Do you dream of making your escape to the tropics… to the island life? Does the thought of exploring a remote island full of coconut palms and banana trees surrounded by a warm, greenish-blue sea, fill you with yearning? The Philippines is sure to have an island just the right size for you! After all, there are 7,107 of them — some no larger than a Buick! But there is one in particular that is less known and more of a mystery. It is the largest island in the archipelago, and its name is Palawan — “the last frontier” as it is known in the Philippines. Palawan is not only the least populated, but also happens to be the least developed province of the Philippines. This 280-mile long stretch of land lies far to the west of the main group of the Philippine islands, and lies between the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea, just north of Borneo.

Your first brush with the friendly locals will most likely occur in Puerto Princesa City, the capital of Palawan. This small airport can be reached from either Cebu City, which is the second largest city in the Philippines on the island of Cebu or on the island of Luzon near Manila, the largest city in the Philippines. An escape to Palawan is but a one-hour flight from either one.

Puerto Princesa is a small town teaming with traffic. Despite the fact that the Philippines is literally halfway around the world from North America, you’ll find that most people speak fairly good English. Palawan is no exception. As you explore the countryside of this remarkably unspoiled habitat, it is not uncommon to see a farmer riding his “caribou” (think water-buffalo) while pulling a cart, or to see workers stooped over in their rice paddies. You may almost feel as if you’ve stepped back in time to a much simpler, slower pace of life as you drink in the surrounding unspoiled scenery of a by-gone era.

Located at the end of a sometimes bumpy, two-hour scenic drive heading south along the coast from Puerto Princesa, you’ll find a charming “oasis” known as the Crystal Paradise Resort, Spa & Winery near the small village of Nara.
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There are many places to stay on Palawan, but for a truly unique experience that is far removed from the frenzied pace of civilization, you couldn’t do better. Here you will discover that elegance meets tranquility in a beautiful, sprawling coconut grove right on the beach. Majestic palm trees and tropical flowers are everywhere as you explore the lush, grassy green grounds.

The staff almost seems to anticipate your every need, and quickly tends to it with grace and charm. As you arrive, you are embraced with a warm welcome, along with a smile and a garland of yellow flowers draped around your neck as you are drawn into the pavilion and served “Buko” — a large, freshly-picked coconut, saturated with coconut water that you sip through a
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As you lean back to survey your surroundings, you sense the peace and calm, and immediately you know you’re deep in heart of the tropics – you may even feel as if you’ve almost stepped out of time itself as you begin to unwind and de-stress in this remarkable world! “Fantasy Island” will surely come to mind in this almost magical setting!
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The beachfront guesthouses, aptly-named the “Pool Villa Executive Suites”, are the epitome of modern elegance, with solid wood and rattan furniture on white-tiled floors. The most welcome addition was the canopy bed with a picturesque view through sliding glass doors, revealing your very own patio, infinity pool, and stretch of lawn, while just 10 feet beyond is your private beach. With no fences to restrict your movement in either direction, you can lazily roam along the water’s edge of the beach and explore to your hearts content for nearly a mile in either direction with hardly a soul in site!
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Beautiful, swaying coconut palms frame an idyllic, aqua-blue sea as you survey your surroundings from the patio by the pool, or from your chair on the lawn, sipping your favorite beverage. The warmth of the tropical sun and the sound of the pounding surf just a few feet away are sure to be the perfect antidote for whatever ails you. Pure heaven. You’ve arrived!

Your private “Pool Villa Executive Suite” will run you about $243 per night and comes with free breakfast at the pavilion. Each villa is thoughtfully-provided with its own kitchenette, refrigerator, coffee maker, mini bar, Jacuzzi bathtub, satellite/cable TV, air-conditioning and other extras. Pricey? Maybe. Worth it? Absolutely!
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If extravagance and a room with the best view on the island isn’t a priority, you may enjoy the alternative: one of the “Katala Deluxe” rooms with 2 double beds and a view of the beach from the balcony terrace for $94 per night. With this room you also enjoy free breakfast, a refrigerator, coffee maker, mini bar, Satellite/Cable TV and air-conditioning.

Dinner is served in a spacious, open air, gazebo-like structure with a wonderful view of the tropical park surrounding you with the ocean just beyond — or you may prefer the privacy of room service as you dine on the patio, under a tropical moon over the ocean and the sound of the surf.
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The menu is well thought out, presenting you with a wide assortment of delectable choices, all quite reasonably priced. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served, as well as the usual assortment of drinks from the bar. The waiters seem to be quite attentive without feeling the need to hover over you.

Your first day will greet you with some pleasant choices: If a spa treatment is on your “must-do” list, then by all means, be sure to try their one-hour cleansing scrub using all-natural ingredients like coconut, banana leaves, avocado, rice, oils & herbs, plus massage — all for a surprisingly low cost of just $18.76. So, why not indulge in decadent luxury as you lay on a pedestal of warm circulating water. Pure heaven!

And of course the winery is unlike anything else you may have encountered. How about trying wine made from the tropical Jackfruit? You may even find mango wine or who knows-what-else, at any given time. Despite the fact that the Philippines is not exactly known as a wine-growing country, the tropical fruit wines of this region seem to be quite a delicious novelty. This may explain why George Clooney gave Tom Cruise a bottle of Filipino “Mijiah Tropical Fruit Wine” as a wedding gift.

With all of those coconuts beckoning from above in that vast grove of palm trees, you may be wondering what they taste like. You only have to ask. One of the staff will quickly recruit someone to climb on up, and grab one for you. It will be brought to your room where you can sample this delicacy for yourself. Of course they’ll lop off the end first to give you easy access. The best part is scooping out the coconut meat with a big spoon. It’s amazingly soft like moist, creamy-white tapioca.

Since the Crystal Paradise Resort, is a two-hour drive south from Puerto Princessa, it is not the first stop for many tourists either from the Philippines or abroad. For this reason it is not a crowded resort, but instead is a very quiet and serene destination you will not soon forget. Nightlife is completely absent from this setting, so if the noise and vibrancy of a fast-paced party atmosphere is what you’re seeking, you may as well look elsewhere. On the other hand, if the quiet serenity of what feels like an almost deserted tropical island where the staff pampers you like visiting dignitaries, is what you’re been yearning for, then you have surely found the right place.

You might find some of the other activities to be quite fun: Kayaking, fishing, island hopping, or even a boat trip to a nearby turtle or bird sanctuary. How does being chauffered to Estrella River Falls up in the mountains where you may spot a wild monkey or two, sound? The staff will happily prepare a Filipino-style picnic lunch served to you by the river once you’re done exploring, picture taking or swimming in the chilly waters of the barely-moving stream. Rich green jungle seems to engulf you. I doubt
if you’ll mistake this for the Amazon forest, but then again, who knows? You’ll certainly feel like you’re in the land that time forgot.

If you are lucky, you may find yourself being observed from a respectable distance, by some curious critters, who would love it if you shared your lunch with them. Since these small monkeys seem to be a little mischievous by nature, and a little bold now and then, one of them may not wait patiently for your invitation to lunch, but instead may just be brazen enough to see how close he can get to your picnic table in order to quickly scamper off with his prize –- that is, if one of your guides doesn’t shoo him off first!

If not bothering to venture away from the peace and serenity of the resort sounds like a wonderful alternative, you can always enjoy beach-combing, exploring the flower-filled tropical grounds, snooze in a hammock stretched between two shade trees, swim in the huge outdoor pool, sample various wines or trying your hand at some non-motorized water-sports!

You might take comfort in the fact that you can always touch bases with the rest of the civilized world by accessing a “Wi-Fi” signal in the public areas. Baby-sitting is thoughtfully-provided, just in case you feel the need for some quality “away time” from the kids. For an island that stretches out for 280 miles, there is certainly much to explore, and there are a variety of hotels and resorts to use as your base camp. Just in case you have heard of the “Underground River” of Palawan, you may find it too intriguing to pass up. In that case, staying in or around Puerto Princessa, which is much closer, might make more sense – or simply save this attraction for your return from the resort.

“The Puerto Princessa Subterranean River National Park” as it is formally called, is the destination of choice for many who come to Palawan. It is only 47 miles from Puerto Princessa, just across the island on the opposite coast on the Sulu Sea.

Now that it has been designated as “One of the New 7 Wonders of Nature” it is necessary to obtain a “Visitors Entry Permit” in advance before being admitted to the park. You will want to check online at www.puerto-undergroundriver.com to find out. Its popularity is soaring since it has been declared an Eco-Tourist destination, and a National Geographic Monument — definitely worth seeing.

Palawan is a pristine paradise worth exploring, and the Crystal Paradise Resort may be the perfect environment for total relaxation – a place that gives the phrase, “getting away from it all” new meaning. You are sure to walk away knowing you’ve been thoroughly pampered and spoiled. The Crystal Paradise Resort, Spa & Winery is perhaps Palawan’s best-kept secret.

For tourists, I think that the Philippines is an often overlooked destination. This is probably because of the long flight (14 hours from the West Coast). The journey there is worth it, though. There is much to do and see, with low prices a big attraction. Foremost, always, Filipinos are warm and welcoming. We have been to this country three times and enjoyed such varied activities as exploring historic Manila, swimming with whale sharks in Donsol, hiking in the lake country of Negros Oriental and diving in the marine wonderland of Dumaguete. Most of all, though, we loved our time in the tropical paradise of the outlying Palawan Islands, specifically at El Nido Resorts. This March, during a two-week trip, we spent three days in Manila. Our base was the excellent Mandarin Oriental hotel, located among tall skyscrapers in the Makati financial district. While there we chose to go to famous Taal Volcano. It was good decision – an exhilarating adventure awaited us.

 

 

A Taal Story

It was raining when we reached Taal, one of the world’s special areas. Its uniqueness is hard to describe, but picture a Russian doll set with dolls inside dolls. Taal Volcano, likewise, makes up the largest Island within a lake which has a smaller lake within it with a tiny island. A question from an online site asks this: “Where in the world can you find an island on a lake on an island on a lake, on an island on an ocean?” In order to get there we traveled to Tagaytay city, where we took a boat across the first lake to the crater island. There was a light rain and rough waters, and our plastic ponchos were little help in keeping us dry. The weather was warm, so the half-hour sail wasn’t too bad, just a little choppy.
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Once there we were met by local guides with small Filipino horses. On tours, guests are given the option of taking an hour’s hike on the rugged lava trail or riding up to the rim. Our tour included the ride. It was led by a guide with rope in hand, and our little horse was sure-footed on the slippery terrain. The primitive saddles, however, added to the adventure as we rocked back and forth, striving to stay on.
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Taal’s History and Significance

Located on the island of Luzon in the Philippines about 44 miles south of Manila, the volcano has been relatively quiet since 1977. In 1991, however, it started showing signs of unrest, with strong seismic activity and ground-fracturing events. Because of its proximity to populated areas and its eruptive history, the volcano was designated a Decade Volcano, worthy of close study to prevent future natural disasters. Along the way, we saw first-hand evidence of sublimated fury – hot bubbling mud pots and spouting mud geysers.

Once at the top, we dismounted for the short walk to the spectacular view point from the ridge. Before us, we saw the crater, lake and small isle. This awe-inspiring sight has become a trademark view used for Philippine promotion. The area has also been declared a National Geological Monument and proposed for the UNESCO World Heritage List. We saw hikers below on the lake shore. There were no swimmers that day but many venture into the warm water. They are advised not to stay in too long because it contains sulfuric acid and other chemicals.

Both coming and going from Manila, the drive is beautiful. On the way there, we stopped off at the Tagaytay market. A busy central area of the town featured two large markets – one with a huge array of locally grown produce and the other filled with meats and fish. Along the way, we passed several stands selling varieties of rice in different sizes and colors. As well, there were those selling local “fast food.” A young girl, for example, was skewering marinated intestines for barbecue.
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Just downstairs from the produce market was the terminal for the local transportation – motorcycle-like tricycles which carry two or three and the large Jeepneys, which are larger than a jeep and smaller than a bus and can carry a dozen or so comfortably.
Returning on another route, we saw pleasant countryside with rice paddies which soon yielded to suburban housing where commuter families live.

 

 

El Nido, Philippine Tropical Paradise

El Nido, the secluded island resorts in the Philippines, has always been the perfect tropical paradise. Now with its upcoming expansion, it will get even better for its guests. Located in the country’s Palawan Islands, El Nido added a new location in 2010 and is set to open another, Pangalusian, this October. Minoloc (1981) and Lagen (1998) were the first two, then came Apulit in 2010. The most luxurious so far will be upcoming Pangalusian. All are located an approximate 75-minute flight on a small prop plane from Manila, followed by a short boat ride.

The Palawans, as a whole, consist of some 1,780 islands and islets, most with rocky coves and pristine white sandy beaches. When the flight descends, guests see a breathtaking panorama of scattered green dots of land in a turquoise and blue sea.
Accommodations rank with the world’s most highly rated resort hotels – an international menu features delicious selections; activities offered satisfy the most adventurous; and those seeking relaxation and pampering are catered to. Prices are less than would be expected in international destinations of this caliber. All have 50 air-conditioned rooms.
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Built right off the beach, Miniloc is shaded by palm trees and framed by a backdrop of sheer limestone cliffs. In front, the warm, crystal clear waters teem with tropical fish. Off the dock, guests can snorkel alongside four-foot jacks and hundreds of multi-colored tropical fish.
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On Lagen rooms are either over water or set in a lush forest, several yards from the beach and pier. The sprawling grounds cover more than 400,000 square feet and contain a diverse variety of birds and mammals. Amenities in Lagen include a swimming pool and spa suite.

A great place for birders and hikers, a trail in Lagen leads through the forest and down a hill to a private cove. Along the way on our hike, a family of long-tailed macaque monkeys greeted us from up in the trees. They seemed to taunt us, vigorously shaking leaves from limbs onto the path. At trail’s end, we saw that our snorkel equipment had been delivered by boat. After resting, we set out for the spectacular snorkel around a steep drop off back to the resort.

Apulit is built in Philippine traditional architecture mixed with contemporary design. All units are over water, making it easy for guests to watch the harmless black-tip sharks circling below. This site caters to a diverse market with over 20 large deluxe sea-view rooms for families. The new Pangulasian fronts a pristine 820-yard stretch of white sand beach with a marine sanctuary right at its doorstep, along with diverse array of animals and plant life thriving in its forest. Visitors can see both sunrises and sunsets here.

At all locations, during dinner, an activity coordinator visits guests to schedule activities for the next day. Among options are diving and snorkeling, sea kayaking, rock climbing, hiking and fishing. Lots to choose, but some may want to just relax on their patio or on the beach under an umbrella lounge. It’s a great place for kids, by the way. Families on kayaking expeditions are a common sight.

We are avid snorkelers, and most evenings selected which of many prime locations we would visit the next day. We were usually provided with our own snorkeling guide who stayed with us most of the time at each of the three resorts we recently stayed.

 

 

Snorkeling at El Nido

Usually we were taken on two snorkels in the morning at different locations. Afterwards, we went back to the resort for lunch or went to small islands with a barbecue station where we were served fresh-caught fish, as well as chicken or pork. Following the ample meal, we needed a nap before the usual afternoon snorkel. Ah, the island life!

We saw many vanities of colorful wrasse, several pennant fish, many garishly decorated trigger clowns, as well as varied species of butterfly fish. We were amazed by varied colors of “clown” anemone fish which had adapted to the shade of the anemone they lived in. There were a variety of colorful nudebranch to be seen. At some spots, beautiful corals and sea plants were the feature. At the end of the day, we were worn out and slept well.
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As well, at all locations, we enjoyed going in the water just off the beach. At Lagen, beneath some plate coral, we found a family of oriental sweet lips, which included the bizarrely decorated juvenile. At Apulit it was fun to swim under the water bungalows seeking out the friendly sharks.

One of the most interesting things at El Nido is to talk to fellow travelers from around the world. At sunset, at the bar with a group of Australians, we discussed the best parts of the South Pacific for diving. At dinner one night, we were invited to take part in a birthday party with a group of Koreans. There was a large contingent of Japanese staying. (From Asian cities, it is only a few hours flight.) There were also a significant number of European guests. Of the few American guests were two film technicians who had just wrapped shooting the new “Bourne” movie in Manila
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They were having a great time and ready to spread the word that Americans should take a new look at the Philippines with El Nido in mind. Like us, they declared that there is no better tropical vacation spot – and at a great price. Rates in Miniloc and Apulit include meals and activities. They start at about $220 per person, per night (double occupancy). In Lagen, rates start at $235, with an option to include meals and activities. Prices include the round trip flight from Manila.

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El Nido – absolutely the world’s best tropical island getaway. Located in the Philippine’s Palawan Islands, it is actually two resorts, each located a short boat ride from the other. And, what’s more, it is a terrific bargain for American travelers. That’s my opinion, and I’ve visited island getaways worldwide.
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Among its many virtues – room accommodations rank with the world’s most highly rated resort hotels; an international menu features delicious selections; activities offered satisfy the most adventurous, as well as those seeking relaxation and pampering. All this is included at prices much less than would be expected in international destinations of the same caliber.

 

El Nido’s locations are on Miniloc and Lagen islands, a 75-minute flight from Manila plus a 45-minute boat ride from El Nido Village Airport. The Palawans, as a whole, consist of some 1,780 islands and islets, most with rocky coves and white sandy beaches. As we descended on our flight there, we saw a breathtaking panorama of scattered green dots of land in a turquoise and blue sea.

 

Both locations, less than an hour boat ride apart, are equally excellent. It’s a good idea to split your time, staying at both during a stay. Miniloc is the oldest. Constructed in 1981, it is built right off the beach, shaded by palms trees and framed by a backdrop of sheer limestone cliffs. In front, the warm, crystal clear waters teem with tropical fish.
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Both have 50 air-conditioned rooms. Miniloc’s feature thatched roofs, built with indigenous Filipino materials. Some are over water; others are on the sand. In the rear are garden and cliff cottages nestled high on the hillside. All face the bay.

 

In Lagen, many of the rooms are set in a lush forest, several yards from the beach and pier. The sprawling grounds cover more than 400,000 square feet and contain a diverse variety of birds and mammals. A great place for birders and hikers.

 

Built in 1998, Lagen offers more amenities, including a swimming pool and spa suite. Its dining room is enclosed, although there is plentiful seating on the outside veranda, which overlooks both the sea and the pool. Here, there are also a variety of accommodations – water cottages built on stilts, beachfront units with excellent sunset views and rooms on edges of the forest.

 

Most guests prefer to dine al fresco. When skies are clear at Miniloc, dinner is served on the beach in front of the bay. To serve breakfast and lunch, Minoloc’s large veranda dining area. hovers above the shoreline and offers a gorgeous view of the bay. In Lagen, most choose the pool-side dinner service. During dinner, an activity coordinator visits guests to schedule activities for the next day. Among options are diving and snorkeling (many islands and spots minutes away), sea kayaking (including boat drop-offs near secluded islands), rock climbing (20 bolted sites to choose from), hiking (monkeys or Palawan hornbills abound), fishing (to nearby spots, boats leaving mornings and afternoon) and boat excursions (visiting romantic coves with lunch stops). So many options – or just relax on the beach under an umbrella lounge. It’s a great place for kids, by the way. Families on kayaking expeditions are a common sight.

 

 

SNORKELING AT EL NIDO

We are avid snorkelers, and most evenings we selected which of many prime locations we would visit the next day. We were even provided with our own snorkeling guides who stayed with us at each resort – Chito Socito at Minoloc and Refael Dalabujan at Lagen. The two knew exactly where to go and pointed out many fish and corals we would have missed.

 

Usually we were taken on two snorkels in the morning at different locations. Afterwards, we went back to the resort for lunch or went to small islands with a barbecue station where we were served with fresh-caught fish, as well as chicken or pork. Following the ample meal, we needed a nap before the usual afternoon snorkel. Ah, the island life!

 

On our last afternoon, we took the trail at the back of Lagen that led through the forest to a private cove. It was steep, but there was a rope installed on the path to help us climb the slopes and steady us during descent. Along the way a family of long-tailed macaque monkeys greeted us from up in the trees. They seemed to taunt us, vigorously shaking leaves from limbs onto the path.
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The trail ended on the beach, and Rafael was there with our snorkel equipment which had been delivered by boat. After resting, we set out for the spectacular hour-long snorkel back to the resort. The route was along a wall, giving us views of gorgeous corals and sea life. We saw many vanities of colorful wrasse, several pennant fish as well as varied species of butterfly fish. We were amazed by varied colors of “clown” fish which had adapted to the shade of the anemone they lived in. Upon reaching the pier, we were worn out but exhilarated by our adventurous day.
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As well, at both locations, we enjoyed going in the water just off the beach. In Minoloc, late morning, we were met by a school of large jack fish, joining us as we swam under the boat landing, At Lagen, beneath some plate coral, we found a family of oriental sweet lips, which included the bizarrely decorated juvenile.
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One of the most interesting things at El Nido is to talk to fellow travelers from around the world. At sunset, at the bar with a group of Russians, we discussed the merits of vodka and beer. On a snorkel trip, with a Frenchman, we talked about President Sarkozy’s policies.

 

The Filipinos make up half those visiting the resort, followed in numbers by Koreans and Japanese. From Asian cities, it is only a few hours flight. (Flying to the resort on the small plane from Manila, there were 12 passengers – us and five Korean couples honeymooning,)

 

There was also a significant number of Australian and European guests. We only saw a few from the United States, however. The 14-hour flight from Los Angeles can be daunting. We think, though, that Americans should take a new look at the Philippines and El Nido. I repeat -there is no better tropical vacation spot. And consider the price.

 

 

SHORT VISIT TO MANILA

After El Nido, we decided to stay two days in Manila. On a previous Philippine visit, we decided not to visit this capitol which we perceived as congested and unappetizing. This time we opted for a short stay. As expected, the drive was traffic-clogged to our destination, the excellent Mandarin Oriental, located among tall skyscrapers in the Makati financial district. We could tell at once that this was a thriving cosmopolitan city.
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For dinner first night, the concierge recommended Grappa’s Italian restaurant. It was located in the Greenbelt, a tourist destination in itself, offering a mix of shops, restaurants and entertainment spots. She said it was only a 20-minute walk. A remark such as this should set off a warning note to veteran travelers who know to be wary of time estimates. ”Just a few minutes” can turn into a 45-minute nightmare. Needless to say this is what happened to us.

 

It was a hot night and, midway on the walk, we regretted not taking a taxi. We soldiered on and found the mall. (Another point – malls in America can be confusing but in a foreign country, more so.) Nearly all Filipinos speak English, so, after asking several bystanders and security people, we made it. After reviving ourselves with Pellegrino water, we had very good eggplant Parmesan and ravioli. Overall, it ended up a good experience.

 

The next morning we were having breakfast while checking guide books for where to go, when an British couple overheard us. They chimed in, saying that they highly recommended Carlos Celdran and his “If These Walls Could Talk” tour of Intramuros, the old city of Manila. We took their suggestion. Hotel people seconded our choice, booking us for 4 p.m.. (The fame of Celdran was emphasized when we returned home. We were in a group that included a woman with Philippine roots. She said that she had taken the tour.)

 

After breakfast, we decided to go to the Ayala Museum, which happened to be adjacent to the Greenbelt. We had no qualms now about walking there. We did, however, have to forego visiting the acclaimed National Museum, across town, because of time constraints. The Ayala, with its permanent collection of contemporary Filipino artists and a diorama on the country’s history and culture, is an excellent place to learn more about the country.

 

That afternoon at the gates of Fort Santiago, the colorful Celdran greeted us in top hat and shorts, carrying a speaker and a satchel of props. His theatrical style and witty, articulate presentation, made the 2-1/2 hour walk, both enjoyable and informative.
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About half in our group of 27 were Filipinos, eager to learn more history of their country. They joined in as Carlos put on the Philippine national anthem, while twirling the Philippine flag.

 

Following a quick lesson in the origins of the Filipino national language, Tagalog, we were led to the impressive statue of Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moorslayer, Spanish patron saint). Here, we were told about Spain’s occupation from the 17th through the 19th Century. Celdran believed, this resulted in the corrupt control of the country by evangelical Catholic priests. As he talked, he role-played various Spaniards and friars, skewering frailties with his sharp remarks. The Filipinos cheered when Celdran brought in national hero Jose Rizal whose memorial is in the adjacent Rizal Park. He was a writer whose anti- government novels helped bring citizens to revolt in the late 1800s.

 

At this point, horse-drawn carriages were brought to convey the group to the Cathedral of San Augustin. Along the way we saw the rest of the old Intramuros buildings, which many would come back to see on their own.
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San Augustin is one of the few buildings to survive intact after the World War II bombings. It was opened in 1606 and has an adjoining monastery, which now houses a museum, containing many valuable colonial religious paintings.

 

Beginning his final section, which detailed U.S. occupation, Celdran emerged in Uncle Sam regalia while the “Star Spangled Banner” played. Coming to World War II, he then donned a general’s hat, dark glasses and stuck a corncob pipe in his mouth, morphing into Douglas MacArthur, America `s leader of the Pacific campaign. Suffice it to say he was hilarious as he lampooned the general’s egocentric behavior.

 

San Augustin is also the site of a memorial for those killed in the Manila 1945 bombing by U.S.A. planes to counter Japanese atrocities taking place in the capitol. Celdran went into a serious mode, talking about the tragic consequences of the event.

 

The tour finished on a lighter note dealing with Philippine history following the war when it gained independence. This section centered on the controversial Ferdinand Marcos, president from 1965 through 1986. Of course, Celdran slyly mentioned Marcos’ wife, Imelda, and her extravagances which included a collection of 3,000 shoes. Ironically, he pointed out, it was her fund-raising prowess that is largely responsible for the restoration of Intramuros.

 

To conclude the tour, we all sat down and were treated to a “halo- halo,” the national drink. It is made from a rainbow mixture of sweet preserved bean, coconut, jackfruit, yam, plantain, cream, and milk. Crushed ice is added, and it is served in clear glass, a colorful multi-layered sight. Celdran said that the drink’s array of ingredients are symbolic of the Filipino people – a mixture of many different ethnic groups.

 

Reluctantly, we had to leave next day, emphasizing that our stay had been all too short. Once past congestion from the airport, Manila is certainly worth several days stay.

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Anxiously, my wife and I sat on the edge of the boat, putting on fins, adjusting face masks, awaiting the guide’s nod to jump. We got it and launched ourselves, swimming behind him when-suddenly-we were eye-to-eye with a 40-foot leviathan, its mouth agape. We turned and tried frantically to keep up with the gentle monster. It was close enough to touch but soon slipped away. This was it-our first encounter while swimming with whale sharks in Donsol, Philippines.

My wife and I had arrived early morning to this small coastal fishing town, 400 miles from Manila, on the southwest coast of Luzon Island. Both snorkelers, big time, we had read about whale shark encounters. Now on our eight-day Philippines tour, we had the opportunity for the experience.

Right away, we found it was easy to travel in the Philippines. Most Filipinos speak English in addition to Tagalog, their national language, and English is the official language for signs and directions. We found everyone to be friendly and helpful. And, big thing, the country is very economical to travel in. (More on this later.)

Regarding whale sharks, local fishermen were aware of them in Donsol but most of the world was not before 1998. That year a team of foreign divers visiting the area publicized the fact for the first time After that, poachers and hunters swarmed into the area. The government was quick to react and declared this variety of fish a protected species. These are not mammals like other whales but fish, belonging to the shark group. However, it is not a predator, feeding mostly on plankton The largest fish in the world, it grows to over 40 feet and can weigh some 39 tons.
Eco-Tourism in Donsol is the big draw from February to June when the sharks migrate to feed on the annual plankton bloom. This small town of 30,000 becomes a busy place as tourists worldwide arrive. Local fisherman become guides and whale shark spotters.
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The morning of our encounters we boarded a small boat, typical in the country, with a narrow hull and an outrigger-stabilizer each side. The local boats have a capacity of six passengers and a crew of six, including our guide and a spotter who stands astride a bar some six feet above deck.
Amazingly, the crew can spot sharks from more than 50 yards away. As soon as one was seen, the helmsman began maneuvering precisely toward the dark mass below the surface. Meanwhile, the guide whispered for us to get ready. The boat slowly crept forward, and we were signaled to jump in.

The first time is breathtaking when you see the huge four-foot mouth, a small eye each side, coming toward you. Positioning yourself above it, you are close enough to touch the two dorsal fins on its back and two pectoral fins on its sides. Of course, while it’s tempting to touch, it’s verboten.

Characteristically, whale sharks have distinctive light-yellow stripes and dots on thick dark gray skin. A filter feeder, it sieves enormous amounts of plankton through its gills as it swims. Often, several remoras (sucker fish) are attached to its side, riding along.

Each of the nine sharks we encountered acted distinctly different. Some swam slow enough that we could keep pace for a short while: others cruised faster and went by us within seconds; one gave its tail several big swishes; another banked to the right beginning a plunge which gave us a thrill. Our favorite turned and looked us in the eye, as if to say, “What are you doing here?”

Encounter rules dictate that boats can stay out for three hours. One boat is allowed per fish with a limit of six people allowed to interact It was noon, and after so many encounters, we were tired, getting in and out, and ready for lunch. We had arranged to be taken to a secluded beach. Relaxing, eating our sandwiches, we watched two young crew members scramble up a palm tree nearby to pick fresh coconuts. They gave us a couple and the sweet milk and succulent flesh sure tasted good.
Following lunch, we took a short snorkel seeking out smaller fish this time. Returning to the dock, we lounged on the beach during the afternoon. Next on the schedule was an after-dinner night- time firefly-viewing river cruise.

We were taken to the Ogod River where we boarded a small boat. Soon it was pushing upriver in the pitch dark, along an eerily silent riverbank. The only illumination came from a crewman’s flashlight at the helm. Only the silhouette of mangroves on the bank could be made out.

Suddenly, it was as if hundreds of Christmas tree lights had been turned on in treetops on the left and then the right. The boat paused from time to time for us to take in this blazing show. After a fascinating two hours of this, it was time to head back to our hotel in Legaspi.

We had flown into Legaspi the previous day and stayed the night there because Donsol was fully booked. Before checking into Pepperland Hotel, we were given a short tour of the city. The area’s big attraction is Mahyon volcano. We went to a spot outside the city to view the perfectly-shaped crater. From there, we took in Cagsawa Ruins, the remains of a church and village that was buried in a devastating eruption in 1814.
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Next morning, the hour trip to Donsol gave us an opportunity to see the countryside, a picturesque panorama of daily life in small farming villages.

First off, the driver had to be on his toes. The narrow two-lane road was a jumble of traffic. Cars are expensive for Filipinos, making bicycles and motor bikes the preferred method of transport.
For public transportation, there are buses, but most locals take tricycles and jeepneys to get around. Tricycles or pedicabs are motor bikes with a side car on a third wheel. It can hold two passengers (although many were stuffed with more riders) and are also often used for delivery. Jeepneys, as the name implies, are colorfully painted elongated Jeeps with benches installed. They can hold about eight and have regular stops but can be hailed, as well.
Beside confronting this melange of traffic, the driver had to be wary of people, perilously close walking by. In addition, family houses are situated only a few feet back, which makes the roadside a center of daily life. People of all ages, as well as dogs, seem to spend much of their time roadside.
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Away from the villages, lovely rice paddies, all shades of green, dotted the landscape. For farmers, the flattest and best place for them to dry the rice was literally on the road itself. Ignoring traffic, they raked rice as cars whizzed by. Most drivers, respectfully, drove around, but occasionally one would heedlessly drive right through, leaving tread marks in the grain.

In Donsol, whale shark-watching is a bargain. In dollars it figures out to $70 for two and much less when more are on the boat. With four, it is only $35 each.

 

 

PARADISE AT EL NIDO

That the Philippines is a real travel bargain became even more apparent a few days later when we flew into the Palawan Islands for our stay at El Nido Resort. Off Palawan’s almost 1,200 miles of coastline are 1,780 islands and islets with rocky coves and white sandy beaches. It was a sight to see these green dots in the turquoise and blue sea as we flew in from Manila in a small two-engine plane.
El Nido, itself, is secluded on Minoloc among 45 small limestone neighbors. This world-class resort, comparable to five star locations everywhere, is in a picture book setting-a cove studded with palms with a backdrop of sheer limestone cliffs.
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It has 50 rooms with thatched roofs, built with indigenous Filipino materials, some over water, others facing the bay. Behind, there are garden cottages and cliff cottages nestled high in the hillside.
The wonderful thing here is the price includes all the activities. Each evening guests meet with a coordinator who plans the next day’s schedule with you. Some things to do are diving and snorkeling (many islands and spots minutes away), sea kayaking (including boat drop-offs in lovely spots), rock climbing (20 bolted sites to choose from), hiking and bird watching (monkeys or Palawan hornbills are among the species that might be seen), fishing (to nearby spots, boats leaving mornings and afternoon). So many options-or just relax on the beach under an umbrella. There is only a nominal $30 charge for dives.
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All meals are included too, and the food is delicious. One of the perks is lunch, awaiting at an island during your day’s outing. The price for all this is, almost unbelievably, $200 a day per person. We reckoned it would be at least three times higher in a comparable resort elsewhere in the world.
While outstanding snorkeling and diving spots were just an island away, some of the best was off the resort’s pier. With two stairways going right into the water, getting in and out was a snap. A local school of jacks greeted us as we entered. These large fish were just the beginning of an exciting two hours-first to the left of the pier and then to the right. Corals of all colors and sizes were plentiful as were the fish-so many clown fish (remember Nemo?), rabbit fish, butterfly fish and wrasse, among others. A highlight was floating for minutes above a four-foot grouper and nearly two-foot sweet-lips

After snorkeling, we headed to the outdoor restaurant where all meals were served. We enjoyed selecting assorted vegetables, meats and sauces and having the chef complete our stir-fry. A salad bar, shabu-shabu, sushi, pasta were all offered as were assorted meats and freshly caught fish.

Breakfast featured quite an assortment: cereals, eggs, waffles, pancakes, fruits, salads and Asian items were plentiful and delicious.

 

DAMAGUETE: DIVERS and NATURE LOVER’S DESTINATION

 

Back to midway in our trip. After Donsol, we flew to Damaguete in the island province Negros Oriental, internationally known as a prime location for divers. We were met and taken to the lovely resort of Pura Vida.. We were set to snorkel as well as venture into the area’s lush forested area and take in its isolated lakes.
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Pura Vida attracts mostly European divers. At the resort, several boats are available that go out to the many sites with Apo Island being the most famous.

Our accommodations were great: large, well decorated bedrooms and extra large completely tiled bathrooms. While they’re air conditioned, we found that opening each window gave us a wonderful sea breeze. At night, after our snorkel and before dinner, we enjoyed sitting on the veranda – watching the activity at the beach and at the waterfall behind the large swimming pool. Above the door to each room is not a number but a name. Our room was Bannerfish. There was File Fish and an entire aquarium of colorful names.

For dinner, we climbed the stairs to the second floor open air dining room where all meals were served. The menu consisted of local favorites as well as more familiar dishes: steaks, fish and pasta dishes. We enjoyed the fresh grilled fish for dinner. Our favorite side dish quickly became mango, plentiful everywhere, which we enjoyed plain for breakfast and with vanilla ice cream for dessert.
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Right off, first morning, we were taken to Apo Island. The Swiss divers onboard went one way-out to deep reefs; we headed to shore, toward lavish coral gardens and countless technicolored fish. It was a very good day. Among the sights was a four-foot black-and-white-banded sea snake which headed for my wife, frightening her away. A sidelight: Many divers are getting into micro diving which includes seeking out colorful nudibranches (sea slugs), which stay in deep water. According to our diver companions, this place was a good spot to look, showing us a photo of one they had seen that day.

Up early next morning, we left for our sojourn into the forest. A four-wheel drive vehicle took us up mountain slopes on a sometime paved road. After an hour and a 3,000-foot ascent, we came to Twin Lakes National Park, location of the spectacular Lake Balinsasayao and its smaller sister Lake Danao, both ancient volcano calderas. We set out on a serene boat ride on the larger lake. In sight was a solitary fisherman, and from a distance, we saw a Japanese night heron. We heard birds secluded in the jungle canopy. Wild orchids hung from the trees. Midway, we docked and hiked up a quarter mile trail to view the smaller lake. On the way we took photos of the beautiful butterflies that flitted around us. One flew away, landed on my wife’s hat, then returned to the railing where it continued to pose.
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On our return, we stopped for lunch at Jo’s By the Sea for positively the best barbecued chicken we’d ever eaten. Walking in, I noticed along the wall a row of sinks for washing up. This seemed strange until I became aware that our food was served without utensils. Everyone eats here with their fingers in the old Philippine fashion.

Without a pause, we dug in. The secret at Jo’s is the marinade. The meat wasn’t slathered in sauce, making it easy to eat. Accompaniments were a mango salad and rice. All a bargain-less than two dollars U.S. Before leaving we joined the line to wash up.

After shopping in town, we hurried our guide back to the resort in time for an afternoon snorkel. Pura Vida is located on the edge of Dauin Marine Sanctuary. Divers at the resort had casually said that snorkeling was good a mile up the beach. This proved to be an understatement.
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Clown Fish

A short jeepney ride away, we dove in and-lo and behold-a wonderland of bright corals and multitudes of sea life-banner fish, clown fish, fusiliers, puffer fish, and on. It was one of those great moments. Serendipitous. As expected, prices were very attractive at Pura Vida:double room from about $88 a night, including breakfast. Emphasizing again, the Philippines are the best for travel bargains.

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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.”
“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.
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“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.
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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Historians believe that Philippine island of Palawan was once connected to Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, by a land bridge, allowing the migration of both animals and tribal people. As a result a number of rare and interesting animals can be found in Puerto Princesa, the capitol city. Puerto is home to 800 species of plants, 295 species of trees, 95 kinds of birds (15 of which are endangered). Among them is the Palawan Peacock, the city’s mascot. There are 23,779 types of insects and 41 kinds of butterflies, one of which has a wing span of 18 cm. Among the 30 types of mammals are the nocturnal Binturong (a type of carnivorous civet) and the long tailed Macaca (crab eating monkey), common in the national park, near the underground river.

The city boasts 10 kinds of amphibians, 19 kinds of reptiles, including the python and one type of cobra, and the water monitor, which can have a length of up to 2 meters and weigh 50 kgs. Illegal animal trade in reptiles is very profitable because the hide of the large animals is so valuable. As a result, many of these reptiles have become endangered species.

In recent years, the city’s mayor, Edward Hagedorn, has worked hard to stop illegal logging and poaching. Unfortunately many of the island’s unique animals have already made their way onto the endangered animal list. The city has established a crocodile conservancy, headed by Dr. Glen Rebong, to study and protect the island’s large reptiles.

The center maintains a hospital for injured crocks and a nursery, to raise endangered animals in safety. There is also a mini-zoo, open to the public. Feeding time is always pretty exciting. “The Mendorences Palawan, is one of the most endangered species in the world. There are only seventy left in the wild,” explained Dr. Glen Rebong.

The two basic crock types that the center works with are perosis, a salt water crock and Mendorences, a Philippine crock which normally only grows to two meters, although some specimens raised in captivity have grown to 10 feet long. “But Mendoredces won’t normally attack humans,” he explains. “They know that large animals are not part of their diet.”

A five meter long perosis dove at us and bit the steel walkway beneath our feet. WAM! The hardened snout crashed against the cold metal. “It probably thought it was feeding time,” explained Dr. Rebong. He assured us that we were in no danger at all. But it was still the closest I had ever been to a giant crocodile. It was similar to people who stand in a cage and feed sharks, underwater. Someone can tell you a crock is 5 meters long, but what does that mean? When you are standing near one you realize it means that this crock is nearly double my height and 5 times my weight. (OK, four times, I gained a bit recently, but I am trying to lose it.) Once again, the point was stressed that a crock will not normally attack a human. As we walked away, rather hurriedly, I thought I saw the crock vomit up a camera from the last journalist it ate.
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Dr. Rebong is a well respected expert in his field. He once made a discovery related to crock caves and later worked with Dr. Brady Barr, of National Geographic TV fame. “No one believed crocks could live at high altitude. But crocks were found at 750 m. Because of the cold, the crocks lived in caves.” He gave us a lot of interesting information about crocodiles. “They can go up to one year without eating, if they have big enough fat reserves. The reason they lie about with their mouths open is for cooling. Only the mouth is highly vascularized, so it is good for heat exchange.”
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“We raise the eggs here until they are about two meters long. Then we transfer them outside.” By outside the doctor meant land set aside as a crocodile preserve. “It’s not exactly the wild.” Releasing crocodiles back into nature is not as simple as it may seem. “It is a very sensitive issue because if we release them to nature, we need to protect them from poachers.” Dr. Rebong explained that poachers can also read the newspapers. They will see when and where the crocks are released and go shoot them.

“We need a protected area. There must be no hunting. Also nationwide their habitat is being destroyed. The fresh water crocodile variety is now extinct in Palawna; only the salt water variety remains.” The crocks can still be found inland, however, because, according to Dr. Rebong, saltwater crocks can be found in fresh water, but fresh water crocks cannot live in salt water.

After raising these endangered animals in the sanctuary, the doctor would like to release them in the wild. But if releasing them in the wild would be too dangerous, Dr. Rebong opts for the next best option, releasing them in the semi-wild. “If there is a preserve on private land, we could give subsidies and incentives. Also, they can harvest the eggs and sell them to be used in laboratories and zoos.”

It seemed that some people gave the impression of trying to help the crocodiles, but in actuality, they were motivated by profit. “In a laboratory in Thailand they are crossing the perosis with the Siamese crocodile.”

“Hybridization has no use in science. It doesn’t preserve the species. It creates a new species and detracts from the ones you are trying to save. Why produce hybrids? Only to make a faster growing crock for skin and skin trade.”

Crocodiles are harder to save than koalas or kangaroos because people don’t find them as cuddly. “North Palawan was supposed to be a sanctuary and release area but it didn’t work out because local inhabitants didn’t want it.” The average person would probably rather the crocodiles not go extinct, but no one wants to live with them. The crocodiles also get a lot of undeserved bad press, which doesn’t help.

“There have, allegedly, been some killing,” Confesses Dr. Rebong. “A 15 foot crocodile in south Palawan is said to have killed a young girl. Now people are afraid to host crocks. In 1997 crocks ate a mailman.”
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Dr. Rebong feels that the attacks have been blown out of proportion, and many of them have been unsubstantiated. “In the whole Philippines there have been very few verified attacks, only two in the last year. In some mysterious deaths or disappearances crocks have been blamed but there was no evidence.”

He didn’t believe that the crocks were to blame for the mailman’s death. “Crocks leave leftovers. They can only eat 50% of their bodyweight. Even if they ate a small child there should be something left over. Fourteen deaths have been blamed on crocodiles, but no evidence was found.”

According to Dr. Rebong, in the wild, salt water crocks are more dangerous to people than fresh water crock. “Fresh water crocks will usually back down or run away. They will recognize that we are not part of their food chain.”

Among crocodiles, however, they are very aggressive to each other. Although some salt water crocks are huge, freshwater crocks are the largest and will attack saltwater crocks. In nature, crocks will eat carrion and even resort to cannibalism. A few of the crocks in the zoo were missing a foot.
“Feeding time sometimes gets competitive. They accidentally bite the foot of the other one, and the brain is very small, so it doesn’t know and keeps eating, thinking it is chicken.” Apparently, crocodile tastes like chicken.

Supporting, feeding, and caring for the crocks is expensive. The park entrance fees are only a small fraction of what it actually costs to maintain the facility, and local donor money in a developing country is minimal. As a result, Dr. Rebong has to find creative ways to finance the crocodiles. “We let the city use some of the crocks in the adventure challenge extreme sport competition,” The runners had to run between crocks to prove their bravery. “But we were assured the crocks wouldn’t be hurt, and we were on site to supervise. Otherwise we wouldn’t have allowed it.”

“Last year, we loaned 200 crocks to the nature safari in Subic Bay. When the US Navy left, they left behind a large number of concrete bunkers, so they converted some into a crock exhibit. Sending the crocks there really took some financial pressure off us. Our annual entrance fee equals one month of entrance fees at the safari. And, if they are good, they can breed more crocodiles there.”

Educating the public is one of the most important elements in the conservation equation. “If the public is ignorant of the crocks or afraid of them then they won’t make any effort to save them. The safari park is a good opportunity for education. The Filipinos who go there are upper class because entrance fee is 300 Pesos.” The rich Filipinos are the people best in a position to save the crocks in the Philippines. People from rich countries, America, Europe and Japan, are in the best position to save the crocks in the world. The question is, will we?

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When I heard the words penal colony, I was having visions of Papillon and Les Misrable, tortured images of the innocent Jean Valjean, hauling rocks and being beaten by sadistic guards. The Philippines wouldn’t be the first country I would think of in a discussion of prison reform and innovative rehabilitation programs. My opinion changed dramatically, however, after a tour of the penal colony, on Palawan Island. A philosopher once said, “If you want people to behave like animals, put them in cages.” In the penal colony, the prisoners are free to roam about the grounds. They work in the rice fields, growing their own food. They are given a weekly supplemental food allowance and must learn to budget and cook for themselves. They make and sell handicrafts, attend church and have social clubs.

Back home in Brooklyn, NY, we often referred to the prisons, Rykers and Attica, as “gladiator academies,” places where dangerous men went and became more dangerous. But when prisoners leave the penal colony on Palawan Island, they are ready to live on their own in society and do an honest day’s work.
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Down a quiet country road, amid the tropical beauty of Puerto Princesa, the cleanest and greenest city in the Philippines, two kilometers from the prison, my guide, Yuks, pointed at some ordinary farm houses surrounded by rice paddies.

“This is all part of the prison.” he said.

There were no walls, no fences, barely even a sign, only a large statue of blind justice marked the entrance to the penal colony. A single guard, one of only three who operate the facility, armed only with a pistol, greeted our vehicle and had us sign the guest register.

Cruising the beautifully manicured common area, I was shocked to see a prisoner, with a huge bolo knife tucked into his belt.

“They need those for their farm work.” he explained.
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On the wall in administration building was sign which read, “Mission statement: The effective safe keeping and rehabilitation of prisoners. Vision statement: “A self-sustaining penal institution with fully developed agricultural, sustainable rehabilitation.”

Ten minutes into our visit, it seemed to me that these noble goals had been achieved. According to the head inmate, the rate of recidivism is 1 in 500.
Anthony, an inmate who had already served ten years for murder, told me that he had only finished the third year of high school when he was arrested near Manila. “At first, I had difficulty getting used to the schedule. I wasn’t used to doing heavy farm work.” Other new concepts Anthony had to adjust to were learning to cook for himself and budgeting his weekly allotment of food.

Anthony did the first four years of his sentence in a maximum security prison in Manila, but he likes the penal colony much better. “Here we are free to walk around. In the prison in Manila, there was always trouble. There were gangs and violence. Here there are no problems.”

A section boss or prison foreman, himself an inmate, rode up on a bicycle, armed with a baton. “Sometimes I need this to maintain order,” he said. The section boss explained that he lived with the men and made sure they turned out for work and observed lights out. “The men work from 8 AM to 8 PM. New prisoners are assigned to brigades, where they eat, sleep, and work.” They are never required to wear chains, manacles, or leg irons. “New prisoners live in a barracks and eat on a schedule in a cafeteria. Successful prisoners who have been here longer live in bungalows. They get a food allotment and cook for themselves.”

The section boss told us that he was convicted of murder. “If you commit a crime in Manila you have to go to maximum security prison for the first part of your sentence before you would be eligible to come to the penal colony. If you commit a crime in province maybe you would come here first.” He had spent four years in maximum in Manila followed by six years in the penal colony. “In Manila jail there were riots. People got hurt or killed. We were always nervous, watching out. Here it is calm, tranquil.”
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At the colony there were no phones, no cell phones, and no internet. Prisoners could only keep in touch with their families by writing letters.
“We can earn some money by making handcrafts and selling to tourists. We can’t go off the grounds at all.” The section boss explained that if prisoners left the grounds, there was an implied threat that they would have to go to the guard house for punishment followed by shipment back to maximum in Manila.

The penal colony had two churches, one Catholic mission run by nuns, and a Protestant church. Many of the inmates said that they had converted to Protestantism. They were Catholic when they committed the crime, so they changed to Protestant now.

The approximately 2,000 prisoners are divided according to how long they have been in the facility. New prisoners live in barrack. Long timers live in bungalows. At the top of the prison hierarchy were the prisoners of the release unit, all of whom were only a few months away from being released. These were the only prisoners allowed to have contact with tourists and have the opportunity to make money by selling souvenirs.
The section boss said the biggest lesson he learned in the prison was patience. “Before, I was less tolerant. Also, I was in a gang. We stay in our gangs here too, but it is not for trouble, only for social.”
A prisoner named Marcos claimed to be a US citizen, born in Subic Bay, which was a US Territory till the late 1990s. “My father was a sergeant in the US Marines.” Said Marcos. “My father used to send me 1,000 Pesos every month. Then in 1999 the money just stopped, and I didn’t have anymore contact with my father.” Marcos claimed that his passport, birth certificate and other documents had been lost. “When I get out, I plan to go to the US Embassy and try to find my father.”

If the story is true, it was sad. All around the world, US military personnel have left a number of single mothers and fatherless children with no support. Often, these deadbeat dads don’t even arrange a US passport for the child or register the birth. The fathers disappear into the massive military establishment and the Philippine taxpayers are left to support the mestiso children when they get in trouble.

“I was 16 years old when I committed a murder in Manila. I did one year in maximum and eight years here. Life is better here.” Said Marcos. “It is calm. We get free food, and a free house, but we have to pay for soap.”

Most of the prisoners were from poor families and admitted that life in the prison was better than being back on the streets in some slum in Manila. In Puerto Princesa they had a mountain view, fresh air, and nice weather. Most were probably better fed than back home. I really couldn’t see why anyone would want to leave. And yet, all of them said that upon release they would return to their home. Apparently, the nature of human beings is to seek freedom, even if their prison was like a holiday camp. There were no female prisoners, but prisoners were allowed to marry, so there were women and children living at the facility.
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A prisoner working in the gift shop, Louis, told us that he was married at the penal colony and lives with his wife. His two sons were born there, and they attend the elementary school along with the 47 other children on the prison grounds. Louis had was the major, the highest ranking prisoner, after having spent 22 years of his life in the colony. “The prison provides food allotment for prisoner only, not for the family. So, I have to support my family myself, by selling trinkets to tourists.”

Like all of the others, Louis plans to go home after his sentence is finished. “Upon my release the government will pay for my flight, but not for my family. So, I will have to pay for the family myself.” Before coming to the penal colony, Louis had served a sentence in the maximum security facility in Manila. “It was very violent.” he exclaimed. “I am in for murder. The reason my sentence was so long is because I killed two men in max in manila.”
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According to Louis, who also works in the prison office, there are five similar colonies in the Philippines. “But only this one is referred to as a prison without bars.” There are 16 families and 48 children in the facility. With free education for the children, food, lodging… I asked, once again, why the prisoners would even want to leave. “You can’t stay here when your sentence is finished,” answered Louis, almost with remorse.

Louis had spent more than half of his life behind bars. The final and obvious question was, what had he learned, and how would he adjust to the real world. “I learned a lot in here in release group. Living in Manilla prison I didn’t know how to communicate. Now I have contact with people, including foreigners, so I learned to communicate with people again.”

My driver said it was time to go. As I walked past the prison tennis courts, I wished Louis well. I also considered booking a room there for a few nights.