ALLFLAC and High-Definition Audio Players

If you’re a hard-core music enthusiast but still listens to your collections on your phone, then, you’re missing out a lot.

And, if you’re an Apple fan boy still buying songs through the iTunes Store and listening them through your iPhone or iPad, then, you’re simply paying a hefty premium for the brand.

Songs bought off the Apple store are encoded in Apple’s version of the venerated (specially during the Napster years) MP3 format, AAC (Apple Audio Codec). It is streamed at 128 kbps bit rate with a sample rate of 44.100 kHz.  AAC (and, MP3) is a ‘lossy’ format but is very popular due to its small file size as a result of compression.

Although you could rip all your CDs to a lossless format within iTunes using ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), the resulting files are huge and are playable only in, of course, Apple’s devices.

FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) is an open-source musical format that will give you bit-perfect copies of CDs.  Not only that, it also supports ‘tags’ that enable you to retain artists, album covers, lyrics, etc., on the format.

With FLAC, you’re not only getting half the space occupied by a CD with no loss in quality but you’re also going to be able to get up to 24-bit at 192 kHz of music.  That’s studio-master quality.  Clearly, MP3 and AAC are no match for FLAC.

Rare is the true high-definition audio enthusiast that listens to his FLAC collection on a smartphone.  For Android phone users, even with the rock-bottom prices of microSD cards these days, its just so obvious that smartphone makers are just too focused to make the camera features  better.

And for iPhone users, it’s going to look ugly if you want to stick-in a Lightning-capable microSD card adapter to expand the memory capacity of the unit as there’s no memory expansion slot on those phones.  And, the saddest part of all, you can only transfer pictures and videos using the adapter –no music files.   Apple simply wants you to pay $970 for their top-of-the-line unit with 256 GB built-in.

Picture of a MicroSD Card with its Adapter. Fr...
Picture of a MicroSD Card with its Adapter. Frontal and Back. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But even most high-end smartphones from Samsung and Apple don’t have the top-tier, audiophile-grade chips to support FLAC at 192 kHz/24-bit nor they offer native DSD (direct stream digital) decoding which is the best way to listen to streaming music.

While high-quality audio always comes with a price, this doesn’t mean that you’ll have to break your piggy-bank.  So, what are the cheaper options?

For content, there’s nothing that will beat allflac.com.  The U.K-based music website has one of the cheapest rates around and you’ll be surprised to find some of the songs that you can’t find elsewhere including the iTunes Music Store.

ALLFLAC contends to have the world’s largest lossless music collection

What’s more, not only they have albums for as low as $1.99 but you can also download them in either FLAC, M4A and MP3 (or, all) format.  There is no membership fee and you can fund your account for as low as $10 with no balance expiration.

There are a handful of high-definition audio players available specially in Asia, Europe and the North American markets including the Kickstarter-funded, Neil Young-backed PonoPlayer as well as from well-known companies like Sony, Onkyo and Pioneer and others.

But one company stands out because of their low price without sacrificing quality: FiiO. 

Highly recommended to budding audio enthusiasts with limited budgets would be the FiiO X1 (2nd generation) model It retails for US$120 but could be had for as low as US$80 discounted if you shop around.

It’s a mid-entry model but surely not lacking in features found in their more expensive ones.  Most importantly, it supports microSD cards up to 256 GB or approximately 8,700 plus FLAC songs (at 30 MB per song).  That’s a lot of studio-master quality tunes to keep you in the groove.

The FiiO X1 (2nd generation) high-def audio player in action

The company’s catchphrase is “Born for Music and Happy” and, indeed, you’ll be more than happy once you had listened to some of your music collections – in the FLAC format.  Of course, using one of their portable high-definition players.

The difference in sound quality will astound you.

The Hostility of Colonialism

Who would not want a new car or a new SUV?  I mean, in a poverty-stricken country like the Philippines, it is very sardonic to see that while most people still complain about having inconsiderable money to make both ends meet, the majority still quench their insatiable thirst for imported cars, be it by means of installment or cash.

Go to the nearest highway and one would see a fleet of Fortuner, Montero, Impreza, Accent and many more Japanese, American or European cars passing by the ramshackle jeepney. It is pure mockery at its finest.

For the coffee lovers and those who are pretending to be such, who can resist a posh place like Gloria Jean’s or Seattle’s Best to get a tall and expensive frap, frape, prafe…well, whatever the spelling is and a small and costly blueberry cheesecake?  After all, nobody wants to miss the complicated bar counter, behind in which all the blenders and grinders are displayed as if to remind you they really do process your cappuccino. Have you noticed how foreign coffee shops have taken the place of malls, parks, fast food chains and even cockpit arenas for that matter?

Well that is just coffee, let us switch to technology. When it comes to cellular phones or other gadgets, Filipinos would never ever be the last human race to use the latest of Apple-manufactured piece of communication device, despite the fact that it really is expensive.

A phone is a necessity these days but it makes me wonder why an average Pinoy worker, despite the daily earning of minimum wage which just suits his payment for house rental, electricity and water bill and food, opts to purchase this product of the late Steve Jobs over cheaper phone. A forty-five thousand phone over three thousand worth of locally made phone? Come on, it’s no longer a matter of freedom or choice —it’s already  wanton frolic.

English: La Loma Cemetery in Manila (1900) use...
English: La Loma Cemetery in Manila (1900) used as a fort by the Filipinos, shelled by Dewey. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Apart from purchase of imported cars, brewed coffee, sophisticated phones, there are other things that really violates our sense of nationalism. A perfect example are those Filipinos who spend their lifetime savings just to set their feet in foreign countries for vacation. Filipino travelers would often blurt out “There is a promo for a one-week stay in Venetian Macau, let’s grab it” or “I will never ever get to visit Singapore again so why don’t we grab the Cebu Pacific promo”. Visiting foreign countries and cities more than touring promising places like Dingalan, Pagudpud, Puerto Princesa or even the overly abused Boracay gives everyone an idea that there is no decent place to visit in the Philippines at all. It’s no wonder why travel agencies promote scenic areas in other countries like The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Sao Paulo Beach and others. They know how to flatter Filipinos because they can see through us.

There really is no accurate rationale as to why we are into anything external or foreign. The closest thing to support the notion of colonial mentality among Filipinos is that we have been conquered by a handful of colonizers. In Teodoro Agoncillo’s book History of the Filipino People (1960), the author stated that long before the arrival of the Spaniards in 1521, we had been in a constant trade with the Chinese people. The trade, which was then called  the “Porcelain Trade” probably started centuries before the advent of Sung Dynasty. The Chinese exchanged silk, porcelain, colored glass, beads and iron ware for hemp cloth, tortoise shells, pearls and yellow wax of the Filipinos. The exchange of goods started as early as 960 AD before the accidental arrival of the Spaniards in 1521. And so it happened.

Original caption (cropped out): Native boats a...
Original caption (cropped out): Native boats and outriggers Description: (cropped out): Boats of the upper type were used to land the U.S. troops at Manila. One of those in which the Astor Battery landed sank in the surf just before reaching shore. The natives carried the men ashore on their shoulders. The lower boat is a fisherman’s craft used by the Negritos, who shoot fish in the clear water with bows and arrows. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The arrival of the European conquistadores brought a new phase and meaning to the lives and mindset of the Filipinos. We learned to integrate Spanish language to our own even naming the Philippines in honor of the Spanish king. Provinces in the Philippines were renamed with Spanish names such as Nueva Ecija and Vizcaya, Laguna, Isabela, La Union, Antique, Marinduque, Negros Occidental and Oriental and Valle de Compostela. More than this naming of places, the greatest influence the Spaniards have left us is faith in Roman Catholicism. Filipinos at home set up altar in the Hispanic tradition, adorned with Catholic images, flowers and candles as they have internalized observation of fiestas, devotion, rosary, baptism and many more.

Along came the Americans. After the defeat of the Spaniards at the hands of the Americans led by General George Dewey in the war dubbed as the “Battle of Manila” in 1899, the Americans took the liberty of controlling and influencing the Filipinos. During the first years, there were some conflicts between the US and the Philippines but during World War I, they came together and the Filipinos fought alongside the Americans and their relationship became much friendlier. As we solidify our pact with the land of the free and the home of the brave, we became more attached to their customs and traditions. Nobody can deny that the greatest contributions of the Americans are democracy and education. To cite all the things that we inherited from Uncle Joe is impossible for they are innumerable. American influence in Filipino clothing is apparent up to these days. We are often see wearing belts, suspenders, tennis shoes, bonnets, high heels and cosmetics. For food, Filipinos are accustomed in U.S.-based staples like hamburger, sandwiches, oatmeal, ketchup, apple pie, mayonnaise, hotdogs, steak, ice cream, cornflakes and many more.

Seventy-one years have passed since the Philippines have tasted true freedom and democracy, yet its beloved citizens are still, or should I say, intentionally glued to anything that is international in concept. Our colonial mentality should no longer be attributed to the colonizers because for a long period of time, they are gone. After the Second World War ended in 1945, the US declared that we were an independent nation and that we would from that moment stand on our own, build our own nation, govern our people and make ourselves proud of what we could make of our country. Yes, we have been standing on our own. For quite some time, we have been electing our leaders, we have drafted our constitution dedicated to democracy, we have been blessed with job opportunities, we have seen the ingenuity of many of our fellow countrymen in the field of business, arts, academe and even sports. These things, when accumulated, would entail national pride and patriotism. But the “accumulation” never happened in the Philippines.

English: Depiction of the flag of the Philippi...
English: Depiction of the flag of the Philippines, as conceived by Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo. Created with Inkscape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nationalism and patriotism are things not difficult to conceive. It is just a matter of self-worth, confidence in the citizens’ competence and pride. Just take a look at Japan, its people may be ridiculed for being awful English speakers but nobody can take away the fact that it is a land with citizens deeply attached to their flag, to their country and to their identity. For despising imported goods, Japan was able to produce products of their own in the field of automotive, heavy industries and gadgets. Everyone is definitely familiar with the brands such as Toyota, Mitsubishi, Honda, Nissan, Subaru, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Sony, Sanyo and the list goes on and on. The same principle of nationalism applies to countries like Germany, Italy, France and even China.

While more and more countries are gradually realizing the essence and beauty of selfhood, the story is different here in the Philippines. Here, the culture of bandwagon is a cliche: We have been deeply in love with anything that is Western in concept. We always want to exclude ourselves in the bondage of traditionalism and although it does not manifest verbally, we always deny our being Filipinos for we love imported goods.

Just how worst have we opposed our being Filipinos? Instead of settling for a more affordable and locally-made brand of leather shoes, a typical Filipino would hand his ever hidden credit card to the ethical staff in the counter in exchange for the expensive and imported Kickers, Hush Puppies, Timberland or Oleg Cassini. I’m sure the reason is not about issue regarding durability and longevity.

What about means of transportation, particularly cars? Try going to EDSA and anyone would notice that many billboards post inviting marketing strategies like Vios, 20K Downpayment, No Hidden Charges. Car manufacturers know that the Philippines is and will forever be a third world country, yet they still thrive in selling cars to us. And the business is so good that everywhere you turn, there would always be car casas regularly visited by an average businessman, a call center agent, a teacher and even a college student whose dad is a seafarer. The funny thing is that people purchase cars for the reason beyond practicality – that they work near their residence and they don’t need cars at all, that they know that the streets of Manila are just like a huge parking space during rush hours, that they know that sooner or later they would have their car pulled out by the bank because they could no longer afford paying for it. Pathetic as it may seem, Filipinos buy imported cars not for a reasonable cause but to delight their ego.

Gadgets are undeniably a necessity nowadays. For living in a fast-paced world, people need to have smart phones for easy access to emails, messages and important and unimportant calls. We are not Amish people whose contentment is based on how they shrug what is contemporary. But while it is clear to us Filipinos the vitality of possessing gadgets particularly cellphones, it is still an enigma as to why we settle for expensive and imported brands. Is it the speed? I bet locally made phones are equally fast in processing. Is it the being user-friendly of the phone? I’m certain it is also easy to write text messages on My Phone, Torque and Cherry Mobile. Is it the design? The size? The weight? The color? Or is it the brand?

To realize just how strong our attachment is in Apple, Samsung, Asus and other foreign brands, just look at the students, people in the BPO industry, people in the corporate world, service crew in a fast food chain, construction workers, and even the jobless and the bystanders. They all have this phone with an apple with a bite at the back. Parents would give their kikay daughters an imported phone on the latter’s birthday saying, “You deserve nothing less, anak”.  A service crew would avail an iPhone 7 even if it means paying it for the whole twelve months with a staggering thirty percent interest. Truly amazing. What is more funny is that the same things that are provided by these imported phones can also be given by locally made ones…for a cheaper and reasonable price.

Then we have our fellow kababayans who love to travel, as discussed earlier. They go to France to see that tall, metal structure in Paris. They travel to Hongkong to have a seat at the roller coaster in Disneyland and to have a picture taken with Mickey and Donald. They travel to Cambodia to see the largest religious monument in the world, to see the lovely bones of the victims of Pol Pot and to see where the film “The Killing Fields” was taken. They travel to London to ride The Eye, to have a selfie with Big Ben at the background, to walk at the Trafalgar Square, to watch the concert of Ed Sheeran at the Hyde Park and to feel the bloody English weather. They travel to Kenya to pose with the African children, to ride a Land Rover and see the animals at the Serengeti plain and to hunt and shoot poor antelopes to get their antlers. The farther they travel, the happier they become. As the number of countries they have visited increases, the more satisfied and proud they become.

Ancient Filipinos utilized terrace farming to ...
Ancient Filipinos utilized terrace farming to grow crops in the steep mountainous regions of northern Philippines. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The author does not see any problem with these explorations and escapades for travel equates to education. When one travels, he’d have a first hand experience and account of what really is going on around the world. After all, it is their money they are spending. What is bothering is that while these Filipinos crave the elegance of international tourist spots, they fail to notice the grandeur of the Philippines. What about visiting Camarines Norte for surfing, Baguio for the cold weather and for upland fruits and vegetables, Puerto Princesa for an underground river tour, Ilocos Norte for sand surfing, Quezon province for a series of pilgrimage, and even Intramuros for a look back at how our beloved Rizal spent his last few hours. It is painful to see how Filipinos would flock distant lands for a leisurely visit and neglect the scenic places of our realm. It is as atrocious as not wanting mom’s home-made adobo and preferring to eat at a swanky restaurant.

Why Filipinos are suckers of anything that is western in concept remains a riddle. Youngsters who play basketball in the streets of Manila are often seen wearing Nike. Yes, Nike, the company that employs minors in China. Ask them why such brand is chosen and not MSE or Natasha and you will be bombarded with answers like “It’s light, it’s durable, it’s classy, it unleashes the athleticism in me, blah, blah, blah”. True enough, the aspect of toughness is unquestionable. The catch is that, why do some kiddos and teenagers wear the imitation of Jordans and Kobes? I’m sure it is not a matter of the reliability of the shoes because class A’s are made with substandard materials. The painful truth is that we are only after the brand – to be noticed, to be sighted as prosperous, to be in the bandwagon, to wear what the wealthy people wear, and the worst, to be accepted.

For automotive enthusiast, it is almost a taboo to purchase a Cavite-manufactured owner-type jeep. A typical dad could never force his teenage daughter to be taken to the school riding in a filthy owner jeep because for the poor girl, it is baduy. A typical white collar guy would not want to go to Starbucks, parking his stainless owner jeep next to Foresters and Ecosports. For sure, it will be photographed by the Conyos and it will be ridiculed for being a “fly in a glass of milk”.

Nowadays, what is cool should be possession of pick up trucks ridden by the tough guys in Texas (even though pick up trucks are built for farm or ranch and not for urban areas like Manila), possession of a muscle car that is a prototype of what Vin Diesel used in his famous movies about racing, possession of Maserati, Ferrari and Lamborghini even if these cars were designed only for wide freeways, something which we do not have. Can you imagine what it is like driving a Lambo in the chaotic and narrow streets of Manila? The Philippine made owner type jeep is really the prefect toy to roam our dilapidated streets. Again, when it comes to cars, the concept of colonial mentality overpowers our sanity.

Readers might question the author’s dislike for buying imported stuff. Critics would say, “It is our hard-earned money afterall, and we have all the liberty this world has to offer when it comes to purchasing whatever we want to buy”. True enough, we are entitled to our decisions and nobody has a right to tell us to buy this and not that, to do this and not that.

But, the underlying dangers and drawback of colonial mentality is as bad as self-destruction. Naïve are people who love to sport their Jordans, Ford Everest, Fire Floss from Le Couer de France, and Sperry top sider without directly realizing its effect to our economy and our morality as Filipinos. By buying Jordans, we strip our local shoemakers off their chance to show their creativity, their brilliance and their chance to earn. By buying iPhones, and not Cherries and Torques, we are backhandedly telling our home grown electronics engineers, technicians and IT experts that their toil does not merit our applause and support.

We always degrade locally made gadgets and we often complain about them being difficult to use. But we should also have a realization that the very reason why local companies could not manufacture better versions is because they lack the support of the Filipinos. Should we buy their Cherries, the company would generate enough fund to upgrade their phones and tablets. Moreover, by buying Fortuners and Monteros, we are closing the doors to the possibility of producing our very own brand of automotive.

If you visit the Sarao Jeep Company factory in Las Pinas, you would see how grubby and sordid the place is. Workers are without sophisticated machineries, without definite buyers and worst, without hope. But just as dirty and blackened the hands of these patriotic workers are, Filipinos’ hands are also dirty. We can never wash our hands off the dirt of our distrust in the capability and competence of our local car makers. How I wish that in my lifetime, I will be able to drive a vehicle made in the Philippines and manufactured by the Filipinos.

The damage of colonial mentality does not only sprawl on the economic aspect. More than currency, colonialism deeply cuts through our sense of national pride which will leave us bleeding until the death of our morality. By buying goods from the other countries, the notion that the Philippines cannot produce anything good will boomerang to us and it will haunt even our posterity.

Colonial mentality is a vulgar display of our dislike for anything Filipino, which reflects our self-hatred. But worse than patronizing anything international, we are already longing to be what we are not. We Filipinos, for a long period of time, have done idiotic things to escape our beautiful identity. We blonde our hair, we apply skin whitening lotion, we imitate the accent of the stupid newscaster from the BBC news and we indirectly deny our being Filipinos. This reality crushes me in pieces.

We may not possess the wealth of superior countries, we may not have those Ferrari, Aprilia and Ducati factories that are regularly featured on National Geographic Channel. We may not have the tallest building on earth, the fastest train, the cable ride overlooking the snow-capped mountains like the ones in the rockies of Denver, Colorado. We may not have the pointed nose, the so-called superior white skin or the “bloody” British accent.

But Filipinos are superior in different sense. We are a beautiful people whose resiliency had defied and thrown oppressors in the past. We are a beautiful people whose soil is blessed with fertility to grow delicious fruits and vegetables. We are a beautiful people who, despite the hardships of life, flaunt contagious and genuine smile to encourage others. And since we are beautiful, it is not impossible for us to produce beautiful things in the field of science, arts, economics, technology and the like.

There is no need for colonial mentality, for self-hatred or for distrusting our potential.

We are beautiful.

(Ronald B. Polong is a frustrated writer who removes dentures before he sleeps and places it in an empty Cheezwhiz bottle, with water, of course. He currently lives in Nueva Ecija with his wife, twin boys, brood of roosters and hens, ducks and an old dog.)

iTunes Issues with Windows 10 Creators Update (64-bit)

Two days ago, I received an e-mail from Microsoft’s Insider Program the availability of Windows 10 Creators Update (OS Build 16179)

But, if you’re a music lover who spends a lot of time listening to your collection using iTunes on your PC, specifically one running the 64-bit flavor of Windows 10, then, here’s a caveat.

Don’t update to the latest version of Windows 1o – Creators Update.

Even if you have the latest version of iTunes (currently, 12.6.0.100) on that PC, the Windows 10 Creators Update will screw up your previously perfectly working iTunes that you will regret why you updated in the first place.

Here are some of the frustrations, as well as observations, that you’ll have with iTunes after the Windows 10 Creators Update:

  • iTunes will not launch, forcing you to restart your PC.
  • In the event that iTunes will launch after the restart, it will hang-up in almost every way you use it; forcing you to restart or terminate the program.
  • Only iTunes seems to be affected by the Windows 10 Creators Update.  Is Microsoft forcing you to uninstall iTunes? Bullying you into utter frustration and resignation to use its Groove Music app instead?  But you don’t want to mess up with your iTunes library by uninstalling & reinstalling it, specially if your have thousands or even a million songs in your collection.
  • Reinstalling it over or a repair of iTunes will not solve the issue.  Don’t even bother to uninstall iTunes and deal with all the hassle that comes with re-installing it.  It didn’t work in spite of several tries.

What if you had installed Windows 10 Creators Update and rued the day because you can’t listen to your music collection via iTunes anymore?

Make sure that you “Go back to an earlier build” (found under System -> Windows Update -> Update history ->Recovery option).  My OS Build prior to the messy Creators Update was 14393.1066.

But, then again, there’s another caveat: You have to do that within 10 days after you had updated to Windows 10 Creators Update.

 

Playful in Palawan: Life in the Philippine Countryside Series

Day 1 – Feb. 5, 2017 – (Sunday): Puerto Princesa on Two Wheels

The place is orderly and clean” was our initial impression of Puerto Princesa as our driver made his way around the city towards Socrates Road after he picked us up in an old, white van at the small airport in this capital city of Palawan.

Subli Guest Cabins would be our overnight shelter in the city that day as Matthew & Johan would be jetting-in from Manila the next morning for our northbound, overland trip to the touristy and popular but more remote El Nido.

We arrived at the guest cabins – made of concrete and bamboo-  in high spirits in spite of our red-eye flight from Siem Reap that included a 6 hour sleep-depriving wait inside Manila’s newer and spacious Terminal 3 airport.

After we verbally agreed with the young and bubbly receptionist that we would rent their only Honda scooter for PHP 600 (USD 12) that day, we wasted no time to shower and to get some sleep as soon as we checked-in.

One of the hammocks underneath the huge mango tree that dominates the compound
Quiet surroundings provided deep sleep in spite of the spartan amenities inside these huts
This 125 cc Honda scooter would take as around the city – and beyond!

Refreshed from our 3 plus hours of rest, we strapped our helmets and ventured out at 3 PM along with a bagful of dirty clothes– only to run out of gas just a few meters away from the compound.

Ruby flagged a passing ‘tricycle’ (a very common form of paid transport in the country that’s similar to ‘tuk-tuks” – which is a motorcycle with a ‘sidecar’ for extra seating passengers)  and they returned with petrol in a 2-liter PET plastic bottle.  For good measure, we filled-up the tank another PHP 90 (USD 1.80) at a nearby Shell gas station along Malvar Road after we finally got going.

Riding a scooter, motorcycle or even a bicycle is one of the simple joys of life that we, as human beings, tend to overlook. With the wind on your face and the sights and sounds of the surroundings all over you, one’s sense of adventure is elevated by having that constant awareness of the dangers being on the road so that you hold on to dear life on that handlebar.

We saw a body of water to our right immediately after we passed by the public market so we made a right turn on the next intersection. The road narrowed markedly and took us to a sweeping descent that ended at a small park -the Puerto Princesa BaywalkAlong its stretch were numerous open-air food stalls that overlooked a cove that is part of the Palawan Sea.

It was just about 4 PM but 2 or 3 food stalls were already doing some business and so we opted –K’na Boyet sa Baywok- for the one where a couple of tables were occupied by a group of tourists.  Once seated, the aroma of that familiar calamansi and soy sauce flavored BBQs that’s very popular all over the archipelago, sharpened the hunger fangs even more.  We sidled towards the charcoal-fed grill where several pans filled with assorted sea offerings vied for our attention.

Helmet off, Ruby at the Baywalk in Puerto Princesa
Ruby enjoys her green mango shake while waiting for the food to arrive

An order of grilled “pork liempo” (grilled, marinated pork belly), shrimps sautéed in butter and garlic, rice, a mango shake & two bottles of San Miguel Light beer set us back for about PHP 750 (USD 14.50).

Bellies filled, we then set our sights for Baker’s Hill and asked for directions from the very amiable waitress who suggested that we might as well visit Mitra Ranch as both were in the same area.

Amidst moderate traffic as it was a weekend, it didn’t take us long to find our way towards the city’s main highway, Puerto Princesa North Road but had to ask directions from locals twice to get to the junction of PP South Road that would lead us to our destination We dropped-off our laundry bag at a shop along the cemented two-lane highway while trying to find our way towards Baker’s Hill.

Like most roads in the city outskirts, the narrow road that goes up towards Baker’s Hill was so puzzlingly unmarked that we overshot it by a few miles in spite of asking directions 2 or 3 more times — the last one from a mechanic working on a wheel of a small truck along the grass-lined fringes of the highway. The tall trees behind the shop gave us glimpses of the rice fields beyond.  They would punctuate the highway the farther we got away from the city proper.

Baker’s Hill turned out to be just a family compound with –you guessed it-a bakery, an open-air restaurant and a souvenir stall.  It became popular as a ‘snack-stop’ for visitors going to Mitra Ranch.  It tries hard to become a major tourist attraction in the city simply through word of mouth as well as via recommendations by past visitors on travel websites.  The bakery sells mostly pastries and snacks notably the different varieties of the ‘hopia‘ (thin, flaky pastry filled with mung bean paste).

Locals and tourists mill around the entrance to the bakery at Baker’s Hill, Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Inside the bakery – all the good stuff for the sweet tooth

Just a few meters uphill, Mitra Ranch offered a better view of the city atop the hill as well as horseback riding and zip-lining.  The place was opened to the public after the death of the family patriarch, Ramon ‘Monching’ Mitra, Jr., who was an esteemed senator.  Unfortunately, he lost in the 1992 Philippine presidential elections in spite of being tagged as the early favorite to win it all.

Dusk was upon us after we picked-up our laundry and headed back to the city.  We had decided to have an early bedtime since we needed to be up early to meet the couple at the airport for our morning trip to El Nido.  Moreover, with our weather-beaten faces and aboard two small wheels that offered minimal comforts, tiredness had crept in on our bodies once again.

It was already dark once we reached the city proper and got lost once more; only to find ourselves buying some delicious ‘lechon (roasted pig) for dinner from a makeshift stall in front of a shop that sold various solar-powered devices.

After handing us the take-out goodie in a plastic bag, the middle-aged vendor summoned us at the edge of the sidewalk and pointed to an intersection where we would make a right towards Malvar Road.  His instructions sounded like music to our ears.

It was about 8:30 PM when we made the final turn back to the comforts of Subli’s compound aboard our trusty scooter.

Day 2 – Feb. 6, 2017 – (Monday): The Road to El Nido 

It was about 8:45 in the morning and air was crisp with a light gust from the east.  It made the flowers -protected by a low, concrete encasement- sway to its rhythm.  I spotted the driver who was holding a sign with Matthew’s name on it while he waited just a few yards away from the exit gates of the Puerto Princesa airport and chatted with him.

Just an hour ago, we had checked out at Subli and had taken a tricycle to meet Matthew and Johan for our van ride to El Nido.  Matthew had arranged for the rides as well as our accommodations in that popular destination north of Puerto Princesa.  We would be out of the airport by 9:15 aboard a van that badly needed a new set of shock absorbers.

Ruby at Subli’s dining area the morning we checked out to meet Mat & Johan
Johan, Mat & Ruby at the Palawan’s Puerto Princesa airport

The driver briefly stopped by a hotel with a cheesy name-D’ Lucky Garden Inn– and picked up a young couple from the U.K. who joined us for the trip.  The four of us would be staying for a night in Puerto Princesa at this same hotel after our El Nido escapade.

D’ Lucky Garden Inn’s very eclectic landscaping left an impression on us

The very long (almost 5 hrs.) and tiring ride mainly along the two-lane but cemented Puerto Princesa North Road was really uneventful except for a few stops where the driver loaded up on a few more passengers along the way to augment his earnings.  There was a mandatory stop at an ‘agricultural checkpoint‘ where we bought some drinks from a nearby store.  At kilometer 131, just along the highway, we had our lunch break at Elfredo’s Manokan & Seafood Restaurant somewhere in the sleepy municipality of Roxas.

Mat & Johan about to clean-up their plates at Elfredo’s restaurant
Along the Puerto Princesa North Highway towards El Nido

We would pass through undulating roads along the fringes of the municipalities of San Vicente and Taytay (the first capital of Palawan dating back to the Spanish colonial period and where the small Fort Santa Isabel built in 1667 still stands) until, on a small rotunda,  we bade goodbye to the PPNR and veered west towards the Taytay-El Nido National Highway.

Previews of what to expect in El Nido would manifest along the T-ENNH as the road got steeper while it followed the Malampaya River.  Majestic views of a few islands would behold our eyes as soon as the van crested a steep hill.

We finally arrived at the terminal in El Nido at about 3 PM and a short  tricycle ride (PHP 50 or USD) whisked us to our hotel’s downtown office along Calle Hama.  

A woman in her mid-20s with hints of Middle Eastern ancestry, confirmed our reservations and radioed for 2 smaller tricycles to pick us up.  She also gave some insights as well as her impressions about the entire place and handed out a simple map of El Nido that included a list of massage parlors, bars and restaurants located nearby.

Simple map-guide in downtown El Nido, Palawan provided by Caalan Beach Resort

The road that led to Caalan Beach Resort was too narrow -barely a meter wide in some areas- that on several occasions along the way, either our ride or the incoming one had to stop and gave way to the other.

The cemented road followed the shoreline until you hit an unsealed portion lined by coconut, banana & other small fruit trees as well as a variety of ornamental plants with nipa huts, slow-slung houses, two-story concrete hostels, sari-sari’ stores (a small, family-operated shop that sells sodas, snacks & various household goods typically attached to the house), makeshift food-stands, dogs by the roadside, all mingled in a locale called “Barrio Taiyo(Taiyo Village) .

At the resort, we were greeted and offered welcome drinks by Bee who informed us that she’s simply helping her parents run the place along with her husband, John, when they’re in the country for a vacation.  She added that her father -married to a Japanese- was an engineer from South Korea who decided to settle in this part of Palawan when he got assigned near the area during a road construction project.

We finally settled in our second-level room with a balcony that offered  magnificent views of several islands in the bay, the immediate & largest one among them being Cadlao Island.

That’s our room on the right, 2nd level inside the Caalan Beach Resort in Barrio Taiyo, El Nido, Palawan
This is the view from the terrace if you to stay in the room seen on the preceding picture

Mat & Johan checked out the beach front but found it too rocky and the nearby waters too shallow to take a quick swim so we all just had a quick nap before heading out back to town to have dinner after briefly waiting out the mild drizzle brought by dark clouds that passed by.

The beach front at Caalan Beach Resort was too rocky to take a quick swim in.

Calle Hama is the unofficial party street in El Nido since it’s where most tourists end up after their sorties along the beach.  It’s a narrow, interior road, hence, it is closed at night to all vehicular traffic –except for tricycles owned by resorts along the coast– to allow enough space for all the touristy goings-on.

Because of poor or even non-existent urban planning & zoning, it suffers, just like most of remote bayside resorts all over the country, from its failure to exude any charm or appeal.  The area is simply a potpourri of haphazardly-erected food stalls, souvenir shops, hostels, houses and where locals, backpackers barely out of their teens and elderly tourists mingle and simply wander around.

After trying out a few pieces of barbeque-on-a-stick from a sidewalk stand, we got bored of the area as it was a bit early and took another tricycle ride towards Bulalo Plaza. 

We stopped just a few meters after we exited the junction of Rizal Street and the Taytay-El Nido highway.  Unless you’re a local, and although the place is open 24 hours every day, it is, nonetheless, so easy to miss as the very small signage is overwhelmed by the cliff walls and the surrounding greenery.

We climbed a few steps into the eatery and we’re ushered to a table right in the middle of the place by a pleasant, effeminate waiter who introduced himself as Megan.  The entire setup looked more like a kitchen converted into a restaurant that has about 8 wooden tables and bamboo benches in a squat, elevated location that fronted the highway.

Two orders of the house special, ‘bulalo‘ (beef shank soup with vegetables), a plate of ‘seafood sisig’ (a variety of minced seafood sautéed in a sizzling skillet topped with chilis & fresh egg), rice, sodas and a bottle of beer were more than enough for our stomachs.  Afterwards, we decided to walk back to town to shake off some of the cholesterol deposits.

Along the way, Mat & Johan inquired from a roadside travel and tour stall for the earliest trip back to Puerto Princesa on Wednesday in order to catch the underground cave trip on the same day.  Mat balked on idea after learning that they would not only barely make it to PP on time but that he would also lose the money he paid for our already-booked and scheduled return trip.

Mat and Johan just outside a travel & tour stall along the Taytay-El Nido National Highway

Back at Calle Hama to get our free ride back to the resort, the trio went shopping for souvenirs while I scoured the place for some cold beer in cans.  I managed to get some but they were not cold so I searched in vain for some ice.  Our driver suggested that I could just ask them for free back at the resort so our tricycle squeezed back into that same narrow alley, its motor sputtering in the stillness of the early evening along the shore.

Ruby showed up later in the room holding a block of ice wrapped in plastic that Bee gave her. While they all prepared their things for the island-hopping trip the next morning, I sat back on the bed to enjoy my ice-filled glass as I slowly poured the country’s best beer –San Miguel– into it.

It was a luxury that I would regret in the next few hours; in fact, for the next few days.

Day 3 – Feb. 7, 2017 – (Tuesday): Island Hopping Tour Day 

Immediately after breakfast, John tapped on our door and informed us that we need to get prepared for the island-hop tour by 9.  A few guests had already milled around the nipa-roofed gazebo where we could see them choose and pick among several sizes and colors of snorkel gear neatly arranged atop a low table in the middle of the sandy floor.

Early morning in El Nido

Last night, however, my seemingly innocuous decision to ask for some ice for my warm canned beer resulted in vomiting episodes and several trips to the bathroom – bad water– that rendered me so physically exhausted.  But who wants to miss a cruise of the islands on a very nice day in El Nido?

He prepped us along with 6 other guests on what to expect with during the ‘island-hopping’ tour and offered great tips how to ‘survive’ the almost day-long trip water trip.  Then, without John, our boat crew of 4 led by a spunky Palaweña in her late twenties herded us to a quarter mile walk along the shore towards the deeper part of the bay where the resort-owned outrigger was moored.

Yesterday afternoon, before we headed downtown for our dinner, we had agreed to purchase island-hopping package C (hidden beaches and shrines) which began with almost an hour long ride towards Tapiutan Island.  Our group was barely enjoying the waters in our snorkel gear when a coast guard band of two aboard a small motor boat waved us to move to a different location to protect the coral reefs in the area we’re on.

Tapiutan Island from a distance

Next stop would be ‘Secret Beach‘.  It is accessible via a narrow portal that leads to a cove with shallow water surrounded by limestone walls that had seen a good slice of mankind’s history. The big boulders below the water made it just an ideal place to waddle around and enjoy the sun.

Lunch aboard the boat consisted of a salad medley made cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, grilled ‘pork liempo’,  steamed ‘tahong‘ (mussels), grilled ‘tambakol‘ (skipjack tuna) complemented with slices of watermelon and pineapple.  We also bought fresh coconuts from an enterprising vendor on a boat who also sold canned soda and beer.

Boats mill in the calm waters in Matinloc Island where island-hoppers have their lunch

After lunch we our boat headed to the Hidden Beach, which was the most difficult part of the trip for non-swimmers as one had to fight a swell near the edge of the cove amidst huge rocks that was being constantly slammed with waves.  At least 2 boat crews had to assist each guest who either couldn’t swim or just wouldn’t dare venture into the dangerous waters.

The last leg of the tour was a brief stop at the Helicopter Island –so-called because its silhouette resembles a heli when viewed from a distance-where we took pictures of the majestic cliff walls.  We missed those beautiful sunset views as gray skies was the theme for the rest of the afternoon.

Matt & Johan at the shore of Helicopter Island, El Nido, Palawan
Bong – the web author- in El Nido, Palawan

It was almost 5 PM when we finally made the channel crossing back to the bay and a short walk along a narrow, tree-lined path led to the back door of the resort where some drinks and biscuits awaited us.

Day 4 – Feb. 8, 2017 – (Wednesday): Back to Puerto Princesa on a Bum Stomach  

My stomach felt a bit better after a cup of tea and a Pepto-Bismol tablet.  Breakfast consisted of two boiled eggs as I was too weak and tired to even go down to the restaurant.  The styrofoam box with my dinner lay untouched on top of the shelf.  Last night, after the boat trip, Mat & Johan went back downtown to get some food and to check it out a bit more while Ruby just opted to stay in order to help me out in my struggle with the stomach bug.

We quietly packed all stuff and our still-damp clothes as the lack of breeze from the bayfront and that it had been mostly overcast for the reminder of the afternoon after the boat trip didn’t help the somber mood.

A narrow tricycle but with enough space for the 4 of us took us back to town for our ride back to Puerto Princesa.  At the bus terminal, I looked out for our luggage while they took off on foot in search for a pharmacy to get some anti-diarrheal tablets, electrolyte mix and bottled water to, at least, stabilize my bum stomach on the long trip back to PP.

For reasons unbeknownst to us, just a few miles out of El Nido, we were transferred to another van already loaded with 2 other passengers.  The van was more comfortable so we didn’t complain.  The return trip was uneventful except for a lunch stop at an open-air restaurant that offered a nice view of the hillside and a glimpse of the waterfront further down.

We all managed to doze off in the air conditioned van along the way, maybe partly in anticipation of all the activities when we reach PP or partly because our bodies were still recuperating from that strenuous water activities we had yesterday.  Or, maybe, it was simply just another one of those sleepy, beginning-of-summer days in Palawan that’s perfect for a siesta?

By 2 PM, we’re back in the city of Puerto Princesa and we had to wait for a few minutes at the odd mixed-business-and-living-room-like reception area of the enigmatic D’ Lucky Garden Inn – – our overnight shelter for the day before we head back to Manila the next morning.

The place had such an unusual appeal because of its maze of very narrow passageways that leads to several doors that will leave you guessing where they will lead you to next.  My suspicion is that the entire place is an ‘all-purpose lodge’ that can accommodate all patrons either looking for a quick 3-hour ‘love motel’ service to monthly renters.

Mat had booked two separate rooms for us and both had that unmistaken scent of a love motel which I could simply describe as mix of household bleach and a strong musk fragrance. Mat and Johan’s room even had a motif- a red mosquito-net-like fabric draped over the center of the double-sized bed.

One of the maze-like alleys inside D’Lucky Garden Inn – Puerto Princesa, Palawan

After settling down in our rooms, cold showers we rested for the remainder of the afternoon until the couple took off again aboard another van for the ‘firefly watching’ trip in an area of the Iwahig River where a penal colony is situated nearby. They would be the only takers for the PHP 1200 (USD 24) per head tour as the inclement weather discourage other tourists.

Meanwhile, Ruby wandered all over to sort out the entire compound while this I simply stayed inside the room to battle with the bacterial infection that had now settled to the lower intestines.  The numerous trips to the bathroom made me so hungry that the ham & cheese sandwich, fries and bottle of Sprite that I ordered did not last long on the serving tray.

Mat had sent a text message to inform me that we both were already  asleep when they returned from their trip by 9:30.  They would report the following morning that while they enjoyed the food at the restaurant stop before they took the boat for the firefly watching, just a few of them showed up and failed to dazzle with their fireworks as it briefly rained during the trip.

Day 5 – Feb. 9, 2017 – (Thursday):  Puerto Princesa Airport in 3 Minutes

Since our one and a half hour flight back to Manila was scheduled for noon, just after having their early morning coffees, the trio took up on the offer of one of the receptionists- whose husband owns a tricycle- to give them a ride to Baker’s Hill and Mitra Ranch, at a discount.  Ruby decided to return to Baker’s Hill simply to buy those delicious hopia again, this time, as ‘pasalubongs’ (presents) for the folks back in Manila

The young couple at the zipline experience inside Mitra Ranch, PP, Palawan
Entrance to the former Mitra family residence in Palawan. It is now a family-run museum.

With renewed spirits after in bed for almost 18 hours since we arrived, I decided to look around the place after a hearty breakfast of ‘cornisilog‘ (corned beef hash, fried egg and fried rice). My bum stomach had markedly improved after the continuous intake of the electrolyte mix, cold Sprite and Diatabs.

The ‘lucky garden’ was just immediately across our room and so I made a few trips between the bathroom and the garden as well as the restaurant just to the right. I took a few pictures of the surrounding areas to while away the time as I waited for the trio to return.

A nipa hut at the middle of the D’ Lucky Garden Inn’s interior garden
Probably the owner himself was the chief landscaping architect of the entire place

Sometimes you visit a place and one bad experience would be enough to ruin your entire perception about its people.  On the other side of the coin, the friendliness of the people in a particular place could be so overwhelming that you wished that you had stayed much longer.

Palawan is one of those places that could be categorized on the latter.  Its people will afford you with just the right amount of personal space so that you could simply introspect in your life’s journey and enjoy what the entire island has to offer.

Ruby, Johan & Mat at Puerto Princesa airport’s boarding gate
Malaysian-owned Air Asia planes at Puerto Princesa airport

After the trio arrived, an almost brand-new white van picked us up at about 10:50 AM.  From PEO Road, it made a left turn towards Rizal Avenue, then after a brief moment, turned right into a open gate.  After that very long trip to El Nido and back, we’re all taken by surprise by that rather brief interlude of a ride to the airport.

At 10:53 AM we quietly unloaded our bags from the van and headed for the check-in counter of Air Asia for the flight back to Manila.

Adventures in Siem Reap: Khmer Kingdom of Lam Lot

During our short trip to Siem Reap to marvel at the spectacular temples in the Angkor complex – Angkor Wat is just the centerpiece in this massive Khmer kingdom- we learned not only about the ancient past but also how young Cambodians look up to the future.  Thanks to our young ‘tuk-tuk‘ driver, Lam Lot and the universality of the English language.

Aboard his black colored cart with that distinctive purple seat covers and pulled by a 125 cc. motorcycle, he informed us that he had invested about US$1450 ($550 for the cart & $900 for a popular Japanese-brand motorcycle) for his contraption after he left his all-around job at a hotel that paid him US$ 100 per month.

Taxis are very rare specially in the outskirts of downtown Siem Reap which made the tuk-tuks the most convenient way to get around the city.   Although shops are abundant that rent out motorcycles, scooters, ATVs and bikes but you’re on your own to figure out your way around.

Educated by Buddhist monks, Lam Lot is the epitome of the new breed of young Cambodians who are determined to not only forget their grim, yet not-so-distant past and focus on the now but are also willing to embrace new technologies.

During the Pol Pot regime, simply being an intellectual was already a death sentence.  These days, thanks to the internet and the tourism boom, young Cambodians are much more aware of what’s going on in and outside of their country and are also willing to step up to the plate to propel their country forward.

Ducks for sale: a young Khmer woman on her way to the market

Lot -he preferred to be called by that name -is employed by the hotel (Sekla Villa Angkor) where we stayed at that has a stable of about 4 or 5 tuk-tuk drivers to transport guests around for free as a marketing ploy.

We got endeared to him by his persistence to converse with us in English although we have to literally stick our ears to his mouth in order for us to comprehend what he meant.

Accompanied by hand gestures, we were able to relay most of what we wanted to accomplish while we toured the city.  He also refused to take our tips -we persisted- for the trip from the airport to our hotel and informed  (yes, almost scolded) us that everything was part of the hotel deal.

Our young tuk-tuk driver proudly showed his social media profile on his smartphone

Before we headed to our room, we paid for the “grand circle tour” ($5) as well as for the “sunset viewing” ($10) in one of the temples along the way but made us wonder why the former didn’t already cover the latter.  We also reminded the young lady receptionist that we wanted the same tuk-tuk driver that brought us in.

The next morning, immediately after we had our breakfasts, Lot greeted us with his sheepish smile and provided us an overview of the grand circle tour of the Angkor complex using a map that he pulled out from the canopy of his tuk-tuk.  He had also brought a cooler that he filled up with ice and several bottled water.

Except for our lodging, we had done almost no research about the Angkor complex and we all thought that going to Angkor Wat was simply a matter of visiting another UNESCO World Heritage site in maybe a couple of hours, take a few pictures, head back to the our hotel to rest and then pick another interesting spot to visit in the city.  How wrong we were.

Siem Reap, in spite of its eclectic blend of the old and new, its provincial and small city charm, had already instilled a mixed feeling of excitement and sadness inside me yesterday after I saw piles of garbage strewn all over the place just a few miles from the airport and inside the city proper.

A small creek floating with food take-out boxes and an assortment of plastic debris nearby our hotel didn’t help to contradict that sadness–that, sometimes, border on outright disgust.

Soon, the narrow inner roads gave way to much wider, cemented roads where, from a distance, we could see a cluster of tall, white-colored structures with bright red roofing — the Angkor Complex Visitors Center.

Tourist buses, scooters, and tuk-tuks vie for space at the Angkor Visitors’ Complex

Lot told us to get our tickets inside and pointed to a spot where he’ll meet us amidst the pandemonium of people — tourists that poured out from numerous tour buses, cars, tuk-tuks, scooters, bicycles, peddlers, tour guides, etc.– in the parking lot.

He had also explained to us along the way that ticket prices were increased from US$37 for a single day entry (usually $20) and the special “‘buy 2 days & get the 3rd day free” to $62 (usually $40) to take advantage of the influx of Chinese tourists visiting Cambodia for their holidays since it’s their Lunar New Year.

The US dollar is the unofficial and widely accepted currency in the country although locals will still gladly take Cambodian riels.  Most shops will either give your change in riel or dollar depending on what’s available.

Now armed with our 3-day passes, we drove for another mile or so until we reached a checkpoint manned by two uniformed personnel who verified our faces with the pictures on the passes and punched the date we entered located at the back of our tickets.

It was after we made a short right turn towards our first stop in our grand circle tour that we all realized how massive the Angkor complex was. This is going to be a very long day.

Our first stop: Prasat Kravan (modern name: “Cardamom Sanctuary”). Features very fine interior brick bas-reliefs.
Very detailed carvings everywhere you look!

The temples in the almost 16-mile long ‘grand circle tour’  not only mesmerized, tantalized and dazzled our eyes but also made our feet very sore.  Unfortunately,  I had lost my custom-made foot orthosis on the flight to Manila (we traveled to Siem Reap via Hanoi from Manila) and the off-the-shelf foot support that I used did not help much either.

There were several occasions during our 3-day sorties inside the Angkor complex that I just preferred to stay in the tuk-tuk with Lot because of the constant pain on my left ankle while my wife and her sister, Rosana, excitedly clambered up the steps of the taller stone towers.

Past noon saw us sleeping in a row of hammocks beside a roadside eatery near Neak Pean which is an artificial island with a Buddhist temple as its centerpiece.  Most eateries inside the complex -as well as the tuk-tuks– have hammocks that provide a quick way to take a nap.

Tired from all the walking, tourists take a nap in hammocks provided by a roadside restaurant near Neak Pean

We were so tired after we emerged from the west gate of the next temple, Preah Khan, that we had the comforts of the hotel bed in the back of our heads as soon as we boarded Lot’s tuk-tuk once again.

Nature vs. culture: Old trees interlaced among the ruins in Preah Khan

The Bayon was so big that we all decided to just take a few photos aboard the tuk-tuk, revisit the place the following day and head back to the hotel instead.  Not after we passed by a memorial for people who died in the ‘killing fields’ during the Pol Pot regime.

Before we headed to our room, Lot informed us that he would take us to a massage parlor – they’re all over the city – to soothe our tired legs and bodies as well as a night tour of downtown Siam Reap.  We had to do this impromptu trip in a jiffy as we still had the “sunrise viewing” of Angkor Wat that required us to be up by 4:30 AM the next day.

If there’s a compelling reason to return to Siam Reap, it would be those massage parlors.  Not only were the massages ridiculously cheap -as low as $1.50 for an hour-long foot massage- but they also served as the perfect way to end your very, very tiring day inside the ancient complex.

You would do your conscience a big favor when you tip well those masseuses and masseurs as we all agreed that those low rates straddle the thin line between slave labor and gainful employment.

Mid-morning at the east gallery side of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat’s east façade as captured in this GoPro clip

Very early the following morning, after we picked up our breakfasts in paper bags from the receptionist, Lot motored us to a different route for our dawn viewing of the magnificent Angkor Wat — the main reason of our Cambodian trip.

We eventually spent almost half a day inside the splendid Angkor Wat whose walls, lintels, nooks and crevices were adorned by some of the most fascinating carvings and inscriptions the human race had ever seen.  We also managed to venture as far as the outer, eastern portion of the complex.

For the Khmers, life simply goes on; content with the knowledge that the temples will remain with them for as long as they live.  For us visitors, we can only enjoy every moment of this special opportunity to marvel at one of mankind’s greatest creations.

Later on, he showed us another part of downtown that’s popular among expats and had lunch at a fast-food joint that featured an eclectic mix of just about everything on their menu.

This fast-food restaurant’s olive-oil fried chicken recipes were really delicious.
So similar to the ‘tap-si-log’ (and variants) dish in the Philippines. But this one had a “Korean-twist” — fried rice with kimchi.

Afterwards, Lot recommended that we visit the fishing village of Kompong Phluk, which took the better of 1.5 hours for the one way, back-breaking trip on mostly unsealed roads.

It was almost like a scene from a “Mad Max” movie as our boat meandered along the murky Tonlé Sap river whose stench competed with our curiosity for any marine or human activities on this surreal backdrop.

On a muggy day, the sight of these house on stilts is surreal — like a ‘Mad Max’ movie
Fishermen ply their trade along the river bank of Tonlé Sap

The Tonlé Sap river ends on a lake with the same name and connects it with the 7th longest river in Asia — the Mekong.  Just like the river, this huge lake had suffered great sedimentation due to the exploitation of its resources.  A patina of brown seemingly tints the water as the sun’s reflection bounces from the bottom towards the surface.

Dusk arrives in Tonlé Sap Lake
A Buddhist temple sits atop the banks of Tonlé Sap river

On the way back to our hotel, Lot would point to us the dusty road that leads to his parent’s house where he and his young wife stays.  He pays for the family’s food and utility expenses.  A few more miles on the same highway, he would point to a grocery store owned by a relative of his wife where she helps out.

On our last day in Siem Reap, Lot would take us again to the old market early in the morning where we bought a luggage for all our extra stuff since we arrived in Hanoi exactly a week ago.  He also helped us get discounts for all our souvenirs in the tourists’ market nearby the very popular night attraction in downtown —‘Pub Street’.

Parking a tuk-tuk can be difficult in the old market

After we packed all our bags and turned them over to the front desk for custody, we checked out of our hotel and allowed Lot to make the decision for us how to spend the remaining 8 or so hours we had to spare before our late evening flight to Puerto Princesa in the Philippines.

Without wasting any time, he drove us to the temples in Ta Phrom which is a much smaller complex east of the Bayon.  Because of the humidity, I decided just to stay aboard his tuk-tuk while I peruse my newly-purchased guide book, “Ancient Angkor” by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques.

The Ta Prohm’s entrance gate. It is a temple-monastery with mostly silk-cotton trees interlaced among the ruins.
Touring the Bayon alone would take you the entire day…or, a few weeks!

While we waited for the sisters, we had our late lunch at a spot where locals and tuk-tuk drivers eat -there was a pair of tourists on backpacks- and had fried chicken wings and fish and sautéed mustard greens that went along with a heap of steamed rice.

After we had picked up the sisters, we passed by the Bayon again with the hopes of just relaxing in one of its many open spaces near the water since the noon day heat had jacked-up the humidity scale much higher.

He suggested that we buy some snacks and drinks once outside the Angkor complex and suggested that we proceed to a “picnic spot where he often goes when he and his wife were still sweethearts“.

The place turned out to be West Baray, a man-made lake or reservoir that was constructed in the 11th-century and was a crucial component of the Angkor complex during the heydays of the Khmer empire.

Some construction is going on in the artificial island – the West Mebon, where a magnificent bronze Vishnu still stands- located in the middle of this huge reservoir that covers an area of about 1,760 hectares (4,349 acres).

It’s very popular with locals who go there to picnic, take naps or a quick dip on its murky, brown water.  There are no gates either where you pay a fee upfront to enter.  Lot simply spoke to an elderly woman who proceeded to find a spot for the 4 of us amongst the numerous huts that were on stilts.

Taking it slow and easy in West Baray after all those walks inside the Angkor complex
Enjoying fresh coconut juice at the reservoir (West Baray) in Siem Reap

Each hut seems to have a few hammocks randomly strung on it but we found it more refreshing to lay on the mats strewn on the bamboo floor.

It was in this rustic setting, after we had some snacks, that I pondered long and hard on the calm waters of the West Baray.  My thoughts drifted to the days when I was still a young kid growing up in a sleepy town called Baclaran.

Manila Bay was my West Baray and the nearby Redemptorist (Our Lady of Perpetual Help) Church, although not afloat in a body of water, could have been the West Mebon.  The noon day heat had reached its peak and a slight breeze from the north lulled the three of us into a slumber while Lam Lot borrowed a piece of cloth from the same elderly woman as he prepared to take a swim.

In my short dream, various nostalgic moments rumbled through my head but they were not too vivid enough for me to recollect when I woke up smiling afterwards – except for one: that I was walking along the grass-lined walkways inside the Angkor complex where the Khmer people were all smiling at me on a quiet day sometime in those ancient days.

How Long Until Halong Bay?

After the more than 3 hr. van ride from Hanoi Old Quarter (we stayed at a deceivingly cramped but comfortable hotel –Hanoi Guest House– along Mã Mây Road)- my initial impression of the place was, “here we go again, just another tourist-packed place hyped-up by all those travel magazines.”

The van ride ended at a bland, squat, white-washed terminal building (Tuan Chau International Marina) whose design seemed a bit out of place and where our guide instructed us to wait until we were handed out 2 tickets.

All ‘junk boat’ tours to Halong Bay start at this architecturally-inapt building
Ruby and Rosan wait for their boat ride
Nice looking boat…always ready for Halong Bay cruise

It was not until we went past the visitors’ building, saw the open waters as we followed the throng of tourists form a queue for their boat rides, that my biased, unimpressive opinion about the whole trip slowly gave way to both astonishment and awe.

For US$72 or less (depends on what tour company you booked with) that included stops for lunch (not free) & some shopping along the way as well as the included simple lunch during the boat ride in the bay, it was an okay deal as you’re visiting a UNESCO world heritage spot.

Scorpion and snake infused ‘medicinal’ wine, anyone???
A ‘cooking show’ on the boat just before serving lunch

Whether you’re part of a big group or hired a special boat all for yourself, Halong Bay is sure to offer that special connection with nature and reinforce the fact that traveling is the best form of education. One’s romantic notion of a place as seen on those glossy magazines and books will now depend on your own perception while you’re actually there —you can now paint your own picture.

Among nature’s wonders

Our Halong tour had the option to either explore some of the islands in detail either by a smaller boat (max of 4-5 persons) or by kayak (max of 2). It also included a longish stop at an island where you’ll hike up a steep bluff to explore the caves — this alone really sweetened the deal.

Up this steep bluff lies one of the entrances to the caves
Time and water created this mammoth formations inside the caves

If would be a good idea to spend a night or two -depends on your budget- and explore the other areas of the bay where you can actually walk along its shores and take a swim while having a nice view of everything.

In the nearby areas surrounding where most of the tourist buses parked, we just did not see activities like swimming or any other water sports.

You can ride a smaller boat or paddle a kayak to tour the numerous islets
These islets dot the Gulf of Tonkin

At the end of the day, on that return trip back to your hotel, you’ll have that smile on your face that you had finally visited that “famous, picturesque place in Vietnam.”

How Casinos Make A Fool Out of You

I have to admit that it took a very long time before I realized that those seemingly entertaining casino sorties that we have had in the past years almost made me among the stupidest people in the world.

It took me a lot of time to finally realize that casinos are simply mass financial slaughterhouses designed to make fools out of people and to take away their hard-earned money by utilizing all schemes – devious or not – possible.

In these day and age of social media, some people even take their foolishness to new heights by posting their casino addictions primarily via “vlogs” (video blogs) on YouTube, Vimeo and other websites.  Most of these poor, misguided souls not only get their highs from playing the slots machines but also by the number of visitors or ‘hits’ on their vlogs — and they think that they are popular when their vlogs get viral.

Casino owners and operators are simply laughing: not only these gambling addicts provide free advertising for the casinos but vlogs also promote gambling to a much wider audience. This is just another foolish denial of the gambling addict as well as a means to legitimize one’s vice.

It’s only a matter of time before casinos get all what they have.   All of the others who claimed fun, food, strategy, discipline, and additional self-deceptions have been sucked in, chewed up, and spat out.  

In addition to their massive mailing & advertising campaigns, casinos employ people called “VIP Host” to cater to gamblers with lots of money to lose.  These scumbugs will seemingly give big-time gamblers their personal attention and care while milking away all their money.

The whole premise of a host is to extract as much money from players as possible. Casinos award hosts bonuses based on how much the gambler loses.  This is pure and simple evil.

 

Entertaining or not, there is always a sinister feeling that I get each time I enter a casino – – or, any gambling establishment for that matter.  Entering one, you get sucked in a place that distorts your concept of time and money.

Time and money: that’s what the casinos take away from common folks out to have a good time or hard-core gamblers.

More than money, it’s that valuable time that you lose for the rest of your lives while you’re inside casinos that make you so much more foolish than you think otherwise.  The time that I had wasted is no different than what a prisoner lose while locked up in jail.

All for what?   Wasting countless hours staring and pressing that ‘BET’ button in slot machines (yes, casinos try their very best to make them more animated via bigger screens and louder speakers) simply to watch a virtual reel spin on a colored screen?

These man-made contraptions have what the casino industry euphemistically termed as ‘random number generator’. 

The truth is these machines are designed and programmed to bring guaranteed financial ruin to any casino habitué who had that fantastical notion that they can make these gambling establishments their personal ATMs.

The key word is here is: “programmed”.  So, how can you beat a machine – in the long run – that was designed and made to pay out lower than the amount of money you put in?

Now that I had just mentioned ATMs, some casinos now offer “NO ATM FEES” inside their places.  Mind you, this is not a service to help people out but just another one of their many devious schemes to facilitate the transfer of people’s hard-earned saving and checking accounts to the casinos’ already-fat accounts.

On table games, watching the green baize while your bank roll dissipate because of the huge casino advantage is no fun at all.  And all along,  their second-hand-smoke-smelling employees quietly (or, sometimes, brazenly) celebrate that they had legitimately defrauded people of their nest eggs yet expect tips from these very same people that they had just robbed.

It’s OK to lose your time and money for a worthwhile cause but lose both inside a casino?  Casinos had provided all the tools to make a person stupid.  Just think about it.

There are better and much more exciting things to do in one’s lifetime than spend a bulk of your time inside a casino.

It took me a lot of time before I finally realized that I was punishing  rather than entertaining myself when I go to a casino.

Casinos also fool you about the “real-world” concept of money.  You give them real money but they give chips or a piece of paper in return.  These simple diversions are mere ploys to make it easier for them to take all of your real money.

Not only that, casinos also fool you by giving that illusion that whatever you lose, you can have it all back by a single ‘lucky break’ — a break that will never come.  How can a good thing come out of a place that is borne out of a devious scheme?

For people who still have the difficulties to see through the lies and deceptions of casinos, it’s really just a matter of admitting the fact that you have an addiction.  And, the realization that casinos do their very best to get you deeper into that addiction.

No matter how hard casinos try to trick people -through their massive advertising campaign- into believing that their places are just fun places where you can have a good time.  This maybe okay if you possess that super will power (in reality, this feat is almost impossible as we’re all just human) and simply go to a casino to eat, drink and be merry and not have anything to do with their slot machines and table games…then go straight home.

But, that’s the initial bait casinos have laid out for people in their path to financial ruin.   While inside a casino, the lure of these money-draining slot machines and the hard-sell of their dealers to play those table games whose odds of winning are stacked heavily against players, are just simply too hard to resist.

Some may have wised up and gotten scared after realizing they were in a life stealing vortex. Others simply just fell into the same trap and just lost all their money.  But, newbie gamblers with fresh faces filled with excitement, hope and gambling naïveté fill the spaces left by those fun seekers who were deceived by themselves at the hands of the super slick gaming establishment.

So, why fall into these traps laid out by casinos, when you can have a better time with your family and friends in honest-to-goodness places that serve better food and entertainment?

Casinos, therefore, is just a trap, borne out of a devious scheme — for your financial ruin and for you to become a prisoner by way of the precious time you lose when you’re inside one.

Most people, if they are honest, will recognize their lack of power to solve certain problems. When it comes to gambling, I had noted – including myself – that many problem gamblers who could abstain for long stretches, but caught off guard and under the right set of circumstances, they started gambling without thought of the consequences.

The defenses they relied upon, through will power alone, gave way before some trivial reason for placing a bet.  Will power and self-knowledge will not help in those mental blank spots, but adherence to spiritual principles seem to solve our problems.

I had this belief that to believe in a power greater than ourselves and to acknowledge that gambling is evil are necessary in order for one to sustain a desire to refrain from gambling.

So, don’t let casinos make a fool out of you.  Avoid them by all means, at all costs and recognize them as places of evil.

Just remember these when you see that big “CASINO” sign, whenever and wherever you are:  You lose your CAsh, you commit a SIn… so, just say NO.

You’re not a fool, are you?

Living Life Through King Solomon’s Eyes

God of Heavenly Punishment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“There was once a very, very rich man who found that riches did not satisfy.  His name was Solomon.  He wrote a book about it called Ecclesiastes.  This rich king had tasted just about everything life could offer.  Wealth?  No one could exceed him in luxury.  Wisdom?  The whole world knew how wise he was.  Fame?  He was king, the most famous man of his time.  Systematically he sampled all of life’s pleasures and powers, yet all ultimately disappointed him.  All prove meaningless.

“What is the point of life?” he asked.  You worked hard, and someone else gets all the credit.  You struggle to be good, and evil people take advantage of you.  You accumulate money, and it just goes to spoiled children.  You seek pleasure, and it turns sour on you.  And everyone–rich or poor, good or evil, meets the same end.  We all die.  There is only one word to describe this life: meaningless.”

But, is it?  Is life really meaningless?  Is that all there is in life –the summary of the number of years we had live in this planet?  Does man’s existence on Earth simply goes and on until this planet or the entire universe gets obliterated by a decaying sun?

Surely, when humans try to ponder the unknown, tons of questions need to be answered. Is there such thing as an afterlife?  Is there a God?

In our vain attempts to give even the most preposterous explanations to the great unknown, they had also given rise to a multitude of religions, sects, cults, tribes, fan clubs or what have you.

On the other hand, mankind has been trying to use every scientific means to disprove any religious theories about the creation of just about everything the mind can think about.  That the universe – which our planet is but a tiny speck within – is but the result of a mega blast and that humans simply came about through a series of evolutions.

And that everything that the human mind could comprehend simply happens randomly.  Really?  Everything is just random?

Each individuals’ appearance on this planet may have occurred randomly at birth but have you ever wondered why life spans differ?  There are souls that don’t even see the light of day, others die young while some of our elders even express their desires to die so much earlier in their struggle to cope with the hardships and difficulties that accompany old age.

In the worldly context of King Solomon‘s search for life’s meaning, he also voiced the unfairness of life:

“People don’t get what they deserve.  Good men suffer while wicked men prospers.  Everything seems determined only by time and chance.”

And just how many times we had asked ourselves that we deserved more in this life?  Why does success, in whatever means we try to measure it, seem very elusive?  Why do we see other people seem to have all the comforts of life while others still wallow in poverty?

On the other hand, why do some people so suddenly give up a life of unbridled extravagance to be of service to the poorest of the poor — and find their true happiness in the process?

Our futile attempts to quantify life and find meaning in it is hampered, of course, by our very own making: the concept of time.

Time is the great equalizer and it measures, regulates and rule each and everyone’s lives.  There are no exceptions and short cuts.  We will all die.

Science and technology may have found some solutions in making our daily chores so much easier and, on a few cases, extend our lives a few years longer. But, there will never be an eternity for us in this planet as long as there is the concept of time.

We could all be likened to a mouse trying to catch its tail.

So, what then is the meaning of life?

It is the acknowledgment of a God who willed each and everyone of us to exist in this planet.

Oh, yeah? For what?

Faith and what happens to a person’s soul is something the human brain will never ever understand.

But, what is the ‘soul‘?  Simply, if you have a conscience, you have a soul.

Truly, life is, indeed, full of meaning…only if we live it through the eyes of King Solomon.

 

 

The Spirit of Summer in Nueva Ecija: Life in the Philippine Countryside Series

Day 1 – Jan. 31, 2016 – (Sunday): Nueva Ecija here we come

Rey, who would be driving, arrived at my aunt’s house at about 3:45 AM that balmy Sunday morning.  January usually is the height of the dry season in the archipelago but the cool westerly winds also gave that early part of the day a calm and almost comforting atmosphere.

I hardly had any sleep that night as I was still suffering from the late effects of jet lag as well as from the non-stop noise coming from the tricycles and scooters.  My aunt’s house straddled the main road in that part of Imus that had become a veritable commercial area — a far cry from the rural appeal the place had for me where I finished my high school years in the mid-70s.

We wasted no time and left for Mandaluyong – where we ended picking up Rona, and her mother, Nita (my mother in-law) as well as Ronald’s family (his wife Winnie and twin sons, Dominic and Benedict) – as we’re running late.  But not after stopping by at a drug store where Rey bought some medicine for his stomach ulcer and at a gas station where we inflated the tires to their correct pressure.  After all, the trip to Nueva Ecija, in spite of our very early start, would be about 5-6 hours.

Ronald had married a coworker while he was teacher in a private school in nearby San Juan, Metro-Manila.  Winnies parents hail from Santo Domingo, Nueva Ecija where both had been tilling a sizeable piece of farm land that was entrusted to them.

They don’t own the title to the land but only gets a portion of the rice harvest.  Nueva Ecija owns the title of being the ‘rice granary of the Philippines’.

Nueva Ecija map
English: Map of Nueva Ecija showing the location of Santo Domingo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was almost 6 AM when we left Manila and its outskirt cities as we entered the first of three expressways to our destination.

Along Mindanao Avenue in Quezon City, we used a connecting road to enter NLEX (North Luzon Expressway).  This two-lane expressway (this would be the equivalent of a secondary road in advanced countries) would go all the way to Santa Ines in Pampanga until we utilized another connector road somewhere in Tarlac to another expressway called SCTEX (Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway).  We traversed only a short portion of this newly built two-lane highway until it dead-ends in the city of Tarlac as we veered east to the final expressway, TPLEX (Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway).

The road narrowed after we utilized the Aliaga exit along TPLEX and found ourselves along the old MacArthur Highway that was once the main artery if you’re going north of these islands.

You know that you’re already in Nueva Ecija when portions of the road are used to dry out ‘palay‘ (unmilled rice) as well as the presence of numerous passenger tricycles.

We finally arrived in the town of Santo Domingo five hours after we left Mandaluyong.  The trip covered only about 250 kilometers (155 miles) yet it felt like one of the longest days I was on the road because of the numerous turnouts we took after we got out of the expressways.

Winnie’s parents (Willie and Gloria) house is a low-slung, single-story concrete structure located about a few hundred meters from the main feeder road surrounded by rice fields.

I was immediately attracted to a set of varnished bamboo chairs two of which are longer than the others – in the small lobby of the house that overlooked the rice fields. What perfect spots to take a quick nap!

After we had been introduced to the entire family, I used my bag as pillow and stretched my tired body in one of the longer chairs that faced the rice fields while Ronald and his wife went to the nearest fresh market using the family-owned tricycle to buy what was needed for lunch.

Lunch was almost ready when I woke up an hour later.  Winnie had been busy grilling the large yet fresh ‘pusit‘ (squid), several pieces of fish locally called ‘dalag‘ (mudfish) and pork spare ribs marinated in ‘calamansi‘ (small limes) and soy sauce.

Winnie’s mother also prepared a version of ‘pinakbet‘ whose ingredients were freshly harvested from a nearby plot of land planted with mango trees and assorted vegetables. A side dish of green mango salad and copious servings of their multi-grained rice were also laid out on the table that they had set up outside the house.

Grilled 'pusit' (squid) and 'pork liempo' (pork belly)!!!
Get them while they’re hot!!!
The kids can't wait to lay their hands on the food!
Kids can’t wait for lunch to start

After lunch, I couldn’t resist to take a few pictures of the rustic sceneries and then headed back to my makeshift bed and took another nap.  The magnificent view of the verdant rice fields seem to have cast a hypnotic spell upon me that in no time I was in dreamland once again.

Lunch time in Santo Domingo, Nueva Ecija
Lunch time
Shimmering grains of 'palay'
‘Palay’ grains dance with the wind

At about 3 PM, Rey reminded me that we should leave for Talavera before it gets dark as we might not find it easy to look for my relatives’ place.

I had planned to visit my uncle, “Tata Amado”  (the only living brother of my late father) and cousins in the nearby town of Talavera and it was one of the reasons why I had agreed to join the trip.

Along with Ronald and Winnie, we managed to get to the Calipahan Bridge – the only landmark that remained in my memory on how to get to the place – in about 40 minutes using the interior roads.  We had to ask for directions twice until we found the house of my cousin, Fidela or “Ate Dely” as we use to call her when she was still in a teenager and was staying with us in our house in Baclaran.  She’s the second to the eldest in the big family of my uncle — 8 daughters (Lucena†, Fidela, Ila, Vita, Tate, Fina, Divina and Ata) and an only son, Ambrosio or “Ambo” who’s about my age.

It had been more than 30 years since my last visit to Talavera and the last time was during the summer break before I entered my freshman year in college.

I had brought along my bike on that trip and was able to pedal as far as the boundary of the province with Nueva Viscaya.

After “getting acquainted” with my Ate Dely for almost an hour -Rey wandered around the vicinity while the couple took a quick trip to nearby Cabanatuan City on a tricycle- I moved on to the visit the rest of my cousins whose houses were just next to each other — just a few meters away from Fidela’s.

Some of the siblings houses were built on the ancestral lot the family had owned and a portion of the old house where they all grew up was still there.

Upon seeing my Tata Amado on his wheelchair in the veranda of their old house, my mind raced back to the time when I was in my late teens and everywhere I looked, it was fresh and expansive.

I could still visualize the seemingly unending rice fields, the carabaos on a shed, the pomelo and other fruit trees as well as the dusty road that led inwards to the town — the same road where Ambo and I used to ply our bikes on our way to Pantabagan Dam.

Except for the now crowded road, everything seem to have been taken over by an amalgam of concrete, steel, sheet metal and other appurtenances to what humans call progress.

And, I felt a deep sadness in my heart and that same question beckoned — “Why do we have to grow old?”

Pictures were taken, a lot of questions were asked and answered and met some of my nephews and nieces whose names and faces I won’t probably remember as the next time I’ll hopefully visit them again they would have all be grown up and changed and have their very own families.

The sun was almost setting down when we decided to head back to Santo Domingo.  But not after passing by a busy 7-11 store where Ronald bought 3 bottles of San Miguel Grande and a roadside “ihaw-ihaw” (barbeque) stall where we got several orders of grilled “pork liempo” and “lechon manok”.

The rest of our companions were already on their sleeping attires when we arrived.  We had our beers and BBQs for dinner –along with a plateful of rice and a vegetable dish.

Winnie’s father and brother later joined on the table as we spent the rest of the evening listening to stories that primarily focused on how their family had settled on the place.

Day 2 – Feb. 01, 2016 – (Monday): The Road Back to Manila

An electric fan plus a mosquito net enabled me to get some deep sleep and so I grabbed my camera as I took nature’s call outside to take a few pictures of the surrounding areas at daybreak.  It was about 6 AM.

The narrow dirt road that leads to a cemented one that will take to main highway was still empty and the horizon painted a dominant colors of varying shades of gray and yellow.

The mound of hay at sunrise
Hues of blacks and yellows
All quiet for now along the dusty road in Santo Domingo, Nueva Ecija
Dawn in Sto. Domingo, Nueva Ecija

I staggered back inside the house to make myself a cup of coffee.  Everyone seemed to have waken up early except one of the twins who was still snuggled in the cushion of the sofa in the living room that served as their bed.

Someone had prepared the kitchen table ready for a quick breakfast — a Thermos bottle, packets of instant coffee as well as chocolate and a blue plastic bag full of bite-sized hot “pan de sal” were already neatly laid out.

I grabbed a few pieces of the tiny buns as Ronald emerged from the door near a hand-driven water pump and held up two cans and asked if I wanted either corned beef hash or sardines for him to sauté.  “Both,” I replied and, immediately, I headed to the veranda to enjoy the morning view of the rice fields with my impromptu breakfast.

Thumb-size 'pan de sal' for breakfast
Very small ‘pan de sal’
Bamboo chair captures that rustic feel of the place while Rey chats with Manang Gloria before we departed for Manila
Rey and Gloria enjoy the early morning breeze

After everybody had their breakfast, we took turns fetching water from the manual water pump using plastic pails for our showers.  I used the smaller outdoor toilet located near some bamboo trees and tidbits of memories streamed to my brain how I used to go through all these motions during my long stays with my cousins in Talavera.

It was about 9 AM when all of us got ready for the trip back to Manila.  But not after passing by the small parcel of land centrally located among all the rice fields in the surrounding areas that Ronald had called “gubat” (forest).

We had to walk along very narrow foot paths to reach it so we parked the van along the road where there was a tree house nearby.  My mother in-law was not able to come along as she required a wheeled walker so Rona decided to stay with her in the van for a while.  She would join us in the ‘gubat’ a few minutes later.

The ‘gubat‘ serves as a perfect resting area and refuge for farmers after tilling the land for hours not only during the hot, dry months but also during the typhoon season when sporadic rains and howling winds batter the rice fields.

‘Manong’ Willie had erected a small hut with an elevated flooring made of bamboo and nipa.  Both – bamboo and palm – came from the trees that grew abundantly on the fringes of the same tract of land.  The underside of the hut served as a temporary coop for native chickens and their young broods until he has decided where to put up a permanent and bigger one on the land.

Except for electricity and a permanent water source, the ‘gubat‘ could well be a good place to be in case of a calamity since it’s not only elevated but also self-sufficient.  Fruit trees were abundant as well as a variety of vegetables were planted all over the place.  There were also several pigs as well as ducks that roam freely in the open spaces.

Winnie plods along the narrow 'pilapil' (foot path) towards the 'gubat' amidst the verdant rice fields in Santo Domingo, Nueva Ecija
Winnie on her way to the ‘gubat’
From the outside looking in -- bamboo trees are abundant in the 'gubat'
Bamboo trees are abundant
Out of Nueva Ecija and towards Tarlac on our journey back to Manila
Entering a new town…and province (Tarlac)
Ancestral home of Filipino martyr, Benigno "Ninoy' Aquino, Jr. in Concepcion, Tarlac
The late Ninoy Aquino grew up here

We lingered on the place for over an hour with my mind trying to connect the span of years that have separated me from my lost youth to the current state of my being.  Time surely has it ways to temper even the most outrageous dreams of humankind.

And so, it was during this brief summer interlude in Nueva Ecija that I had come to realize that although my idealism may have long been gone, my appreciation for life and all its blessings will always remain.

Cagbalete Island: Life with “Aling Baby”

Day 1 – Feb. 15, 2016 – (Monday): Gone to Cagbalete Island

I wiped away the sleep from my eyes at about 3:30 AM only to find Rona, my sister-in-law, already busy in the kitchen.  The night before, we had bought some “pan de sal” at a store adjacent to the place where we had intended to eat a version of the famous “Ilocos empanada“;  at the “Fariñas Ilocos Empanada located across the Mandaluyong city hall complex along Maysilo Street.

However, they had closed earlier than usual that day for general cleaning and so to appease my empanada craving, we bought instead “lechon manok” and “inihaw na liempo” (grilled chicken and pork belly respectively) from a small stall called “Mang Boks.

English: Map of Quezon showing the location of...
English: Map of Quezon showing the location of Mauban (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rona’s youngest son, Matthew – fondly called ‘Balong‘ and who suggested the place – and his wife, Johan (just two months married) together with one of my wife’s first cousins, Lelen, would be my companions to Cagbalete Island.

We hailed a taxicab that took us to the JAC Liner bus terminal in Kamias, Quezon City.  The bus fare was PHP 270  (USD 5.70) per and this first of only two daily direct trips to Mauban, Quezon supposedly would take about 4 hours.  It arrived more than an hour late after making numerous stops – loading and unloading passengers – after it exited the South Luzon expressway in Sto. Tomas, Batangas and meandered around the cities and towns – San Pablo, Tiaong, Candelaria, Sariaya, Lucena – that surround mystical Mount Banahaw.

Aboard bus on the way to Mauban, Quezon
On our way to Mauban, Quezon
Candelaria town hall -- in the province of Quezon
Taken from the bus – Candelaria Municipal Hall

Tricycles awaited passengers after they alighted from the bus.  We informed one of the tricycle drivers that we’re headed to the pier – to Cagbalete Island – and so we chose his ride as it was next on the queue anyway.  The young driver suggested that we pass by the public market so that we could buy some supplies that we may need on the island.

It turned out that we needed much more time in the market after not only we realized how unprepared we were for the trip but also we’re very hungry after the long bus ride that included an extended rest stop in Lucena Citys grand central bus terminal.

We offered the driver extra money if he would we willing to wait for us.  He agreed but reminded us again that there were only two ferry trips to the island every day and that the first one is due to leave in about an hour or so. I immediately looked for a place to eat while the rest did their shopping.

I found a restaurant that advertised “tapsilog(beef “tapa” –  beef marinated in vinegar, spices and garlic, then dried and fried – with a serving of fried rice (“sinangag”) and fried egg (“itlog“)) and placed two orders along with a serving of “bulalo” (beef soup). Balong and Johan arrived a few minutes later with two big jugs of water and cookies. They placed their orders while I bought a package of fish-flavored “kropek” (flour cracklings) from an elderly lady selling an assortment of snacks.

I looked up on the menu board again and noticed that the place also served a version of the province’s famous “pancit habhab.”  Also known aspancit Lukban” in honor of the town where it originated, the very distinct taste of the noodles is what it’s all about.  As soon as we cleaned up our plates, I placed three (3) more orders of the noodle dish for our dinner in case we could not easily find a place to eat in the island.   Lelen, meanwhile, looked for beer as well as some bread to go with the delectable ‘pancit’.

We loaded our goodies to the waiting tricycle and the driver took us first to a nondescript office of the local port authority where we registered our names and paid the island’s environmental protection fee of PHP 50 (USD 1.05) per.  Several PHP 10 paper tickets served as the receipt with the name of the place we intended to stay in the island scribbled on them.

Mauban port authority office
Paid environmental protection fee here
Back streets of Mauban, Quezon
Back streets of Mauban, Quezon

The oversized “bangka (canoe) with double bamboo outrigger was still busy loading some of its cargoes and passengers when we arrived at the port of Mauban at about 10:50 AM.  We registered our names again on a ledger that was passed around and paid the ferry fee of another PHP 50 (USD 1.05) per.  The boat did not leave until about 11:30.  I snapped away on my small Canon camera as the “M/B Neneng” slowly pulled away from the port of Mauban.

We got seated in pairs with a middle age woman together with a small girl sandwiched between us in the midsection of the boat.  I could immediately tell that they were locals returning to the island. As with the rest of the passengers, you could also easily tell who are the residents of Cagbalete Island.  Their sun-bronzed skin and low-key demeanor evoked in one a muted understanding of how life must be on the island.

Aling Baby's granddaughter
Natasha looks to the camera
Approaching the port of Sabang in Cagbalete Island
Nearing port of Sabang

The sticky feeling one gets in Manila’s dissipated as the overcast weather and cool northeast winds that locals call the “amihan” smacked our faces as the boat progressed east towards its destination.

We had to shout in each other’s faces to communicate as the boat’s diesel engine purred loudly behind and the skimpy vinyl covering held up by bamboo poles did not help the cause.

I hope all our gadgets and devices can hold their charge while we’re in the island,” I yelled to Matthew.

You will be able to charge your devices in the island,” the woman beside the little girl butted in her low voice.

I smiled to acknowledge her response and asked if she knew a place where we could stay in the island as we really hadn’t made any reservations yet.

Aling Baby offered her place for PHP 200 (USD 4.25) a night.  I agreed but thought that it was too low so asked her again if that was really the price she wanted and that we wanted to check out the house first and she just nodded.

We talked more about the details of her house as well as about how life is on the island but our conversation was cut short when we noticed that the boat’s engine had stopped.  It was almost 12 noon when she reminded me to remove my socks and foot orthosis before we disembarked.

The water at the tiny port of Sabang in Cagbalete Island was very shallow so we transferred to a smaller banca that brought us to the white sand lined banks of the island.  People milled around the port but Aling Baby whisked us to a small alley that led to a series of narrow but cemented passageways.  We passed-by several stores, a ‘barangay‘ (village) hall, a billiard parlor, a small chapel as well as a tiny stall that sold pan-grilled hamburgers.

A satellite dish protruded in front of the wood and bamboo house with thatched roof that sat right across an old, manual water pump locally called, a ‘poso.’  Adjacent to it was an elementary school along whose far end would be another narrow passageway that will ultimately lead you the other side of Cagbalete island.

Welcome sign in the port of Sabang in Cagbalete Island
Welcome to Cagbalete Island
A satellite dish sticks out of the house
Best way to get TV signal in Cagbalete island
Elementary school near Aling Baby's house
Nice elementary school for the villagers
A view within a view
A room with a view in Cagbalete Island

We checked the second level of the house where we’re suppose to spend two nights in the island and found the two rooms more than sufficient and so we told her that we all agreed to her offer.  She informed us that she has another house – without a bathroom – near the other and less populated side of the island.

Although all of us were so tired having started the day very early, adrenaline kicked into gear and we all got so excited to explore the island and tagged along with her.

Our room for a night in Cagbalete Island
Cagbalete Island: We slept soundly here
Lelen heads out to the east side of Cagbalete Island
Lelen leads the way to the other side of the island

The ‘other house’ turned out to be a nicer looking and more spacious bamboo hut.  However, we took a pass on it after we learned that we had to get our water from an old well.  And, no TV.

Fresh water inside a mossy well in Cagbalete Island
Deep water well near Aling Baby’s cottage
Aling Baby tags Mat & Johan along while Lelen takes five
Muddy portion on the way

We met a couple of tourists going the other way along the ‘cogon’ (wild grass) lined path and followed their tracks as we sidestepped a few puddles and muddied sections.  Except for a badly maintained vegetable field operated by municipal government in a cordoned-off area, there were hardly any other signs of agricultural activity in this part of the island.

The passageway ended at the back of one of the island’s many resorts named “Villa Noe,” where I eyed another visitor about to take her late lunch in the open restaurant. We marveled at the spectacular beauty and tranquility of the entire place and agreed that ‘this,’ indeed, is the Cagbalete Island that we saw in all those beautiful pictures on the web.

We took a lot of pictures, waded in the warm water and, finally, leisurely walked along the white sand coastline headed north as Aling Baby narrated facts as well as tales about Cagbalete island.

It could have taken us about an hour to walk all the way back to the main port so we agreed to take another boat ride when we chanced upon one immediately after we passed by a private resort.  Although fatigue had finally set upon all of us, we still immensely enjoyed the brief ride as not only it began to rain very hard but also the waves kept splashing water on us aboard the small ‘banca‘.

Aling Baby of Cagbalete Island
Aling Baby takes a break
The best form of transportation in Cagbalete Island
A ‘banca’ on the quiet waters of Cagbalete

We never realized how soaked we were until after we gave the boatman a token of PHP 100 (USD 2) – he did not ask us for money- and retraced our steps back to Aling Baby’s first house on our dripping wet clothes.

Back at the house, we took turns fetching water from the ‘poso‘ to shower.  We saw a series of clothesline immediately before the front door so we hanged all our wet belongings and then tried our best to make ourselves feel at home in the very cramped confines of the lower portion of the house.

The rain had turned into a drizzle by 2 in the afternoon when Balong and Johan decided to take a nap upstairs.  They would not come down until about 5:00 to eat some bread and the last of the ‘pancit habhab’ neatly stored inside a plastic container.  The restaurant in Mauban had placed them in three containers one of which I had given to Aling Baby before she left for her other house so as to give us some private time.  I had also given her PHP 200 (USD 4.25) so that she could “load up” on the satellite dish subscription – PHP 120 (USD 2.50) per month – in order for us to use the TV upstairs.

She left her two granddaughters in our care when the smaller one did not like to come with her to the other house.  The mother of the small girl, Natasha, had just left a month ago for Kuwait to work as a domestic help while the parents of the bigger girl both worked in Manila.

Both girls were easy to babysit as they played together until the bigger one got tired and decided to take a nap upstairs as well.  So we kept little Natasha preoccupied with her toys by giving her ‘kropek‘ pieces – which she had particularly come to love – whenever she gets bored.

So Lelen and I spent that rainy Monday afternoon in Cagbalete island drinking one of the two 1-liter San Miguel beer bottles that blended perfectly with the ‘pancit Lukban’, the bread and 3 pieces of ‘longaniza‘ (local sausages).  Being a fanatic of any famous regional ‘longaniza‘ in the country, I had espied the sausages in one of the ‘carinderias‘ (small stalls that sell already-prepared foods) on our way back to Aling Baby’s house.  I had requested Lelen to get a few pieces while he also looked for some ice for our already-warm beers.  All the while, I kept an eye on little Natasha while she played.

Throughout the time Balong and Johan had slept, there was no electricity.  Aling Baby had explained to us earlier that her house was hooked-up to one of the generators operated by the municipality and that power would come up only from 6 to 10 in the evening.

Natasha
We babysat her while Aling Baby prepared dinner
Our Tuesday night dinner
Huge squid that would be our lunch the next day

Aling Baby would return a few times to the house to show us the huge squid (medium-sized by her standards) that she had bought for PHP 60 (USD 1.27)  and asked how we liked them cooked.  Then to make sure if the TV now worked.  She also made sure that we’re hooked-up with the boatman, Sergio, who would take us on a tour of Cagbalete island tomorrow.

Day 2 – Feb. 16, 2016 – (Tuesday): Going Around Cagbalete Island

The effects of the sleeping tablet wore off and I was up at 4:30 only to find myself alone inside the mosquito net that Lelen and I shared. I strapped on my foot brace and gingerly scaled down the 3 steps of wood that made up the stairs and saw him already prepared for another day.

Power was still off inside the house and was partially dark outside but the lights were still on in the alley next to the house so that gave some illumination to the house while I prepared a cup of instant coffee.  Last night, before we slept, Aling Baby’s youngest daughter had brought a Thermos jug with hot water and cups for the purpose.

After the caffeine took its effect on me, the two of us decided to see the beachfront at first light and did not bother to wake up the newlyweds.  Again, along the way, some of the stores were already selling bread and cooked food and we found the ‘chicken adobo‘ inside a glass showcase simply too tempting.  It was PHP 30 (USD 1.76) per order and would go well with a few cups of hot rice at PHP 10 (USD 0.21) per. We took note of the place and reminded each other to remember to pick up a few orders on our way back from the beachfront.

We took many pictures of life in Cagbalete Island at early dawn: the fishermen tending their boats and fishing nets, an old lady propped on a concrete wall scanning the horizon, a few workers of the resort owned by the mayor of Mauban sprucing up their beachfront, a middle-aged person getting his therapy piling up white sand upon his legs and a few locals just walking along, preparing for the new day.

A colorful 'bangka' (canoe) in Cagbalete Island
Early morning in Cagbalete
A view of the western shore in Cagbalete Island
Not bad a place to have morning coffee
Dawn had just broken in Cagbalete Island
Floating luncheon area
The mainland of Mauban can be seen on a clear day in Cagbalate Island
Port of Sabang as viewed from the northern side

I wished I could have the best of both worlds as I admired and absorbed all the beautiful natural surroundings before me that I almost cried.  I had seen more beautiful ocean views in the Americas but had never relished wading in their cold waters.  Here, it was just too perfect.

We headed back to the house at 6:45 and found Matthew already having coffee and the light inside the house back on.  Lenlen went back to the ‘carinderia’ for the rice and ‘adobo‘ which we all had for breakfast along with the ‘adobong pusit‘ (stewed squid) that Aling Baby had prepared.

After breakfast, I informed Aling Baby that we were not going to spend the second night in the house because we wanted to experience the other side of the island but that we’re still going to pay her our agreed upon two night fee. We also told her that we might stay at “Villa Cleofas” as we had originally planned.  She offered to cook our meals for us so she gave her cell phone number on a piece of paper that I hastily shoved in back pocket of my swimming shorts.

While we waited for Sergio, a vendor dropped by selling big clams inside two plastic bags for PHP 20 (USD 0.43) per so we bought and handed them over to Aling Baby.

Sergio, – whom locals called “Momo” – arrived before 8:00.  We walked a much shorter route to the port where his ‘banca‘ – “Choktaw” – was moored.  He and his apprentice guide toured us through the various points of interest in the island namely:

  • the “Sandbar”  – a narrow piece of land covered in white sand that jutted out even at high tide where mangroves abound.  We saw several huts for rent but they were all empty that particular day.
Lelen & Mat enjoy the view at Yang-in sand bar in Cagbalete Island
At the sand bar
Newly sprouted mangrove at the sand bar in Cagbalete Island
Very, very young mangroves

the “Ilog” (River) – an area in the island where salt and fresh water meet. We counted 8 fiberglass fish pens in the area which, according to Sergio, could hold up to a 1000 ‘bangus‘ (milkfish) fry per breeding.  There would be three (3) breedings per season and a good harvest in a season could well pay off the initial start-up costs.

'Bangus' (milk fish) farming in Cagbalete Island
A fish farm at the ‘ilog’
Expanse where fresh and sea water meet ('ilog') in Cagbalete Island
The fish pens were empty when we visited
  • The Snorkel area – for almost an hour, we swam and snorkeled in this deeper area where corals and colorful fishes could be found.
Mat & Johan try out snorkeling in Cagbalate Island
Snorkeling is one of the best ways to enjoy the island
Johan and a colorful starfish -- Cagbalate Island
Johan shows off a colorful starfish
  • Bonsai Island”  not really an island but simply a portion of a reef that shows up during low tide.  There are two small mangrove patches interspersed with a few dead ones on the reef, hence, the name.  Situated directly across Villa Cleofas, it would not be presumptuous to assume that the owners could well have given the spot the name to add a little mystique -as well as to attract patrons- to Cagbalate.

Locals would always be delighted to tell you the story about the cargo ship, loaded with sacks of flour, that crashed into the reef and how the entire population of the island had fresh bread and pancakes for a very long period of time after the disaster.

It was almost 11:00 when Sergio dropped us off at Villa Cleofas so that we could check out the place.  We informed a woman inside the restaurant that we wanted to see the cottage we saw online that cost PHP 1500 (USD 32).  We passed by a group of tourists in two tents as she led us to the far end of the resort and showed us the 10 x 20 foot room with a single bed with a very thin mattress.

We decided to look for another place after she told us that we would also have to pay PHP 500 (USD 10.64) extra for the electricity -from 6 PM to 6  only- since we’re the only guests that would occupy a cottage that night.  Mat and Johan volunteered to check out the other resorts north of the island that included Villa Noe.

An hour had passed but the pair had not returned and so I asked Lelen to look after our things while I took leisurely walk along the white sands in the hope that I would encounter them along the way.  I walked past a camping-only resort, then an empty but fenced area before the nice bamboo & nipa made cottages and clean surroundings of “Joven’s Blue Sea Beach Resort” attracted my attention.

Although the resort was empty that day, I checked out the cottage that was being cleaned to see how it looked inside.  Impressed, I picked one –Sampaguita– that was located beside the bathrooms.  I informed Mat and Johan, who saw me while I negotiated with one of the resort’s attendants on their way back, that I had already agreed to the same cost of PHP 1500 for a night’s stay here — electricity included.

A view from Joven's Blue Beach Resort in Cagbalate Island
Joven’s resort
Our 'sampaguita' cottage while at Joven's Blue Beach Resort in Cagbalete Island
Our home away from home for 2 nights

We had a very late lunch of “pork liempo” with extra servings of rice (PHP 520 or USD 11) in the resort’s restaurant immediately after we had rested, showered and settled down in our new found home for the night.

Sergio and his apprentice showed up a few hours later and accompanied us to that much-hyped ‘Bonsai Island,’ which was very visible during low tide and which we found to be unimpressive at all.

They must have sensed our disappointment with ‘Bonsai Island’ so Sergio promised us that they would pick us up again at 6:00 the next morning to show us another ‘ilog‘ as we headed back to the resort.

It was already dark when we got back at Joven’s but our spirits were all buoyed up not only because the entire resort was all lighted up but also Aling Baby had brought us some food for dinner!  In our absence, she had dropped off the dish of “sotanghon” (vermicelli mixed with the clams that we had bought in the morning and sautéed in onions and slivers of ginger), rice, plastic spoons and the Thermos bottle.

After dinner, Mat and Johan put up the mosquito nets and were asleep by 10 while Lelen and I ordered four San Miguels (PHP 45 or USD 0.96 per) from the restaurant.  I lit up a mosquito coil and placed it under the bamboo table to fend off the buggers while we drank our beers until Len decided to call it a day after he had emptied his second bottle.

I did not sleep until 12:30 AM after I had written a few pages in my notebook what had  transpired that wonderful day in Cagbalete island.

Day 3 – Feb. 17, 2016 – (Wednesday): Leaving Cagbalete Island

Lelen was already out walking along the shore as I prepared my 3-in-1 coffee mix at 5:30.  The electricity would be out in half an hour but I wasn’t worried since I had charged all the batteries for the camera while I wrote on my notebook last night.

The newlywed woke up an hour later while Sergio and his buddy showed up at the resort after about another hour and brought along the 1.3 kilograms of ‘alimango’ (blue crab) as well as several pieces of smaller crabs local to the island that he had placed inside a big plastic water bottle.  I had ordered them last night and cost PHP 400 (USD 8.50) per kilo for the blue crab and PHP 100 (USD 2.13) for the small ones.  I also handed over the PHP 1500 (USD 32) boat fee that we owed him -and his apprentice- for yesterday’s island tour.

The morning was crisp and, while the sun had barely colored the horizon, there were a few wispy clouds as we headed south towards the ‘other ilog.’  We all glanced at the resort manager as she sat on a chair, cup of brew in hand, communing with nature as we passed by.

Mat, Johan and the apprentice boatman/guide
Casual stroll along the west side of Cagbalete island
Lelen enjoys his coffee amidst the beauty of Cagbalate Island
Lelen enjoys the natural beauty of Cagbalete island

Half a kilometer after we passed by Villa Cleofas, the shore inclined a bit and we noticed more vegetation in the area. Immediately after Sergio showed us the ‘hidden swimming pool’ (actually a swamp) where a lonesome carabao sat nearby, we came to a stop at a gap where a passageway of fresh water funnels out to the bay that seemed to split Cagbalete island into two.

Lush vegetation as we approach the 'other ilog'
We had Cagbalete island all to ourselves
Our apprentice guide playfully created this mound of sand at the 'other ilog' in Cagbalete Island
Cagbalete Island: Castle in the sand
'Hidden' swimming pool. Can you spot the carabao?
A carabao takes a break at this lagoon
The east side of the 'ilog' (river)
The other ‘ilog’ in Cagbalete Island

We explored the mangrove-lined banks for almost an hour and concluded that the area must be very popular to campers as we saw a few items that only visitors of Cagbalete island could have brought: empty bottles, cookie and candy wrappers, some shoes and a sandal missing their pair and an assortment of various colored nylon ropes left hanging on the bushes.

It was 9:00 when we headed back to Joven’s to prepare for our trip back home.  We opted to take the last boat ride to Sabang in order that we could the enjoy the lunch that Aling Baby had prepared for us.  Sergio had promised earlier to pick us up at exactly 12 noon.

Just like last night, all the way from her house near the well,  Aling Baby had brought all what we needed to make sure that we had a memorable brunch before we left Cagbalete Island.  She laid out a modest feast for us that included a big pot of steamed rice, the day’s catch, ‘timbungan‘ (goat fish), fried and presented on banana leaves as well as all ingredients to make a sumptuous dipping sauce.

Johan and Lelen dish out brunch
Cagbalete Island: Lunch at our cottage
Fried goat fish or 'timbungan'
Take me back to Cagbalete Island

Sergio arrived on time and amidst the din of the banca’s engine, all of us remained silent during the brief ride back to Sabang.

And back to where it all started.