A “Journey” To Remember

There is a machine that is found everywhere in the Philippines: in high-rise apartments, along streets in red light districts and located inside small bamboo huts in the most remote Filipino villages. It is accompanied by family members, recent acquaintances, and even strippers in the major cities. In the words of Lady Gaga’s mom, “We are all born superstars,” and this machine allows those words of wisdom to come true. This machine, my friends, is called a Karaoke machine.

My first experience was at a councilor’s house in Samal just a day after I had arrived. The members of the coral restoration project and I were talking and drinking iced tea, discussing the day’s events.  Dun Dun, one of the men responsible for community outreach and education, walked over to a pavilion in the middle of the property and began belting out tunes one after another. The group joined him and someone informed me that if I really wanted to be Filipino, I had to sing karaoke. Nevermind that I just met these people about 24 hours prior and I don’t like listening to my own voice. Before I knew it,  I was sitting, wide-eyed with a microphone in hand and the lyrics of Don’t Stop Believing appearing on the screen in front of me.

Karaoke Hut

I sounded awful and laughed the whole time. “Sing more,” they chanted and we each did a number of songs before loading up in the truck and driving home. I shocked to see (and hear) other karaoke machines in the homes we visited over the next couple days. Bars and small shacks surrounded by weeds and mud had fully functioning televisions and microphones for use anytime of the day or night

Private Room (TV not shown)My second experience was in Davao City in a private rented karaoke room. After leaving Samal Island, Viv and I stayed two nights in Gene’s house (the same woman who owned the rest house in Samal) and got to see the city with her wonderful daughter Maiki. On our first night, we met Maiki’s cousins and ended up at a small pizza place with a large private room consisting of a bar area, couches and you guessed it…a kareoke machine. We spent the entire evening eating taco pizza, ordering beer, and singing to our hearts’ content. Sing if you’re sober. Sing if you’re drunk. Sing if you have a terrible voice. Sing sing sing. It was fabulous. 

In Metro Manila, particularly near Manila Bay, there are numbers of signs advertising KTV or Karaoke Television. I’ve heard that many of these place have live strippers coupled with televisions and microphones. For the tame, there are family KTVs for more wholesome song singing. Karaoke for everyone.

I’m getting used to having near strangers join me in love ballads, Spice Girl classics, and Jackson 5 favorites. To anyone who hasn’t traveled to the Philippines before: drink some warm tea, warm up the vocal chords and take a deep breath. A microphone and TV is closer than you think.

Maiki, Me, Viv, Viv's friend Miko

Island Adventure: Samal Edition

View from the house

The wonderful world of Wi-Fi does not extend to the far reaches of Samal Island, beneath the canopy of palm trees and bamboo walls that softly muffle the sound of the laughing ocean waves. Too poetic? Perhaps. My week-long exposure to community outreach and reef restoration was fundamental in both the research of my undergraduate thesis and my growing love of the Philippines . [Warning: this post is filled with pictures.]

Main House


The main goal: save the beautiful underwater habitats while providing the local fishermen with legal and safe ways to make money and fish. The project was titled The CORAL Project: COral, Restoration, Awareness, and Livelihoods. The mastermind behind the combination of Marine Protected Areas and a functioning sea cucumber ranch was Bonar Laureto, the former executive of the Law of Nature Foundation before (my boss and friend) Viv took over the position. Viv and I, along with a small team, stayed at the lovely rest house of Ma’m Jean and every member welcomed the confused American girl with open arms and wide smiles.

The Crew minus Bonar and Sherwin

Excluding Viv and I, there were five main members and a range of incredible volunteers. Before every community meeting I was warmly introduced as we traveled to different villages, talking to local fisherman and explaining our project.Russ would translate for me while I videotaped the conversations. One man showed us three fish: his entire catch after being out at sea for 9 hours. I tasted tuba for the first time-homemade coconut wine that accompanied every community discussion. I saw young children playing in their father’s arms while the men explained how the lack of fish takes a toll on their families.


Community gathering


Too many stories to count. There was the dance lessons I received from the local woman in the Tagbaobo community and tasting incredible fish ginger soup.

There was the hour and a half commute down the steepest, bumpiest unpaved roads I’ve ever seen, at night, in drizzle,seated in the back of a covered pickup truck. And there was snorkeling just off the coast of our house surrounded by sea snakes, brain coral, and clownfish swimming in every direction.

Viv and I in the truck

I could go on and on about the incredible people I met: the dedication, hope, and resilience found in community leaders, volunteers, and fishermen alike . I seem to have the same number of memories as I do bug bites but can only begin to scratch the surface of their deeper meaning.

Meaning of the memories. I figured out the bug bites pretty quick.

Fishermen on the ocean


One Month Four Islands

Yes, Andy Pascual, I have experienced the Filipino full body massage at The Spa and I will never go back. For P1200 I went to the sauna, pool, Jacuzzi and received an hour and 15 minutes of magic.  The room was dimly lit by wall sconces and candles while the smell of mint and lemon wafted through the air. I had hot oils massaged into my back, arms, legs and stomach while I drifted in and out of consciousness. My new Filipino friend, Nads, and I were fully relaxed and disoriented by the time we emerged into the bustling Marikina City traffic and light drizzle. I wanted to fully prepare my body for a month long vacation from the city I’ve started to call home.

Giant Fish at The Spa

In 9 hours, I will be boarding a plane bound for Davao- a city located in Mindanao about two hours south of Manila. It’s time for the some travel. The itinerary:

1. Samal Island– Coral Reef Reconstruction

2. Boljoon, Cebu- Meet the famous Stu and become a certified SCUBA diver

3. Bohol– Find some tarsiers, chocolate hills, and fun in the sun.

4. Bantayan Island– Research for Atty. Oposa’s upcoming book, research for my thesis, work in the School of the SEAs

So as of now I will not return to the Philippine capital for an entire month. Fortunately by the power invested in Wi-Fi, I will continue to upload pictures and post blogs. I have waited four weeks to see a Filipino beach, white sand beaches, and crystal blue water. I want a healthy cancer-free tan, a dive certification and a greater appreciation for a country I’ve grown to love.

Bantayan Island Sunset May 16, 2011

Fellow readers, if you have a chance,go to the Philippines for a massage and spa treatment. Cheap and incredible. What’s so wrong with being a diva anyway?

Spotted: Little Pink at the Gym

Which of these choices is incorrect:

I went to the gym and _______.

1) worked out because I’m finally starting to lose weight.

2) heard a body combat class punching and kicking to the Hairspray soundtrack

3) saw a white person in the gym.

The correct answer is, of course, Number 1. ( I mean honestly, I eat fried meat and halo-halo on a regular basis. Let’s get real.)

As I was finishing my work out, humming Hairspray as I wiped the sweat from my brow, I did a double-take of something that seemed strangely familiar but somehow out of the ordinary. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it was a Caucasian male. A male wearing a pink polo and doing crunches. It took all my effort not to stop in my tracks and stare…very long.

Which brings me to my point. Why would someone work out in a pink polo? Jokes lang.

As young college Americans travel and study abroad, they are immersed in new sights and sounds. Common phrases include, “They don’t have ____ in America” or “Why don’t Americans drink ____ ?(usually a delicious yet inexpensive alcohol)” Other than the food, the culture and the traditions, America students are amazed by the homogenous body that makes up a number of countries in the world. India, China, Japan, Guatemala, Denmark. The streets and coffee shops are seas of similar stature, hair color, and facial structure. The Philippines is no exception. Anyone Caucasian, African, or blond for that matter stands out like a sore thumb.

And that is one thing that makes me so proud of America. We have racism, sexism, and the other kinds of bad -isms out there. However, we are the definition of a cultural melting pot–comprised of every language, religion and skin color. This is something special, something unique to our country and I believe our multi-cultural exposure can be an advantage if we let it. You look different from me? So what. Americans are lucky to grow up in a jambalaya of ethnicities and we should embrace the opportunity to accept one another on the basis of humanity.

You knew you could gain so much intellectual insight from a polo-wearing Caucasian sweating under the glare of his fit Filipino trainer?

Cute kid buying snacks from one of many local stores.

Blast from the Past Revisited

Tomorrow I will begin Week #4 in the Philippines. As my host dad likes to exclaim, “Holy Cow!”

I arrived back in Manila last night, exhausted and honored to be part of the first ever Road Revolution. There is nothing like seeing a multi-lane road, usually congested with air pollution and traffic, filled with longboarders, families biking and runners streaming past in flocks. I was amazed by the turnout and support of the thousands of petition signers and various organizations. And here I am at Week 4. The last time I arrived in Manila airport was a Tuesday in May, time zones away from the US, I thought as I munched dried mango slices on my way to the airport. What do they say about time flying?

But the theme about time moving and catching up with us doesn’t just apply to my trip to Cebu. It also applied to my father and his recent discovery of an old acquaintance. That is the way it is with parents. Moments before you label your father’s travel stories as crazy and far-fetched, something happens that forces you to reconsider.

When my father traveled to Cebu as a young man, he met a man named Stu Gould. Stu was a diver like my father and the two of them enjoyed many fond memories on the beaches of the Philippines. When I told my parents I would be spending a week in Cebu, he googled “Stu Gould” and e-mailed a man with the same name, who currently owned a resort in a similar place to where they had met. My father wrote about the Stu he knew, how he collected tropical fish, was an ex British Diver and had (at the time) been living in Cebu for a short while.

“We lived in a small cabin on the water, dove a lot, almost lost a young British Diver and had to ship him up to Subic for decompression and took a ride down to Mindano to look at a gold mine.” my father wrote. “If this the Stu Gould, how the heck are you.”

Was this new Stu Gould, the mystery man of the past? I was skeptical at best. My father would probably see my eyes rolling from across the ocean. That was years ago. It’s impossible. I’ll be believe it when I see it. 

And I did see it, in the form of a response e-mail the same day:

“Hi Ken! Long time no hear! Yes it is I Stu Gould,” it read followed by a nice description of the last 30+ years detailing Stu’s return to the UK, birth of his 4 kids, and decision to build and run the Granada Beach Resort now 100 km south of Cebu. He personally invited me to take dive lessons and spend time at the resort during my travels throughout the Philippines. Go figure.

 Lesson: The next time your father tells you he may have recovered a long lost British diving friend from the small island of Cebu in the Philippine archipelago, just believe it. He’s probably telling the truth.

Car-less Osmena Boulevard

Road Revolution: Cebu City, Philippines

Road Revolution- roadrevolution.ph

Cebu City is located a little over an hour south of Manila by plane. As soon as we landed, I checked into my room and rushed with Atty. Oposa to the press conference. Different members from TV and radio stations were present, weaving between one another in the small room of the Casino Espanol. On the panel was Atty. Oposa who gave the main presentation followed by members of 350.org, youth leaders, and other main organizers of the event. I sat in the back and smiled, hoping no one would try to ask me something in Cebuano.

Presentation at Dept. of Education for Students
Presentation at Dept. of Education for Students

The rest of the day was packed. We made our first stop along Osmena Boulevard, the street that would be closed down on Sunday June 12th. Next, we traveled to a trade school and saw the making of the Renewable Energy train (RE Train) that runs exclusively on petal, solar and wind power. We spoke on air at three different radio programs to explain the Road Revolution and encourage citizens of Cebu City to come support the cause. On the last program, an FM station, I was able to introduce and explain the event in English…the only language I know. I got back to my room around 10pm, throughly exhausted and content with the day’s work.

Me and Brian at the radio station DYRF

It is amazing how quickly the people here switch between their native language and English to communicate. The language spoken in Manila by the general public and my host family is not the same language spoken here in Cebu. People in Manila speak the national language, Tagolog, while the people in Cebu speak Cebuano- a variety of Basaya the language in the middle region of the Philippines. The majority of the vocabulary is different and I had to re learn basic phrases like “How are you?” and “Good night.” By relearn, I mean promptly forget spelling and pronunciation as soon as they are uttered. I have yet to understand why Filipinos would decide to start words with ng. Don’t try to pronounce this at home, folks. Words like ngit ngit (dark) are strictly meant to be said by professionals.

Renewable Energy Train in the Workshop

The next day included another radio interview, a marriage proposal from a father whose son is a single doctor in Ohio, visits to three different grade schools, and my first ever jeepney ride. All in a day’s work. In two days, I have not only learned about what the Road Revolution is but explained it to small children, adults, and teachers all across Cebu City. It got me thinking. What are the future implication of this Road Revolution? We have collected over 6,500 signatures in effort to expand sidewalks, increase bike lanes, and introduce mass public transportation along with edible gardens. I’m amazed by the progressiveness of the idea, prevalent in a “developing country” no less. I’m surrounded by people with big ideas and deep convictions people dedicated to protecting and restoring our natural environmental in order to save humanity from itself. I just hope I can somehow prove myself amidst this group of intelligent, dedication stewards of our beautiful planet. One road at a time.


Internship: Law of Nature Foundation

Just as I was getting used to my new relaxed life in the Philippines, I was reminded of the real reason I spent a total of 17 hours in the air to fly half way across the world. No it was not their delicious desserts and ability to purchase rice at McDonald’s. It was the chance to intern at the Law of Nature Foundation and learn more about environmental law than I could have dreamed possible.

The office is located in Alabang, about an hour and 15 minutes south of Marikina City, sometimes more, with the infamous Filipino traffic. At most, the small two-room space on the 6th floor of the Westgate building consists of three people: the secretary Lisa, the young multitasking genius Vivienne, and the founder of the organization, Atty. Tony Oposa. While the office doesn’t seem impressive, don’t be fooled. Projects include: a sailing and environmental eduction school in Bantayan Island, one of the top vacation spots in the Philippines, a Road Revolution in Cebu city, a Global Action on Climate Change, ongoing legal battles, presentations to the Senate, and coral restoration all occurring at the same time.

It’s a lot to take in. Especially on a first day. Anna Oposa, Atty’s daughter, is extremely active in the organization too. She spoke at the Senate hearing on the illegal exportation of black sea corals and was quoted extensively on the front page of Philippines Daily Inquirer. By the end of my first week, I had already visited the Senate to speak with senators about the illegal black sea coral exports and met a director about a new bill. I received a personal invitation to the house of the Filipino president, a flight to Cebu to meet the masterminds behind the Road Revolution, and solidified plans to spend an entire month on Bantayan Island researching environmental economics for Oposa’s upcoming book.

I need a nap. But check out the Road Revolution. A petition is being signed to change Osmeña Boulevard, a major street in Cebu City, into a street focused on people. The proposed road will allocate 30% for sidewalks, 30% for bike lanes, 30% traffic, and 10% for edible gardens. It’s a mind revolution in the truest sense of the world. You can also read about it by blog and like it on Facebook!!

I’m perspiring just thinking about the next couple months. Oh wait, that’s the humidity.

Little side of rice at McDonalds