happy thoughts and worthy causes

Archive for December, 2011

my 2011: revisited

Looking back at my year, I realized it was still a pretty good one..there were highs and lows, hits and misses, but I’m still grateful for the year that was…

Thumbs Up

1. my trips and travels – food trips in Cebu, nature-tripping in Tublay, Bolinao and Camiguin, the culture and history of Ilocos, Albay and Iloilo

2. approved funding proposals for continued advocacy work

3. finding time to write and get creative

4. paying off loans and debts

5. successful lectures/trainings/fora as opportunities for sharing my knowledge

6. various media exposures and recognition as a smalltime “celebrity”

7. staying in a relationship after realizing that it really takes work and commitment

Thumbs Down

1. my frequent asthma and hypertension attacks reminding me that this body is getting old

2. not enough time for bonding time w/ family and loved ones

3. seeming professional stagnation/career rut

4. lost friendships to departures, transfers or fights

And I have a feeling 2012 can get even better…:)

Return to Camiguin

On the occasion of my birthday a few years back, I had the opportunity to visit Camiguin island.  Although we stayed overnight, it was one “hurried” visit. But this year, I promised myself that I would continue to travel and enjoy every trip I go on as part of my annual birthday resolutions. So I planned to spend my first day doing serious work in CDO, and then take an early ferry for Camiguin.

Our old route eight years ago took us first to Balingoan port, but the recent availability of hydrofoil ferries plying the CDO-Camiguin-Bohol route really made the 2 hour trip bearable and more convenient. Since Paras SeaCat had ceased operations, there is only an 8AM hydrofoil bound for Camiguin with a return trip to CDO at 4PM the same day via Ocean Jet.  

While many describe Camiguin as pear-shaped, it’s rugged topography and lush and verdant vegetation made the island appear to me as a giant, green turtle from a distance. The peaks of its mountain ranges and rolling hills seemed quite and peaceful to the untrained eye, although the island is home to several volcanoes, including Mt. Hibok-Hibok which last erupted in 1951.

Upon docking at Benoni port, there are a variety of local transports for hire. Vans and multicabs are offered with reasonable package rates that make for an easier sight-seeing and tour around the island. Some even make referrals for cheap lodgings and accommodations also. But a major plus is finding a driver who can also serve as a tourist guide and provide credible commentaries on the island’s history.

By water is not the only way to reach Camiguin. The island province maintains a small airport that allow landings by light aircrafts. No commercial flights regularly utilize the facility, but charter planes by local politicians and businessmen are said to arrive on occasion.

The local government in promoting its tourism wisely invested in well-maintained roads. The highway that runs along the coastline, goes around the whole island and provides scenic views of the sea and the distant mountains and hills. Numerous wooden houses likewise line the highway; quaint, nipa-thatched and capiz-windowed, these ancestral homes of longtime residents make Camiguin a possible heritage site just like Bohol. On occasion, you come across homes and buildings with turn-of-the-century designs obviously influenced by the Americans. One enormous home even had “Sept 17, 1917” written on its white painted façade.


As in Cagayan de Oro, tricycles called “motorelas” are the popular transport. The slightly inclined coach behind a motorcycle has seats designed for passengers to sit across each other, face to face much like the jeepneys. This contraption is still much better than the “habal-habals” used elsewhere in Mindanao. The single motorcycle with a piece of wood placed across it and where passengers are suppose to line themselves up and sit for perfect balance are fortunately not used in these parts.

Driving around the island also gives you an idea about the local economy. Besides the bountiful sea that supports a small-to-medium scale fishing industry, the island’s naturally fertile land is perfect for agriculture. Plantations and farmlands reveal crops that range from coconut, rice/palay, cassava, abaca, mangoes, and of course, lanzones that thrives on volcanic soil.

En route to our lodgings, we got a glimpse of Tres Marias, Mt. Mambajao and Mt. Timpoong, the latter two being the tallest or highest peaks on the island. Coming in to port, visitors already get a view of Mt. Guinsiliban, whose elevation and strategic location made it the site of the old Spanish watchtower used to look out for Moro pirates of yore.  

Once or twice, I saw remnants of adobe and cobblestone structures alongside the road. They must be the remains of Spanish colonial buildings destroyed by earlier volcanic eruptions. Strewn round the whole island are volcanic rocks the size of household furniture, some rivalling the nipa hut homes. Several tributaries emptying out to the sea have boulders and stones that could only have been carried that far by strong water currents or lava flows.

The first place we visited was the Katibawasan Falls. Like many parts of Northern Mindanao, mountains ranges also meant waterfalls. The majestic 200 ft. drop amidst the forest greenery provide an almost fairytale-like atmosphere. The shallow pond with its cool waters make it a perfect choice for families with small kids who wish to bathe and swim in fresh water. Since it rained the night before, the flow was a little stronger than usual and its temperature was consistently several degrees lower. A ledge is available for photo-ops, but you may go down the steep stairs to get a better view of the falls as a backdrop. Meanwhile, an amusing little monkey at the entrance reminds you of the animals thriving deep within the forests.

We headed next for the Sto. Nino Cold Springs, a traditional tourist haunt that has picnic facilities. Outdoor grills are available for those who choose to potluck, and tables and huts can be rented for a small fee. Enterprising residents have also begun offering cooked meals from a menu of fresh seafood, native chicken and pork. Try out their buko juice to go with your meal. The coconuts are dipped in the cool waters to keep them chilled and once opened, your drink feels like it came straight from the refrigerator.

The cold water springs from a sandy bottom and tiny fishes swim the waters with bathers. Quite deep in some areas, another enterprenurial innovation of the residents are the inflated tire interiors being rented out as life-preservers.   

While we were eating our lunch, the children at the kiddie pool started screaming and crying. Parents and guardians ran to them thinking there was just a fight among them. But they were all getting out in a hurry, scared and pointing at the water. Apparently, there was a black water snake about a foot-long, which was feeding on the tiny fishes. It actually had a fish stuck in its mouth when it was caught.

That did it for me; besides the pool being too crowded, I had another reason not to go into the water. It seems the native chicken aren’t the only ones that are “free-ranged” around here.

Afraid to disappoint us, our driver took us to Bura Soda Water Swimming Pool instead. Another cold spring, its fresh water is clean enough for drinking. Since it’s a lesser known spot, there were less people around, and picnic huts here are for free. Unfortunately, the pool is too deep and there are no tubes that can be rented.

Having had enough of the waters, we were ready to visit the more historical sights of the island. I have always been intrigued by the destruction and havoc wrecked by the volcanoes. The town of Catarman was destroyed by the eruption and birth of Mt. Vulcan in the 1870s. An un-maintained metal plaque recounts the events that happened that fateful evening when earthquakes and rumblings suddenly resulted in a violent eruption that devastated the town and killed hundreds of people.

Unlike the other tourist spots, there is no fixed entrance rate here, but only a voluntary contribution. The walls with its high windows and pillars are all that’s left of the church proper. In the back, the belfry’s foundations are still intact while the remains of the old convent with its room divisions is a haunting testament to the power of nature.

Also in Catarman town, just a few meters away, is the Sunken Cemetery memorial. A giant white cross was installed as a reminder of where the old cemetery was. It sank into the sea during the 1871 volcanic eruption of Mt. Vulcan. Residents claim that until a few years ago, some of the grave markers can still be seen during low tide. But time and numerous typhoons have also eroded the gravestones.

It was perfect timing that we were there in the late afternoon. Located in the western part of the island, the Sunken Cemetery is great for viewing the sunset. But don’t delay your visit because if it gets too dark, your photos wouldn’t come out too good even with a flash.

Next would be the Via Cruces or the Stations of the Cross on old Vulcan. Another popular tourist spot especially during Holy Week, the climb begins with some stairs, with the steps slowly giving way to inclined ramps until eventually the cement walkway ends into a dirt and gravel stone path. Along the way are life-size statues depicting the passion of Christ and one forgets that this was once an active volcano that caused so much destruction and death.

The trek is both arduous and tiring, but the view from this vantage point is breath-taking. A clear day would show beautiful blue skies that meet the sea waters beneath. One could only marvel at the island’s thick forests upon rolling hills that rise into mountain peaks and volcano craters. Years ago, I managed to get as far as the 12th station when the altitude got the better of me. The steep climb and cliff drop-offs was too much for someone like me who was really afraid of heights. This time around, my age and my knees could only take me so far. So here’s another tip, make sure you’re fit and healthy before attempting to complete all 14 stations of the cross.

The perfect end to the day would be a long soak at Ardent Hot Springs. Another popular tourist destination, Mt. Hibok-Hibok actually feeds this hot spring. Made up of several pools and ponds, the temperature varies and starts to cool down until the last pool for kids. Again, even in the early evening, there were just too many people around. Besides, my hypertensive tendencies made taking a dip in the steamy waters inadvisable. Jeni took the plunge, however, and came out all prickly and itchy. With such high temperatures, I doubted if it was due to germs; so we surmised it must be the sulphur in the water.

Since we visited Camiguin in late November, night time comes early. The highways don’t have streetlighting so it can get pretty dark in some areas. I was told that electric power actually comes from the mainland in Misamis Oriental. Huge cables carrying the electric current are buried underneath the seabed to reach the island. It becomes problematic sometimes when typhoons make the waves too rough.

Except for the vehicle’s headlights, we traversed the island in pure blackness. On occasion, we pass by poor pedestrians on their way home, walking by the roadside in eerie darkness. And I remembered the story shared by the oldtimer at Sto. Nino Cold Springs. His ancestors used to say that when the island was still uninhabited and only a small number of people put up residence there, they saw little red men with horns and pointy tails come out of the volcano’s craters every night. Before the sun comes up, they return to the volcano craters and go back in. As such, island natives stay in their homes locked-in all night long. Even Chinese barter traders never spend the night there and instead head back to the mainland.

For the night, we decided to take advantage of the cheap lodgings in Mambajao. Strategically located near the White Island sandbar, there is an abundance of cottages for rent at very reasonable rates. Paguia’s offers spacious accommodations with airconditioning, cable TV, private toilet and bath, plus free WIFI. However, they only serve breakfast, so you have to get your meals at a nearby restaurant about two blocks away. On the other hand, Paguia’s has its own motorboat-for-hire to get to the White Island sandbar. For a minimal P400 plus P2 entrance fee, they will arrange a dawn ride to the sandbar so you could catch the sunrise.

The short boat ride was another pleasant experience over calm waters. White Island has a spectacular of Camiguin and two of its volcanoes – Mt. Hibok-Hibok and Old Vulcan. Its shallow waters also make for some safe and cool swimming. The soft white sand is perfect for sunbathing too. Unfortunately, with no permanent structures or equipment allowed on the sandbar, one could really get baked by the sun. Either you bring your own beach umbrellas, sun block and headcover, or you don’t stay too long there.

For me, I was happy enough with a few dips in cool water, lots of photographs, and the amazing sunrise that I witnessed. The highlight, however, was a breakfast of edible sea urchin. A local fisherman came peddling them after he caught some sea urchins at the far end of the sandbar. Unlike the black kind with long poisonous spines, this type is dark brown and has a jewel-container shape. Its shell is cracked open and its innards scraped and gathered together to make a tablespoonful. The fisherman came complete with some vinegar and doused with it, the sea urchin delicacy tasted much like talangka. Although freshly-caught, I tasted only a bit of it just in case my seafood allergies kicked in again. But Jeni enjoyed it so much, she ordered another one.

Heading back, we planned to check-out early and catch brunch at the Tanguines Lagoon in Benoni. This man-made inlet also provides a nice view of the island’s abundant forest cover. On the lagoon is a restaurant whose specialty is, of course, seafood. J&A restaurant has its own fishponds teeming with exotic saltwater fish, oysters, and other shellfish. But by this time, I was really craving for some grilled pork.

Word to the wise, and this is not to be so disrespectful, but the food sucks in Camiguin. The native chicken is reared free-ranged, and therefore, has very tough meat. Seafood consists of saltwater fish they call “isdang bato”. But to be honest, I just couldn’t bring myself to eat such ugly fish. The monstrosities looked like pre-historic creatures straight from the dinosaur era, and could very well eat “me” instead. 

Finishing up our meal, we went directly to the nearby wharf for a ferry to Balingoan port. From there, we took a bus to Cagayan de Oro which took another hour or so. Getting back to Manila that day really entailed travel via water, land, and air. But all the trouble was worth it, because Camiguin delivered on its promises – truly an island paradise you can fall in love with.


The Other North: Discovering Region 2

When people talk about Northern Luzon, it is always the Ilocos region they begin referring to. But long before Vigan became the seat of the Archdiocese of Nueva Segovia, and hence, the center of Spanish control and government in northern Philippines, Cagayan Valley held the claim to that honor.

Region 2 is composed of provinces like Cagayan Valley, Isabela, and Nueva Vizcaya. Located on the country’s eastern seaboard, it is constantly battered by typhoons like the provinces in Bicol and the Samar-Leyte area. Although primary producers of rice, vegetables and cattle meat, their agricultural produce is subject to the whims and caprices of the weather, thus making life difficult for its inhabitants. Poverty incidence is therefore understandable, which in turn led to issues of peace and order, and the presence of rebels and militants against the government.

But owing to the legacy of its Spanish colonizers, there is much to see and discover in Cagayan. While land trips take an arduous 11-12 hours by bus, there are now direct flights from Manila via Air Philippines or PAL. Since the airport in Tuguegarao is quite simple and under-developed, only small aircrafts can land there. Unfortunately, these small planes seem like dragonflies buffeted by strong winds during typhoon season. Once or twice, flights can be diverted back to Manila because turbulence and thick clouds prevent the planes from landing safely.

Tuguegarao City itself is still rustic despite being the regional center for government line agencies. Business establishments cater to the most basic needs of people, with not much venues for “nightlife”. In fact, at around 7:30PM, the streets are almost deserted. Yet there is a unique charm to its simplicity and laid-back atmosphere, as if time really does slow down in this place.

Although the most popular tourist attractions are actually outside Tuguegarao, before one starts site-seeing other churches, the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral within the city should be your first stop. Then, enjoy a calesa ride in their own version of a local horse-drawn carriage, and know that this is one of the few remaining places that still have these as regular transport. Also take a tricycle ride around the city, and although motorbike-run vehicles like these abound in other places of the Philippines, notice that each province has a distinct take on these contraptions by design, much like the Thai tuktuk and Indonesian bedyak.

A must-see are the Callao Caves in Penablanca which actually houses seven (yes, count them) caverns, including one that has an opening overhead and lets in sunlight during the day, and bats, after a night of foraging for food. It also opens to a large space that has been modified to become an indoor chapel within the caves. To get to the cave, however, one must brave and hurdle the one hundred or so steps to its entrance. But once you face the majestic gap, that yawning mouth in the mountain, you will realize the climb was truly worth it.

Just beside the Callao Caves is the great Mororan River. Riverboat rides are available to sightseers who may get a chance to traverse this major tributary that waters most of the province’s farmlands. There are some areas which make for some “shooting the rapids” excitement, but this river-rafting experience can be quite calming as you cut across mountain sides covered with lush forest vegetation. Exotic birds still fly above, while assorted fish dart in between the rocks and boulders lining the river’s path.

Your next stop should be a visit to Our Lady of Piat. Fast gaining popularity as a pilgrimage site, it rivals Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan and the Lady of Penafrancia in Naga City when it comes to visitors. An attraction here is the “black” Virgin Mary created in recognition of the indigenous tribe of the Itawis, one of the peoples native to the region, along with the Ibanags and Ilocanos. It is said that the image of the Virgin Mary in Piat was originally from Lallo, Cagayan where it miraculously saved hundreds of lives when the Cagayan River overflowed in the early 20th century.

In nearby Iguig, one of the Philippines’ oldest churches survives. The small parish of St. James still bears the remnants of the artistry of the Augustinian friars as seen from many of Ilocos’ churches. With some parts of it in original wood, it was ruined by a great earthquake during the last century. As such, at the back, even its landscape has somehow fallen a few meters below its original elevation.

But upon this rolling terrain was built the Calvary Hills, where gigantic models of Jesus and his apostles depict the fourteen Stations of the Cross. A variation of this, however, is the inclusion of a fifteenth and final sculpture of Christ’s resurrection. Unlike the life-size models found in Camiguin island, these are huge statues that can be seen across the field of grass, overlooking yet another tributary of the Cagayan River. This makes Cagayan a perfect Holy Week destination during summer.

Before heading home, make sure you also sample the local cuisine. Besides the traditional goat’s meat-based viands of the Ilocanos like papaitan, dinakdakan and imbaliktad, try also their beef longganisa that makes for a heavenly breakfast. They also have a local pansit composed of different noodles and a seeming “everything-on-it” combination of vegetables, chicken meat, fishballs and/or kikiam. Since garlic is also produced in this area, make sure you bring home fried garlic bits as pasalubong.

At several degrees away from the equator, Cagayan is also one of the hottest places in the country. If you’re visiting in the summer, make sure you keep hydrated and covered, because you can also get one of the worst sunburns there without even realizing it.

So for your next vacation, try a location that’s “off-the-beaten-track”, visit Cagayan Valley.

Halloween Stories

Halloween or that time of the year Filipinos celebrate the “undas” has always been a time of “rituals” for me. When I was young, our whole Leonin clan trooped to the cemetery to visit the family plot where our grand patriarch and matriach were buried. For my cousins and I, it was like another family outing much like our summer vacations. Only, this activity was more like a night time picnic because of all the food, the beach chairs and mats on the grass. But the best part of it all were always the stories.

As my cousins and I grew older, we learned to entertain ourselves without getting lost in the multitude that seemed to occupy every nook and cranny of Loyola Memorial Park in Marikina. We’d use the parked family cars, sit ourselves inside them and tell each other the best horror stories we could come up with. We would re-tell stories told to us by our yayas from their respective provinces. We’d share ghost stories we picked up from school from our classmates. From big black dogs or large sows wearing bakyas, to strange birds tick-ticking in the middle of the night, to the white lady in our family compound and the invisible figure playing our Weinstein piano and running the Singer sewing machine, we’d talk about supernatural experiences and scare the hell out of our much younger cousins.  Later on, we decided to give an award to the best horror story told that year. I was the winning story-teller for several years because I managed to collect the scariest tales from friends months before.

Recently, I was taking advantage of the long Halloween weekend by watching horror films and surfing the net for new stories. I came across a blog that featured the scariest places in the Philippines and realized I had been to most of them.

In Metro Manila, Balete Drive in Quezon City has the fabled White Lady that hails down taxicabs or hitches a ride with solo drivers traversing the area. My older brother used to drive around with us younger kids on lazy weekends and he always tries to scare us by passing through that New Manila territory. Other haunted places I remember in my youth are Baguio and Corregidor where we took family vacations. Baguio was notorious for the White Lady of Loakan, the invisible PMA cadets marching  in the wee hours of the morning, and the poltergeists of Teachers Camp. And I’m not even talking about the notorious Diplomat Hotel, the Laperal White House,  and the ghosts from the 1983 Pines Hotel fire and the big 1990 earthquake.  

Corregidor, on the other hand, is also known for its historical significance. Remnants of World War II still prevail over much of the island and compose much of its ghost stories. Like Baguio, it was one of those sites which experienced a lot of bombings and fighting. True enough, ghostly apparitions consist of Filipino, American and Japanese soldiers, priests and nuns, doctors and nurses, as well civilians who all died during the war.

I remember my own experience there years ago. I was busy taking photos as my whole clan toured around the battery areas, the Mile-long barracks, and the Malinta Tunnel itself. At some grassy knoll near the popular flagpole, I just shot a few pictures, trying to capture the green scenery. No one was in my shot, I was sure of it. But when the photos were developed, a few white figures appeared in the distance, like priests or nuns. I showed them to my family but none of them believed me then.    

I went to college in UP Los Banos, unaware of its own violent past. I didn’t know why people avoided the Baker Hall (the university gymnasium) late at night, or why the Vanguard officers and cadets really abhor their early morning jogs around Baker’s Field. It was only later when a few classmates who were really “locals” told me about UP Los Banos’ special role in WWII as a war camp. That certainly explains the alleged sightings of Japanese soldiers in the area.

As in any university campus which housed several dormitories, there were a lot of supernatural stories from there, too. From a white lady seen floating across a second-floor window, to a black coffin found lying on the long table at the communal study area, to invisible hurried footsteps on the stairs, each college freshman and dorm intern had to get ready for a unique “greeting” at the start of every semester.

There were also tales of forest creatures whispering from big trees or raining down sand on a passerby, of a student traversing a seemingly “endless” bridge, or of campus stone sculptures coming life and walking about at night, including the College of Agriculture’s symbol “Tao” which depicts a farmer and his carabao.

I, too, had my own share of frightful experiences; from the strange footsteps and knocking at my dorm, to the weird catcalls and shadows at the bridge walking home after a late night study session. But the scariest of all was the eerie moaning I heard right next to my ear while I was studying at my table one Finals week.

Then again, I could compile my own collection of UPLB horror stories perfect for fright nights and weekend scare-fests…but that would entail an entirely new piece.