Sunday, December 30, 2007

Some Personal Pictures in South Korea

I arrived at the Incheon International Airport, an hour from Seoul, after a flight of four hours. I breathed in my first winter air. It was exhilirating! Later as we went on a short romp in downtown Seoul, after a delectable dinner of bulgogi and amazing kimchis, and the temperature dipped below zero, it was not fun anymore. We saw some Korean girls in miniskirts and boots. We were amazed. Starbucks was closed and every expensive. We took refuge in a coffee shop and held on to our coffee cups like they were the life-giving fire. A group of Malaysian boys entered, and we immediately sensed that both groups are not from around here. One of them asked where we were from. Philippines, I answered. Malaysia, he voluntered. We smiled, a ray of the tropics in wintry Korea.

My room at the Ibis Hotel in Seoul, where we spent the night before going to Jeju Island. It is a small business hotel with small but cozy rooms. The toilet is small, almost like a cubicle, but is equipped with a "high-tech" toilet, that is, with bidet, washer, dryer, warmed seat, etc. Great!

We went to Gimpo Airport, at the other end of Seoul, to catch a flight to Jeju Island. Gimpo was Korea's main international airport until Incheon was built, in the occassion of Korea's hosting of the Olympics. Gimpo now mainly serves as a domestic travel airport. But it is still nice.

The Korean Airlines plane in which we rode (obviously). It serves pomegranate juice, which became my instant favorite. I almost consumed all their supply.

While marveling at the so-called Mysterious Road in Jeju, I went immediately to the food stalls and marveled at their offerings. I ate delicious crabstick wrapped in fish cake, skewered and fried.

Waiting for the bus at the Jeju International Convention Center. It is near the amazing Jusangjeollidae, where I ate a piece of boiled silkwood. By the way, I was wearing my The North Face jacket. A piece of endorsement. He he.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Straight to Jeju, Straight to the Heart

As a prelude to my Jeju travel essay, here is my article on the PAL Manila-Jeju chartered flights and the Jeju tourism industry:

With an admirable concentration of museums, resorts, parks, natural and cultural attractions and activities, Jeju Island is indeed the tourists’ playground in Korea. Located about 420 kilometers south of the capital Seoul, Jeju enjoys a temperate climate, adding to the attraction of the island.
With an area of 1,845.55 square kilometers, the largest island of Korea, Jeju is volcanic in origin with the dormant Mount Halla, South Korea’s highest, dominating its central landscape. The mountain is inscribed in the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites together with the Seongsan Ilchubong tuff cone at the eastern side of the island and the Geomun Oreum Lava Tube System at the northeast. Around the islands are topographical features like beaches, cliffs, caves and waterfalls that attract nature-loving visitors. These features earned the island the appellation of “Hawaii of the East.”
Museums and parks riddled the islands, including three dedicated to sex and love. There is the Teddy Bear Museum, which contains the most expensive and the tiniest teddy bears, and the Jeju Folk Museum, which recreates a traditional Jeju village and informs about the indigenous way of life. Hotels and resorts are also scattered around the island, including the grand Lotte Hotel with its nightly “volcanic show” and the intimate Seaes Hotel, which transformed a traditional village into well-appointed villas set by the seashore.
Because of its beautiful landscape and excellent tourist facilities, Jeju has long been attracting newlyweds, becoming the most favored honeymoon destination in the country as well as Korea’s premiere tourist site.
Because of its air of beauty and romance, Jeju has become a favorite location for Korean television series, which has become popular in the region, particularly in the Philippines. For Filipinos, Jeju becomes a familiar name because of these “Koreanovelas.”
But there is much, much more to Jeju Island, of course.
“Jeju Island is an ideal destination for Korean honeymooners because of the beautiful natural scenery, which provides escape from city life. It also provides various experiences for foreigners with its traditional facilities and cuisine,” said Kim Dong Seol, who owns Rakso Air Travel and Tours, a travel agency based in Makati City in the Philippines.
“Jeju basically has a nice scenery and weather, and beautiful nature, which we can’t see in Seoul. The natural and artificial things are in harmony,” he added.
To make the experience of Jeju more accessible to Filipinos and foreign expatriates in the Philippines, the Philippine Airlines and the travel agency Rakso are currently offering tour packages and chartered direct flights from Manila to Jeju and vice versa.
“The Philippine Airlines has studied and tested lots of new destinations for Filipino tourists to quench their desire for new destinations. In the process, they also studied Jeju Island. Rakso, being a Korea destination specialist, put more emphasis on this new project with its know-how,” Kim said.
“In fact, we have had a Korea package, which includes Seoul and Jeju Island (seven days and six nights, or more), and feedbacks from those who visited Jeju were quite good,” Kim further said. “So we decided that Jeju Island itself could be a nice destination for the Philippine market, for those who are sick and tired of destinations such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok. At the same time, Jeju Island was included by UNESCO in its World Heritage sites list, and Jeju itself was declared as a ‘self-governing province.’ So, they are also very aggressively in promoting Jeju as the ‘Hub of East Asia.’”
With these developments, the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province is lifting visa requirements for different countries. As of now, there are about 180 countries included in the no-visa policy, including the Philippines. Visa will not be required for those availing of the packages and/or flying directly to Jeju.
The direct flights and packages, however, are on a limited run. It started on Dec. 15 and ends on Jan. 12. There are twice weekly flights. The Manila to Jeju flight is on Wednesday, leaving Manila at 7:15 a.m. on a four-hour flight to Jeju. The Jeju-Manila flight is on Saturday, leaving Jeju at 12:35 p.m.

The packages
The Rakso Jeju tour packages are scheduled for Dec. 15-19, Dec. 19-22, Dec. 22-26, Dec. 26-29, Dec. 29-Jan. 2, Jan. 2-5, Jan. 5-9, and Jan.9-12, and includes four-day-and-three-night tour for US$555 and five-day-and-four-night tour for US$599 (US$659 if one chooses to stay at Hawaii Hotel for two nights and then to KAL Hotel for the remaining nights, and US$699 if one chooses Lotte Hotel for the remaining two nights). The tour packages include meals, accommodations, tour, transfers, an English-speaking guide and admission fees to the facilities.
The first day of the four-day-and-three-night tour package includes visiting Yongduam Rock after arriving at the Jeju International Airport, visiting the Hallim Park, the Hyeopjaegul Cave, the Keumrung sculpture park and the Mysterious Road. Lunch will be stone hot pot bibimbap at Hiang Restaurant and dinner seafood casserole with noodle at the Yongduseong.
On the second day, tourists visit Seongsan Sunrise Peak, experience picking Jeju tangerines at a farm, visit Seopjikoji and Jeju Folk Village Museum, and then the Chenjiyeon Waterfalls. There will also be shopping at Chilseongro Street. Lunch will be pork barbeque at Seongup Town, and Korean traditional set menu for dinner at Pig Dream.
On the third day, they will visit the O’Sulloc Tea Museum, the Jushang cliffs, the Teddy Bear Museum, the Museum of Sex and Health, and the Hallasan National Park. Lunch will be boiled fish at Deomjeong and pork bulgogi for dinner.

On the last day, they will visit the Ginseng Centre and an amethyst factory.
For the five-day-and-four-night tour, tourists get to visit Yongduam Rock, the Hallim Park, the Hyeopjaegul Cave, the Keumrung sculpture park and the Mysterious Road. Lunch will be ginseng chicken soup at Biwon and dinner seafood casserole with noodle at the Yongduseong.
The itinerary for second and third day is almost the same as the four-day-and-three night tour, except for the buffet lunch at Bunjaewon Restaurant on the third day.
On the fourth day, tourists get to visit the Hallasan National Park and enjoy half of the day snow-sledding. After that, they will visit the Bunjae Artpia and Sambang. They will also visit the Ginseng Centre and an amethyst factory on the last day.
“It really focuses on the beauty and various tourist spots of Jeju,” Kim said of the packages. “Other Korean travel agencies in Jeju checked our itinerary and said that they are real luxury tours, which even Koreans can’t have because of budget constraints.”
So far, many Filipinos are taking advantage of the packages. Kim revealed the initial flights and packages were fully booked. About 60 percent of those who availed are Filipinos, while the remaining are Koreans.

The Jeju tourism industry
Traditionally, visitors to Jeju Island are locals, many of them honeymooners. It is estimated that about five million tourists visit Jeju annually, making the island-province Korea’s top tourist destination. In the process, tourism has become a major industry in the island. Our guide, Heea Kim, said that it may have surpassed agriculture as the main industry. Jeju Island is famous for its tangerines. A big hybrid variety, dubbed the Hallabong, is of particular interest to tourists.
“We earned 1.9 trillion Korean won from tourism,” said Ko Kyeong Sil, the director-general of the Culture, Tourism and Sports Bureau of the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province. This accounts to about 25 percent of the province’s gross revenue in 2006, and it is growing.
“This year, the gross revenue from tourism has just exceeded two trillion Korean won as of the late November,” Ko said.
From the five million tourists to Jeju, about 500,000 are foreign tourists, contributing about 30 percent to the tourism revenue. About half of the number of foreign tourists is Japanese, who have long been visiting the island even before it became a tourist destination and are still considered its top market, Japan being very near Korea.
Because of tourism developments, direct flights and the no-visa policy, Jeju tourism continuously grows and begins attracting other nationalities.
“The total number of foreigners who have visited Jeju using direct flights is 273,406 (149,000 Japanese and 115,000 Chinese) out of 492,000 passengers,” Ko revealed. “And the rest turned out to have used the flights via Seoul. Those who used direct flights outnumbered the rest, so we will focus on the operation of direct flights.”
“Japan was the primary market of Jeju for about 10 years ago,” Ko further said. “But it has recently moved to China over the years. From now on, we will also put our efforts to find new market such as the East Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia, the Americas, and others.”
Although not a big market, Jeju is welcoming of the Philippines, especially with the PAL-Rakso tour packages jumpstarting tours from the Philippines.
“We expect many Filipino to visit Jeju, so that Jeju can be widely known and remembered in the Philippines,” Ko said. “With this new chartered flight as a momentum, human resource exchanges are expected to constantly take a place.”
“We will constantly conduct familiarization tours for travel agents and the media to different destinations, and also encourage outbound tour packages to Manila, so there will be active travel exchanges,” Ko added.

Of particular interests to Filipinos are the locations for the Koreanovelas, which are hugely popular in the Philippines. Ko recommends the Jeju Folk Village Museum, which is the location for the popular Jewel in the Palace, and set location of Legend, Korea’s most expensive television series to date. For the series, the filmmakers virtually built an ancient village including a grand palace at the eastern part of Jeju. After the shooting, the set location was transformed into a theme park. Legend is set to be shown in Japan. Most likely it will reach the Philippines and will become a hit.

Aside from these, Kim of Rakso Travel said that the Jeju government needs to study how to further attract the Philippine market in order to make the Manila-Jeju direct flights regular.
“The Philippine market is quite seasonal. To make this Jeju direct flight a regular route is not easy. There should be a balance between Manila departure and Jeju departure. I mean, Korean tourists from Jeju also should be bigger than this time,” Kim said.
One thing that Jeju perhaps lacks is shopping.
“We acknowledge that Jeju lacks large shopping centers except a duty-free shop for locals,” Ko said. “This will have an adverse effect in attracting foreign tourists. We will work very hard to solve this problem.”

But Jeju itself is an amazing destination with its sublime landscapes, cultural attractions and amusing museums that one can junk shopping altogether. The caves, cliffs, waterfalls and even the desolate meadows, which pulsate with bright colors during spring and summer, can awe visitors. The restaurants, tucked in quiet villages, offer nutritious and delectable local cuisines. The museums and parks provoke the senses. The more adventurous can climb Mount Halla and explore the lava tubes. There are golf courses for the businessmen in search of leisure. The women divers of Jeju are almost legendary. The traditional villages, with their low houses of stones walls and grass roofs, satisfy the craving for the exotic. There are numerous luxury hotels and resorts dotting the island. Jeju can have any visitor’s breath taken.
“In 2006, 5.3 million tourists had visited to Jeju. We are now tying to attract at least 5.5 million tourists this year, and we don’t see any problems about it. Then, we will go for six million mark next year,” said Ko. “We are planning to move forward with a plan of attracting as many tourists as possible into Jeju and taking this opportunity of revitalizing local economy.”
“We hope to have this flight regular, and more Filipino tourists get a chance to know Korea better, also more Korean tourists visit the Philippines,” said Kim. “Ultimately it will be an extra bridge for cultural exchange and economic growth.”

Contact Information
Rakso Air Travel and Tours, Inc. is located at the ground floor of Rico Building, 112 Aguirre St., Legaspi Village, Makati City, with telephone number (+632) 812-9667, fax numbers (+632) 812-8035 and 840-2484, mobile number (+63917) 810-0223 and email Visit Web site
In Jeju on your own, English-speaking tour guides are few. A recommendable one is Heea Kim, who resides in 365-1, Yongin Apt., Ildo 2-dong, Jeju City, with mobile number 018-605-5936 and email

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Back From Jeju With Some Pictures of My Self at the Teddy Bear Museum

Jeju Island is breathtaking! It is one of the few places that impresses me. Yes, I survived winter in Korea. I think I miss Korea. I think I am falling in love with Korea.
I'm in the middle of the Chrtistmas rush so I have precious little time for an essay on my Jeju tour. So bit by bit I'm going to post first pictures of me in some Jeju attractions. These ones are from the Teddy Bear Museum.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Going to South Korea

It's 3:30 in the morning, December 8, Saturday. I just finished packing. I hope I did not forget anything. I'm going to South Korea today. Flight is at 2 PM on Philippine Airlines PR466. It is winter there. Last time I've heard its -5 C. I've never been to winter. I am having anxieties. I hope I did not forget anything. But we're going to Jeju Island after a brief stop in Seoul. It is the warmest place in the country. Still it's 8 C. It is still fucking cold. I got a new The North Face Elevation coat and sweater. I struck out a deal. They lent me the coat, and I will write about the product and endorse it. Not bad. I am like a fan of the brand, and fancy myself an endorser just like the mountaineers and the adventurers. Why not a travel writer as an endorser. I got some winter accessories lent by helpful friends. I am so grateful. I hope they will suffice. I am so fidgety. Anybody, wish me luck.

I am looking at the itinerary:

Prospective Schedule for Media Group
08 Dec. ~ 11 Dec.

8 Dec
14:20~19:20 From Manila to Incheon by PR466
22:00 Hotel Check-in (IBIS Seoul)
22:30 Night Market or Rest at the Hotel
Day End

9 Dec
8:30 Breakfast
9:30 City Tour /"Blue House, Gyeongbokgung Palace "
11:00 Shopping at Itaewon or Namdaemun
12:30 Lunch
14:00 Depart for Gimpo Airport
15:00 Depart for Jeju
16:00 Arrive at Jeju
Welcoming Ceremony
17:00~18:00 Dinner
18:30~19:30 Loveland
20:30~ Hotel Check-in (Lotte Hotel)
Day End

10 Dec
07:00~08:00 Breakfast at Lotte Hotel
09:00~10:00 Urimok (Scenery of SNOW)
11:00~12:30 Inspection of Seaes Hotel
12:3~13:30 Lunch
14:00~16:00 Museum of Health & Sex/Teddy Bear Museum
16:30~18:00 Inspection of SkyHill C.C
18:30~19:30 Dinner
20:00~21:00 Cheonjiyeon Fall
21:30~ Back to Lotte Hotel
Day End

11 Dec
08:00~09:00 Breakfast
10:00 ~ 11:00 Jeju Falk Museum (Jewel in a Palace)
12:00~13:00 Lunch
13:30~14:30 Shooting place of Legend
TBA Depart for Gimpo Airport
TBA Transfer to International Airport
20:20 Depart for Manila by PR469
23:30 Arrive at Manila

* The schedule is subject to change.

Some of the items mystify me. I feel hungry. I remember I just had burger and soda. I will have chicken noodle soup. I feel cold. The last few days were stressful. I will be having kimchi in the days ahead.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Calaguas of Camarines Norte: Islands of Present Dreams and Future Despair

There would be a burst of rain. I did not believe it. It was a muggy night in late July on the island of Pinagcastillohan. The sky was perforated with a myriad stars, and the moon hung low between two nearby islands. Our dome-shaped tents huddled together among dark rock outcrops at the southeast end of the island. Inside the tent, it was even muggier and reeked of lemongrass from the bug spray I had doused myself and the insides of the tent with to fend off mosquitoes and other insects.

It was almost two in the morning, but I could not sleep. I tossed and turned, feeling the crunching of the sand underneath. I breathed so heavily the tent was almost heaving itself. I knew I needed sleep. We had spent the whole night on a bus to Daet, an almost ten-hour ride from Manila. From the Philippine capital on the western side of the main island of Luzon, the bus rolled southeast, dodging traffic in the provinces of Laguna and Batangas and traversing the coconut-riddled province of Quezon. It was a trip of about 350 kilometers into Camarines Norte, the northernmost province of the Bicol region, which occupies the southern tail of Luzon. I watched the lights of houses and towns zip past the window like shooting stars. Now, my body quivered from exhaustion, but my mind was restless.

Outside, I could hear the waiters talking. They prepared our meals and tables, waited on us and generally made this “rough” stay in the islands more comfortable and even surprisingly luxurious. Now, they were waiting for the storm, and I was nurturing affection for them. They said last night a sudden burst of rain had blown off the tents and drenched the blankets. At this time of year, rain was expected, especially here at the northeastern part of the country, where most typhoons coming from the Pacific Ocean make their entry. But there had been no hint of rain today or the past few days. The sun was scorching and I had gotten sunburn. The grains of sand that made it inside the tent pricked my skin, more sensitive now and drenched in sweat.

I could hear the waiters frolicking by the shore. They were actually catching crabs. The moon was bright enough to illumine them. All the more I could not sleep. I was lured by the voices as playful as the sound of the waves. By day, they were reserved, but friendly and solicitous. Now, they sounded like boys, amusing, effervescent, tantalizing.

Then it came suddenly. First, it was a dark strip of clouds, floating by the face of the moon. It looked like one of the islands itself. Then, a swirl of gusts and water stirred the campsite. The waiters went from one tent to another, warning occupants and checking if the tents were properly zipped up. After several minutes, the rain passed as suddenly as it came. Our surroundings became serene again. The islands, looking like dark outlines of hills floating on placid water that encompassed us, were still in place. The clumps of pandanus and spread of tall grass covering the knoll of Pinagcastillohan swayed ever so gently. Past a rock outcrop, the strip of white sand outlined the southwestern side of the island, glimmering in the moonlight. Our boat bobbed on the blue-black water.

By now, my thoughts were shredded into little islands, floating in and out of consciousness. Maybe it was because of tiredness. Maybe it was because of this beauty that enfolded me, so formidable I could only see now in flashes, like shooting stars by the window. I was gripped by so much discomfort and so much beauty. I was racked with something like fever, with something like desire that I still could not know. Maybe it was desire to contain them all in me, to hold them in my hand, to taste every cranny. I could not sleep anymore.

At the eastern sky, sunrise blossomed in a swirl of coral and carroty colors, engulfing a dome-shaped islet that punctuated the horizon. Soon the sunlight revealed the sand and thickets of Pinagcastillohan. Fiel went around, balancing trays of hot water, sugar and coffee and offering them to early risers, with the deftness and courteousness of a good hotel waiter despite the shirt and shorts and the lack of sleep. He cut a handsome silhouette against the sunrise as he knelt to offer coffee and asked about my sleep. I thought I was melting like the Belgian chocolates he served last night after dinner. The sun was now rising higher, but kindness and a gentle voice could melt faster.

I decided to go around Pinagcastillohan. Being only about four hectares, the walk is over in thirty minutes or so. The eastern and northern sides of the island were craggy. Sharp rocks and a few mangroves jutted out from the bluffs. At the northern side, I could see neighboring Sang-atan Island with a lone hut perched among the rocks. It was close enough to holler and be heard. The hut was quiet. Perhaps the owners had gone fishing.

Before long, I arrived at the white-sand part of the island, a wide stretch that hugs the western and southern parts. Pinagcastillohan is basically a large outcrop of dark basalt rock tasseled with grass and hardy trees. This outcrop seemed to have held a store of sugar and cracked open somewhere, spilling the sugar to the sea. Our boat was moved farther out to anchor. When the tide ebbs, it will be stranded if it is still anchored too close to the island. At low tide, Pinagcastillohan shows its hidden part—a shoal of fine white sand. By noon, elongated sand bars appeared, and one can walk for miles in knee-deep water. Tiger cowries and horned starfish revealed themselves. Part of Pinagcastillohan is submerged desert of white sand. When the tide is low enough, one can walk and swim to the neighboring island. Two or three other islands lie close to Pinagcastillohan. It seems these are interconnected, forming one island.

Pinagcastillohan lies almost at the heart of a group of islands called the Calaguas, off the coast of Camarines Norte, at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. It is hard to ascertain the exact number of islands and islets, but it is said that there are more than twenty. The satellite image of the Calaguas acquired from the Internet, the only readily available map, shows a suggestion of islands on a field of blueness, their edges hardly definite. They could have been nebulous blots. But on a boat going there, they are a smattering of hard rocks and wonderful undulating landscapes that tantalize visitors.

From the mainland, it takes about two hours by boat to reach the Calaguas. There is no regular ferry to the islands, and visitors have to negotiate with local fishermen. The usual route starts in Vinzons, Daet’s adjacent town to the north to which the Calaguas belong. On Bagasbas Beach in Daet and in the neighboring town of Mercedes in the south, there are fishermen visitors can negotiate with for a ride.

In Vinzons, a chartered boat waited for us at the river. Forests of nipa palms thrived along the river banks. Every now and then, slender boats propelled by motors passed by, carrying passengers. They are the jeepneys of the waterways. Our boat was wider with big bamboo outriggers, a fishing boat operated by Inggo, a brawny and swarthy fisherman. I sat on a plank of wood, watching Inggo push the boat into the water. His figure seemed to dissipate in the fierce sunlight then come back again, fuller and taller, his skin glistening with the color of chocolate. Deep tan, age and sun damage had diminished a raw beauty he possessed but did not know. Other men of this river and sea paled in comparison. His lips were full and his gaze intense. His broad chest was like the sea itself, inviting a swim. At dusk and at rest, his beauty intensified.

Big plastic containers of water and bags of food were hauled in with us. More food, utensils and cutlery, tents and other paraphernalia deemed necessary for our stay on the islands had been shipped out earlier. Joaquin Palencia, our host and guide, had it all properly arranged. His family owned three islands in the Calaguas, and he frequently made trips to the islands, bringing friends and guests.

“We visit at least once or twice a month during the period from April until September to plant more coconut trees, to do medical missions or install toilet facilities, to monitor the feeding program in the three public elementary schools, to bring media people, and of course, to enjoy the beach. Lately, to bring architects and planners for the future resort,” Palencia, who is familiarly called Jay, revealed.

The boat moved slowly on the river, out through its mouth and into the wide open sea. One by one, things fell back—the clumps of nipa, the huts, the small boats, the children playing on the shore—until behind us was a jagged outline of land. Mount Labo with its “horns” and Mount Bagacay became hazy backgrounds. Along the way, only Maculabo Island, belonging to the town of Paracale, punctuated the scene of purely blue water and sky. Aside from the Calaguas, there are only a few other islands off the coast of Camarines Norte. Perhaps the nearest to the mainland is the Mercedes group of islands down south, where there are now a few resorts. On Bagasbas Beach, one can see them, especially Canimog Island and Apuao Island behind it.

The Calaguas are father away, perhaps twenty-five kilometers from Vinzons of the mainland, but they are worth the trip, Jay assured.

“The white powder-like sand is a marvel, so are the sand bars and lagoons surrounding Pinagcastillohan and the sentry-like islands behind and in front of it, bordering the lagoons. The sunsets are spectacular, quite different from the famed Manila sunsets. Here, the setting sun gets a halo or disc above it with all the colors of the rainbow. It’s quite amazing,” Jay reminisced. “When you’re out there in the islands, you believe that you see every little star in the universe. Gazing up from mats laid on the beach, you see the dusty lights of the Milky Way and dozens of other galaxies. It is like being in a planetarium with the sky as your dome.”

It sounded like a dream, a dream perhaps few of the excursionists took to their sleep during the long ride. Despite having taken this trip many times, Jay remained awake and calm. “I love the ride. It is one moment of complete freedom,” he said. His favorite spot in the boat seemed to be the outrigger. He would sit on it, letting the water wash his feet.

“The sea changes from the exhilarating staccato bumps in April to its mirror-flat surface in July to September,” he told me. I watched the turquoise water and the silver sprays as the boat sliced through the sea like a cutter through a gem.

Almost about to sleep, I heard Jay said, “[The Calaguas] are a showcase of Nature. I feel that she spent a lot of time there to make sure she gets very good results and a very appreciative audience.”

Beauty has a way of keeping distance. Perhaps distance is precisely her way of preserving herself.

Then, the Calaguas rose on the horizon, a cluster of green bumps and then more green bumps. They looked like ordinary islands until we skirted closely around them. The rolling landscape was cloaked in grass, a series of hillocks floating on water. Their shapes seemed to mimic the undulating waves of the sea, only green and brown and frozen for eternity. We could see curves and folds. Some were titivated with scattered coconut trees looking like sparklers. At their foot, waves crashed, a rush of milk against dark chocolate.

One of the larger islands, Guintinua is the first one to greet visitors. The smaller islands of Cumalasag, Huag and Cagbalisay are strewn around it. Bendita lies at its north, near Sang-atan and Pinagcastillohan. They are dwarfed by Tinaga, the largest of the group, its northern promontory trying to reach Balagbag Malaki and Balagbag Maliit, the northernmost islands. These are the ones Jay knew by name. “We have sailed around the Calaguas and have seen all the islands. But we have not set foot on most of them as yet,” he said.

At Pinagcastillohan, there was a small shack for the caretakers. The waiters had everything set up—mats, tents, tables, table setting, music and a bar with an ample choice of drinks. We sat on mats by the blue shore while the waiters served the food and asked for our drinks. At noon, the sands of Pinagcastillohan can be blindingly white.

“When I first went here in 2000, it was as if I was transported to another dimension,” Edward Pangilinan related. He had been to islands numerous times with Jay. He did marketing consultancy for the Palencias and was embarking on a furniture venture with Jay.

“It (the sand) was so white and hot that I really didn’t notice the color of the water because I was squinting a lot,” he further said. “Back then our boat didn’t have a canvas to cover us from the heat but on my second trip of the same year it was magical really. That was the time we decided to set up camp and spend four days [here].”

On the other hand, Jay had been to the islands since his early teens. “Growing up, I have heard about the islands on and off but mainly from visitors,” he said. “People who live surrounded by great beauty are not in awe of it. It is just life as they know it—beautiful, dangerous, wild—but something they have grown up with and gotten used to even as children. No big deal. But my first trip was in high school so I was pretty susceptible.”

Now, in his late forties, Jay is still in awe, a feeling he wants to share with every person he brought to islands. “Though the islands affect me the same way every time I am here, it’s a great feeling to feel the silent awe of Nature in every person I have brought here,” he said. “Parang may (It’s like you have) bonds of camaraderie forged in Nature na kayo. Parang (It’s like) hazing siguro, kaya lang ito masarap at walang latay (but this one is fun and does not give you welts).” I had something like fever instead.

The Calaguas seem to be a world on its own, cutting you from the rest of the world and wrapping you in its own enchantment. Part of that enchantment perhaps owes to the idea that the Calaguas seems to defy time and what it brings. Here, time seems to stand still. “The islands [then] looked much they way you are seeing them, virginal and unspoiled,” Jay said.

The Calaguas can look so ancient, but at the same time ever present. But no one seems to know the history of the islands. There are no markers of the past. No one even seems to know where the islands got their names. Jay could only summon recent history, which concerns more about people’s mundane affairs. Pinagcastillohan has been a privately owned island as far as Jay remembers.

“As far as the Calaguas natives can remember, Pinagcastillohan was owned by a Don Ponciano de Vera who sold it in the 1960s to finance the marriage of a daughter,” Jay related. “It has changed hands four times since then, the last to us.”

Since owning the island, the Palencia family had planted more than a thousand coconut trees and built a hut for the caretakers on the island, but largely left it as it is.

In the mainland, especially in Daet, the Palencias are known to be a prominent family of doctors, owning a hospital and a college, but they are not really native Daetnons. Jay’s father, Dr. Abundio Palencia, who is now in his late seventies, hails from Guinobatan in the neighboring province of Albay. After graduating from medical school in Manila, the elder Palencia set up clinic in Libmanan, Camarines Sur. In 1966, he visited Daet. Sensing a need for a doctor in the town, he set up another clinic, which eventually became the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, the first tertiary hospital in the region, where the elder Palencia and Jay currently live on the third floor. In 1977, Our Lady of Lourdes College Foundation was founded. Now owning three Calagua islands, the family regular goes on medical missions and does other socio-civic work to the communities there.

All of the Palencia children are doctors except for a daughter who took up computer engineering. Jay himself is a doctor who has turned to the arts. In Manila and outside of the Philippines, he is more known as an artist. His inclination to the arts was kindled in 1983 when he was studying medicine at the University of the Philippines in Manila. A curator at the art gallery Sining Kamalig persuaded him to try painting. During that time, his medical studies were punctuated by forays to the art gallery. Now, he does medical missions as a doctor and at the same time makes art. So far, Jay has mounted more than 30 solo exhibits. In 2006, a work of his was noticed at the Busan Biennale in South Korea. Ocean Dragon, a bight red sculpture of winding ribbon of metal that also acts as bench, was installed at the Haeundae Beach, one of the few selected.

It is perceivable that this work was inspired by the sea. “I grew up on the beach and have always looked to the sea and marine life for inspiration, either in their forms or in their rhythms and essence,” Jay admitted.

In particular, the sea around the Calaguas, as well as the islands themselves had found their way into his art. He has done a series of paintings called Balagbag Malaki Series, which was exhibited at the Finale Gallery at the SM Megamall in Mandaluyong City. His ceramic sculptures Pelagobenthos were inspired by the corals and the jellyfish. He is currently using beach detritus for a series for an Asian art biennale. At the Kobe Biennale in October of 2007, his Banca told about a sea journey.

“Actually, I feel that the visual elements are the least of its influences on me. I feel that I am affected more integrally in a much deeper, inarticulate way by the sea,” Jay revealed.

Pinagcastillohan, and the Calaguas in general, owns him as much as he owns it. Like artwork, he shares it to people, hoping to be touched by it.

Aside from family and friends, he had also been inviting journalists to experience the Calaguas “before everything changes,” and many have written exuberant clichés about it— pristine and paradisiacal—both true and romanticized.

Actually, staying in the Calaguas entails “roughing it.” There are no resorts in the island. Not yet. One has to fend for himself—bring tents to sleep in, bring food and water, improvise outhouses. We also did these plus some surprising luxuries, a mark of a Palencia excursion. Every now and then, with special guests, Jay would hire the services of waiters, usually two or three, from the Peninsula Manila Hotel, and they were very resourceful and reliable. They set up tables by the shore or among the thickets complete with table settings and first-rate services. They assisted guests and in transporting things. They asked you if you were okay. They brought coffee to your tents in the morning and greeted you with cocktail drinks at dusk as you disembarked from the boat after a day of island hopping. They mollified the roughness of this venture. It felt weird, but wonderful.

Jay is offering this kind of tour to anyone who is interested, a different kind of experience. He, as well as many visitors, is aware of the tourism potential of the Calaguas. About half of the island group possesses coves or shores that have white sand, prized feature of a good beach destination, especially among Filipinos. The widest and the best known among them is Halabang Baybay or Mahabang Buhanging, literally meaning “long sand,” on the northeastern part of Tinaga Island.

We set out for Mahabang Buhangin for a day of relatively isolated beach excursion. At the fore again was Inggo as we floated away from Pinagcastillohan. He disappeared into the sunlight. Suddenly I heard a splash, and he emerged from the water with a crab in his hand.

Going around the Calaguas, Mahabang Buhangin can be readily recognized. The shore radiates under the sun, about a kilometer or so strip flanked by dark crags and outlined with sparse vegetation. Boats have a hard time approaching the shore. The waves can get nasty. They can upturn smaller boats. As much it is beautiful it can be treacherous. The strong undercurrent shifts the sand under the feet. On the shore, it is delightful, the sand as fine and as white as sugar. Its desolation is a prize to many.

“The isolation of the islands is the most striking feature for me,” Jay said. “Isolation in the sense of its remoteness as well as in the fact that despite the presence of three barangays and around 5,000 locals, I can live on the beach and camp and swim without seeing another person, and yet, there’s a grocery in Banocboc just fifteen minutes away by small banca ride.”

Also fifteen minutes of boat ride, but to the other direction, the north, the isolation is more keenly felt. Here the islands of Balagbag Maliit and Balagbag Malaki, which is another island the Palencias own, have been weathering the waves since time immemorial. They look like mountains of sharp rocks. In one way, they look like ruins of an ancient fortress or monument. There is a sense of forlornness about the place. As our boat bobbed on the water, we were silent for a moment and I felt we were at the end of the world. I felt I was Jason of the Greek mythology. Inggo plunged into the water, testing the current, and swam towards a small cave. Here is a good place for snorkeling, Jay said. My Argonauts fetched their goggles and life vests, and floated like rubber duckies on the water. Our waiter waited with sandwiches and drinks.

On our way back to Pinagcastillohan, we went the other direction to see the eastern side of the island group. I sat beside Alwin, who manned the wheel. Nearing Pinagcastillohan, he pointed to a row of huts by a shore. That is where I live, he said. It never entered my mind that he lived in Calaguas. It did not really enter my mind that there were communities on the islands. I saw a hut on an island across Pinagcastillohan, and it could have been empty. On Mahabang Buhangin, I saw a few children, with complexion of strong mocha, playing at the far end and then disappearing into a growth of trees. Walking, I passed by two huts. It was true what Jay said: It is easy to be alone in the Calaguas. But he also said there are thousands of inhabitants here.

The Calaguas are home to three barangays. Banocboc comprises Guintinua and the surrounding islands including Pinagcastillohan. With a population of 3,714 in the year 2000, it is the most populous among the three and perhaps the most progressive, being the nearest to the mainland and having the Calaguas’ main fish port in the sitio of Sogod. Pinagtigasan, where 1,384 individuals live, mainly occupies the southern part of Tinaga Island. The northern part, where Mahabang Buhangin is, is occupied by Mangcawayan with a population of 1,286.

“All of the barangays, as well as the smaller villages, are clustered around a main water source. Fresh water is plentiful. There are daily trips to the mainland to and from Calaguas. There is a grocery and a few smaller stores in Banocboc. Of course, sari-sari stores are in each village,” Jay informed me.

Edward recounted seeing mini-marts, karaoke bars, churches and public schools. They even have mini movie houses, he said. These movie houses, like in other remote areas of the country, are really homes which play DVDs of movies and charge those who want to watch.

The people of the Calaguas are mostly fishermen, catching tuna, talakitok, dolphin fish and barracuda in the waters around their islands. Some catch lobster to sell to exporters who send them to Hong Kong and Japan.

With his frequent trips to the Calaguas and his community service there, Jay had become familiar with, and even fond of, the people.

“Calaguanons are hard-working, friendly and easy to get along with,” he said.

“They are laidback, well-meaning folks,” Edward described. “But really they comprise one of the poorest sectors of Camarines Norte.”

“I am hopeful that one day tourism will make life better for all of them,” Jay sighed. “I feel that the islands can be developed as an ecotourism destination which will give the locals income and make us all more responsible for its preservation in its development.”

Already, he is planning a four- to five-star resort on Pinagcastillohan. He has brought architects and planners to the island. The blueprint is on the drawing board. He is not alone though.

“Most of Halabang Baybay has recently been bought, I believe, by an American company, which is developing a number of four- to six-star resorts,” Jay revealed. “A Japanese company is trying to buy Cumalasag Island also to develop a high-end resort. Most of the islands are still in local hands.”

This early, there have been problems in the acquisition of land, particular one recent case, which alarmed the people in the area.

“One major problem in the Calaguas has been applications for land use using fraudulent owners and forged signatures of local officials,” Jay related. “A foreign company has been victimized by some Filipinos (one from Palawan), who have used manufactured and forged documents and signatures to grab islands. I understand that this practice is rife in Palawan.”

“Islands are not yet alienable and disposable unless they are declared so (like Balagbag Malaki and most of the land in the main island surrounding Halabang Baybay),” he explained. “However, the long-time residents have established homesteads and have bought and sold these islands amongst themselves and with other outside buyers for generations. In fact, taxes have been paid to the government for Pinagcastillohan since the time of Ponciano de Vera. These transactions have been covered by the proper deeds of sale which have been registered with the local Register of Deeds. Ideally, these will lead on to the titling of the island to the taxpayer, respecting his homesteading, cultivation and tenure on the island. New rules adopted by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources regarding applications for land use for various purposes have opened up another channel through which similar islands and lands could be secured.”

Land acquisition controversy aside, Jay’s ambivalence on the development on the islands is discernible. I remembered him saying to a group of visitors that he wanted them to see the islands “before everything changes.” I could not make out if there was a tinge of sadness to his words.

Somehow, the allure of the Calaguas is its pristine beauty. Several visitors would exclaim that the Calaguas is like “Boracay twenty years ago” or “Boracay before development came,” and that it is better left “untouched.” Then, they would go home to the comfort of their cities, every now and then flying off to Boracay or to some vacation spot, secured in knowing that if they tire of it all there is a rough spot somewhere to break the monotony or to live out their romanticized notion of an adventurous getaway.

Change will come somehow as it always does, even to Calaguas. Even if the past of the islands is nebulous and it overlaps with present, the islands have a future, which is as nebulous. Jay tries to see to it that the future changes will for the better and that they will benefit the people in the area.

For the establishment of his resort, he said he will use the “guidelines of ecotourism development” as not to make much negative impact on the environment and encourage community participation. Conscientiously implemented, development is a good thing.

“Development brings jobs and income. It brings hope to the Calaguas, especially during these times when the seas have been over-fished, and the catch is usually meager even for personal use,” Jay said. “Alternative income saves local resources, like fish, corals and mangrove trees, from depletion. Development brings better ways of looking at the world, living and learning with other cultures, which in turn can make you appreciate your own and safeguard it. It opens more doors to more opportunities.”

He is also aware of the dark side of development. “Development can also bring destruction of social fabric, prostitution, dislocation, even more poverty, more inequity. It can intensify greed and corruption. The biggest threat is unmanaged, runaway development. This will affect not only the beach and cleanliness but also the culture and social life of the inhabitants,” he said

To curb these negative aspects, Jay believes that they have to make the people “part of the development of ecotourism so that they have a voice in the development of the islands they have called home for generations.”

On the other hand, Edward believes in “teaching communities the best direction they should take when development arrives” to be the key.

“These communities know nothing about resorts,” he said. “They may just succumb to the pitfalls of development.”

“Camarines Norte has not had major experience with tourism,” Jay said, “so I hope that we can, with the right training, get the entire province, including government officials, trained for the coming double-edged blade that is tourism.”

Camarines Norte remains laidback, even passive. In many aspects, the province has fallen behind many other provinces in the region. Its neighbor to the south, Albay, is the commercial and cultural hub of the region, where its volcano, the Mayon, remains an iconic tourist attraction of the Philippines. Even the rustic Sorsogon at the southernmost tip has its share of the limelight upon discovery on whale sharks on the waters off Donsol and tourists have been flocking there ever since. Camarines Sur, which together with Camarines Norte was part of one province called Ambos Camarines until they got finally separated in 1919, has been recently aggressive in its tourism promotion. Its governor has just built a wakeboarding facility, one of the largest and the best in the world, and has been holding competitions to highlight it. Aside from that, its cities, Naga and Iriga, are progressive commercial centers.

Camarines Norte’s local government lists several tourist attractions, including festivals, many of which highlight local products. Coastal Mercedes has Fishtival to celebrate fishing, being the third largest fishing town in the region. The Busig-on Festival of Labo centers on its river Busing-on and the folklore surrounding it. Paracale, known for its gold mining, showcases this industry and its gold products in the Pabirik Festival. The province celebrates the Pineapple Festival or Pinyasan, boasting its Formosa pineapple, said to be the sweetest variety. It also has its own version of the fiesta honoring Our Lady of Penafrancia in the barangay of Salcedo in Daet but of course it pales in comparison to the more famous fiesta in Naga City.

Being wedged between the Tagalog and the Bicol regions, Camarines Norte is a confluence of both cultures, and perhaps it is having difficulty finding and forging cultural distinction.

Aside from festivals, the province’s tourist attractions include some historical sites and beaches. I went on a short trip around Daet and neighboring Vinzons. Daet, the capital town in the southeastern part of the province, is unassuming, a congregation of stores and houses but with lots of tricycles. “There are about 30,000 registered tricycles in that small town,” Edward said. Daet’s most important historical landmark is the Unang Bantayog ni Dr. Jose Rizal or the First Rizal Monument.

Standing at the corner of Justo Lukban and Magallanes Iraya streets, across the old Daet municipal hall, the monument is austere, considering it is the mother of all Rizal statues, which almost every town in the Philippines has. It is a stout three-sided obelisk painted in white and etched with Rizal’s name, a yellow star at the apex and the titles of his two novels at the base.

The monument was constructed by a revolutionary army headed by Colonel Antonio Sanz, who designed it, and Ildefonso Alegre. It was prompted by a decree issued by General Emilio Aguinaldo, the first president of the Philippines Republic, instructing the people to observe the second anniversary of Rizal’s execution. The twenty-foot monument is said to be made from the mortars and boulders of a demolished old Spanish jail in Daet, where Filipino revolutionaries had died, thus making the monument more significant. Inside the structure is a capsule containing the names of the contributors who pitched in for its construction. The monument was unveiled on December 30, 1898.

After the Bantayog, the second most popular historical landmark in the province is the house of Wenceslao Q. Vinzons, about nine kilometers north of Daet in the quiet town of Indan, which was renamed after him.

Born in September 28, 1910, Vinzons is a lawyer who became the province’s congressman and governor, and one of its greatest heroes. During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in World War II, Vinzons continually defied the Japanese, setting attacks and reclaiming one town after another. He was finally captured and never seen again. People last saw him on August 7, 1942. His house, now graying and dusty, has been converted into a shrine, housing a library and Vinzons’s memorabilia.

Near the Vinzons shrine is the Church of Saint Peter the Apostle, a Baroque center of worship made of coral stones. Although Vinzons was founded in 1581, it was not until 1611 that the church was built under the parish priest Juan de Losar. It is said to be the oldest church in the Bicol region.

Being a coastal province facing the Pacific Ocean, Camarines Norte’s another set of attractions is the beaches, which mostly have gray sand and are mostly frequented by locals. The Mangcamagong Beach, which faces San Miguel Bay, and San Jose Beach in Talisay are popular ones, but Bagasbas Beach in Daet proves to be more significant for the province.

I stayed for a couple of days in the barangay of Bagasbas, about a kilometer or two from the town proper and heralded by a marker with a mermaid statue, in the best available lodge, the rudimentary and government-operated Bagasbas Tourist Inn, fronting the beach.

In mid-April, the barangay was having its fiesta. Behind the inn, the usually empty lot held a makeshift perya with a couple of coin-operated videoke machines. The province was also celebrating the Bantayog Festival, which commemorates its foundation and centers around the Rizal monument, but generally features entertainment and fairs. Near the inn, among a small cluster of bars and restaurants, a stage was set for nightly band entertainment. But generally at night, Bagasbas Beach is bare.

Bagasbas Beach is about five kilometers, stretching to the north to Grove Point, a desolate beach area near the mouth of the Talisay River. But at the more populated area, the province’s governor maintains a big house. There is a park that is overgrown with weeds. A resort or a restaurant is left unfinished. The beach has a cemented promenade lined with lamps. The restaurant cluster is a small one but one can find something interesting: Kusina ni Angel’s peach brandy and coconut shake, Alvino’s pizza and Leo’s Restaurant’s buttered chicken and sizzling squid.

Bagasbas is a very public beach, especially on Sunday mornings when it becomes a popular park with joggers, early swimmers, picnickers, children, taho vendors, sunrise watchers and men on their bikes.

I watched through the inn’s window as people trickled. By seven in the morning, it became busy as the sun rose, gilding the perpetually powerful waves. A car stereo blared, the Sunday program of old songs. “Those Were the Days” was played and the waves seemed to roll in slow motion to the tune, a surreal thing. Time seemed to slow down.

In the afternoon, as the crowd thins out and the sun mellows down, the local surfers take to the waves. Bagasbas Beach is becoming a popular surfing site, and the local government has noticed it. A national competition has been held recently. After San Juan in La Union, Bagasbas Beach is the most accessible surfing area from Manila. With a glassy left and right beach breaks and a sandy bottom, the beach is said to be good for beginning surfers. The middle of the rainy season, in the months of August and September, is said to be the peak time for surfing here.

While strolling on the beach, I met thirty-one-year-old Allan Abordo Cabanela, who works in Makati City, but comes home to Daet every month to surf. Allan said that Australian and British surfers began discovering Bagasbas Beach in the 1970s. Then the locals caught on, particularly James Guinto and Owen Andrade, who started with one board given to them by the surfers. Allan himself started surfing when he was still 11 years old. Initially, he wanted to save lives like the lifeguards, but his plans did not seem viable. But he still continues to surf as a way of de-stressing. It is better than drinking or going into drugs, he said.

The local surfers usually hang out in a bar, a shack really of grass-thatched roof, called 14344, a slang to mean “I love you very much,” owned by Doray Betsaida, who they consider as the “mother of surfers.” Here they charged 150 pesos for the rental of the board and 150 pesos for an hour of instruction. There is an organization now, the Camarines Norte Surfing Association, which was organized in 1992 and to which many local surfers belong. There are about sixty members in the whole province and about 15 active members here in Daet. Allan said that when not surfing or instructing beginners, the local surfers keep watch on the beach, acting as lifeguards. In a way, he gets to realize his dream.

The dream of others lie somewhere else. For Jay, the province’s dream of progress and prominence lies beyond Bagasbas Beach, out in the open blue sea, in the Calaguas.

“These islands are the passports of Camarines Norte to a much better life,” he declared. But the road to the fruition of that dream can be tricky. The waves of time can be treacherous. It can shift the sand under you.

In the meantime, Jay is partly living a dream—being in the Calaguas. When he is not there, he dreams about it. “I spend the rest of the year thinking about my next trip to the Calaguas,” he said. “In the meantime, I am remembering the surface of the sea rushing underneath my feet as I sit on the paltik of the katig. I am thinking of the way the sun breaks up into little lights on the surface of the water. I am thinking of the dazzling whiteness of the beaches in the many coves as lumba-lumbas (dolphins) speed by. I am thinking of the stars in the night sky and how that expanse has made me feel smaller—something that at more than 200 pounds I have not felt in a long while. The rainbow sunsets are imprinted in my mind. I get more and more excited as April draws closer because I know the Calaguas come sooner.”

Inside the lodge in Bagasbas Beach, I looked at the dark sea. The sky was perforated with a myriad stars. I could not sleep. The band was still playing loud at the Bantayog Festival event. I thought of Pinagcastillohan, intrigued by the name— “where a castle was built.” I had looked around for something castle-like when I was there, but could not find any. Were they referring to castles in the air? I was weary now thinking—the men, the islands, the world. I was shredded into islands. Beauty can break you down.

“Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole time,” wrote the Existentialist writer Albert Camus.

For Jay, it suffused and inspired him, but left him with dreams that may be tearing him apart. I could not sleep even after the bands had stopped playing. It was already late, three in the morning. Outside, the rambunctious waves of Bagasbas Beach roared into the night. I could hear the crashing clearly. It sounded as if a storm was raging outside. But there was none. There would not be one, but it will come somehow as it has in the past. Right now, something was brewing inside me.

Getting There
Daet, the capital of Camarines Norte, is about 350 kilometers from Manila. The usual, if not the only, route is by land, which takes about eight to 10 hours. There are passenger buses in Metro Manila and neighboring provinces that go to Daet, including Philtranco, Superlines and AMDG.
The province has one airport with a secondary classification located in Bagasbas, Daet. However, Philippine Airlines (PAL) has temporarily suspended its flights to Bagasbas Airport.
From Daet, one can hire a tricycle to Bagasbas Beach, which takes about 10 to 15 minutes from the town proper.
There is no regular ferry to the Calaguas, and one must negotiate with local fishermen for boat rides. One can find fishermen on the coasts of Daet, Mercedes and Vinzons. Vinzons is the most known takeoff point to the Calaguas. A boat ride can cost from Php2,000 to Php4,000.

Contact Information
Joaquin Palancia can arrange day tours and safari-style camping for visitors. One may email, or call or send SMS to 0917-8105585.
The Provincial Tourism and Cultural Office of Camarines Norte is located at the Provincial Capitol Complex in Daet, with telephone number (054) 721-434.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Urbiztondo Calling: Anyone Can Travel and Surf

Surfing is more accessible and less expensive than what many think. One does not need to go Siargao in northeastern Mindanao, the country’s most famous surfing area, to experience riding the surf, and one does not need to spend much on accessories and travel for it. The La Union Surfing Break, an event organized by the local government of La Union, several government agencies and private companies and slated for Nov. 2 to 4, allows low-budget travelers to have fun and get acquainted with surfing.

The La Union Surfing Break offers the province’s beach and waves in the town of San Juan, which is the nearest surfing area to Manila. Timed for the semestral break, the event targets students and yuppies from Manila, Baguio and other northern Luzon areas. It promises to be the Philippines’ version of the spring break in the United States, with camping, showdowns, competitions, surfing and swimming, bonfire and party. Moreover, the surfing break also aims to educate people on and expose them to surfing properly with its surfing clinics.

According to television host Paolo Bediones, the event’s celebrity endorser, the surfing break invites travelers and people who want to travel, introduce the youth to surfing and teach people how to backpack from Manila to La Union. After the event, it is hoped that people who have a fear of traveling will be more willing to travel. The event also serves as venue for those who want to surf to break into the emerging sport.

Urbiztondo Beach in San Juan is an ideal surfing beach for beginners along with Bagasbas Beach in Daet, Camarines del Norte, and Lanuza Bay in Lanuza, Surigao del Sur. These beaches have sandy bottoms, which are safe for neophyte surfers. The surfing areas in the more famous Siargao have rocky or coral bottoms, which can injure inexperience surfers. Unlike Daet and Lanuza, San Juan is very accessible from Manila. La Union is about a five-hour bus trip from Manila. San Juan is eight kilometers from the provincial capital, San Fernando City.

The relative proximity substantially cuts down on travel expenses. If one brings a tent, one can even save money on lodging. The event invites guests to camp out on the beach, which is provided free of charge. Thus, a participant can spend only about P2,000 for three days. The expenses include bus tickets (P390 for one-way and P780 for round trip), rent for shower and toilet (P100), surfing clinic (P300, including board and instructor) and food for three days (about P500). Optional expenses include lodging, which ranges from P1,200 to P2,000, souvenir shopping (about P1,000) and “better” food and drinks (about P1,000).

Another attraction of the event is the activities to be mounted. Beach sports activities and competitions are lined up, including Frisbee and speed climbing competitions, as well as beach volleyball.

Last year, the Frisbee and speed climbing competitions were side events to amuse surfers waiting their turn to surf. Because of their success, these activities will be expanded. The contests will be more competitive and spectator-friendly.

The Ultimate Frisbee competition will have four top teams competing. Taking off from last year, the teams will have players from last years event. Prominent Frisbee players will be invited to grace the event including Kristian Guerrero, Derek Ramsey and Paolo Santos.

In the beach volleyball event, teams already formed may join but individuals wanting to play will also be invited by interactive game marshals to join a team. After three days, teams can compete for the First LUSB Beach Volley Invitational Trophy.

Of course, surfing is the star activity. From Oct. 27 to 29, surfing clinics will be open to participants. Each participant is entitled to one surfing lesson session, which is 30 minutes long and scheduled upon registration. The clinic has 15 surfboards and 10 hours per day, thus able to accommodate 500 to 600 trial surfers in over two days. While waiting for their turn at the waves, participants can join Frisbee and climbing clinics and play beach volleyball.

On Nov. 3, there will be a beach party, featuring the ska band Coffee Break Island and Dutch DJ Martijn van Baggem. On the last day of the event, there will be the finals of speed climbing, Frisbee and beach volleyball competitions. The culmination will be a showdown of the best local surfing talents in La Union. Celebrities are invited to grace the event. There will possible appearances of celebrities who surf like Jericho Rosales, Angel Aquino, Lui Villaruz and Paolo Soler, and celebrities wanting to learn like Bubbles Paraiso, Paolo Paraiso, Ariel and Maverick.

This is the second year of the La Union Surfing Break. In 2006, over 300 participants officially joined the surfing events and about 2,000 people traveled to San Juan, La Union, raving about how easy, fun and cost-effective traveling around the Philippines is. With each visitor spending about P1,000 a day, the local community also benefited from the event.

This year, the organizers are looking forward to 500 to 600 participants. Although the capacity of the beach is 15 to 20 surfers at one time, they are optimistic that everyone will have his chance on the surf.

Contact Information
One can contact the Department of Tourism Region 1 at (072) 888-2098, the La Union local government at 0921-8048338 (Art), the La Union Surf Club at 0919-7650702 (Lemon), La Union Convention and Visitors Bureau at 0918-4040368 (Ed) and Power Up Center for Climbing and Fitness at 0922-8856392 (Joey).

Published in The Daily Tribune, October 18, 2007, page 12.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Singkaban Fiesta 2007: Harvesting the Meanings of Bamboo in Bulacan

This year I got to know the real meaning of singkaban. It is not just the acronym of Bulacan’s festival. It is actually the decorative arch that adorns the entrance to a barangay or town where a fiesta or any grand celebration is held. After a long time, I heard the Tagalog term gayak, meaning “decoration” or “to decorate,” being used in ordinary conversation. I was amused. It has a literary and romantic ring to it. In Bulacan, the word seems to prop in everyday conversation together with modern colloquialism coming from the urban sprawl of Metro Manila, immediately to the province’s south.
Bulacan’s proximity to the capital affords it access to many conveniences but puts it in danger of being Manila’s extension. A transitional character between the urban and rural can seen in the landscape: buildings and houses sprout in one part and green paddies sprawl in another. Still, Bulacan remains to be a bastion of Tagalog culture and at the same time a crossroad of the traditional and the cosmopolitan, trying to reap the benefits of the old and the new.
This can be seen in the Singkaban Fiesta, the province’s main festival held in the second week of September. The festival actually started as a commemoration of the opening of the Malolos Congress in 1899. At that time, the revolutionary government led by Emilio Aguinaldo held a congress, after declaring independence from Spain, to draw up a constitution for the First Philippine Republic in the capital of Bulacan. The commemoration of this nationally important historical event was adopted by Bulacan more than decade ago as its main celebration, stretching it to weeklong and calling it Linggo ng Bulacan or Bulacan Week.
But it has no “commercial” appeal, said Armand Santa Ana, one of the founders of province’s successful community theater group who now heads the Provincial Youth, Sports, Employment, Arts and Culture Office. Thus, the Linggo ng Bulacan became the Singkaban Fiesta, keeping up with the country’s recent predilection for festivals and spectacles. The Singkaban Fiesta was originally a part of the Linggo ng Bulacan celebration in 1998, Santa Ana related. Then in 2005 the Linggo ng Bulacan itself became the Singkaban Fiesta, using the decorative arch as symbol. The singkaban is a festival icon, he said, and here the sight of which foments celebratory mood. But the new festival must take on a deeper meaning, thus singkaban came to mean “sining at kalinangan ng Bulacan” (art and heritage of Bulacan). Thus, the event aims to showcase the arts and culture, both traditional and modern, of the province. And being culturally rich and home to the most number of National Artists in the country, Bulacan has an ample trove to dig into.
Now, the Singkaban Fiesta is a series of motley events. Aside from cultural shows and exhibits, there are trade fairs, beauty pageants, civic activities of different persuasions, sports events and popular entertainment, strewn along the week which culminates on the last day, September 15, with the commemoration of the Malolos Congress, usually by way of reenactment; a float parade; and a street dancing competition, now a de-rigeuer affair of any Philippine festival. Sometimes, a special event is mounted usually to emphasize the theme, which varies year by year.
This year, 2007, the Singkaban Fiesta revolved around the bamboo, plumbing both its physical attributes and uses and its metaphorical meanings. The newly-elected governor, Joselito Mendoza, younger brother of previous governor Josie dela Cruz, wants to promulgate the idea of the new Bulakenyo, whose traits are likened to those of the bamboo’s. The festival slogan read: Bagong Bulakenyo: maka-Diyos, makatao, makakalikasan, makabansa, mapagpamahal sa pamilya, malakas, hinubog ng panahon tulad ng kawayan.” (New Bulakenyo: godly, people-oriented, concerned with the environment, nationalistic, loving of family, strong, nurtured by the seasons like the bamboo).
It is a set of ideals many leaders of this country have frequently voiced out. The allusion to the bamboo itself has been frequently used on the Filipino, emphasizing the qualities of resilience, firmness and pliantness. The last one is ambiguous. It can mean an ability to weather any situation by going with the flow, a strength, but it can also mean lack of standing or steadfastness, a negative attribute. For the first-time governor, the ability to bend means humility.
To highlight this symbol, a little festival, mostly featuring the bamboo in its tangible form and palpable roles in the lives of people, was held in the middle of Singkaban, a festival within festival. The Kawayan Festival had an exhibition of bamboo crafts, games with bamboo-made implements and a performance using bamboo-made instruments. In this, bamboo is seen in old and new light, and used in both old and new, sometimes crafty, ways. During the event, bamboo shoots were planted along the banks of Guiguinto River, Angat River and Calumpit River, a manifestation of environmental concern.
The bamboo is an abundant grass in the country and most likely in Bulacan that one of its towns is called Meycauayan, meaning “where bamboo grows,” which is now becoming an urban spillover of neighboring Metro Manila. Hopefully, the bamboo shoots that were planted would flourish to neutralize the incoming tide of urbanization, being enduring images of the bucolic and the rural.
The Kawayan Festival gathered the relatively few bamboo-related industries and crafts of the province. Bulacan’s more known major industries include marble and marbleized limestone, jewelry, pyrotechnics, leather craft, aquaculture, meat and meat products, garments, furniture, traditional crops and native sweets. Bamboo is a marginal or emerging industry here unlike in other provinces like Ilocos Sur, Pangasinan, Abra, Iloilo, Mindoro Oriental, Camarines Sur, Bohol, Pangasinan, Cagayan and Bataan, which have pronounced ones.
My Bulacan bamboo experience was ushered in by a band playing bamboo instruments. Bamboo has been traditionally used in fashioning musical instruments by several ethnic groups in the Philippines, usually taking the form of a flute or a percussion instrument. A more innovative use of the bamboo in making a Western instrument is seen in the famous Bamboo Organ, now housed in the church of Las Pinas. The Pangkat Kawayan of Pulilan took it a little further.
In a special performance for us in front of Pulilan municipal hall, several members of the Pangkat Kawayan donned their red floral shirts and salakots (conical hats) and played a few numbers using their instruments made of bamboo. Pieces of bamboo were shaped and cemented together to form trumpets, bassoons, basses and clarinets.
The age range of the members widely—from 74-year-old leader Teofilo Magat to the eleven-year-old clarinet player. The music was curious, sometimes sounding comical or circus-y. In contrast, the tone of Teofilo Magat, popularly called Mang Ato, was serious when speaking about the band. He is the only living one of the founders of the band, which is based in the barangay of Paltao. Mang Ato was a soldier in the Philippine Army, where he learned to play music. When he retired, he formed this band, fashioning the instruments himself. Frequently they performed for the patron saint during Pulilan’s fiesta. Soon they were being invited to perform in different functions around and beyond Bulacan. Presently, the band has about thirty members, including some of Mang Ato’s sons and grandsons.
Mang Ato hoped that his band will carry on after he dies and thanked God that he is able to live this long. Mostly likely, he is favored because of his continuous musical offering to the patron saint and his show of creativity.
In the adjacent town of Plaridel, the bamboo is put into more “mundane” use. Businesswoman Bella delos Santos oversees her workers and tries out new designs for her nascent bamboo craft business in her home in the barangay of Bintog. Her Bulacan Bamboo Crafts, now under the management of her daughter, is perhaps Bulacan’s only major bamboo craft business, and Delos Santos stumbled upon it by accident.
Having formally trained in food and nutrition, Delos Santos’s first and real business is bottling sardines and processing milkfish. Since 1985, she has been distributing El Negrense bottled sardines and milkfish products. During one of those trade fairs, she fashioned holders made of bamboo for her bottled sardines for exhibition. However, more people took a fancy on the holders, wanting to purchase them and ordering for more.
On August 2005, without any training on making bamboo products, she tried out the bamboo business. For inspiration, she would look around shops for household items and try to render them using bamboo. She and her workers design the items themselves. Fortunately, her six workers, farm wormers coming from Bago City in Negros, are adept in working with bamboo. Meanwhile, her fish processing business is put on hold because there is a problem in the supply of the fishes.
She is now beefing up her catalogue of bamboo products, which include towel holders, letter holders, vases, trays, frames and religious decorations, wine holders and candle holders. The religious and decorative items are popular, especially with the balikbayans, she said. These products, framed to hang and stand-alone as knickknacks, have figures made of volcanic ash which Delos Santos purchased from Pampanga, and she would have them set in bamboo frames or pedestals. She gets her supply of bamboo from all over Bulacan, particularly from Santa Maria, Norzagaray and Bocaue, and beyond.
She held to us a new product one of her workers just created: a tray with a set of candle holders. It adds beautifully to her line of trays and vases, which are accented with colored abaca ropes. Nearby, there was a diminutive set of tables and chairs. They are now going into larger products. The chair looked so small that it could have been a child’s toy but it is sturdy enough to support an adult.
Right now, she exports about 4,000 barbecue sticks to Italy monthly and is still testing the market here. She said she is not going full throttle yet and has not invested heavily in it. When she does, she hopes to enjoin her community in this venture.
In another part of Plaridel, one sees little huts of bamboo and coconut leaves for sale along the road. These are the ones that have been popularly used in beer joints, Filipino-themed restaurants, low-end resorts and home gardens.
In the barangay of Agnaya, twenty-three-year-old Marlyn Cayabyab said her family is into making bamboo huts and other bamboo products as long as she remembers. Her father Dionisio makes and supervises the production of the huts, while her mother Edubiges makes papag (bamboo cots) and chairs. Marlyn designs the huts. She pointed out the flower designs made of colored strips of bamboo on the sides of the huts.
There were a few huts lined along the road. The ordinary hut, with a floor area of six feet by six feet, costs P15,000, while the larger one, called de-kuwarto, or “with room”, and measuring six feet by twelve feet, costs P22,000. At the end of the line of huts was their shop, a ramshackle affair, where in and around workers cut and strip pieces of bamboo. Most of their supply of bamboo comes from Pangasinan, their home province. The Cayabyab family hails from San Carlos, which has a thriving bamboo industry. Marlyn said that most of the families making these huts are from Pangasinan. She had no idea why they found themselves in Bulacan. They were looking for opportunities, she guessed.
The most traditional and perhaps the oldest use of bamboo in Bulacan is in making singkaban. The acknowledged master of this folk craft is 83-year-old Francisco Eligio, popularly called Mang Kiko. His decorative arches adorned the entrances to the capitol grounds and the façade of the capitol building during the festival. All made from bamboo, the arches were amazingly ornate and dainty-looking, almost like embroidered lace. Pillars of bamboo sprouted plumes and embellished with bamboo flowers, each “petal” having flourishes. Around the structure, fans of bamboo strips sieved the sunlight, casting delicate and intricate shadows.
Mang Kiko’s arches have adorned many fiesta-celebrating towns in Bulacan as well as in other parts of the country. The actor-politician Bong Revilla and actress Lani Mercado ordered arches from him for their prominent wedding. His works have also been brought abroad whenever a Philippine delegation is sent to international expositions, exhibits and celebrations.
Aside from arches, he also makes sukobs or canopies for Santacruzans and floats for parades. Of recent, he makes Christmas lanterns and Christmas trees, all from bamboo and all with the trademark bulakaykays. The bulakaykay is the flourish or flowerlike set of plumes made from shaving the outer skin of the bamboo. Mang Kiko swore that his bulakaylays are delicate and pliant, setting him apart from other singkaban makers.
He learned the craft from his father Tata Polo, also a known singkaban maker. But it was not until he was forty-year-old and after stints as carpenter that he went into singkaban making full-time. Now, in his home in Santa Monica in the southwestern town of Hagonoy, he and a few workers make singkaban and different items. Some shave off a bamboo pole to make bulakaykay. Others work on making bamboo flowers. Mang Kiko does all the designing, rendering them first on paper, especially for newer items. The Christmas tree he designed with a set of bamboo flowers, bristling with plumes and diminishing in side. These are stuck into a pole until they form the familiar conoidal shape of a Christmas three. Now, he was making a design that will adorn a gown. We saw his drawing, a gown with a large collar made of his familiar bamboo plumes. Now, his age-old craft is being molded for modern ventures.
Here, it seems that the oldest craft prove to be the most beautiful, but is in danger of disappearing. Here, the bamboo is used in new and old ways, and used to symbolized new things like the new Bulakenyo. I wondered if there is really something new to the list of traits of the new Bulakenyo and if the old one does not possess them. I wondered about the old Bulakenyo, and thought that many old ways are still wonderful like the singkaban itself.

Contact Information
Mang Kiko Singkaban and Buntings Maker is at 228, Purok 6, Santa Monica, Hagonoy, Bulacan, with mobile phone number 0906-40087701.
Bulacan Bamboo Craft is at 266 General Alejo Santos Road, Bintog, Plaridel, Bulacan, with telefax number (44) 795-3398, mobile phone number 0928-4676180 and email address
The Bulacan provincial government offices are at the Provincial Capitol Compound, Malolos City, Bulacan, with telephone trunk line number +63 (44) 791-1604. The Provincial Youth, Sports, Employment, Arts and Culture Office can be contacted through telephone number +63 (44) 662-8558. The Provincial Public Affairs Office can be contacted through telephone number +63 (44) 791-5140 and email address Log on to Bulacan’s official Web site at

Published in The Daily Tribune, Sept. 24, 2007, page 12.