March 2008- photos for this post here.

The Bicol Peninsula of Luzon is known for its spicy food, convoluted coastline, and active volcanoes. On my first visit to Bicol in December 2007, fellow fulbrighter Rissa introduced me to her aunt’s coworker, Cam, who offered to show me around the coal-fired power plant where he worked. In March, Cam generously took the time to host me in Mauban, Quezon Province, and explained to me the inner workings of the plant. It was amazing to see how organized, professional, and clean everything was inside the plant. There was a big fence around the whole area, a loading dock where coal from Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) is delivered, the furnace and smoke stack itself, and a small village housing the employees. My first impression of the community was that it was almost too perfect, similar to the dharma initiative village in Lost. Everything was running smoothly. Cam even explained to me the prolific, and extremely specific, environmental control measures the power plant employs, many of which go above and beyond the requirements set by the government regulator. I was especially impressed that the company had planted hundreds of trees on their property, and actively defended the stand from timber poaching. In sharp contrast to so many other experiences I had had in the Philippines, this place was actually functional. It reminded me too much of the United States! I was almost experiencing reverse culture shock by the time Cam dropped me off again at the Pagbilao bus terminal.

Whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, have long been associated with Donsol, Sorsogon, my next stop in Bicol. For years, fishermen from this sleepy town cursed the giant butanding for breaking their nets. Then one day a German tourist came and photographed more than a dozen whale sharks in a single day, and before long hordes of foreigners descended on Donsol. Now tourism is a mainstay of the local economy, and a huge shark mural adorns the elementary school wall. I was not disappointed in my own attempt to see these majestic creatures. It was fantastic to swim beside a fish the size of a school bus, even if the sheer number of other tourists in the water made it difficult to avoid getting finned in the nose occasionally. Later, I met up with a South African, an Australian couple, and a beer-drinking local tour guide who professed to be a member of the enigmatic Iglesia ni Cristo religion. They convinced me to postpone my return to Manila so I could join them in visiting a small island off the coast of Masbate, where a waterfall plunges off a cliff directly into the ocean. The S. African guy and I swam under the waterfall, and there were tiny red corals growing under the churning water. It was really fun to be pushed down to the depths by the force of the torrent. The tour guide and the boat captain cooked a fantastic lunch, including grilled liempo (kind of like a pork chop), mangoes, and an excellent marinated fish kebab. I spent my final night in a cheap hotel in Legaspi, and ended up chatting for hours with a gregarious medical supply salesman from Ilocos and the hotel staff, who convincingly pretended to be amazed at my Tagalog skills, and asked to take pictures with me. I never ceased to be amazed by the kind-heartedness of such people. The joy of sharing laughter and fellowship with new friends is the greatest reward for the weary traveler.

Here are a few things I did for the first time ever while I was in the Philippines:
FOOD

  • monitor lizard, aka “bayawak” adobo
  • balut, the boiled duck embryo
  • dinuguan, a congealed blood pudding
  • isaw, grilled pig and chicken intestines

RELIGION

  • I was invited to be one of three judges at a theological debate on “nature versus nurture” in a Claretian Seminary. I was supposed to represent the “scientific” judge. One of the other judges was an Opus Dei microbiologist and the other was a born-again Christian engineering student. All three of us were friends by the time the debate was over.
  • I touched the Black Nazarene in Quiapo.

INSOMNIA/POLITICS

  • I once stayed awake for 40 continuous hours soaking up the Manila nightlife. During this period, I walked through a rally intended to overthrow the government on my way to fellow fulbrighter Denver Nicks’ presentation on the government’s proportional representation system and its political ramifications.
  • While observing an NGO rally against the Japan Philippines Economic Partnership, I accidentally wandered into the main chamber of the Philippines Senate without an ID
  • Experienced walking through the heart of the market district during a coup attempt by a Senator, who, prior to election, had already been jailed once for attempting to overthrow the government. When I panicked and asked my Filipino companion what to do, he said, “no big deal, it happens all the time.”

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.