Wake Up, Philippines!

Tawi-Tawi: The Backdoor Gateway

Posted in Tourism, Travel by Erineus on April 16, 2009
March 21, 2009, 2:13pm
Bolobok rock
Bolobok rock

“The vision is to develop Tawi-Tawi into a new cultural and ecotourism mecca of the Philippines and showcase its natural beauties and wonders hidden within its 307 islands and the underlying seas,” said Vice-governor Ruby Sahali-Tan.

The island of Bongao in Tawi-Tawi is the farthest you can go in the southern part of the Philippines. Farther down is Sabah, Malaysia. To reach the southern tip of the archipelago, I took a most exciting sea travel that brought me to the part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao known as the Philippines’ “Last Frontier.”

I have only read about the amazing “last frontier” that is sandwiched between the South China and Sulu seas: it is a sanctuary with extensive rain and mangrove forests, rich culture, majestic mountains, primeval caves, coral reefs, and the world’s rarest marine life, outstanding dive sites and pristine white sand beaches.

On the invitation of Vice-governor Ruby Sahali-Tan, I packed my bag and went on a Tawi-Tawi experience. From Manila, my travel companion and I flew to Zamboanga which is the only take-off point going to Bongao, which is an hour away by plane or about 26 hours by ferry via Jolo.

From Zamboanga, we flew via SeaAir to Bongao. At the Sanga-Sanga Airport, we were greeted by Mark and Serekit, the cheerful and courtly staff of the Provincial Tourism Office. From the airport, we proceeded to the provincial capitol, perched on the hill of the island where ne can see a perfect 360-degree view of the whole Tawi-Tawi bay and the town of Bongao.

“Tawi means far,” Gov. Sahali-Tan informed me. Along with her husband Mayor Nickerson Tan of Mapun, they took us via speedboat to Panglima Sugala, hometown of the Sahalis.

As the soft breeze invigorates us, we were impressed by the unspoiled white sand beaches and colorful marine life. There were  still-house dwellers whose have deep attachments to the sea which is their main source of livelihood.

On the shore, I saw Badjaos men and women, with their children, selling different kinds of seaweeds and the fresh catch of the day.

“Tawi-Tawi is the backdoor gateway of the Philippines to the rest of Southeast Asia, and you are now in the farthest province of the Philippines down South,” Vice-gov Sahali-Tan said. “Ninety percent of the population is composed of Muslims- Badjao, Samal, Tausog and Joma Mapun. My vision for the province is to uplift the quality of life here,” she added.

Nirvana believer

The second day was a “wet” day because it was reserved for exploring the beach and the islands. We first visited Palanjal Kam Balobok Rock, an uninhabited island perfect for sunbathing and private picnic lunches.

By the way, take an island tour when the habagat (southwest winds) is not blowing too strongly. A big bangka (wooden row boat) should take around 30 minutes to reach each islands except for Mapun and other municipalities which take a day to reach.

When you take a dip or do a little sorkeling, you will find amazing coral reefs, especially at the drop-off which bottoms out at 40 meters (120 feet).

We feasted on the beauty of the underwater and the magnificent corals.

As a nature nirvana believer, I communed with Mother Nature at Sand Bar, the resort owned by the vice governor.

When we return to the house of the Sahalis, we were treated to mouth-watering delicacies such as darar, palikambing, junai, panpan, and pasong, definitely our ultimate nirvana. While savoring the treats, the Provincial Tourism Cultural Dance troupe gave an impressive interpretative dance called pangalay.

The music, the food, and the people were a balm to our senses. It was like going back to the essentials of life: beauty, adventure, sustenance, harmony, and romance, the very things that modern life has left behind.


Tour of Bohol

Posted in Tourism, Travel by Erineus on April 16, 2009
The journey of a thousand smiles
March 21, 2009, 2:04pm
Dauis Church is considered as one of the most beautiful churches in Bohol.
Dauis Church is considered as one of the most beautiful churches in Bohol.

There is more to Bohol than the Chocolate Hills, tarsier, and peanut kisses. This I learned first-hand during a recent trip, when I toured Bohol with a smile.

Armed with a camera phone – the Sony Ericsson C510, I took a series of snapshots of  picturesque tourist attractions. The camera phone clicked away, non-stop, happily absorbing the amazing vista.

It first clicked its shutters and captured the Baclayon Church in one of the oldest towns of Bohol, considered as one of the oldest stone churches in the country. With its centuries-old edifice and a museum which houses various old relics, it makes for a really good picture. Here, one can find choir books made of cowhide, church music written on sheepskin, including old marriage records written in Spanish.

Alas, there were no cameras during that time, otherwise, the countless smiles on the faces of those who have visited the church and experienced its resplendent beauty would have been captured in all its sunshine glory.

Betty-Ayaay, Baclayon Parish Secretary said visitors flock to the church every year because of its beautiful architectural designs and its historical essence.  In fact, there are quite a number of couples who get married in the church each year, or an estimated average of less than a hundred marriages recorded in 2007 and the number increases every year.

The Dauis Church is another historical wonder with its Romanesque and Byzantine designs.  According to legend, the place was invaded by pirates and town folks locked themselves inside the church till they ran out of water and other provisions.  According to our tour guide Roel, a well appeared at the foot of the altar and people started drawing water from it. Today, fresh water still springs from the well where locals and tourists alike who flock to the church partake of the water believed to have healing powers.

Dauis Church also caters to tourists, especially couples who want to get married.  Father Val Pinlac of Dauis Parish noted that 80 percent of those who get married in Dauis Church are non-Boholanos. “It must be the spiritual magnet that the church provides them with that until today, many tourists visit the place,” the priest said.

Have you ever wondered how priests and nuns eat their meals in their cloisters? We got to have a feel of how it was like to have a “holy meal” when Father Val offered the Immaculate Convent as a place for us to dine. So, in the middle of this sacred place, was the abundance of “sinful” offerings like lechon kawali, and chicken adobo mixed with steamed brown rice.

Boholanos are known for their religiosity and simplicity. Other than the grandiose and festive celebrations they embrace during fiestas, Boholanos rarely get a ‘night-life’ – since bars and other night hang-outs are banned especially in Tagbilaran City.  A stark reminder of this are the ‘bible texts’ and other religious inscriptions on tricycles.

According to Roel, the tricycle drivers are required to put Biblical inscriptions on their public transports before they can renew their licenses, including their business permits.  This is part and parcel of the efforts of the local government of Bohol and the Catholic Women’s League to strengthen their campaign in inculcating moral values among Boholanos.

One shouldn’t miss the Loboc river cruise, a 45-minute boat ride, complete with a sumptuous lunch; the Bee Farm and butterfly visit; the exotic wildlife experience; the Panglao beach dive, or even the ‘tarsier’ viewing spree which many consider as a distinct Bohol identity.

But more than enjoying Bohol’s lush greenery, pristine beach shores, rich cultural heritage, amazing natural wonders, and friendly people, arises the opportunity of understanding the present status of the Philippine tarsiers.

Carlito Pizzarras, field supervisor of the Tarsier Sanctuary in Corella town, said that tarsiers have become endangered because they have been used for commercial purposes, thus, bringing down to 100 or less its population. The Tarsier Sanctuary is helping to keep the tarsiers away from their exploiters. Now, there is a 50 percent survival rate among these unique creatures.  And with the passage of a resolution prohibiting the possession and display of these nocturnal mammals for commercial purposes, no doubt, concerns about the mishandling of tarsiers will be addressed.

A glimpse of Bohol culture and lifestyle, as portrayed in this experience, is indeed a feast for the senses – even bringing us every reason to smile amidst the hassles of harried life.  “We are here to spread the smile, especially these times of economic crises,” said Patrick Larraga, Sony Ericsson Marketing Manager. “We try to inject in people an ‘upbeat mindset’ to always face challenges with a positive outlook and to embrace the essence of fun.”

Truly, the tour was a picture perfect ‘catch’ of stories worth-documenting.  It was a showcase of Boholano hospitality at its finest; a fun weekend of food and leisure; a cherished moment of sharing smiles as big as the Chocolate Hills and as wide as the tarsiers’ eyes.


We’ve only just Vigan

Posted in Luzon, Tourism, Travel by Erineus on April 16, 2009

RENDEZVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit Updated March 01, 2009 12:00 AM

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Kamistizoan district of the Vigan Heritage Village, Vigan City

Once in a while, we are blessed with stories where the power of love reigns over the love for power. Here is one that unfolded right in our own country — up north.

In the beautiful City of Vigan in the province of Ilocos Sur, the famed Crisologo Street is where ancestral structures and historical landmarks preserved for posterity abound. Personally, it is here that I feel as though I’ve stepped onto a film set, transported somewhere back in time to a place that I have always wanted to be.

Not known to many, the beauty and grace of Vigan could have been completely devastated if not for the love of Takahashi and Adela. It was a miracle that saved the town of Vigan during the last days of the Japanese occupation. As part of their military strategy at the end of the war, the Japanese were ordered to burn and completely destroy occupied zones before withdrawal. On the eve of their departure from Vigan, the Japanese Military Commander, Captain Fujiro Takahashi, pleaded with the SVD procurator of the Vigan seminary, Fr. Joseph Kleikamp, to take custody of the Japanese officer’s Filipino wife and their love child. The priest agreed on the condition that Takahashi and his men leave Vigan without burning the town to prevent the townspeople from seeking revenge on his family. The next morning, the people of Vigan were overjoyed to know that the Japanese had left peacefully and Vigan was miraculously spared total destruction.

Vigan was once an island, which was detached from the mainland by three rivers — the great Abra River, the Mestiza River and the Govantes River. It is unique among Philippine towns because it is the country’s most extensive and only surviving historic city that dates back to the 15th-century Spanish colonial period. The name Vigan actually comes from the word kabiga-an or kabigbigaan, which means a place abounding with tuberous bigaa plants (a coarse, erect plant with ornate leaves that grows along the river banks). Legend also states that the name Vigan came from two Chinese words — “bi” meaning beautiful and “gan” meaning embankment. For centuries, gold dust from the Cordillera was carried by the river; thus the sight of sparkling gold along the shoreline caused many to exclaim “Bi-gan, beautfiul shore.”

What does Vigan have in common with the Taj Mahal in India, the Great Wall of China, the Vatican, Paris and the Kremlin? They are all World Heritage Sites. Vigan was inscribed on Dec. 2, 1999 for its 630 cultural and natural properties of exceptional value in the entire world; it is one of only five heritage sites found in the Philippines. It is now a source of pride and a national symbol for us.

There is a magical connection made when traveling to an era both familiar and unknown. As a child, I often daydreamed of being transported to a nostalgic setting like Vigan where vintage houses, horse-drawn carriages,  men serenading women garbed in traditional wear from old-fashioned capiz windows while romantic kundimans fill the air. Perhaps my parents influenced such sentiments as Mom would play the piano and they would sing songs of endless, timeless love to each other in our home.

You can just imagine how surreal it feels each time I am in Vigan. The universe seemed to conspire with my experience as my dear friend Ilocos Sur Gov. DV Savellano enthusiastically shared that they were indeed in the process of completing a film about how the town of Vigan was saved by love.

The great director Francis Ford Coppola once stated, “Time is the lens through which dreams are captured.” He couldn’t have been more precise. Being in the middle of this glorious sanctuary where the past is brought to life and the present is appreciated for all that has transpired and all that will unfold, I felt truly blessed.

Over a hearty lunch of Vigan longganisa and bagnet, garlic fried rice, poki-poki (eggplant with egg), deep fried okoy, papaitan and dinengdeng at Gov. Savellano’s beach resort in Pugos, we went back in time as we learned how this true-to-life story ensured peace and the preservation of our historic culture. In retrospect, it was way back in 1998, when my best friend, CMMA awardee Bum Tenorio and I first encountered the story of how Vigan was saved by love. Gov. DV, then Vice Governor, shared his dream of having a book written on this beautiful tale of love. We accompanied him to interview Damaso King, the town historian who kept in his vault tons of information, facts, evidence about this Japanese hero and barrio lass from Vigan whose love for each other was unconditional. Gov. DV fulfilled his search for truth when he embarked on this film, which will be shown very soon.

Iliw, which means nostalgia, is a full-length narrative feature inspired by true stories of Japanese-Filipino-American War in Vigan, Ilocos Sur, Philippines from 1941-1945. Since World War II, Japanese people have been misunderstood. They have always been pictured, described, defined and judged as the ultimate enemy in the horrors of war. For Takahashi, a high-ranking official in the Japanese army, his true love was Adela with whom he sired two beautiful children. Their love was forbidden by society, thus they met clandestinely on moonless nights in the bell tower behind the historic structures and churches.

As cinema is a very powerful medium for transformation, the film is written in such a way that it will be a very potent tool for education and reorientation for all Filipinos — in the Philippines and all over the world. In this case, the film redefines the social connection of Japan and the Philippines and manifests the social, spiritual and cultural intricacies and diversities that have helped shape the Japanese war period in the Philippines, specifically in Ilocos Sur.

Iliw takes advantage of modern technology, using High Definition video cameras with a PS Teknik adapter, allowing the use of varied film lenses to achieve the 35mm film look, thus making Iliw a 35mm digital HD movie — a filmless film, indeed.

Film tourism is successfully achieved here since Iliw was shot entirely in Vigan and in other parts of the province of Ilocos Sur, Northern Philippines. The production design, including costume and makeup, gives a 1940s look and ambience to the film. The production design’s objective is to make the picturesque scenery of Ilocos Sur a living backdrop in every scene of the film, highlighting the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the province — the Hispanic town of Vigan and the baroque church of Sta. Maria.

In Vigan, locals and tourists alike become creatures of habit as they converge at Plaza Burgos at 3 p.m. daily to partake of the sumptuous empanada filled with the popular Vigan longganisa dipped in sukang Iloko with garlic and siling labuyo. Just around the corner of the plaza, you must try the tastiest mini bibingka. If it’s a laid-back casual dining experience you want, try Café Leona with its variety of local and international fare. Look for Thai chef Jimmy, who hails from Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok. He is a charming character who so fell in love with Vigan, he decided to live there decades ago. Other must-visit places are the Padre Jose Burgos Museum, the Burnayan where exotic pottery is made, the market where Abel Iloko cloth and garments abound, and the Vigan branch of the National Museum that houses the 14 panels of the Basi Revolt paintings magnificently done by Vigan-born painter Esteban Pichay Villanueva (1797-1878). This opus is important, not only because it chronicles, albeit rather prejudicially, a milestone in the Filipino struggle for freedom.

Iliw, an Ilocano word for “nostalgia,” will definitely make an impact on local and international perceptions of Filipino-Japanese relations.

It is true that while fleeting moments can be captured by the lens, the beautiful places themselves, where life and substance are born in its various characters, are equally powerful and significant. In this timeless place, where the power of love reigns supreme over the love of power, one will experience peace and tranquility. Here, there is no end to beauty and grace; the story simply flourishes in perpetual synchronicity.

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For further information about Vigan, please contact ISHORE (Ilocos Sur Hotel Resorts Restaurants and related Enterprises) at +63 776321118.

Recommended site: Flying in Crosswinds

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A drive around Taal Lake

Posted in Luzon, Tourism, Travel by Erineus on April 16, 2009
March 21, 2009, 2:11pm

The first time we drove around the route that circled Taal Lake, we were still much too young to be issued a driver’s license. We were driven by a relative in a battered Isuzu Gemini of early 1980s vintage. The south bound drive commenced at the South Luzon Expressway, which we exited at the Carmona interchange. We then got on the Aguinaldo Highway in Cavite and reached Tagaytay City to begin the long drive around the lake.

The “Taal Circle” took us through the various towns of Batangas, from Laurel and Taal to Alitagtag and Lipa City.  The itinerary looked simple and easy on paper but our party was unprepared for the road that linked Taal to Lipa.  The said road then was unpaved and was appropriate only for trucks and four-wheel drive vehicles. The trip took almost four hours but somehow, we and the old Gemini emerged from it unscathed.

The second time we circled the lake, it was a trip that was ironically organized by Isuzu Philippines Corporation. This was in 2005, when the car manufacturer launched its luxury SUV, the Alterra. Thus, there was a sense of irony when we embarked on the same route in another Isuzu product. This time, in a four-wheel drive vehicle with a powerful 3.0 liter diesel.  It was obvious that this car could take on any bad road. Yet much to our chagrin, the roads on the same old route were now paved. Actually, they were in impeccable shape. As a result, we circled the lake in half the time, despite the slow-moving cargo trucks that hampered our lust for speed.

The third go-around happened recently, when Isuzu introduced the 2009 edition of the Alterra. So it seems that it always takes an Isuzu to circle the lake, but this time we traveled the opposite direction. We started from Lipa City and sped through Alitagtag, where all the houses on the main road were positioned diagonally.

And then we got a real close look at Mt. Maculot, from the town of Cuenca.  This is the mountain that looks so majestic when seen from the Tagaytay Ridge. From the main road, we could see the summit, known as the Rockies. It seemed just like a small hill from the town of Cuenca, since after all, the town is practically located on the mountain.

We reached Taal, the Vigan of the south, where dozens of 19th century Spanish homes can be found. The place is filled with history. It was also customarily hot in that place but thankfully, the car’s air-conditioning was on full blast.

The drive from Cuenca to Taal is very scenic though it felt surreal as the vehicle’s interiors were well-insulated. The new Alterra has a smoother ride and completely new upholstery that feels richer and more luxurious than that of the 2005 edition. The latter’s interior felt like an afterthought — the new car now feels substantial. It’s also roomier — the first Alterra featured a console that stretched from the dashboard to the backseat. It was a unique feature that could serve as a side table where drinks and snacks could be ensconced. But it did limit the backseat’s capacity. With the console now done away with, the backseat can seat three in comfort.

The Alterra has a limo-like ride, and the ride stayed that way even when the roads turned bad. When we reached the town of Taal, we didn’t take the usual route that would have had us driving up the Tagaytay ridge through the town of Laurel. Instead, the people at Isuzu chose a more a challenging route which had us driving by the coast of the lake most of the time.  It’s a much more exciting route, if you’re in an SUV like the Alterra (especially an Alterra you didn’t pay over a million bucks for). Much of the drive was done on bumpy dirt roads. So dusty is this route, our hearts went out for the people who lived along the road. Imagine the dust they have to put up with whenever a car sped by; their shampoo consumption must be tremendous.

Again, the ride felt like a virtual journey as the car enveloped us from the dust and bumpy road surfaces. To get up to the ridge, we passed through Talisay where the zigzag roads are tighter and steeper than that of Baguio’s Kennon Road. This is where the Alterra’s turbocharger becomes useful. As AUVS and vans struggled with the uphill climb, the Alterra charged ahead and passed the other vehicles effortlessly.

We arrived in style at the Tagaytay Highlands. The car felt right at home in these upscale surroundings. With its black exterior and revised, more restrained grille, the Alterra looks more elegant than ever. Coupled with the horizontal headlights, the vehicle’s front resembles the Cadillac Escalade. While the overall look doesn’t look quite as brutish as its rivals, this decidedly family car-like look serves as a mere disguise and it will have its competitors eating its dust on winding dirt roads.

Only at Tagaytay did we notice the frills that come with the Alterra. It has a DVD player with three LCD screens. And there’s a built-in monitor that guides you when you’re backing up. The Alterra is longer than a Toyota Fortuner so this gadget is very use especially when you’re parking.

We asked the officials of Isuzu why they had to equip this vehicle with a DVD player when the last thing an SUV owner wants to do is watch a movie while driving out in the great outdoors. They explained it was a feature that its main competitors don’t have.  Unlike with other Asian motorists, Filipinos are head-over-heels crazy over SUVS.  It has everything to do with bad roads, floods and image. A great pie of the Alterra’s market is composed of chauffeur-driven executives, who will appreciate the luxuries the car offers. As they said, despite the recession, the market for this type of vehicle remains healthy.  The Alterra, along with its rivals like the Toyota Fortuner and Ford Everest are still selling well.

After the grueling trip, Isuzu treated its media guests to a great massage at the spa of Tagaytay Highlands. As it happened, we hardly needed it. The trip around the lake did look like a rugged off-roading journey, but thanks to car’s comfortable passenger compartment and brawny diesel powerplant, we didn’t feel exhausted at all.