February 25, 2008

(click here for photos from this trip)

“Totoy Kano” is a nickname the Aytas gave me, roughly translating to “American dude”, and whenever I used this alias, people found it hilarious. One example of this occurred when I was out hiking with my friend Happy (yes, that’s her real name!). We were visiting the Taal Volcano, a geological wonder not far from metro Manila. It is considered the world’s largest island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island! In order to get to the crater, you first drive to the edge of Taal Lake (you are already on Luzon Island), take a bangka across the lake to the island in the middle, then climb up to the edge of the crater, where you can see yet another lake with a smaller island inside! The hike was very dusty, due to the large numbers of horses used to transport Taiwanese, Korean, and (to a lesser extent) European tourists up to the top. Happy and I managed the trek on foot and celebrated with a cool buko (young coconut) drink, freshly cracked open by a machete. On the way down, we swapped book recommendations (mine was The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco). I found out from a local guy that the big lake around the volcano is heavily used to farm Tilapias to be sold in Manila fish markets, an activity not without environmental implications, as the concentration of waste and feed can alter the chemical balance of the lake.
Happy has a pretty cool family (most of whom I got to know later on). Her brother Gino is a hip hop artist known as “Nimbus Nine”, and her sister Twinkle is a designer. Happy herself was active at the time in a fantastic comedy troupe called Silly People’s Improv Theater. Anyone planning a trip to Manila should try to go to one of their shows. They usually perform at places like Mag:Net Cafe.

Feb. 14, 2008

After returning from Coron, I was supposed to start working on a botanical transect on Mt. Makiling, near Los Banos, but was delayed due to red tape. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it enabled me to have some fun around Manila. For Valentines Day, my Austrian friend Florian and I went with Kaycee and Lindsay to this great restaurant called Aioli that Ryan had recommended. It was really a hidden treasure, and I had to go the day before and map out the route to get there! I also sent a cheesy text to a bunch of random friends: “Happy Valentine’s Day! Love is not just about falling for someone, it’s also expressed in simple kindness shared with people we meet everyday. Thanks for being my friend!”

(click here for photos)
Apologies for the delay in the postings. I’m actually back in the US right now, but I’ll continue to write about my experiences in the Philippines. In fact, I have more than 100 pages in my personal journal, and very few of them have been posted here!

I left off at the end of the January, when I had started to meet a lot of interesting people. Sometime in February, I joined my friends Nicole Fox and Brian Wright on a week-long trip to Coron, Palawan. Brian’s girlfriend, Liz Drotos, and his parents also joined us. Coron is part of the Calamian Archipelago, a collection of several small islands northeast of Palawan proper.

On the flight, I was surprised to see that almost everyone was a foreigner! There were Australians, Germans, and a few Americans. One guy was a very gregarious life-long bachelor from San Diego who had recently joined the Navy Sealift Command. He told everyone a lot of funny stories about his experiences on the high seas refueling battleships.

Palawan in general, and Coron in particular, is famous for its biodiversity and beautiful coral reefs. Furthermore, during World War II a surprise attack on a large fleet of Japanese warships left many wrecks around the islands. Consequently, Coron is considered one of the best places in Southeast Asia to experience wreck diving. Our group spent a day ‘island-hopping’ in a bangka, or double-outrigger motorboat, and snorkeling around the reefs. We saw thousands of fish, including lion fish and bat fish. While the corals were spectacular, and the beaches idyllic, I was somewhat disappointed to see damage to the coral from boat anchors. According to a local guide, the situation is even worse in the ecotourist mecca of El Nido, on Palawan Island itself. Furthermore, many of the beautiful white sand beaches were marred by the sight of trash or even glass bottles washed up on the shore.

On the next day, Nicole and I went SCUBA diving in some of the wrecks. I was afraid to go inside the wreck, having only the basic SCUBA certification, but the guide said, “walang problema!” so I did it anyway. We penetrated the hull of the Kogyo Maru at about 30 meters. It was surreal to see the shadows of huge guns and camouflage netting still preserved in the murky depths. Enormous schools of silvery fish lurked in the darkness as well. When we finally came out the other side of the ship, my heart was pounding with excitement. On the top of the ship were many corals and sea anemones. At last, we reached the surface and I said a prayer of thanks that I survived. I later discussed this with an Austrian friend who is an expert SCUBA diver and he was shocked that I went INSIDE the wreck. He said it is one of the most dangerous things to do underwater, and that I was lucky to be alive. The chances of getting snagged on a piece of metal, or blinded by the underwater dust and disoriented, without a clear path to the surface, are too high. While the Kogyo Maru was an experience I’ll never forget, I suspect it might be the last time I take the chance of
going inside a metal cage deep under water!

The final highlight of our time in Coron was getting to sit in on a rehearsal of the local band Tribu Calamianen. The group of about four men played a variety of instruments, including many different kinds of hand-made drums. They even let us try out the drums, and a trio of Spanish tourists joined in with dancing! We all bought a copy of their CD, and if you like you can even listen to one of their songs, by clicking the link here: Tapyas. The title of the song refers to the mountain directly behind Coron Town, which I climbed on the evening before my departure to Manila. Watching the sun set as fishermen’s boats returned to the harbor below, I wondered when I might return to this beautiful place.

Christmas Parties
Miscellaneous Fun
Bicol Peninsula– Southeast Luzon- Volcanoes and Leeches
Ilocos Province– Northern Luzon
Puerto Galera– SCUBA diving
Kanawan #5 and #6– Bataan Ayta Community

I’d like to just share a few anecdotes in this post about some of the interesting people I’ve met here in the Philippines.

Toward the end of January, I met up with a guy named Ryan who is absolutely a fanatic about SCUBA diving. He graduated with a BS in Biology (like me) but was always doodling in his lab book, so he got a job as a shoe designer for Adidas. He spent his first paycheck on SCUBA diving, and has been diving ever since. Now he is even doing commercial dives to help inspect ships in Manila Bay, and organizing trips to famous coral reefs like Anilao, Batangas, and Puerto Galera, Mindoro. I was lucky enough to visit the latter. While I had been SCUBA certified in Costa Rica, I had almost no experience so I was very nervous. But, everything went smoothly, and it was exhilarating to swim around with giant “batfish” and see giant clams, huge corals, and sunken wrecks. Also in the group was a British guy named John who is teaching English in Yunan Province in SW China. He was on vacation, and he had a lot of hilarious stories about his life in China (he had already been there two years). I think he was also glad to be able to speak in English again! The whole group stayed up late into the night telling jokes that mixed Tagalog, Chinese, English, and even some Thai and Spanish.

Then, on the ferry ride back to Luzon, I ran into some exchange students from Japan, Spain, and France who I had already met a week before in Manila. After talking for a while, they introduced me to a man who was originally from Georgia! He was involved in a kind of export business, where he manufactured flip-flops and other items in the Philippines and then shipped them to the US. Despite the fact he had never been to college, and was a “straight C” student in high school, he was doing quite well financially due to his entrepreneurial spirit. He told me about how proud he is of his business, that he has almost 200 employees, many of whom are only able to put food on the table for their families due to their jobs. Even though the wages are far below US minimum wage, they are much higher than the prevailing wage in the Philippines. While I am no expert on international business or labor, it was quite interesting to hear his perspective, rather than to merely read about it in a book or newspaper. I also got to chat with some of the Filipino-Chinese in our group, who all had their own small businesses importing or even stitching clothing in Manila. I realized from this that I would probably make a lousy entrepreneur; I’m motivated more by a sense of curiosity and to do what I think is best for the common good than by the profit motive. That said, I really admire these small business owners. They have a sense of independence and creativity, and work very hard to support their families. In fact, one of the richest men in the Philippines, Henry Sy (also Filipino-Chinese), got his start as a simple shoe vender in the fiercely overcrowded Divisoria Market near Quiapo. Now he is a billionaire, and owns almost all of the largest malls in Manila. The SM Department Stores (his company) are so dominant here that I have never seen a single Walmart!

Back in Manila, I ran into a bunch of oceanographers from a research ship, the R/V Melville that had just docked in the harbor. They had been out cruising the Sulu Sea for almost a month. Most of the scientists were from Columbia’s Earth Institute in New York City. One of them, an Italian-Argentinian woman, told me about her research, which had involved going to Antarctica. However, now that she had an infant son, she had to settle for only going away for a month at a time on expeditions! Her companion, a Jewish Ph.D. student, was complaining about how they had to write down all the data about the ocean currents, the chemical composition of the water, etc. every five minutes for hours and hours when their automatic computer system broke down! It made me glad my research didn’t require me to lose sight of land.

Well, there are a lot of other cool people I have met that I haven’t even mentioned, but I better save those stories for later. Just as a sampling, they include, a half Tunisian half Finnish diplomat, a microbiologist who is a follower of the Opus Dei branch of Catholicism (made famous by The Da Vinci Code), a born-again preacher who quotes Karl Marx and dislikes Rick Warren (author of The Purpose Driven Life), and eating everything from grilled pig intestines (“isaw na babuy”) to chicken tail pulutan. Manila is a colorful place, and just as you can buy anything from fake Harvard diplomas to machine gun ammo belts in the streets of Quiapo (sometimes at the same vendor!) there is no telling what kind of interesting characters one is likely to encounter.

After the New Year in Manila, I almost immediately met up with Iris Buhay, a friend from W&L who is now working for the UN in New York, and her parents to accompany them on a visit to their home province of Ilocos Norte. While there we visited the historic town of Vigan, one of the best preserved (because it was not affected by the WW II Japanese/American bombings that destroyed Manila). We also visited a beautiful lighthouse at Cape Bojeador, a massive baroque looking church called Paoay (built in 1704!), and the famous beaches of Pagudpud, which were filled with tourists from nearby Taiwan. My favorite part, though, was talking to Iris’s grandmother about what life was like for her in the “good ol’ days”. She told us about how her husband used to be friends with Imelda Marcos (the wife of Ferdinand Marcos, who was the former dictator of the Philippines before he was deposed in the first EDSA “People’s Power” revolution in 1986). Marcos was originally from Ilocos Norte, and many Ilocanos still hold a relatively positive view of his legacy (in stark contrast to the rest of the country). His body (or possibly a wax replica) is even on display in a memorial chapel near Iris’s birthplace!

Back in Manila again, I joined a group of bird enthusiasts as well as Ms. Lala Espanola (my professor at UP and one of the top experts on Philippine birds) to participate in the Asian Waterbird Census in the Candaba Swamp near Pampanga (north of Manila). This is an attempt to count how many of each different species can be found in a single day in all the different Asian countries. It was really exciting to be around so many bird enthusiasts, who would almost jump out of their skin if they saw a Cinnamon Bittern! Among biologists, it is well known that ornithologists are a “different breed” in that they have an extreme dedication to their subject matter, and even speak their own language, using words like “lifer” (first time to see a particular rare species), “rufous” (a colour) and “sallying” (a method of eating insects). I also met a cool British guy who spent many years in rural Japan teaching English. He was a humanities major in college, but after so much time in the Nipponese countryside he became fascinated with birds, even publishing his observations in scholarly journals. Now he’s a Ph.D. student again in the UK, studying the migration patterns of birds that move between Africa and Europe.

I also finished up most of my fieldwork in Bataan during January. This mostly centered on my goal of growing some small Leea sprouts from seeds I collected from the adult plants. While I was hoping to collect more data, unfortunately the Leea plants and birds themselves did not cooperate; the birds ate up all of the Leea fruits! This is a recurring difficulty for many field studies, since the thing you are studying is a living system, it rarely behaves in a manner convenient to your personal time-table. While ecologists try to isolate and control for all the variables such as temperature, humidity, time of day, etc. they ultimately are watching something unfold that will never be repeated exactly. The best one can do at this point is to attempt to discover patterns in the midst of all the myriad interactions that go on in the natural world. Despite the best efforts of many brilliant scientists though, our understanding of ecological interactions even in simple systems remains very weak. That is the difference between the field biologist and the laboratory experimenter. While laboratory conditions are precisely regulated and can be repeated many times, the field biologist must wait until next year before he can return to see if the same species of bird will again eat Leea fruits. It is frustrating, but on the other hand, it’s exciting because everyday there is something new to learn. Of course, the fact that ecosystems are very complicated and not easy to predict the behavior of (not unlike the economic and climate systems that are frequently in the news) suggests we should be cautious in interfering with its functioning. A great deal more research needs to be done, especially in places like the Philippines, before the human race will even know what’s in its own “back-yard”.

Hi to all,

This update describes my activities during the month of December 2007. Thanks for all your cheerful correspondence!

My research project in Bataan really picked up steam during this month. I was able to identify a species of bird that eats the fruits of Leea, the plant I am studying. The bird is called the Philippine Bulbul (scientific name Hypsipetes philippinus, local Ayta name “lapatin”). It is a medium sized bird that is fairly common here, but endemic to the Philippines. That means it is not found anywhere else in the world! I was excited to document this ecological relationship for the first time (so far as I can tell) in a formal, scientific study. Of course, the indigenous Aytas have known since time immemorial that the “lapatin” eats the Leea fruits. As I mentioned before, their in-depth knowledge of the forest has been invaluable to my research, and I could not hope to scratch the surface of their understanding even if I had lived here my whole life! I also performed a few additional experiments, one of which (involving a very recently developed technique that requires the use of a paint that glows under UV light) failed to produce any quantitative results, but it was fun to test the technique anyway. Finally, I was able to germinate some of the Leea seeds to test whether they grow better if they have passed through the acidic digestive tract of an animal.

One of the highlights of the month was joining a group led by Ms. Carmela “Lala” Espanola, one of the leading experts on the birds of the Philippines on a hike to a magnificent waterfall near Kanawan (the Ayta community). The group brought a lot of powerful scopes through which we were able to spot some spectacular species such as the Green Imperial Pigeon (Ducula aenea) and the endemic Tarictic Hornbill (Penelopides panini). The hornbill is basically an old-world equivalent of a Toucan, with a large, powerful bill capable of cracking large fruits and seeds. Other interesting species I spotted recently include the Hooded Pitta (Pitta sordida), which is a very shiny blue bird primarily found on the forest floor. We also got to watch a pair of rare Blue-Naped Parrots (Tanygnathus lucionensis) eating the seeds of the Banaba tree (Lythraceae: Lagerstroemia speciosa), and a playful group of Long-Tailed Macaque monkeys (Macaca fascicularis). By the way, the Banaba tree is just one of many plants here in the Philippines with potential medicinal properties. I was chatting recently with a group of students at University of the Philippines who are working on researching the anti-cancer properties of the leaves of various species such as the Banaba found in the Bataan forest. One of the students named Jan, who is originally from the a remote province on the island of Mindanao (famous in the news for terrorists and kidnappings, but in reality no worse than other parts of SE Asia), tested an extract of a particular species of fig (Moraceae: Ficus sp.) on colon cancer cells. He actually found that the extract not only killed the cancer cells, it had almost no effect on the normal cells! This was very exciting; unfortunately he later discovered the chemical had already been patented merely a year ago by Taiwanese pharmaceutical researchers. Nevertheless, it is only one of thousands of plant species that have barely even been given a name here, much less investigated for medicinal properties. It seems exceedingly probable that cures for many major diseases will be derived in the future from rare plants found in places like the Philippines. Indeed, every year people like Leonard Co (my advisor) discover brand new species here. In contrast, few new species have been found in the US in recent decades. The situation is fairly delicate, however, since almost 97% of the original philippine forest has been cut down in the past 100 years. Let’s hope that last 3% can hang on long enough for the country to develop economically to the point that there are alternative livelihoods available to the impoverished rural communities.

One of the biggest events of the year here in the Philippines is Christmas! In fact, many Filipinos consider the onset of the “-ber” months (September, October, etc.) to signal the start of the Christmas season, making it one of the longest holiday seasons in the world. I celebrated Christmas here by attending a lot of parties and traveling to some of the more remote provincial areas. If I had to sum up the festive atmosphere of Filipino celebrations in one word, it would be….KARAOKE (or as they call it here, “Videoke”). Anyone who is a fan of emotion drenched 80s bands like Air Supply should move to the Philippines right away. For example, the Biology Department party at University of the Philippines started at 2pm with a huge feast, including “lechon babuy” (an entire roasted pig). The karaoke machine went nonstop until I went home at 9pm with totally exhausted vocal chords, and the maintenance guys were just getting warmed up! No one is shy about singing here, and while some of the song selections could probably use some updating, I have come to love the exuberance of the Filipinos in their singing. Oh, and for the record, my highest score on the Videoke so far is 97 out of 100 for “Carolina On My Mind” by James Taylor! I was so proud to achieve that with a song about my beloved home state.

At one of the parties, hosted by a fashion designer friend in the upscale part of Manila, Makati, I actually got to meet up with a W&L alumnus, Andrew Caruthers. It was really cool to swap stories about the alma mater in such a distant country, and he even gave me a ride to Bataan one time (I normally take the public bus). Andrew is a businessman who divides his time between LA and Manila, so I’m hoping to meet up with him back in the states sometime as well.

On Christmas Eve itself most of the parties stopped so everyone could spend time with their families. While I am very lucky to have such a hospitable “Pinoy family” to stay with here, and one of the many kind Professors from U.P. let me join his family for dinner, I was hard pressed not to feel sad that I couldn’t be with my family back home. Actually, this is the first year in my whole life I was not able to be at home for Christmas. I remembered from my days working as a camp councilor that the cure for a homesick camper is to get him excited and involved in what’s going on here and now. So, I tried to apply that lesson to myself- I tried to travel as much as possible during the holiday break. The day after Christmas, I joined a group of mountain climbers on a 10-hour overnight bus ride to the province of Bicol. While most Filipinos can sleep even on an overcrowded Jeepney going over bumpy dirt roads, I cannot, so I passed the night by listening to lectures by people like Francis Fukuyama and Philip Longman I had downloaded from the “Long Now Foundation” website. I was also engrossed by a philosophy book ,called The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom. While there, we attempted an assault on the enormous Mt. Isarog, which is home to a plethora of rare plant species, but only made it about halfway up because the trail was severely damaged by mudslides. While hiking through the forest, we were constantly attacked by LEECHES. They seemed to dangle from every leaf, and would climb all over our bodies in an inchworm-like manner. I don’t know what I fear more, malaria mosquitoes or leeches, but I’m certainly glad I wasn’t actually bitten by either! As repugnant as these creatures are, the bite doesn’t actually hurt very much because the leech’s saliva has a numbing ability… or so they say. We also got the chance to see the “world’s most perfect” volcano cone of Mt. Mayon. We couldn’t get very close because it is still active. In fact, just a few years ago a combination of lahar flow and typhoon sent huge masses of ash rushing down the side of the mountain, burying nearby towns and killing many people. While this unpredictable giant is a curse to locals, it is in another way a blessing because the volcanic soil is very fertile for farming. On the way back, I stopped in the town of Pagbilao, Quezon to visit the family of a friend. Her aunt is an engineer for local coal-fired power plant. Surprisingly, this power plant has adopted a very progressive policy with regard to its carbon emissions; it has started a giant reforestation project, and even established a mangrove sanctuary and pond. Furthermore, they are continually working to minimize the harmful emissions from the smokestacks. I was inspired by their example that no matter what your job or industry is, you can make a contribution to solving the big environmental problems, just by making small improvements where you are. After leaving Pagbilao, I returned to Manila and spent a quiet New Years with my “Pinoy family.”

Well, that brings me up to date for December. I’ll be sending another update for January shortly!

Ingat mga kaibigan ko,

Will Townes