The Philippines has only two seasons: dry and wet. Dry season is the best time to visit because there’s more sun and less typhoons. It ends around April or May. The rainy season usually begins in June and lasts until September or October. I did not choose the best time to visit.
But I’ve been lucky. In general the rain has been kept to a minimum and when heavy storms did strike Manila I was traveling to Cebu or Davao, conveniently avoiding the torrents of rain. However, I arrived back in Manila on Sunday and every day since I have seen rain clouds, watched streaming droplets inch down the car window and opened my rainbow umbrella before stepping out of the house. Quite frankly there are many places in the world that are experiencing drought and someone needs to tell these rain clouds to pack up and leave town. Let’s check Weather.com:
I later learned that this persistant precipitation had a name. Tropical storm Juaning hit Legazpi City, Albay area earlier this week and has already taken 41 lives. Landslides, floods, and falling trees forced many family into evacuation centers while others were trapped in their homes due to the speed of the flood level rise. The Manila Bulletin places the damage caused by the storm at P 199,400,000 or USD $4,722,092; the majority of the loss coming from damaged agricultural crops such as rice and corn. For people with so little, destruction to their livelihood is especially devastating. The storm made international news and videos of flooding were broadcast on CNN.
By the time the storm reached Metro Manila, it was weaker and posed less of the threat. For me, it meant bringing an umbrella and sitting in near stopped traffic for two hours but for others it meant the loss of their belongings, their homes and, in some cases, their lives. A humbling thought to say the least.
“H.R. 2584, with its deep cuts in important environmental and natural resource programs and amazing array of special interest riders and funding limitations, falls far short of meeting our responsibilities to protect and wisely use the resources of the earth.”
-Congressman Jim Moran, 8th District of Virginia
I am a proud American whether I’m home in New York, at school in Pennsylvania or traveling in the Philippines. When I read about a new bill bound for the House of Representatives, I was shocked and upset. H.R. 2584 is an appropriations bill “for the Department of the Interior, environment, and related agencies for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2012, and for other purposes.”1
The bill will prevent the Endangered Species Act from adding any new species to the list. It will remove funding for and protection of grey wolves and big horn sheep. Furthermore, the bill prevents the EPA from using funding to ” modify, cancel, or suspend the registration of a pesticide… in response to a final biological opinion or other written statement” about the harmful effects of the pesticide on an endangered species or its surrounding habitat. It will open up one millions arces around the Grand Canyon for mining!
But maybe animals aren’t very important. What about humans? The bill also adds a number of riders that would actually increase environmental health hazards for American citizens. The EPA’s current proposed Mercury and Air Toxins for power plants will be further delayed. The EPA’s appropriated funds cannot be used to increase water quality in Florida or modify the current ambient air quality standard, directly affecting public health. Our health. Cleaning up a river filled with toxins or dealing with sickness caused from air pollution is much more costly than monitoring and regulating the pollution in the first place. The pre-cautionary principle not only saves money but saves lives. And most of these riders do not even reduce the overall budget.
John Walke, in his commentary as a NRDC staff, writes, “Among other things, the Lummis amendment would weaken the Clean Air Act by blocking forthcoming protections to sharply cut mercury and toxic air pollution like arsenic and lead from power plants that burn coal and oil.”2
Congresmen Jim Moran’s press release voiced his frustrations with the bill as Ranking Member on the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee. “The list of legislative riders and funding limitations in the bill is long: NEPA waivers, limitations on judicial review, and the blocking of pollution controls. Whole legislative texts have been dumped into this bill. These riders and limitations have nothing to do with deficit reduction and everything to do with carrying out an extreme ideological agenda.”3
The United States of America needs to lead to fight against environmental hazards that threaten our fellow humans and the natural world. When will the US realize large-scale mining, lax air pollution regulations, and destruction of biodiversity are things of the past? Say NO to H.R. 2584.
I’m not a picky eater. There are foods I don’t particularly enjoy and I remember as a small girl, squishing the lima beans into my plate to avoid eating the mountain of light green mush. But I’ll always try something once. This quality was tested multiple times starting about a week ago with a favorite Filipino delicacy which also happened to reach Number 1 on The 6 Most Terrifying Foods in the World. I’ll give you a couple seconds to google it…
Balut (blog on how it’s cooked) is a fertilized duck egg that is hardboiled and eaten, usually with vinegar/chili sauce. It is sold at night by street vendors because no one wants to see the baby duck before it’s ingested. I don’t blame them. But I’d been in the country almost 8 weeks, looked more tan than some of my friends, and said Magandang umaga po to my driver every morning. There was only one food between me and my newly-hatched Filipina self. My friend ordered two eggs and, with more than a slight nudge, I cracked the egg on the table and began to peel away at the shell. I squeezed some vinegar into the opening and following my friend’s lead, I tilted my heads back and sipped the juice.
I peeled away more of the shell and took a big bite. I was lucky (lucky as someone can be) since my egg was only about 15 or 16 days old so the feathers and beak were not fully formed. The taste was strong but not terrible. It was concentrated taste of poultry and egg squished into one. Unfortunately, I took another bite and got the white part of the egg that is referred to as the “stone.” It’s hard, very hard, like eating plastic cartilage. That would be my second and last mouthful.
Fast forward to an overnight with Viv and her friends from high school. On our way to our destination near Antipolo we stopped in a restaurant known for beautiful artwork and exotic food. Since no one wanted to buy we painting, we ordered crickets. Not as gross as they sound. Small, friend and crispy, “just like eating popcorn.” Later in the day we returned to town to buy chicken intestines coiled on thin wooden sticks and BBQ’ed. Also not my favorite but people were buying them in sets of 10 or 20.
And finally Puerto Princesa, Palawan for the last dish. This delicacy snuck up on me after I had finished my buffet lunch and was basking in the beautiful ocean view. Nadine, my tour guide for the time, told me a woman was selling tamilok and I had to try some. “What is it?” I asked. “Wood worms,” she replied and smiled. “They grow inside mangrove trees.”
Well once someone eats a duck fetus everything else is pretty much fair game. The worms were about 2 to 3 inches long and seemed to be boiled in their own juices. I dipped one in calamancie(like key limes) juice with chilis and popped it in my mouth. It was chewy and slimy but had very little flavor. Nadine said she thought they tasted like oysters but I don’t know if I agree. Anyway, I ate 3 or 4 before calling it quits.
And here is the surprising part, I feel great. Granted, none of these foods I would order off a menu or ask my mom to cook but everything was close enough to food that I could handle the look, smell and taste. For short periods of time.
At Bucknell last semester, I researched the devastating effects of dynamite fishing on the marine life in the Philippines. Local fishermen use homemade explosives to kill the fish and scoop them out of the water. While the method is initially effective, blast fishing permanently destroys the coral and plant life. Decades of slow coral growth gone in seconds.
In Lewisburg, Pennsylvania the experience was academic and abstract. About 30 meters off the coast of Bantayan Island, the experience was directly in front of my fogged mask. We started snorkeling where the coral and marine life was still intact, taking the underwater camera down with us. Thick forests of blue coral appeared out of the water beneath my fins. Eager clownfish ventured out of their sea anemone homes to welcome us into their liquid world. I swam toward Carlie and turned around to see a giant jellyfish floating by- a dangerous ethereal orb.
We snorkeled at another location before moving toward shore. I noticed the coral and large fish begin to disappear. The coral forests looked as if they had been deforested by small underwater loggers. The starfish we found were exposed in their barren landscape. If this had been my first snorkeling experience, I wouldn’t have missed the fish and plant life. But after seeing such beauty minutes before, I felt robbed by past explosions caused by faceless fishermen.
The importance of the School of the SEA has never been clearer. Each marine protected area (MPA) the team organizes helps to protect and regrow this underwater paradise. The environment is something worth protecting today and everyday, yet my mind returns to small fishing communities using blasting as a last resort. Are homemade bombs the only option? Is it right for environmentalists to protect the natural environment at the risk of others profits? Is it our duty to provide alternative livelihoods for these people or focus on the coral we fight to save?
There are no clear answers. The only thing I have found consistent throughout my time in the Philippines has been the relationship between human activity and the natural world. Our every action sets off a ripple that extends far beyond our limited knowledge of Earth yet our lack of answers is no excuse for inaction or the future will come too soon.
It’s amazing how quickly one’s sleep schedule adjusts to the cycle of the sun and the sound of the tide. By the second or third day of my short stay, I was waking up at 5:30am as the sun’s rays peaked through the window shade above my head. In the evening, after the sun had set, my eyelids began to droop and I was never in bed much later than 10:00pm. Each day felt long and full, the way I imagined people felt long before electricity and flashing neon signs.
The School of the SEAs has a large fishing boat that we took out on Wednesday, my first full day. We had a wonderful meal with grilled fish, kinilaw (raw fish in vinegar and onions), pork, seaweed and rice. I ate with my hands along with the rest of the crew, feeling each grain of rice and small fish bone in my palm. My hand formed a personal connection with the food before it reached my tongue, an intimate exercise different from the use of a knife and fork. We spend the rest of the time snorkeling around the boat before returning to shore.
I woke up early on Thursday morning, and by 6:30am I was out on the beach walking the white sandy shore. I took my journal along with me and sat down to write about the past couple of days while enjoying the warmth from the sun. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed movement and turned see a middle-aged Caucasian man walking toward our hut. I called to him and asked if he needed anything. He walked over and introduced himself. He was staying at a resort not far away and looking to lease property on the island. His accent sounded familiar. “Where are you from?” I asked him. “Denmark. Copenhagen” he replied and I couldn’t help but smile. “Hvordan går det?” I asked in the best Danish accent I could muster.
For those of you who don’t know, I spend Fall semester 2010 in Copenhagen studying Sustainability in Europe (see old posts). The culture, the language, the people fascinated me and I fell in love with the small Scandinavian country. And so, as I sat on the beach of a small island off the northern tip of Cebu in the Philippines, I was struck by the beautiful circularity of life in the form of a lone Danish man who happened to be walking down the sand that morning. Coincidence? Perhaps. But in the moment, there was nowhere else in the world I wanted to be.
On Friday, Carlie and I traveled into the main town. We went past Santa Fe, our municipality, all the way to Bantayan about 20 minutes away. When we arrived, the wet market was still open and I saw varieties of fish, clams, and even small sharks for sale. For lunch, we stopped at a cafeteria that served 8 to 10 different dishes. That is, 8 to 10 varieties of pork. Anna’s brother likes to say that if Filipinos could eat the soul of a pig, they would. I said a quick prayer for all the vegetarians in the world before I sat down for my meal.
After lunch we had to make one more stop before returning home but a tricycle was nowhere to be found. Tricycles here are motorcycles with a giant wooden carrier attached capable of holding up to 6 or 8 people. The heat of the sun was unrelenting and we paused to sweat when a motorcycle stopped next to us. Carlie and the driver exchanged pleasantries while I smiled and nodded as if I understood the conversation. Before I knew it, I was holding on to Carlie’s waist as the three of us flew down the road on the Angelo’s bike. Apparently, riding on the back of someone else’s motorcycle is a common form of public transportation, especially the provinces. (Don’t worry Mom, I’m writing this post with all limbs attached).
When we returned to the camp, dinner was not yet ready so Carlie and I walked to the resort nearby and ordered one San Miguel each. We sipped slowly and watched the small sand crabs scurry across the shore and into the shadows. I thought about the fish and rice that would be waiting for us next door and couldn’t help but smile in the evening air.
My trip to Bantayan was memorable to say the least. I began my travel at 8am from Stu’s house in Boljoon and arrived at the School of the SEAs in Bantayan around 3:30pm. In the over 7 hour commute I learned a few very valuable lessons.
From the bus station in Cebu City, my overstuffed suitcase was whisked away onto the nearest bus. I followed along after it, paying the man 20 pesos when he looked at me expectantly. This would become a common theme of the trip. Lesson 1: Travel light.
On the bus, I sat down across from a man wearing a USA t-shirt and tried to start a conversation. I quickly learned that just because someone is wearing a USA shirt, does not mean that person is an America. The conversation was short to say the least. When the bus person came to collect my bus ticket, my smallest bill was P10o0 for a P108 bus ticket fair. I thought about explaining I had just taken money from an ATM but “Typical Rich Foreigner” was already stamped on my forehead. He told me I would get change at the end of the trip but I worried all the way to the bus rest stop. At which time, I took it upon myself to get change for Php1000…by buying approx. Php200 worth of bread. The conversation went like this:
Me: “Hi. So I really need change, and the bus might leave soon. And I’m kind of hungry so I need to buy some bread. How about P100? Or P200? Because I only have a P1000. Is that ok? Can I buy some rolls?
Confused Bakery Woman: “Umm (giggle) I can give change.”
Me: “Really? Ok great. So I’ll take one of those and two of those. And, are those good? Wait, doesn’t matter it looks like chocolate. Give me two of those. How much is that?”
CBW: “About P35.”
Me: “Ok, I’m gonna need a lot of more…”
At the end of the conversation, I ended up with 7 kinds of bread pastries/rolls, 1 pineapple juice, and 1 banana. I hopped back on the bus beaming with my new small bills and presented them to the bus man. I’m sure he wondered about my large purchase but didn’t ask questions. Lesson 2: Always have small change.
My boss called and asked where I was. When I was unable to pronounce the current town name, I handed the phone to a scared 16 year old girl to correctly pronounce the name. It was largely unsuccessful but I communicated my ETA and took the next boat when I arrived at the port. As soon as I stepped off the bus, I glanced up to see another man running a suitcase, my suitcase, toward the ferry platform. 20 pesos.
I sat on the ferry, leaning protectively on my suitcase, when a young man approached me. “Are you staying in Bantayan for long?” he asked and smiled. I relaxed knowing he could not whisk away my suitcase, and started a conversation. I was then introduced to his 4 friends and found out all of them worked on the ferry. “It’s a one year commitment,” they explained “We have to spend the entire time on the boat waking up each day about 2 or 3 in the morning. Hopefully, when we’re all done we can get good jobs on large international ships.” Tough life. Just some of the amazing people I have met in this country. Lesson 3: Make friends whenever possible.
When I got off the ferry, my bag was gone again, placed on the back of a bicycle and ready to go. 20 pesos. And so, when I finally arrived at the School of the SEAs, I had stories to tell. Many of the people I had not met before but I launched into my adventure anyway acting out the taking of my bag, the bus passengers, the ferry men and more. The people, complete strangers at the time, laughed and laughed while they munched on their bread rolls and stared at the excited, rain-soaked newcomer. Did I mention it had begun to rain?
Lesson 4: When you have a story to tell, always bring food. That way even if your story is uninteresting, at least your listeners have something to eat.
My week at Granada Beach Resort was better than I could have possibly imagined. After the first dive, Stu and I went on four more over the next couple of days. Each time we strapped our gear on and swam down the sea wall, fish and corals I had never seen before appeared in front of my mask. No dive was the same. Whenever I tilted my head back and peered up at the sun’s rays, the surface seemed so far away. By the 5th dive I could set up and take down all the equipment by myself. I remembered to equalize the pressure in my ears during the descent and breathe with a slow even rhythm. But I never did get used to the beauty under the surface of the water.
Today, Anne’s niece and husband’s family came over for food and a swim in the pool. The husband and family are from Laguna Beach, California but come back for a month or so every year to the Philippines. It was nice to see some fellow Americans on lovely Independence Day. Happy Fourth of July! While everyone was sitting by the pool and drinking some San Miguel’s, I slipped away down to the beach to snorkel one last time. The day had been hot and humid so the ocean water felt cool on my skin.
I swam, or floated, for about 30 minutes before moving back toward shore. The coral under my feet changed back into sand and sea grass. I turned around one last time to see the reef before moving toward land. Out of the corner of my eye, the large green shell and fins waving slowly in the blue water. It was the biggest sea turtle I had ever seen.
The shell was about 2 feet long and blended perfectly with the murky grass. I would have missed the animal completely if it hadn’t decided to come up for air. As the turtle’s giant body moved toward the surface we breathed in unison, making eye contact just above the surface of the water. It was beautiful. Stu knows of a couple turtles in the area, he later told me. I said I would name the turtle Katelyn and he let me.
Just like Atty. Oposa said, appreciation is everything. How can people expect to love and care for beauty they have never seen? Tomorrow I’ll be on my way to Bantayan Island to visit the field station of LNF and the School of the SEAs. Excited to see the field station but sad to end such a great week.
It’s turtles like these that remind you why the world is worth saving.
The first day of my internship with LNF, Atty. Oposa informed me that I needed to learn how to SCUBA dive. ASAP. There are local fishing villages, he said, who upon seeing the coral reefs and marine life below the surface of the water realized the tragedy of devastation caused by dynamic and cyanide fishing. Scuba diving would be my way to see the environment I would be fighting to protect.
So I contacted Stu (see earlier post) and weeks later I arrived in Granada near Boljoon on the island of Cebu. Their property consists of their main house and the resort–a beautiful property built on a mountain with steps down to the resort pool, other buildings, and the beach front. I arrived at night and in the darkness I could just barely make out the mountains and the sea.
In the morning, I opened my eyes and thought I had gone to warm, tropical heaven. The windows in my room opened out onto rolling green hills with palm trees, song birds and pink flowers. I walked downstairs, through the open living room and kitchen to the veranda for breakfast. The giant papayas were picked from the trees along the house and the taste was sweet and delicious.
I jumped into my swimsuit and grabbed my mask before making my way down to the resort’s pool for my first diving lesson. Down and to my left was the ocean, eggshell blue melting into navy and sparkling in the morning light. I stopped multiple times to gaze through the tree branches toward the islands dotting the near horizon. Small fishing boats moved through the water and men with wide brimmed hats paddled or motored with the hopes of the day’s catch. This is where I will learn to dive, I thought. Life could be worse.
I spent almost two hours that morning learning the basics of diving. I tried on the bulky equipment and practiced breathing underwater with the regulator, BDC and tank. I felt like a fish–a big, unbalanced, awkward fish–and clearing my mask took a number of times before I felt comfortable removing my mask and clearing it using air from my nose. I listened to Stu’s instructions and tried to replicate them as my mind wandered to the memories my father had of diving with Stu long ago. I was swimming in my father’s wake with the same man by my side.
Hours later, after lunch and a cup of coffee, Stu and I were floating in the sea with our gear on ready to go for a dive. A real dive for the first time ever. I put the regulator in my mouth and took a few breaths. Don’t freak out, I told myself, What’s so scary about breathing under 30 feet of water for 45 minutes? Stu gave me the OK sign and we began to let the air out of our BCD’s, sinking slowly beneath the surface. I kicked my fins behind me and told myself to breathe.
Sea life appeared beneath my body and in front of my mask almost instantly. Black and white stripped fish danced between hard pink coral branches and long blue arms of sea stars hung onto the rock walls. I left like Alice falling into Wonderland and Neil Armstrong exploring the moon. There were creatures I had never seen before, organisms I could not create in my mind and there they were, living life as they had for generations. It was a sight to behold.