sand beach without the commercial brouhaha of Bali whilst still being surrounded by a plenitude of activities, the Gili Islands might be the preferred getaway for you.”

Last week marked my birthday week. Yes, my name is April but I was born in October. As to why – that deserves another blog entry.

For my birthday this year, Shad and I decided to hie off to Gili Trawangan with our Malaysian friends. I wanted sand on my feet, with reggae music playing in the background while I am baking under the sun (with sunblock, to boot) to celebrate turning a new leaf.

I’ve been meaning to go to Gili for some time now, since the islands’ reputation preceded itself, but it kept getting shelved because of scheduling. This time around, I just thought, “Let’s book it and go!”

The Gili Islands is a more serene, less commercialized version of Bali. It is near Bali, too, so a lot of travelers normally go to Bali first and then take a boat going to either the main island of Lombok or to its three nearby islands of Gili: Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air.

Gili Trawangan is the largest of the three islands that attracts more visitors, primarily because of the availability of more resorts, luxury villas, boutique bungalows, dive resorts and even yoga places. It’s quite convenient, too, since it’s half an hour away from the northwest mainland of Lombok and a speedboat can take you directly to your resort.  In short, it has more amenities compared to the two islands.

My husband and our friends decided to stay in Villa Almarik in the island of Gili Trawangan since we all wanted certain conveniences within our reach. We’ve all never been to Gili so our basis of selection were the Trip Advisor reviews, at least a 4-star rating and our personal preference that the resort must be located at the beachfront.


The author at Villa Almarik

Villa Almarik pre-arranged our transports from the Lombok International Airport to Gili Trawangan. Our package included land transfers and a private speedboat that brought us to the island. During high tide, the speedboat can actually take you directly in front of your resort. In our case, however, we had to take a horse carriage from a drop-off point near the pasar malam (night market).

The Gili Islands do not allow any form of motorized transport. Once you’re there, the only way to go around is on foot, by bicycle (which you can rent almost everywhere) and pony carts knows as cidomos.  I refused to ride the cidomos (I feel sorry for the horses) and rode it only upon arrival since we had to haul our luggage with us. Since I don’t know how to ride a bike (gasp!), I happily traveled on foot almost all the time.

Villa Almarik, thanks to my well-researched husband, was fortunately one of the better resorts in the islands. The facilities were awesome and everyone was accommodating. Guests get the usual welcome drink but the delight was in the free 15-minute massage upon arrival. The resort also had its own pool, albeit tiny, which we never used because Villa Almarik had its own beachfront. Our package also offered free buffet breakfast and afternoon tea for guests that started at 4pm. Not bad for the extra effort.


Antique blue ceramics adorning Villa Almarik

The rooms were spacious and the bathroom was massive! The gardens also boasted of beautiful gardens and lotus ponds. The dining hall and lobby were accentuated with antique blue ceramics and antique furniture, which I have a penchant for.

I would have given Villa Almarik a five-star rating, had it not been for the bed bug bites that pestered me on our second night. Luckily (and unfortunately for me), I was the only one infested and bitten by them.

The beaches of the Gili islands are powdery white, with clear blue waters.  The islands also have a perfect position to see the sunrise over Lombok’s Mount Rinjani and the sunset near Bali’s Mount Agung.

There are also a lot of restaurants dotting the beachfront, most of which are offering seafood feasts, wine and cocktails. In our short trip of four days and three nights in the islands, we managed to try several restaurants and bars offering seafood.

Most recommended of which are the following:


Us at the Egoiste Bar and Restaurant, feasting on seafood and chardonnay

  1. Egoiste Restaurant and Seafood Barbeque – offers the best seafood grill package, which includes fish, giant prawns, lobster and squid with a free bottle of chardonnay and salad buffet. Countless restaurants offer the same thing, but I found Egoiste’s seafood fresh and better seasoned compared to the others.
  2. Scallywags Seafood Bar and Grill – offers seafood, pasta and pizza but it made my list because Scallywags offers vegetarian options (I ordered the vegetarian Mexican fajitas ) and it was the only restaurant I’ve been to that served us proper wine glasses. Plus, it had a No Tax, No Service policy!
  3. Bamboo Restaurant – is Villa Almarik’s own which is also vegetarian-friendly. Their selection of pasta dishes was also flavorful and interesting.


    The author feasting on vegetarian dishes at the Pasar Malam. 5 dishes for Rp20k is an absolute steal!

  4. Pasar Malam – on our second night, we had dinner at the local night market, withRp20k per seafood stick (choice of mahi-mahi fish, squid and prawns) and another Rp20k for 5 side dishes (rice, veggies, tofu, etc.). What a steal!

Other notable food fare in the island is the carts offering grilled corn that can be flavored with sweet or spicy butter at Rp10k per stick. Several tokos (shops) also offered Gili Gelato (Rp25k per scoop), Gili’s resident ice cream that offers a wide range of gelato and sorbet for those who don’t eat dairy.


Sunset Barbeque Pontoon package : sunset view at the northpoint of Gili Trawangan, near Bali

Aside from gallivanting on the beachfront, swimming and snorkeling, another recommended activity is the Gili Barbeque Pontoon experience. We rented the barbeque pontoon for their Sunset Experience Package.

At Rp295,000 per person, one can swim and snorkel in three locations where there are turtles (saw giant ones near Gili Meno!) and vast schools of fish in Gili Air.

The first site in front of Gili Meno boasts of gigantic turtles and some fish, although what’s interesting in this site are really the huge turtles, who, when in the mood to be playful, will swim alongside you. The second stop near Gili Air had more schools of fish. We were given bottles of crumbs to feed them so the schools of fish will literally swarm around you.


Our boatman grilling fresh vegetables, chicken and seafood in our pontoon.

We capped the trip with a sunset view near the northern tip of Gili Trawangan while sipping ice cold Bintang and local cabernet sauvignon from the vineyards of Bali. The package also included a barbeque dinner with a choice of chicken, fish or vegetarian.

On the exact day of my birthday, I requested for my husband to book a private yoga session at The Yoga Place. For the uninitiated, it is highly recommended to book a private yoga class so that the yogi (teacher) can explain the fundamentals of yoga, proper breathing techniques and right posture. The Yoga Place is highly recommended for beginners since it is not intimidating and the yogi will go out of his way to explain the basics. Look for Mate’ because our group had a good session with him and he is just wonderful!

The Yoga Place also has a café that offers vegetarian and vegan dishes. It’s comforting to know that there are places in the island where vegetarians and vegans have a plenitude of options.

After a day’s worth of beach activities and a whole lot of walking or biking, try a soothing foot reflexology or even a whole body massage in some of the spas dotting the beachfront. You can get an hour’s worth of massage for only Rp100k!


I call this one Gili Shorthair. =)

Other notable things that make Gili Trawangan unique would be the island’s trove of cats trotting through the streets in every corner! Some bars and restaurants have their designated cat. One of the diving resorts even has a feeding and drinking corner for the cats passing through and a donation box for their food, neutering or spaying. The cats are very friendly – they’re quite used to people – and there were several who approached me during dinner, asking to be fed.

Overall, Gili Islands boast off a plethora of activities for the adventurous and a quiet beachfront where one can just relax, chill or frolic on the white sand. It is a must-try experience, even once in your life.


Gili Trawangan beachfront near Trawangan Dive bar

As a caveat, though, if you are averse to the smell of horse manure on the streets, you are better off staying in Bali or beaches with motorized vehicles.  I still rate it as a must-try, bed bug bites and horse manure notwithstanding.