Antonio Graceffo

0 1032

I entered the Philippines on a tourist visa which was about to expire and I am now a student, taking the course to be qualified as an Emergency Medic Technician, so I went to Joan, my teacher, for directions to the Immigration Department. There is a famous poster of an incredibly messy desk and the caption says something like, “if your desk looks like this, the inside of your brain must look the same.” If the way she gave directions was an indication of what was going on inside her head, Joan must be under a lot of stress. She started talking and, other than the occasional word I recognized such as street, road, left, right, luncheon meat, or parachute, I really had no idea what she was talking about.


“Do you know the MRT?” she began.
“No, I don’t know anything.”
“OK, take the MRT to Cazero and change to the LRT.”
”I don’t know where the MRT is? What is an LRT?”
”It’s right there.” She said, pointing vaguely in the direction of the restroom.
“It’s in the toilet?”
“No, the LRT.”
“What is an LRT?”
”Yes, then you will walk on Adriatico.”
“Is that near the LRT?”
“No, you have to take a jeep.”
“What jeep, where, who?”


Seeing that I was completely lost, Joan took paper and pen. “I will draw you a map,” she said. She began talking again, at the same rate and with the same level of confusion as before. The only difference was now she was also drawing. The images on the paper seemed to represent crossings and turns, but none of them were labeled. Worse, they weren’t connected. She didn’t start with the front door of the school, tracing a continuous line to the front door of the Immigration Department. Instead, she drew separate, disjointed, pictures, of whatever she happened to be talking about at the moment.
“Then you turn right on Rodriguez Street.”
“Wait! You mean from San Fernando Road?”
“No, you take the train?”
“What train?”
“Yes, and a bus.”
“Where do I catch the bus?”
“Diego Avenue.”
“I catch the bus at Diego Avenue?”
“Wilfred what?”
“No, that’s where you take a right.”
“Onto Rodriguez?”
“Across the plaza.”
“The Plaza is on Wilfred?”
“NOOOOO that’s for the train, before the bus…inside the Immigration there will be many desks, go to the one in the far corner.”


She was already telling me what do when I arrived, and I still didn’t know if I should go left or right when I walked out of our door. “Is the Immigration Department on Rodriguez?” “No, Intramuros.”


She was making this stuff up. She had to be. She already had me standing in line at Immigration and hadn’t mentioned Intramuros. Now, she was claiming that’s where it was located. In my life, I had done a lot of bad things, and now they were coming back to haunt me. I had no one to blame but myself.


“Is anything on Rodriguez? That name came up a few times, and you didn’t really go back to it.”
“Go past the big vegetable market.”
“In Intramuros?”
No, on the train.”
“Ah yes.”


I know money is tight in Manila, but no one ever wants to take a taxi. Often when people give directions there are multiple taxis, buses, trains and donkey carts involved in what seems like the most complicated and time consuming way of traveling five kilometers ever conceived. When you ask someone how far away something is, a typical answer is “Very close, just three rides.” They don’t count distance or time. They count the number of transfers it takes to arrive. In the end, even if each of those changes only costs around ten pesos, it would often be cheaper, let alone faster and more convenient, to take a taxi, but no one wants to do it.
“It should only take twenty minutes.” Said Joan.
“To get there?” This was looking promising. Maybe it was difficult to describe where the place was but it was actually close by and I could get there easily by taxi.
“No, to do your visa.”
“How long to get there?”
“About two hours.”
Two hours! This was one of the other issues with Manila. Traffic was so horrible you had to allow about two hours to go anywhere.
“Does the train stop at Intramuros?”
“No, you walk there from the hospital.”
Hospital? There’s a hospital? This was the first I had heard of a hospital. Next, she was saying something about the monkey king and answering the ancient riddle. This just seemed to complicated for me. The paper was now nearly black, covered from top to bottom in black ink, with images of streets and traffic lights, and the crown of the monkey king. Not a single word was written on the paper.
In the end I took a cab.


My school warned me that because of corruption, getting a student visa would be too difficult. Instead, I was told to tell immigration that I am in the Philippines looking for business opportunities, and ask for a 90 day visa. I was really worried that someone at Immigration would try and rope me into selling Amway or Herbalife, or some other some network marketing scam. He would be like “If you are starting a business you need to buy $1,000 worth of merchandise to show you are serious.” By the time he finished with me I would wind up wishing he had sold me on network marketing.
When I turned in my form asking for 90 days, I thought the immigration guy was kidding when he said. “I can only give you 68 days?” In my life of living internationally, I had never heard of a 68 day visa. Why 68 days? I don’t know. Maybe because they are Catholic instead of Buddhist. That is the usual answer for why things are strange in the Philippines. The standard Philippine visa is 21 days. So, 68 is not even a function of 21…in other countries it is 30 days and 90 days. But what do other countries know? Anyway, the fee for the wonderful privilege of remaining in smelly dangerous Manila for an additional 68 days is $200 USD!


In Thailand a sixty day visa is $35 USD and we all complain. Not only was this visa crazy expensive but they told me to come back at 1:00 to pick it up. Having nothing to do, I wandered around Manila for a few hours. Normally, I would be afraid about getting mugged, but luckily the Immigration Department had already cleaned me out. Anyone approaching me with a gun would be wasting his time.


And best of all, to do the entire paramedic program I need to remain here for about six months. That means two more sixty-eight day visas. But I think I read that your second sixty-eight day visa is actually seventy-two days and your third sixty-eight day visa is considered your fourth, is naturally only good for sixty-four days. It was all quite complicated, so I took a copy of the visa schedule with me. It was nearly as thick as a New York City phone book, so I stuffed it into my shirt, hoping it would stop a bullet.


Wandering around Manila’s aromatic riverfront, I thought about the reasons why I came to study here. I am doing this paramedic deal because of the adventure and because I have always wanted to do this. It is a dream. And, believe it or not, one part of the dream is to work, even for six months, as a paramedic in New York City. I think no paramedic can claim to know about medical trauma till he has worked a twenty-four hour shift in the Bronx. And no human being knows real trauma till he has tried to hack out a living in the toughest, biggest, busiest, loneliest, most wonderful city in the world. This is one of the few adventures that I thought of that could be done in America. New York paramedic would be a hell of a ride.


While I was waiting for my visa I wandered around China town, where I spoke Mandarin with a shop owner. He said that his normal dialect was Hokien. He told me “the children forget their language. We have a Chinese school for them, but if they don’t read Mandarin everyday they will lose it.”
This is the curse of many of the world’s Chinese communities, who have given up their language and are now regretting it because of the business opportunities that speak Chinese. I still haven’t figured out how to make money off of my knowledge of Chinese, but it seems better to know it than not.


At the Internet café the kids were speaking Chinese dialect to each other while they played online role playing games. That was actually pretty cool. It is good that they can speak dialect, but these dialects are often so old or so regional that anywhere outside of their neighborhood the dialect is useless.


Near the Spanish ruin of Intramuros, I met Jay, another American at Starbucks. “Are you here waiting for a visa?” I asked. He laughed. “I think all foreigners at this Starbucks are waiting for a visa.” It was like Rick’s Café with everyone waiting for their visa to get out of Casa Blanca. I told him about my walk about the old part of Manila. “This city would be nice,” I said, realizing I had never said that about a city before. Normally cities are either nice or not. But Manila would have so much to offer if they could get a handle on poverty, crime, corruption, and garbage. “They have a river, old Spanish ruins, ancient churches…they have a potentially romantic promenade along the river, it could be really special…”


“But it isn’t.” concluded Jay reading my mind. We decided this was the unique charm that is the smelly and dangerous city of Manila.

0 1015

All over the village boys are fashioning bows from natural materials, preparing to compete in the big archery contest. Small children kick a Tagrow ball, a small hollow ball made of rattan. I pull out my camera, but the mothers quickly tell the children to hide their faces. Photographing people who are planning to live permanently at Loi Tailang is OK. But photographing civilians who plan to return to Burma is a No-no. If the photos get into the wrong hands, THEY, the SPDC, could find out that they have ties with the Shan State Army, and kill them.
Just past the village square, we buy some treats at the SS Mart a convenience store chain, with three locations, conveniently located through out Loi Tailang. Each SS Mart proudly displays its colorful logo, with a Shan flag background. Perhaps you could be the first to open a franchise in your province. Walking along the main street, you won’t see the Cu Chi Tunnels, but the Shan have dug their own, less touristy tunnels and trenches as part of their defense system one more reminder that these kind, gentle people are living in a war zone.


There are about five restaurants in Loi Tailang, mostly serving noodles, which my translators Hsai Lern and Tun Yee love to eat. Some of the restaurants have my favorite, fried chicken. The boys know when I come to Loi Tailang they get to eat every time I do. They are always excited about eating noodles, it is a big treat for them. The normal Shan diet consists primarily of rice and soy bean. The Soy bean is sometimes ground and pressed into paddies, which are dried. These patties can be backed on a grill and used as a meat substitute. The other common source of protein is eggs. But not everyone can afford them. I let the guys order whatever they want.


In the school yard and in the various houses throughout the village, young people gather together to sing and play guitar. Singing clubs are easily the number one source of entertainment in Loi Tailang. Takraw is a close second. But nearly all Shan people sing well. They are the most musical people I have ever been around. When possible, the singing clubs like to hold a gin jot, a happy eating, when they all gather around mu gu taw, Thai barbecue. They sing and eat and drink beer, for hours, if they have the money. But for most of them this activity would be limited to Shan New Year when they get a small bonus from the Shan government.
On Shan New Year, every soldier was give 200 Thai Baht. That night, all of the restaurants were full. Some soldiers had looked forward to eating noodles for months. The next day, there were gin jots in many houses. The Shan are normally a happy, positive people to be around, but when they have meat and beer, and there are guitars close by, there is no group I would rather be with.


Beside a small house, we meet a woman making thatch for roofs. It was toward the end of the dry season, when people would begin re-thatching their roofs in preparation for the rains. The army provides the civilians with food, but there isn’t a lot of cash floating around. Making and selling thatch is one way that people can earn extra money. The woman, Bamat, was forty-three years old and had lived in Loi Tailang for five years, since the SPDC had driven her people from their village. Now, her husband, an SSA soldier, was in hospital at Loi Tailang. He had injured his hand on a landmine out on the front lines. She had three of her children living with her. The other two left home, seeking work. She has had no word of them and doesn’t know if they are in Shan State or in Thailand. She told us that in the rainy season, they had a farm to grow some crops, but during dry season, she could only raise animals. The bulk of her family’s food came from an NGO who supports the IDPs.
Most Shan would rather live free in their Shan State, but Bamat was not unhappy with her life in Loi Tailang. She was pleased that her children could attend the school on the base.
“It is safer here, and we have enough food. Back in Shan State, there was a school, but it cost money, so my children didn’t attend.”


The monk is Tun Yee, a young soldier, a former monk, who thought his family had been murdered. when he heard a rumor that his mother was alive in Thailand, he became a monk again and went with the head abbot to Thailand to look for his mother. Sadly, the story turned out to be a rumor. Shan people don’t have family names, so it is sometimes hard to match missing children with their parents.


At another home, an amputees, fifty-one year-old Tong Sai looked like he was seventy. He told us his sad story, of how the SPDC forced him to walk ahead of the Burmese army, as a human landmine detector. They had stolen him from his village and forced him to work as a slave, an unpaid porter, carrying the army’s heavy equipment through the jungle. He was initially arrested because the SPDC accused him of having had contact with the SSA rebels. After four years, they took him out of the jail and forced him to work forced labor.


“I was tortured frequently.” He told us. “We were fed a steady diet of soy bean and rice, twice a day. They forced us to work, digging by hand with no tools. And they beat us all the time.”


After he stepped on the landmine, the SPDC simply left him to slowly bleed to death. He spent six days, lying there, slowly dying, but luckily, he was found by an SSA patrol, who took him to Loi Tailang. In addition to tearing off one of his legs, the landmine had broken his remaining leg and one of his arms.


He showed us the massive, ghastly jagged scars on his elbow and his remaining leg.


“When I lay in the jungle, the insects were eating the flesh of my broken leg, and it never grew back.”


His leg wasn’t enough. The SPDC took even more from him. “I had a family before, but I haven’t seen them for years.” Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to get a message to his family, so they think he is dead. He heard from others that his wife had remarried.


He didn’t have any information about his children. He shook his head and repeated. “They think I am dead.”


Tong Sai said he cant go back to Shan State. First of all, missing a leg, it would be impossible to walk so far. Even if he reached his village, the SPDC would arrest him, and probably torture and kill him.


“I will live here in safety till I die.”


He lives with another family now, and the children call him grandfather. He likes to come sit in the sun and watch all of the neighbor children playing football. When they take a break from their play, the children all gather around their adopted grandfather, climbing on his back or on his lap.


Hsai Lern told me that most of the children probably don’t have a grandfather because their grandfathers were lost in the war, or lived far away in Shan State.


I handed out cookies and drinks to the children. There wasn’t enough for all of them, so they imnmediately began sharing.


A little girl offered half of a cookie to Tong Sai. The old man smiled a toothless grin. The leg was missing, but his heart remained.

0 1067

Out of desperation, I took a teaching job in Korea. In exchange for me signing a one year contract, they flew me to Asia, and gave me an apartment and a good salary.

I was miserable in Korea. To keep myself busy I studied Korean language and began working on a masters thesis, tracing the origin of the Korean language from Lake Baikal in Russia, which is a common origin for Manchurian language as well as many tribal languages spoken by nomads in central Asia and the Asiatic parts of Russia.

I published one article on the subject, comparing Korean and Chinese, and received a lot of recognition for it. But because I am more practical than theoretical I also received a lot of criticism for what I wrote. That and a lot of my articles are very insulting and if people don’t like it I threaten to Kung Fu their ass. I can beat up most of the serious linguists I know.

I was offered a scholarship to do my PHD at Dong-A university in Busan, Korea. But I didn’t fancy spending five more years in Korea. I also didn’t want to be in a classroom teaching Korean kids. And I didn’t want to do all my research from a book. I wanted to be back in the field. If westerners don’t use deodorant, we reek, and most Asians don’t. But, for whatever reason, if Koreans smoke or drink alcohol, they stink way worse than other people. And of course they eat kimchi three times a day. I quit after seven months and returned to Thailand. I had a lot of unfinished adventures there.

My first order of business was to hook up with my old friend, Dave, who is the other half of our small production company called Two Guys from Brooklyn Productions. We had met years ago, in an Akha tribal village. He was doing a film. I was writing. We always said we’d work together again. Our first story was a documentary on the Long Neck Karin, one of the most exploited hill tribes in the world. Refugees from Burma, they are locked in tourist villages, like human zoos, where people pay money to gawk at them. You can google “Antonio Garceffo Long Neck Karen” and find the story.
Next we did a documentary on a Spanish monk, named Kru Pedro, who taught ancient spiritual Muay Thai. I lived in Bangkok and studied Thai in an experimental program called ALG Automatic Language Growth. It was something I had read about when I was at graduate school in Germany. I got heavily involved with the program and began working on a book on Thai linguistics. To date, I have published a number of articles on ALG as applied to Thai language. At one point I went to stay in a temple in Khmer Surin, a part of Thailand which used to belong to Cambodia. I was there studying with one of my best friends, a Khmer monk, named Prah Sameth, also I was there to train with Tony Jaa’s martial arts teacher, “In the Footsteps of Tony Jaa.” While there I also did an article on the difficulties of constantly switching between Khmer and Thai, two languages, which, without sharing a common origin, share 30% of their vocabulary. It’s a long funny story, “Tongue Tied in Surin.” All my linguistics articles are actually pretty funny.

In Thailand I signed a one year teaching contract but lasted only three weeks. That was my record. I quit the job and went to Philippines to study martial arts and write on an island called Palawan. Somewhere in here I worked on a Discovery Channel show called “Fight Quest.” Then I went to Cambodia to do a show for History Channel. After the show, I returned to Thailand briefly writing and studying more Muay Thai. I went back to Philippines to write on an island called Coron. In Philippines I write a lot about the indigenous people. There are countless tribes here, nearly a hundred, and an incredible number of languages and dialects. There are also a lot of martial arts, so Philippines is a good place for me. On my way back to Thailand I lived with a martial arts master, named Master Frank, in Manila. We are still friends and I still study Kuntaw with him.
I left Philippines and worked on a show called “Human Weapon” in Cambodia. I was employed for about three months writing and doing field research, although I only appear on screen for about two seconds. Very cool, one of my jobs was to find and fight every master in Cambodia and write my opinion of them. It took weeks of following up on rumors and traveling into remote rice paddies and villages to find these guys. Most of them were pretty fragile from malnutrition and never having recovered from the Khmer Rouge years, so I only played around sparring. The wrestlers were good, though. And try as I might, they made me look pretty silly, wrestling in the mud in their villages.
I went to Vietnam for a couple of weeks to explore Kampuchea Krom, a Khmer province which was given to Vietnam fifty years ago. I also documented Vietnamese martial art and sparred while I was there.
Somewhere in all of this I turned 40. I went back to Cambodia to work on a History Channel show called “Digging for the Truth,” and got about fifteen minutes of screen time. My big break. Also, my last date with Hollywood. Since then, we have kissed and flirted, but not yet married. I have come close to getting my own show, but it hasn’t happened. I do, however, have an internet TV show, called “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which airs on youtube. So, that is better than nothing.
I went back to Thailand to follow up on the most important and life changing adventure of my life. We are getting to the most important part of the story here.

Because of the Monk, Prah Kru Bah, who took me in when I lived in the jungle on the Burmese border, and because of the numerous tribal stories I had written, I had always been very interested in the war in Burma. A westerner I knew in Chiang Mai several years before had been heavily involved with the Shan State Army. There are a lot of Shan people living in northern Thailand. In fact a lot of my friends at the monastery and around Chiang Mai were Shan. They are extremely good looking people. I call them the proto-Thais because they were the original Tai people who migrated down from China to settle in Burma. The Thai, The Shan, and The Lao are all part of the Tai ethnic group and share a language which is 70% similar. The culture and the religion are also very much alike.

Through a series of events which I can’t publish yet, I wound up making it to the Shan State Army rebel stronghold inside of Shan State, Burma. The Shan share no similarities at all with the Burmese. They were never a part of Burma until the British drew a line on a map, around the end of World War Two. In 1962, there was a military coup in Burma, and General Ne Win took power. He began waging war, akin to genocide, against Burma’s many ethnic people. Since then, several million have fled across the border to become refugees. No one knows how many were killed exactly, because journalists and international organizations are banned from Burma, but we have been able to document countless cases of whole villages being burned and the villagers executed. The army uses gang rape as a weapon, and I interviewed a 14 year old girl, who at age eleven, was gang raped while her parents burned to death inside of her house. She could hear them screaming.
Since 1962, the Shan formed their own army and have been fighting to form an independent country, called Shanland. The right to secede from the Union of Burma was guaranteed them by the British, but so far neither Briton, nor the world has done anything to enforce this agreement.
I hit it off with Colonel Yawd Serk, the commander of the Shan State Army. He invited me to wear a uniform and to come and go as I please in Shanland. When I am inside, I carry my cameras and document human rights abuses. I film interviews with the refugees. The Shan State Army base has become a safe zone for refugees, driven from their villages by the government forces. They have a school and a temple there and a dormitory for about 650 orphans. Many of the orphans actually have one or more living parents but the parents gave the children to the army so that the could be raised in safety and educated in the Shan State Army school, which is the best quality school in Shan State, offering a curriculum in four languages: Shan, Burmese, Thai, and English. In Shan State, it is illegal to teach Shan reading and writing, so for most kids, they don’t learn to read and write their native language.

If you are a parent, could you imagine things being so bad that you would give your child to strangers in the hopes that they would survive? Once a Shan person goes to live on the rebel army base, they can never re-enter Burma because the Burmese would capture them and torture them to find out information about the rebels. The parents don’t have phones or mail service. After a long trek, often several months of hiding, slowly making their way through the jungle, to hand their child over to the Shan State Army, the parents say “good-by” to their children, and they will most likely never see them or hear from them again.

When I am in the base, I do interviews all day, and often break down in tears. I interviewed two small boys whose parents were murdered. When I asked them, they couldn’t even remember the name of their village. They had blocked out the first several years of their lives. After they left, I told my translator hwo upset I was that two little boys should be made orphans for absolutely no reason. He said, “It’s normal.” My answer was, “It shouldn’t be.”
After more than forty years at war, there are very few Shan who remember a time of peace. “It’s normal.”
When I am inside I teach hand-to-hand combat to the soldiers. Outside, I publish my videos and articles and try to raise awareness of the Shan situation. I also coordinate donations through a great NGO who have the guts to go inside and render medical aid to the children. Most big NGOs and the UN won’t help the Shan because they have rules in their bylaws which say they can’t break the law and that they can only render aid if the government invites them. In the case of Burma, the government is doing the killing, so that invitation has been lost in the mail. Other large NGOs, who solicit millions of dollars from Americans every Christmas, have a policy of not aiding armed groups. “If the Shan lay down their weapons, we will come help them.” They said. Obviously if the Shan laid down their weapons, the Burmese would kill them all, and there would be no children to help. The orphan dormitories are surrounded by trenches in case the base comes under attack again.

There are two small NGOs who are willing to risk their lives running aid missions into Burma. I have been in the filed with them both and I have great respect for them. The Free Burma Rangers (FBR) run training programs. The leaders of the tribal armies each send a few of their men to get trained as Rangers. The FBR teach them field medicine, patrolling, navigation, and photography. The men learn to do human rights abuse documentation. FBR even gives them cameras. If you have seen the movie Rambo IV most of the actual footage of atrocities was shot by FBR teams who risk their lives to get in and film. They also give direct medical aid when they can and provide physical security when they can. Many of the refugees only made it to the Shan base because an FBR team found them in the jungle and rescued them.

I have become very close with some of the young teachers in Shanland. It breaks my heart to see their students playing football on a field surrounded by landmines and knowing that if those mines were removed, they would all be killed. The day after Chidlren’s Day, the Burmese forces surrounded the base, waiting to ambush families who were taking their children home after the festivities.

I started a project called “In Shanland.” Basically I publish one video on youtube for free and one article for free which I send to about 4,000 people and organizations. I send out one article and one video per week, and will do so for a year. Hopefully by the end of the year, the project will have gained momentum and someone important will have heard about the Shan and come help them.
I have spent some time in Philippines, attending paramedic school. I am taking as much training as I can in emergency medicine but also going to be taking courses with the police and army to get trained in close security and renew my training with heavy weapons. I plan to go back into Shanland in October or so. After I finish my training in Philippines, I may take a paying job somewhere in the world to help me continue my volunteer work in Shanland. The amazing part of this story is that I don’t work for any aid organization. I am self-funded and a number of nice people around the world have written in, making donations, helping me get through school. Among them are several deposed Shan princesses. The world is so strange. And people are inherently good.

If I weren’t so poor, I never would have reached out, asking for help. And I never would have proved just how wonderful and caring people can be. After I return to Shanland, I think I will carve out a niche for myself as a combat medic, doing aid missions in trouble zones all over the world. I love the Shan. But their plight made me realize that there are groups of displaced, stateless people all over the world and because of uncomfortable politics no one is helping them. Darfur is probably the example most people will know, but there are many, many others. And it doesn’t matter what color their skin or what language or religion, people are people, and more importantly, kids are kids, and they deserve the right to live and grow in safety.

0 1070

Until someone asked me I had no idea that it had been seven years since I had quit my job on Wall Street and come to Asia to be a full time adventure writer.
“What have you been up to?” asked a message from an old friend with whom I had attended Merchant Marine School in 1991. After shipping out on the high seas, I went on to university in Germany, and Ryan went on to the Merchant Marine Academy. We met again in 1997, when the question, “What have you been up to?” was easier to answer. I had been at school in Germany, Spain, and Costa Rica. I had graduated with degrees in linguistics and business. I had been divorced, and I was back in New York, looking for a job in finance.
Now, keeping up with our once in a decade schedule, Ryan found me on Facebook and asked “What have you been up to?” He followed this with, “Why are you wearing a uniform in your profile photo? Are you back in the army?” And, “Why does it say you are in the Philippines?”

The life of an adventure writer is not easy. For one thing, I am the main character in my writing. Just like a TV show that has to change its format from time to time so audiences don’t get burned out, I need to shake things up to keep it interesting. I never have enough money, in fact, each month, I live hand to mouth until my small writer’s income dries up. Then things get really tough. Things get so shaken up, I feel like I am suffering with a British nanny.

Right now, I am living on the bottom bunk of a dormitory in Manila. The room is charming, with cinderblock walls and no windows. I share the bathroom with eight people, and like them, I am a full time student, at paramedic school.
The following is the incredibly strange and twisted storey of how Antonio Graceffo became the Monk from Brooklyn, the infamous travel writer and reality TV guy, and why he is attending paramedic school in the Philippines. There is also a side note, or perhaps a sub-plot, which explains why the police are looking for him (me) in China and Burma.

If you don’t know who Antonio Graceffo is or what he has written, you can first check my website . There is a story on there called “Four Years of Living Dangerously,” which tells about my first four years in Asia. Also, I have four books on and a new one coming out later this year. Next, you could google my name, there are like 50,000 (no lie) pages about me. Finally, put my name on YouTube and you will find a lot of videos I shot around Asia and inside of Burma, as well as a lot of stuff that I did for History Channel and for movies.

When First Engineer Ryan and I met in 1997, I had just come back to New York, looking for a job in finance. It was a struggle. I eventually got into a financial planner training program at a well known company (who might sue me if I print their name.. They have forbidden me to even speak it. But suffice to say, it rhymes with purle.) I completed a three-year education in seven months. Working a hundred hours a week, I got all my certifications, while living on the floor in my office with no money. Once I got fully qualified, I made three job changes in about 18 months and each time increased my income by about $40,000 USD. Eventually, I became assistant head of private wealth management for the third largest private bank in the USA.

After 911, I decided to drop out of life. I had so many dreams and things I wanted to do, most of all, to live a Jack London/Hemingway life and write books. I left a lot of unpaid student loans, taxes and other federal debts behind at that time, which puts the US on the list of countries I probably should never visit.
I took a job teaching school in Taiwan so I could start learning Chinese and practice Kung Fu. I was the first foreigner to live and train with the team there. I had practiced martial arts and boxing my whole life, but after leaving the service I stopped fighting in competitions. Taiwan set a precedent and martial art became a full time part of my life from then on. I left Taiwan and studied at the Shaolin Temple in mainland China. By then, I spoke Chinese well and was completely fit again, recovering from years of university and banking.

Because of the SARS epidemic I had to flee China, I was actually arrested and held in a hospital and had to fight the monks…grabbed an old sword off the wall, and threatened and cajoled my way out of the medieval doors. The full story became my first book, “The Monk from Brooklyn,” available on
Because of the SARS quarantine I only made it as far as Hong Kong and couldn’t get any farther. The money I had left from working in New York basically got eaten up at a rate of over $100 USD per day for six months of living as a deposed refugee in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was like “Rick’s American Café,” in Casa Blanca. It was full of people like me, waiting for our exit visa. I shared my plight with Brits, Thais, and Rhodesians, who insisted that the countries name “has not and will never change.”
Do you want to go get a coffee now? We aren’t even close to explaining why I am wearing an army uniform and studying in the Philippines.



Where’s Burma?



One adventure I always wanted to do was to cross a big desert ala Laurence of Arabia. Stuck in Hong Kong, I had nothing to do all day but, train in Filipino martial arts ( I am leaving out some steps here) and read up on the Taklamakan Desert. Eventually I took the train back into China, where I was wanted for assault, after physically flattening a guy who was ripping off my former employer in Hong Kong. (Once again, I have left out a whole chapter of my sorted relationship with China and my industrial espionage there.)

I did a solo crossing of the Taklamakan Desert on a tricycle rickshaw. I made it to Kashgar, near the Pakistan border, where the hotel manager asked me to put the bike on display in the lobby and to hang around and regale visitors with stories of my adventure, in Chinese. I left the bike there, chained to the spiral staircase, when I snuck out at five in the morning, returning to Hong Kong.
I arrived back in Hong Kong with about ten dollars in my pocket. I checked into a guesthouse owned by a mainland Chinese family who treated me like a Shaolin Priest, and collapsed on the bed. I went through several days of fever and pain. One day, the son of the family burst into my room, excitedly, to tell me that Taiwan had finally opened up. I flew back and took another teaching job.

The Taklamakan Desert became my next book, “The Desert of Death on Three Wheels.” Also on amazon.

Accelerating the story a bit. I was not able to hold a job in Taiwan because every time I turned on the Discovery Channel someone was doing something more interesting than I was. I kept quitting my jobs to go do adventures around Taiwan, like cycling the entire island 1,500 KM alone and without a plan. My assorted Taiwan stories became a book, “Adventures in Formosa.”

I had heard about a monk, Prah kru Ba, in Thailand who did drug interdiction work on the Burma border. He took orphaned hill tribe boys to live in his jungle monastery, where he taught them Muay Thai (Thai boxing). Together, they patrolled the border, beating up drug dealers and telling the hill tribe people not to get sucked in by yaba (meth amphetamine) and opium, the two crops that were being used to fund the longest civil war on the planet. At this point, the war has been going on for more than 60 years.

I lived with Kru Bah, the monk, for three months. He taught me Thai language, Muay Thai, and Theravada Buddhism. I had learned Mahayana Buddhism in Taiwan and China. After I came out of his monastery, I did a series of adventures in Thailand, which became a book, “Boats, Bikes, and Boxing Gloves.”

I went to Cambodia searching for ancient Cambodian martial art, called Bokator. It took me eighteen months to find the master. Along the way, I learned the Khmer language and working as a freelance journalist, I published about 200 articles about Cambodia.

Since leaving Taiwan, my existence had been hand to mouth at best. I lived in $2 a night hotels. Slept in villages and temples. I didn’t always have money for food. I once sold my books so I could eat, then went back and asked the bookstore guy to loan them back to me so I could finish reading them. “I won’t get them dirty.” I promised.

Each time I moved, from a mountain village to a hotel, from an island nation to a mainland….I left most of my possessions behind, taking only what I cold carry, and traveling by the cheapest means, bus, bicycle…. Until a few weeks ago, everything I owned fit in two backpacks. I lost one of the backpacks in an accident in the war zone. Now, everything I own fits in one.

In Cambodia I used my diplomas to get myself a very well-paid teaching job at an Australian school in Phnom Penh. I took an apartment. Settled down. Began buying boxed sets of The Office, the Sopranos, Futurama, Sympsons, and Family Guy.
I trained hard in boxing and Khmer boxing (Bradal Serey) and I fought some pro-fights. I was physically at a peak I had never hit before, and I was in my late thirties. But at night….the voices…the images from Discovery Channel (that channel should be banned)….A tour company offered to sponsor me on an adventure tour through Cambodia. I quit my job and it became my next book, “Discovering the Khmers” which is due out in 2008.

At the end of those adventures I was out of money again. I had to give up the apartment, the Sympsons, everything. I flew to Hong Kong to find a job, but ran out of money while I was waiting, so I flew home and went on a speaking tour to promote my books. I spoke seventy times in the States. I competed in the World Championships of Public Speaking, and made it to the semi-finals. I got really fat and never found a niche for myself back in North America.

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When I called home, my brother asked me how hard it was to learn Korean, and after a lengthy explanation, “But Chinese is easier than Korean.” I concluded. The average person, normal people who haven’t dedicated their lives to being language and martial arts study-monks, would imagine that learning Chinese is about the hardest things someone could do. But two weeks into my study of Korean, I began to suspect that Korean was harder. Six months
later, when I could read and write with ease, and possessed thousands of vocabulary words, and countless grammatical structures, but still couldn’t order off a menu, I was convinced, Korean is the hardest of the ten
languages I have studied.

Set in North East Asia, sandwiched between China and Japan, Korea has one of the most unique languages in the world. Much of the vocabulary is similar to Chinese, while the grammar is similar to Japanese. American words and
cultural influences are unmistakable. Real football (the American kind) and baseball are extremely popular collegiate sports. The players strut around the university sporting letterman jackets the same as back home.

Schools are divided into elementary, middle, and high school. A bachelor’s degree is four years; students have a major and a minor. There is a master’s degree and a doctorate. Basically the whole system mirrors the
American one. The word for pop song is pop song. The word for chicken is chicken. American movie titles are simply transliterated so “Spy Game,” is “Spy Game,” and “X-Men,” is “X-Men.”

At a glance, Korean seems that it should be the easiest language in the world for an English native speaker, who speaks Chinese. But don’t get too comfortable! Everything about Korea, from the culture to the language is
completely Korean. Sometimes the familiarity actually makes things more difficult, as you expect things to be like back home, but you find out they are different. So, when you go out to a ball game you can eat shredded, kimchi and dried squid. I never saw any of that at Yankee stadium.

“Take me out to the ball game.
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some kimchi and dried squid.
I don’t care if we ever get back.”

Chicken is chicken, but only when you are buying fried chicken on the street. Everywhere else, chicken is duk gogi. “Spy Game” is “Spy Game,” but spy has no meaning apart from being a movie title. In martial arts circles, the word match means a fight. But everywhere else, you say match and no one knows what you are talking about.

The weird English usage goes both ways. Most Korean dictionaries translate the Korean word PC Bang as PC Room. So when Koreans are speaking English they say they are going to the PC Room and expect you to know what that is, because it is English. It may take a while for an English native speaker to guess that PC room means internet café, a word which doesn’t exist in the Korean collective English lexicon. Another Konglish word is academy. The Koreans refer to the nighttime English schools as hack wans which, in Korean literally means study rooms or study places. But when speaking English, they refer to hack wans as academies. For most Americans, academy means a military training school. So we are shocked that children are sent to an academy at age seven or eight. The English word school is only used for a public or private primary school. If I say I am going to the Tae Kwan Do school, my Korean friends get confused. “But you are too old for school.” Thanks for reminding me about my advanced age. You forgot to point out that
I am a bit overweight too.

One of the easy features of Korean language is that the pronunciation is consonant vowel, consonant vowel. Linguistic scholars maintain that this is the easiest combination to pronounce, which is why German, which can have four or even five consonants in a series, is hard for foreigners to pronounce. As for unique sounds, Korean only has one or two sounds which we don’t have in English, such as giu he, which means church or ui sa which means doctor, the eu sound is hard for us. But once you have mastered these two phonemes, the pronunciation is not an issue.
The size of Korean words is also perfect. When you are learning Thai it is not uncommon to find words with twenty letters. Korean words usually consist of a combination of two or three syllable. (More on this later.) The best thing about learning Korean is that Hangul, the Korean writing system, is one of the easiest in the world. The Korean writing system is an alphabet, just like the western/Latin script. Hangul was created under King Sejong during the Choson Dynasty (1393-1910). King Sejong is considered to have been the greatest ruler of Korea and is credited with having brought about many positive institutions in Korea such as sunshine and the changes of season. Perhaps his contributions have been a little blown out of proportion, but he did a lot of good things for the country. As a result, the dynasty lasted until 1910. At that time, Japan invaded Korea and the country remained a Japanese colony until 1945.

Korea had been using the Chinese writing system for centuries. The Chinese claim their system is perfect. Although many scholars would disagree, the Chinese system does have one very significant advantage. The strength of the
Chinese writing system is that the pictographs (characters) have meaning, but no sound value. So, anyone, with any native tongue, can look at the Chinese characters and pronounce them in any language. As a result, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Taiwan were all using the Chinese writing system, but pronouncing it in their own language. And all over Asia Buddhist monks were using the Chinese characters and scriptures. The disadvantage of Chinese writing, however, is that it is so bloody difficult. When I was studying in Taiwan I discovered that primary school students spent nearly half of their study time learning to read and write their native tongue. As a result, China has a surprisingly high illiteracy rate given the country’s level of development.

In the 15th century, Korea was also suffering from widespread illiteracy, due to the difficulty of the Chinese system.
In 1446 King Sejong, proclaimed a 28 letter writing system called Hangul. The word Han, meaning Korean. Today, the system has been further simplified to only 24 characters. Most foreigners find they can learn the alphabet in
about a week. Korean children are expected to have mastered the alphabet before they begin school. Being sandwiched between the huge neighbors, China and Japan, the Koreans have developed a pervasive nationalism. They are afraid that if they let their guard down at all, and begin absorbing foreign culture, their unique Korean culture will disappear. Hangul appeals to this nationalism, and is a powerful element of Korean national pride.
Although the Hangul was being taught and used in Korea, it was being used parallel to the Chinese characters. To be an educated person, and a fully functioning member of society, it was necessary to master both. Newspapers
were written in Chinese characters until the early part of the 1990s. Today, medical school, pharmacy school, and several other university departments still use textbooks written in Chinese characters.

If you don’t speak Korean, you may wonder why when you see Korean writing it looks like Chinese type characters instead of a string of letters such as in English or Russian. The reason is that Korean is written in syllables. Each syllable is a tight composition of Korean letters which fit together, like a Rubic’s cube, and look like a Chinese type character. In many instances each syllable does, in fact, correspond to a Chinese character. For example, the Korean word for library is do so guan. The Chinese word is du su gwan. The pronunciation is almost the same. And the three Korean syllables would correspond to the three Chinese characters. Where the language becomes difficult for a student of Chinese language is that in Chinese du su guan literally means study book place. So once you learn the word for library in Chinese, you have also learned the words for book and study. But in Korean, the first two syllables, do so, don’t actually have any meaning at all. The only place where the word so reoccurs for book is in the word so jum which means, book store, but again, the word is obviously borrowed from Chinese, and has nearly no other meaning.

In researching the origins of the Korean language it is difficult, although very important, to be able to separate which similarities with Chinese and Japanese are the result of a common origin, and which are loan words. I grew up speaking both Italian and Spanish. Where the languages overlapped, say 70% of the vocabulary is similar, we could attribute these similarities to a common Latin origin. So, for example kitchen, cucina in Italian and cusina in Spanish, both obviously come from the same place, showing that the languages are related. But the word toilette which is a fairly universal word, used in German and English, is a loan word, a word borrowed from French, and in no way suggests a common origin for the three languages.

(Author’s note: Before you send me any angry emails I would like to say: If we go back far enough in time, we would find that French, German, and English share a common origin. But this is not proved by the common use of
the word toilet.)

Using this type of logic, separating words demonstrating common origin from borrowed words, many scholars maintain that Korean is a completely unique language, although somewhere on the order of 30-50% of the vocabulary comes from Chinese language. One interesting observation I have made, and when I say interesting I mean only for people like me, the Korean word for weekend ju mal contains the components week and end of a time period. The Chinese word jo mo is nearly identical and uses the same Chinese characters, but it has no meaning in Chinese apart from weekend. Could this mean that weekend is a Korean word, written with Chinese characters, which was adopted by the Chinese? Since the Korean government is paying my tuition, I will say, “Yes, it

Ok, enough egg-headed details about the Korean language. Now let’s look at why learning Korean is such a traumatic experience. First off, Korean is the only language I have learned, so far, where there are two separate counting systems. They have a Chinese counting system (based on Manchurian dialect, not Mandarin) which is used for counting certain things, other things are counted with a Korean counting system. As a student of the language its frustrating trying to remember which set of numbers to use. When reading stand alone numbers, such phone numbers, addresses, ID card numbers and bus and train numbers, you use the Manchurian numbers. When
counting things, you use the Korean numbers. When telling time, however, the hours are counted with Korean numbers, but the minutes with the Chinese numbers. So 5:05 would be dasot shi o bun. Dasot being five in the Korean system and o being five in the Chinese system. Twenty-four hour shops, however, are called by the Chinese number yisip-sa shi instead of the Korean seumel net shi.
If you have ever taken Tae Kwan Do in the States, the exercises are always counted il, i, sam, sa, o, yuk…but this is incorrect because these are the Chinese numbers. When you study martial arts in Korea, the exercises are
counted using Korean numbers, han, dul, set, net, dasot, yosot… My personal waterloo in learning Korean language is the social register. In Korean language there are special ways of addressing people depending on
their status. So you use one verb form for talking to a friend, and another for talking to your parents. You would use yet another for talking to your grandparents. You also use special forms for talking about people who are more important. Just when I thought there couldn’t possibly be another verb form, I stumbled onto a sentence I couldn’t make heads or tales of. My teacher explained to me, “this is how a mother talks to her son, if she is talking about the grandfather.”
Of course!

In addition to the various address forms, Korean is the only Asian language I have studied which has a full compliment of grammar. In addition to having numerous verb tenses, Korean also has grammatical moods to convey concepts such as probability, suggestions, orders, requests, doubt…and then each of
these moods will have various forms dependent on who you are talking too. Chinese is simple in comparison. Almost everything is in the indicative and there really aren’t any tenses. Once the tense has been established, you
no longer need the various indicators. Korean also has particles which follow nouns to tell whether the word is a
name or an inanimate object, a subject, an object, plural or, a single subject which is similar to a subject already mentioned.

And so I sit, frustrated. I have memorized, at this point, literally more than one thousand main words, verbs, nouns and adjectives. And yet, every time I open my mouth I have to think, who am I talking to? What are we talking about? How sure of this am I? When did it happen? By the time I sort out all of these details, the person I wanted to talk to is home in bed. And I am left alone and speechless. The good news is, the average American male has a life expectancy of 78 years, so I still have 38 years to learn to speak Korean. Maybe by then I will have learned to like kimchi.

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Most of us have some aspect of our personality or our life that we wish to change. We want to lose weight, quit smoking, save money, or develop the discipline to meditate daily and heal our minds. Some people wish to become less materialistic and to appreciate the simple things in life. Our biggest holidays, Christmas and Thanksgiving and Chanuka are good opportunities to overeat, overindulge, overspend, over-consume, and overdo. What most westerners need is a prolonged fast, a quiet return to the simple life and an escape from the modern world of consumer culture. The Buddhists have such a holiday.
Toward the end of July, travelers may have noticed inordinate numbers of monks crowding the bus stations of Cambodia’s and Thailand. Most of the monks were given special leave to visit their families, in preparation to the Buddhist lent, a three month celebration of faith, when they would not be permitted to leave the monastery.

Anyone who has tried doing business in South East Asia during rainy season, you will find that things slow down immensely. Actually, the slow down, at least in part, is based on the observance of the Buddhist holiday, Vassa (called Phansa in Thailand), the Buddhist lent, which is primarily practiced in Cambodia, Thailand, Lao, and Burma. The Buddhist lent is often loosely referred to as the “rain retreat.” The period of deep religious dedication begins on the first day of the waning moon of the eighth lunar month.
The word Vassa is actually an old Pali word which means rain. The holiday is divided into two parts. The first part, for the entering of the rainy season, is called “Choul Phrah Vassaanother. The second part, for the exit of the rainy season, is called “Cheanh Phrah Vassa”. While lay people are free to chose what level of discipline they wish to exert in following the rules of the lent. For monks, however, strict observance is mandatory.

Non-monks often use this Lenten period to renew their spiritual practices and give up some of their luxuries, such as meat, alcohol, or smoking.
During the lent period, normally from August to October (depending on lunar months), monks aren’t allowed to sleep outside their temple, neither are they permitted to wear “regular clothes.” The tradition stems from a story abut how Buddha remained in the temple during rainy season to prevent stepping on any insects of sprouting seeds. They are, however, permitted to go out during the day. Monks use this period of restricted movement to do intensive study, meditation, and prayer. This is also a time when they would teach the sacred scriptures to younger monks.

Buddhist lent is the most important religious holiday for monks, novices, and lay people. Monks stop wandering and stay on the temple grounds. Novices benefit because they receive additional education. Laypeople stop doing evil and cut back on bad habits. Some people take this opportunity to purify themselves and start a new life.

A few days before the Buddhist Lent, Cambodian people buy pairs of big candles decorated with dragons or flowers. One candle is for the buyer and one to get a husband or wife in the next life. The day before Buddhist Lent, the 15th day of the dark moon, commemorates the first sermon of Buddha to his first five disciples. Crowds of people gather in the temple in order to listen to the Dharma. In some parts of Cambodia there are grand candle processions, with the people walking three times around the pagoda with the lighted candles.
And thus begins a three month period of abstinence, sobriety, and meditation. If you really want to understand the southeast Asian culture, and if you want to stop gambling or drinking shoe polish, Buddhist Lent could be like a low-cost spa treatment to get your life back on track.

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The life of tribal people outside of Puerto Princesa City is more difficult than inside the city, where Mayor Hagedorn”s tribal initiatives can help them.
In 2005, Reyster Langit, the son of a famous Philippine broadcaster set out with his team to document how malaria was ravaging the Palawan tribe and the Tau’t Bato people, who live at the southern tip of Palawan island. Shortly afterwards, Langit and his team came down with cerebral malaria. They were sent to a hospital in the US, where they all died.

For people living in the remote regions of the island, far from the somewhat urban center of Puerto Princesa, malaria is just a part of life. For tribal people, who live in extremely hard-to-reach communities up on the mountainside, malaria is a matter of life and death. On a recent mission to explore the life of the tribal people, we discovered that malaria was just one of many issues facing these tribes. The Batak and Tagbanua, tribes who live inside of the Puerto Princesa city limits, are protected by Tagbalay Foundation, the City Tribal office, and Mayor Hagedorn”s tribal aid projects which include medical assistance, education, free seeds for farming, and a push to establish land deeds for the tribal people under the Ancestral Domain legislation. But the tribes outside of the city limits are more or less on their own, with little or no aid coming in.
The Palawan tribe are one of the oldest tribes in the Philippine islands. Anthropologists believe that Sabah, Malaysia and Palawan may have been connected by a land-bridge at some time in history. The theory is that the Palawan tribe walked across the bridge and became the first settlers of the Philippines. In ancient times, the Palawan tribe lived in caves. They developed their own written language, which they used to adorn pottery. It is also supposed that they wrote on banana leaves with a sharp stick, but obviously none of these banana leaves has survived to the present. Today, the writing system seems to have been completely lost by the tribal people themselves. It has been preserved in the museum in Puerto Princesa and in books in Europe.
Historically, the Palawan people had contact with Muslim traders and pirates who worked the waterways around Palawan. It is from trade with the Muslims that they acquired their first metal implements. As they never invented a system of metallurgy, all of their tools and weapons were made of wood and stone. Over the years, many of the Palawan became “civilized.” This is an English word they have adopted to mean that they have moved out of the high mountain caves and now live in isolated villages at lower altitude. Those who remain in the caves are referred to as Tau’t Bato, which means the “people of the stone.” The two groups; Palawan and Tau”t Bato are simply shades of the same tribe. They speak the same language and historically had the same culture and beliefs. The culture of the lower-dwelling Palawan has changed through contact, and in some cases, marriage with Catholics and Muslims.

The jumping off point for a visit to the Palawan tribe and Tau’t Bato people is at the end of a jarring seven hour bus ride from Puerto Princesa city. My colleagues, from Tagbalay Tribal Foundation, and I set out on foot into the jungle. The first five kilometers were quite easy walking. The trail was well marked, and we didn’t need a guide. Along the way, we met a guide from the Palawan tribe, on the way down to town, with two chickens under his arms. When we asked, “Are you Tau’t Bato?” he answered, “I used to be, but now I am civilized.”

Even in their language, they use the English word civilized. The cave dwelling Tau’t Bato follow an animist religion steeped in spirit beliefs. All of the lowland Palawan that we met claimed to be Christian. I wondered if the missionaries told them that part of being civilized was converting.
We asked the guide why he was carrying two chickens. He explained that earlier, he had bought some gallon jugs in town, and already put them in his hut. Now he was walking back down the mountain to pay for them. Apparently, the tribal people used a barter system. This made sense, since there didn’t seem to be a lot of opportunity for cash business. Rather than living in a classical village setting, we found Palawan tribal people living in individual houses with their immediate families. The houses were quite far from one another. None of them had access to the river or any source of water.

The children were all suffering from skin diseases and distended bellies. With little or no water to drink, it is no wonder none could be spared for washing.

The chairman of the local government had told us that the Palawan tribe didn’t want land titles granted under the Ancestral Domain Legislation. This is a law which would give the right of land ownership to the tribe, as a group, forever. “They don”t want it,” said the Chairman, “Because then they couldn”t sell their land because it would belong to the community.”
Obviously, the government”s prohibition against allowing the tribal people to sell their land was put in place to protect the tribe from being fleeced by lowlanders.
“But they don’t own the land now,” I pointed out. “So, how can they sell it?”
“They do sell i,.” said Marifi. “And lowlanders can still push them off of it. Currently their land is considered a timberland.” The timber concerns can buy the land from the tribal people at a low price, then cut down the trees and sell them.

“If they accept the Ancestral Domain Land Grant,” said Marifi, “The land would be in tact forever, and the people could never be forced off by the lowlanders. If they don”t accept it, there is a chance they will sell off all the land and have no place left to live. ”

If the land were granted under Ancestral Domain, then logging would be strictly prohibited. Technically, logging is prohibited everywhere in Palawan. But the ban on logging is strictly enforced in Puerto Princesa. Mayor Hagedorn has taken a strong stance on environmental crimes. In addition to imposing fines and jail sentences on loggers, he also created alternative jobs for them as forest wardens and garbage collectors. Now, the loggers still have an income, and the Puerto Princesa still has trees. But in south Palawan, there is no such protection.

Further up the trail, we stopped to talk to a Palawan family, sitting on the porch of their small hut. Marifi bought pineapples from the family. The price was a measly 10 Pesos. She bought bananas from another family and the price was also ten Pesos. It was strange that everything was ten Pesos. Marifi suggested, “Maybe they don’t really know how to count. Or maybe they know that a ten Peso coin has value, but they don”t understand the other money.” When Marifi paid for the pineapples she couldn”t get a straight answer if it was ten pesos each or ten pesos for the whole bunch. She paid them ten each.
Literature we had read told us that during the dry season, the Tau”t Bato lived in huts, near their small swiden fields. The books said the Tau”t Bato only lived in caves during the rainy season. But, Tau’t Bato we met along the way told us a different story. Although they did relocate during the year, they simply moved from one set of caves to another.

In the old days, they would have supplemented their diet by gathering forest products. Once a month, they would have journeyed to the coastal area to trade with the Muslims for salt, seaweed, lime, and products they couldn”t make themselves. They would also have done some fishing. Today, the Palawan have no access to the sea and very little room to forage.

Two kilometers further on, we arrived at our first destination, a Palawan market site called Balin Balin. Complicating the other problems faced by the tribe, there seemed to be a complete lack of knowledge and interest on the part of the lowlanders. When we asked how far to Balin Balin, lowlanders gave us answers ranging from 8 to 18 kilometers, when in fact it turned out to be only five. We had also been told that there was a market everyday. There is only a market on Wednesday. The misinformation simply proved that lowlanders had never had contact with the tribe.

Amid the market stalls, devoid of people, we found a sixteen-year-old Palawan boy, named Ramlan. Having absolutely nothing else to do, he sat on the porch of his hut all day, staring into nothingness. Even our arrival didn’t awaken him from his catatonic state. Marifi, an expert at talking to tribal people, eventually got Ramlan to open up. The boy seemed horribly depressed, as he told us his story. He quit school during the second grade and can read only a little bit. He admitted that he would like to finish school, but it won’t be easy. There is a school in the village, but there is no teacher. There is another school, several kilometers away, which he could walk to, but Ramlan feels he is too old to sit in a classroom with small children.
While Marifi tried to convince Ramlan to return to school, we heard another young voice come from inside of the hut. This voice belonged to Ramlan”s 19 year old cousin, Alvin, who was so shy and sad, that he refused to come out, only speaking to us through the space between the bamboo walls of his house.

Apparently, Alvin had been given a scholarship by a missionary group. They had taken him to Puerto Princesa, where he graduated high school. Afterwards, he entered Palawan State University and completed one year towards a degree in social work. At that point, the missionaries hit him with an ultimatum. If he wanted to continue his education, he had to agree to become a missionary. They wanted to take him away from Palawan, and send him to Bagio to study religion and mission work. When Alvin refused, he was sent back to the mountain. “There were about ten of us from the tribe in the same situation.” Said Alvin. “I think all of us chose to come back here.” Ramlan told Marifi, “I really hoped to graduate college and then go work abroad so I could send money back, to help my tribe.” Now Alvin, like his cousin Ramlan, just sits all day, with nothing to do.
Occasionally he helps with farm work, but it is obvious that after five years of education in town, he no longer fits in the tribal environment. His spoken Filipino language is perfect, like a lowland native-speaker, and he also speaks English. The house he shares with his mother has no electricity, and the only water in the village comes from a communal pump. The water smelled so badly, that I didn’t want to wash with it, waiting instead, to bath when we returned to town. The tribal people drink this water.

Marifi is a staunch supporter of education for tribal people. “Scholarships need to include not only tuition fees but also room and board and school supplies. Most of all, I think the curriculum needs to be culturally sensitive.”
In my opinion, aid should be given for free, no strings attached. If a church group wants to help children and educate them, then they should do so, expecting nothing in return, not even conversion.”

Right now, all of the government educational programs for tribal people are the same as those for the Christian lowland majority. Consequently, much of the lesson plan is outside the realm of what is relevant for or interesting to tribal children. “Additional modules should be created which focus on tribal history, language, and culture, much of which is being lost.” Said Marifi.

The Palawan tribe for example actually has their own writing system, which is the oldest alphabet in the Philippines, but nearly 100% of the tribe cannot read it or write it. Most aren’t even unaware of this fact. The ones who come down and become civilized often convert to Christianity and lose their tribal belief system. Eventually all of the customs and culture disappear. This could be remedied by educating them in tribal culture and religion at school.
“You cannot force tribal children to understand the same things as the other children. There must be teaching of cultural or indigenous knowledge practices. When tribal children go to school in the lowland, they don’t know any of the things from the regular education program, because it was not intended for them.”
Hiring Alvin and Ramlan as guides, we began the second leg of the journey, up to the domain of the Tau’t Bato. From the market, we walked down a steep valley. We crossed over the river and immediately, the terrain lead straight up. It was the most difficult climb I had done in years, and it just went on and went on, up and up. Alvin and Ramlan didn’t even seem to notice the climb or the heat. Marifi was the first to fall back, opting to wait for us at the river. Eventually we passed a large bamboo hut with a tremendous porch. I would later be told that this is the overnight point for trekkers who wish to visit the Tau’t Bato. Outside the big house was a small house high up on stilts, which locals referred to as a farm house. These smaller houses are built next to swiden fields, and locals only stay in them when they need to plant or harvest.

If you wish to visit the Tau’t Bato, the optimal way to make the trek is to set out early in the morning, rest at the markets, as we had done, then climb to the overnight point and stop. That would be a relatively hard day of trekking, but probably only about eight kilometers of distance. The next morning, you could wake up early and continue up to the caves, only three or four kilometers further up. Safety is very important here because you are far from the nearest help. Make sure to bring plenty of clean, bottled water. It would be risky to drink the water in the river. When I was down to two bottles of water, I paid a tribal woman to boil the river water and refill my empty bottles with it. Still, I put these bottles at the bottom of my pack, vowing not to risk drinking them unless I was nearly dead. At best, boiling can kill bacteria. But boiling will do nothing for chemicals or other impurities in the water. Fortunately, I made it home on my remaining two bottles of water, and didn”t have to test the boiled water.

Malaria is your other major health risk in this location, so it is best to travel at a time when there are fewer mosquitoes. There are less mosquitoes during the dry season than the rainy season. The mosquitoes are more of a problem at night, than during the day. In the day time, you need to apply mosquito repellent frequently and generously. At night, you must sleep under mosquito netting. As the risk of contagion was explained to me, the mosquitoes carry malaria because they have recently fed on an infected animal or person. So, the trick is to stay away from infected animals and persons. In theory this decreases the risk of mosquitoes carrying the disease. Many, if not all, of the tribal people are living with malaria. So, sleeping near the tribal people is dangerous. It is best to plan your trip in such a way that you can leave the tribal area before dark. If you get stranded on the mountain, don’t sleep inside the village. Walk as far from the tribal area as possible and make camp.

Another kilometer up the mountain we found the massive stones which marked the entrance to the tribal domain, Signapan. On the other side was the domain of the sacred spirits.

A local government worker told us proudly that when he goes up the mountain, he spends time with the tribe. “We eat and sleep together. I understand them.” He said, suggesting no one else did. “I don’t believe in the spirits.” He told us, proudly. To understand the Palawan tribe, however, you must understand the spirits, or at least know of the Palawan”s reverence for them.

The wife of the government worker, on the other hand, understood. She told us, “When Reyster Langit, went up to the Tau’t Bato, they said he died of malaria. But I think it was something else. He was very noisy and laughing, disrespectfully to the spirits. He even moved his bowels in the sacred river basin.”

She believed, as did many locals, that the man died of some type of curse brought on because he offended the spirits. A guide, who had been working in the mountains for years, told us. “You have to ask permission to take pictures of the Tau’t Bato. You must ask where, when, and what. For example, the background, if a tree contains a spirit you can’t photograph it. Also the time of year or day may not be appropriate to take photos. That team of journalists didn’t ask permission, and they died.”

It was rainy season. Looking at my watch, I knew that we had run out of time if we were going to get back before dark. I was tempted to pass the stone gate and enter the domain of the spirits. But instead, I turned around, and we headed back down the mountain. The spirit domain will have to wait for a longer expedition, which we will launch during April, the driest month of the year.

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“The way we found out that our mother had diabetes was that ants would appear every time she peed.”

The teachers had been standing at the front of the room talking about bodily functions and toilet humor for nearly an hour. The next story was a Thai legend about a half woman and half snake spirit monster, which fed on human waste. I would have been appalled, except that it was all in Thai, and yet, after only a few weeks of study, I understood what they were saying. Maybe it would have been better if I didn’t understand. I could have tuned out. But I had paid money to learn the Thai language through this innovative approach, and apparently it had paid off. The shocking humor of the subject matter forced me to remember the new language.
The lessons weren’t always so unappetizing. Sometimes they were down right fun or silly. The teacher would say the Thai word for ambulance and the students would have to make ambulance noises. Or, she would say the Thai word for train and we would all make choo-choo noises. We were alowed to shout, laugh, get up, and act out. The one thing we were not allowed to do was to speak Thai. If a student answered a question in Thai, he would immediately get told off by the teacher.

Sometimes it was difficult, Thais have no sense of political correctness, which has been stressed in the Western world. More than once a Thai teacher, named Hom, would pull his slacks up to his nipples, squint his eyes nearly shut, stick out his buck teeth and pretend to play golf. “Look, I am Japanese,” he would say.

The first week of class I thought everyone associated with the program was insane. “If I wanted to listen to two hours of racist banter, and get yelled at for speaking my mind, I would just go have dinner with my father,” they admonished. After I understood the concepts behind the program, it began to make sense. Soon, it was like joining a cult. People who believed in the program couldn’t believe there was any other way to learn Thai. And now I think they are right.

The program, called ALG (Automatic Language Growth), was developed by an innovative American linguist, named Dr. J. Marvin Brown. ALG was based on a much earlier theory, dating back to the 1920s, called the Silent Way and later called the Natural Way. Basically the commonality between these theories is that they were listening based, and that they started by observing the way children learn language.

Chinese, Arabic, Thai, Korean, and Japanese are considered some of the hardest languages to learn, and yet small children in these countries speak them fluently. What is more, the children never sat in classes, learning their mother tongue. So, how did they learn it?

Children learn through listening. Children hear their mother and other adults speaking for months on end before they start speaking themselves. Obviously, you can’t be expected to do something correctly until you have seen it done several times. The same is true with learning a language. If someone tells you a Thai word once, you won’t remember it. If they tell you fifty times, you may remember it, but you will mispronounce it or misuse it. The only way to correctly learn a Thai word, or anything for that matter, is to hear it used, correctly, in context, repeatedly.

If you call someone, but they are already talking on the phone, you say the line is busy. If you are staying in a hotel and you don’t want the maid to enter, you hang a sign which reads, “Do not disturb.” If someone is using the toilet on the airplane, the sign reads, “Occupied.” If you want to sit at the movies, but someone is holding the place for a friend, he says “This seat is taken.”
Busy, do not disturb, occupied, taken all have similar meanings, but it would seem strange to us if you called someone and “the line is taken” or if the seat at the movie theater was “do not disturb.” You make linguistic choices everyday, when to use which of many similar words. If you think back, there was probably never a time in your past when you wrote out these four examples and memorized them.

You never wrote the phrase, “Always use occupied for the bathroom,” fifty times in your notebook. And if you did, it wouldn’t strictly be true. If you are in the bathroom in your house, as opposed to a public toilet, when someone knocks, you say “I’m in here.” Not, “occupied.”
When you tried to learn French or Spanish in school you probably did write out lists of when to use certain phrases and words. And, you probably got them wrong most of the time. Moreover, you would get frustrated when you discovered that every rule had fifty variations and twenty-seven exceptions.
Language existed for thousands of years. Rules have only existed for hundreds. Language is organic. It grows as we need it. Rules are static. And they are only amended long after they are out of date. Have you texted someone recently? The spell check on your computer tells you that word doesn’t exist. But we use this word every day. It may be years until the rule matches the reality.

So, how did you learn these intricacies of the English language?
“Experience is the best teacher,” says David Long, head of the Thai language program at AUA, Ratchadamri. David came to Thailand nearly twenty years ago to study under Dr. Brown. Since Dr. Brown’s death, David has been continuing his work. “To learn something, we have to have a meaningful, transportable experience.”

In other words, you learned “Occupied” because you flew on an airplane twenty times and needed to use the toilet. This was a real experience, and it was meaningful. You never forgot the experience of dancing around, waiting for the bathroom to be unoccupied. “Something taught through experience is infinitely better remembered than something taught through school,says Long. Homework, tests, and dialogues are all school concepts, not life concepts, so they are absent from the ALG program. ALG creates experience through teacher student interactions. The teachers stand at the front of the classroom, acting out stories. One hour of sitting in class is exactly one hour of listening, because the teachers talk constantly. More importantly, the teachers speak perfect Thai. So, the students are exposed to a perfect model. If students were permitted to speak Thai, then the other students would be hearing an improper model.

In lower level classes, the students interact, but not by speaking Thai. The interaction may be that they are asked to perform tasks or make noises. The concept here is that we can have meaningful interaction without speaking.
“Words are overrated,” says David Long. “We use them so much, they have no meaning.” According to David, studies show that we only hear one of five words spoken in our native tongue. This suggests that 80% of our communication is non-verbal. If we communicate in our native tongue non-verbally, why then would we expect to communicate in a foreign language using words? That is the first question ALG asks of language learners. Until your level of Thai approaches your level of your native language, you shouldn’t expect to be able to communicate effectively in Thai. “Most Thai people have had several years of English at school. It is not logical that you would be able to communicate better than them after only a few weeks or months of Thai lessons,” I was told.

A major key to ALG is, we don’t want to start speaking too early.
If we ask the average westerner to imitate a Chinese person speaking English, he will inevitably reverse his Ls and Rs. “Oh, me so solly.” The belief is that Chinese people can’t say the letter R. But Chinese babies adopted by western parents have no difficulty saying the letter R. So, it is not genetic. It is a question of learning, of modeling, hearing, and observing. Once again, Chinese babies adopted by western parents will listen for at least a year and a half before they start talking.

Thai is a tonal language, which means, changing the tone of a word completely changes the meaning. I asked a taxi driver to park the car, and instead, he kissed me. I felt flattered till I found out the difference between the word kiss and the word park was just a matter of tone. The next problem with learning Thai is that Thai has at least three times as many vowels, both long and short, as English. Once again, a small mistake in vowel choice can be disastrous. It can mean the difference between riding a horse and stepping in dog pooh. Hearing a word once or twice won’t help you to pronounce it correctly. You need to hear it in context and in some memorable and meaningful way, many times before you can remember it.

When I was a young lad in school, we had to make sentences with vocabulary words and memorize them. This was completely meaningless. As a result, of thousands of big words we were forced to “learn” at school very few of them became part of our English vocabulary. Children learn the words they need when they are ready to learn them. If you have a two or three year old at home, you have no way of predicting what they will learn on a given day. The child will decide. ALG allows adults to learn the same way. What one students learns on a given day may vary dramatically from what another student learns. But they are both learning.

The ALG Thai program lasts about 2,000 hours. Classes begin early in the morning and continue till late in the evening. Students can come and listen as many or as few hours as they like. Some students try to do two hours per day, others do six or seven. The program is perfect for busy people. As a travel writer I am constantly leaving Bangkok for periods of weeks or even months. When I come back, I simply walk back into the classroom and start learning again. Students are even encouraged to take breaks of several weeks to give their brain time to process what they have learned. Often, after a break of several weeks, a student finds his listening ability has improved.
Why are skeptics so resistant to a method that requires them to listen, without speaking?
“There are pride issues involved,” explains David Long. “People want to speak and get positive reinforcement. If you say anything at all in Thai, Thai people will say to you, oh, your Thai is so good. Even if they have no idea what you said.” Another common criticism of ALG is that it is 100% teacher centered. But looked at from another way, having a learner centered classroom is also the wrong model because we are focusing on the ones who don’t know the language instead of focusing on the experts, the teachers.

David Long feels ALG is learner centered. “Our way is learner centered because students decide what they will learn on a given day.” A professor of mine, at University of Mainz, told me, “I can’t sit down with my four year old and say, ok today we will learn the third conditional.” The child will just pick up the language, because the child has a constant perfect model. My sister took her four year old to the Bronx Zoo to see the lion. While the tour guide was explaining about the eating and sleeping habits of the massive cats, my niece turned to my sister and asked, “Mommy, how do they make a web like that?”

“Lions don’t make webs.” My sister answered, a bit perplexed.
“Not the lion!” exclaimed my niece. “I mean the spider.”

My sister looked where the little girl was pointing, and sure enough, there was a spider, building a web in the corner of the lion’s cage. The adults had planned a lesson about lions, but the child chose to learn about spiders.
Should this be called a failed lesson? In a traditional classroom, this would be considered a failure, because the daily learning objective was not met. In an ALG classroom, the day would be considered a success, because the student had learned something useful, even if it wasn’t the intended lesson. At the end of the day, a teacher’s intent is not important. The purpose of education is for a student to learn. If the student learns, the education is successful.

David expanded on Dr. Brown’s work and created a concept called Cross Talk. In the cross talk seminars, two people, who do not share a common language, are paired up and taught to communicate with one another. By the end of the first session, they usually come away knowing each other’s life story. “In Crosstalk, you can have genuinely interesting conversations with native speakers because you are concentrating on the content and meaning rather than the language. The communication becomes the focus, not the language. We need to do the same in language teaching.”

If you do your homework while you are watching a movie and cooking diner your grades will be lower and your comprehension of the movie will be lower. If we divide our attention, we under perform. The same is true of a language learner trying to have a conversation in a new language. If he concentrates on language as well as content, syntax, pronunciation, and meaning…the outcome will be poor communication, and enjoyment will be zero.
Enjoyment, meaningful experience, fun, freedom these all sound like appealing aspects of the ALG program. From hard linguistic standpoint, the idea of listening, not speaking, being the key to learning definitely makes sense. Anyone who has tried to learn an Asian language, especially Thai, knows the frustration of saying all of the words, but no one seems to understand you. Listening more and speaking less may make the difference.

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A light mist of saltwater spray cools my face, as the barka, a motorized outrigger, makes its way across the placid sea. Below the water surface, coral reefs are visible with the naked eye. The water is teeming with marine life, just waiting to be discovered by lucky SCUBA divers and snorkelers. We run parallel to a coast, covered in thick green jungle. The peak of St. Paul’s mountain rises high above the undisturbed beauty of the rainforest.

We land in a white sand cove, where we enter the national park, one of the last remaining habitats of the Palawan Peacock, the mascot of Puerto Princesa City. Monkeys play in the treetops, and monitor lizards, some of them two meters long, scurry along the forest floor. A pleasant jungle path leads to a tranquil lagoon where we pickup the kayaks which take us inside of St. Paul’s underground river. Declared an UNESCO world heritage site, St. Paul’s is reported to be the second longest navigable underground river in the world. It flows through 8.5 Km of cathedral like caverns, decorated with fascinating stalactites and stalagmites. On the other side, it empties in to the South China Sea.

Unbelievable as it may be, the river, the mountain, the national park, various indigenous tribes, and countless hectares of protected trees and animals are all located inside the city limits of Puerto Princesa.
Puerto is also one of the few cities in the world which can boast not just one, but two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The other is Tubbataha Reef, an atoll coral reef, located in the Sulu Sea, 98 nautical miles southeast. This underwater marine park has become an important habitat for sea animals whose very existence has been threatened by over-fishing, pollution, and man’s carelessness.

Puerto Princesa City, located on Palawan Island, is the largest city, by area, in the Philippines. You can travel two hours north or south and still be inside of the city limits. The city measures 140 km north to south and 50 km east to west. It is a priceless emerald of eco-tourism. Puerto has won a slue of international awards and has repeatedly been voted the “Cleanest and Greenest” city in The Philippines. With 75% forest cover, Puerto is one of the largest sanctuaries of old growth and replanted forest in the world.
Aside from the stunning natural beauty and myriads of hikes and tours available to eco tourists, the city’s inhabitants enjoy one of the highest quality of life imaginable. Most people will attribute all of the progressive measures, both environmental and social to the work of a single man, Mayor Edward Hagedorn, who has been at the helm of city government for more than 14 years. Since taking charge, Mayor Hagedorn has worked, non-stop, on his various projects, focused on environmentalism, education, and welfare.
Puerto boasts a crime rate approaching zero. Now, thanks to the direct efforts of the mayor, there is an absence of the illegal gambling which was destroying the lives of the poor in days past. There is no litter in Puerto. In fact, throwing a single cigarette butt on the ground could cost you a fine of 200 Pesos. A strong supporter of sport and fitness, Mayor Hagedorn gave the city a coliseum, which seats 8,000 people. He also built an Olympic swimming pool, and a sports complex. Puerto, a city of just under a quarter of a million, is quickly gaining a reputation for producing outstanding athletes, who go on to national and international honors.

“The city was filthy before mayor Hagedorn came in.” said one shop owner. “There was garbage everywhere.”

The first thing the Mayor did was move the city dump, which was only meters away from a school. Now Puerto has the First engineered sanitary landfill in Philippines. It is one of the most advanced waste management systems in the world. The mayor went to America and returned to Puerto, to implement some of the best programs he saw there, one of which was a 911 style emergency response system. The city government is ISO 9001 certified.
Through his vision, Puerto Princesa was the first city in the Philippines, and one of the first in the world, to order the tricycle taxis to convert to LPG (liquid petroleum gas), a clean burning, environmentally friendly fuel. Puerto Princesa is also the home of a model jail, which is run by the inmates. They grow their own food. They attend classes, play in a band, and compete in sports. Their families are allowed to visit. Cells are open during the day. And the city saves money because at night, there are only three armed guards.
Mayor Hagedorn established public Montesori to cater to the needs of poor but deserving students. He built 300 schools and education centers. He established 7 satellite hospitals in rural locations, dispensing free medicine for common illnesses. He also built libraries to help promote literacy. The last Saturday of June each year is set aside as the annual Feast of the Forest, which culminates in a community based tree planting exercise. Through this program, nearly two million trees have been replanted.

According to Mayor Hagedorn, “Our goal is to be a model city in sustainable development.” His entire administration has been focused on his Oplan Linis plan, which is composed of six parts: cleanliness beautification, sanitation, save the sea, save the air, and information and education.