A Double Loss – Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines

Like most people, I dread getting phone calls in the middle of the night, for it usually means bad news – especially for me when it comes from overseas.  It happened on Sept. 23rd (our 10th wedding anniversary), when the news came that my brother Fred had passed away.

Fred had actually enjoyed an extended lease on life, receiving a kidney from our youngest sibling Joji in 1999.  He far outlived doctors’ expectations, surviving seventeen years with that “borrowed” kidney.  He lived a good life and was able to see his kids grow into adulthood and meet his only grandson, thanks to that life-saving operation.

Kidney donor and recepient
Sister Joji, mother and Fred during our 2008 family reunion

A few hours later on the 23rd another call came, this time telling me that my mother had been rushed to the ICU due to heart problems.  Right then I decided to immediately fly to the Philippines.  When I arrived and saw her condition in the hospital, all of the siblings made a decision to transfer her to another facility for better care.  During that transition, mom suffered a cardiac arrest, but amazingly survived it.  She still had a strong desire to live, asking for fried chicken and a cookie after her ordeal in the emergency room.

During the ensuing days in the ICU, her doctor informed us that her condition had deteriorated.  It was also at this time that the family had to be divided, some attending Fred’s funeral while I stayed with mom at the hospital.  She began expressing to me her last wishes, one of them to be taken back to our hometown of Moalboal, a difficult 3-hour, 89-kilometer (55-mile) drive from the city.  We were hesitant to do this, fearing she may not survive the trip.  So instead we transferred her to a private room where all of us could gather around her.

Mother was so proud of her longevity.  When the priest performed the last sacrament absolving her of all sins since birth, she blurted out that she was 97 and gave the family a good laugh.  We were saying our goodbyes and last words when she asked me to summon a nurse so her blood pressure could be checked – it was OK.  Then she directed us to take pictures of her surrounded by her family, for she loved family photos.

Mom continued insisting we take her back home, and although we thought she was a goner she continued prodding us.  We told her there were no ambulances or drivers to move her in the middle of the night.  We thought that would be her final night, but instead it became a time of tears, prayers and laughter.  Here was our dying mother directing us and still wielding her power over the family!

The following day was very stressful, as we still couldn’t locate an ambulance to move her. After several hours of brainstorming we finally arranged for our hometown’s ambulance to drive from Moalboal to the city, and then make the return trip to Moalboal.  By now mom was getting agitated and restless, really wanting to get home.

After an 8-hour wait for the ambulance we made the trip to Moalboal.  I rode with her and prayed she would survive the trip.  Indications were that she may not, but she hung in there and smiled when we arrived.  Two hours later she was sleeping comfortably and peacefully in her own bed.

The following morning, on Oct. 6th at 9:23am, she gracefully took her last breath surrounded by family and with all her wishes granted.

Mama Moning an exemplary public school teacher, lived a fulfilling and wonderful life.  Her greatest achievement was raising and educating twelve children by herself.  She was strong-willed and clung to life until the very end to be home with family.

Mama, we love you and thank you all for all the sacrifices and great things you have showered upon us, your children.  We are sad, but also happy at the same time knowing that you will now be with your husband in heaven.

We will miss Fred and Mama Moning.  They may be gone, but they’ll forever be in our hearts.




A glimpse of South Korea’s past and present – Seoul, South Korea

Before coming back to the reality of our life and adventures with friends here in the good ‘ol USA, I just had to sneak in one more quick post related to my trip to the Philippines that I thought was interesting.

My recent return flight to the states included an 11+ hour layover in Seoul, South Korea, and I feared I would be bored out of my mind sitting in the airport all that time.  Luckily I overheard other passengers talking about a free tour of the area outside the airport, and that really piqued my interest.

Incheon Airport
The items in this display at the airport are traditional Korean instruments used by farmers praying for a good harvest

I learned that Incheon International Airport provides a special service for transit passengers with layovers in excess of 3 hours.  There were six tours to choose from, and with plenty of time to kill, I selected the 5-hour Seoul Culture Tour.

Being in a foreign country, of course, I had to deal with immigration in and out of the airport.  What’s amazing is that even though this airport is one of the largest and busiest in the world, navigating the massive complex is easy and all of the workers speak English.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza
A quick pose in front of Dongdaemun Design Plaza

Our tour took us first to Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), the newest and most iconic landmark of the South Korean design industry.  DDP is the world’s largest atypical architecture project, so large that I couldn’t capture it in a single frame.  We walked under it and across its roof as we traversed to the restaurant for our lunch.  See the red “Migliore” sign in the picture below?  That was our first destination.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Staircase inside DDP

This building is a fashion hub and a popular tourist destination.  It features a walkable park on its roof, large global exhibition spaces, futuristic retail stores and restored parts of the Seoul fortress. Koreans come here to bargain and shop till they drop.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Dongdaemun Design Plaza spans 85,000 square meters (over a quarter-million square feet!)

After savoring an authentic Korean buffet, our next stop took us back to a time of kings and dynasties.  We headed out to Changdeokgung Palace – the second grand palace of the Joseon Dynasty – built in 1405 by King Taejong (the 3rd king of the Joseon Dynasty).  For 270 years, the palace was home to the Joseon government and was also the favored residence of many Joseon Dynasty kings.  Unlike other palaces, Changdeokgung Palace is well-preserved and still has many of its original features.  Between 1405 and its renovation in 1991, it had been destroyed by fire and painstakingly rebuilt several times.

Injeongjeon, the center of Changdeokgung Palace where national events took place

South Korean palaces cover a large surface area and are made up of many buildings.  These buildings are arranged with great sensitivity to the geographical features of the land.

Throne Hall inside Changdeok Palace
Inside the throne, hall is where coronations of kings and meetings with officials took place

A particular feature of Changdeokgung Palace is the way its buildings blend into the surrounding landscape.  It is considered the best-preserved of the Joseon Dynasty’s five palaces, and as such was designated a UNESCO world cultural heritage location in 1996.

Geumcheongyo (Bridge)
Geumcheongyo (Bridge)

Our tour guide mentioned that colors and designs in the buildings are full of meaning and purpose.  The main buildings of South Korean palaces feature “japsang”, which are small figurines of humans or animals displayed on the roof.  These figurines serve as both ornaments and guardians of the building.

Japsang Rooftop Figurines
Japsang rooftop figurines

Roof tiles are decorated with the dragon and the phoenix, symbols of the king.


Dancheong, which literally means “red and green”, refers to traditional five-element designs found on the walls, pillars and eaves of South Korean wooden buildings.

Changdeokgung Palace

All structures within the palace are painted with those colorful and vibrant combinations also believed to protect a building from evil spirits and emphasize the authority of its resident.


Given the limited time available, we did not see all of the buildings.  The tour guide was sensitive to our various departure times and only briefly described the historical facts and significance of the buildings within the palace complex.

Although the tour was short, it gave me a glimpse of the traditional homes and political seat of South Korea’s royalty.  It was also a good way to get a feel for the country’s culture.


It was about an hour from the airport to where we toured, so two hours were spent sitting on the bus, plus another hour for lunch.  That left me plenty of time back at the airport to avail myself of another service available to transit passengers, a nice shower at one of the lounges.  After that, I enjoyed a much-needed power nap before boarding the flight for my long flight back to the states.



Three weeks of festivities – Moalboal, Philippines

I survived the brutal heat and humidity during the three weeks I spent in Moalboal, my hometown on the island of Cebu in the Philippines.  Whew, summer in the Philippines is like living inside a broiler oven 24 hours a day, not to mention the ever-present humidity and stickiness on the skin.  But I endured it for the love of family, and to attend other festivities there – birthdays, reunions, a town fiesta and a wedding!

Celebrating my mother’s 97th birthday was every bit a good reason to return back home, even though Steve and I had visited her just a few months before.  The multi-day event began with a group of friends serenading her at dawn on her birthday, and continued with a tribute to her a few days later when everyone from abroad had arrived.

Monica Babiera Sandalo
The birthday girl at 97!

Many of you know I come from a family of twelve, me being the eleventh child.  My dad passed away in 1969 and my mom was left behind to support and send all of us to school on her meager salary as a public school teacher.  She has always been the glue that holds us all together, and I have to say she is one amazing woman.

Em Mo Sandalo Family
It was cheaper by the dozen then, and my parents produced an equal number of boys and girls! That cute girl striking a pose in the front row is me

During all of these subsequent years my family has multiplied and lived in different parts of the Philippines and other countries.  We always look forward to big family gatherings and re-connecting again, along with getting to know new additions to the family tree.  We dubbed this family event the Em Mo Sandalo family reunion, Emiliano being my dad’s first name and Monica my mom’s.

The amazing mother with “only” nine of her brood (three could not attend), 54 years after that first family picture was taken

The descendants of the Emiliano and Monica family tree have continued growing, as shown in the group picture below.  About a third of the family could not attend this gathering:

The Sandalo' today
My family by the numbers: from the original twelve there are 28 grandchildren, 30 great grandchildren and 3 great great grandchildren

A family this size required a two-day family event – one day at the beach which the second generation sponsored, and a second gathering at the ancestral home sponsored by the grandchildren.

Despite the sweltering heat, the beach bash was a great success with plenty of food to go around and activities for all age groups.

Em Mo Sandalo Family Reunion
The family reunion at the beach

Not to be outdone, the grandchildren sponsored a Mexican Fiesta-themed gathering the following day that featured a huge food spread.  All of the eating was followed by a night full of karaoke singing.  Many Filipino homes have a karaoke machine or a “Magic Sing” microphone, which is a digital device that turns a television into a karaoke machine. This entertainment is often featured at family events, and our gathering was no exception.  As always, there were “aspiring” singers and then there were talented singers.

Sandalo Family Reunion
A spread to feed an army – a table full of grilled seafood, pork ribs, chicken and hanging rice (puso)

Mother was truly touched on this evening.  She was full of happy emotions as she watched her grandchildren and great grandchildren dancing and singing to pay her a tribute.  It was a night full of fun, laughter and much happiness.

Monica Babiera Sandalo
A very happy grandma!

Our family reunions are always a time to rekindle ties and refresh relationships, especially for those of us who now live outside the Philippines.  Each passing year yields one or more additions to the family, either by birth or by marriage, and our gatherings are often the only chance we get to meet them.  We always look forward to seeing each other again!

I also attended my high school grand reunion during this visit.  I had looked forward to this event too, as it was the first time I had attended an alumni homecoming since my high school graduation.

SJHS Class 74
San Juan High School – Class 1974

What made this gathering so special was that our Father Director from my school was also in attendance.  His mentoring and training had a big impact on my career and life in general.  I was very happy to see him again after 41 years!

Fr Francisco G Silva
With Father Francisco G. Silva, the former director of San Juan High School

In sweltering heat, wearing makeup and dressed to the nine’s, I traveled to another island in Dumaguete City to attend my nephew’s wedding.  This was also a great occasion for meeting cousins from distant islands.  In Dumaguete City I met with my first cousins whom I used to visit with my dad in my younger days.  I had not seen them since my dad’s passing, and it was so great to catch up with them again!

All of the festivities made the three weeks fly by.  As hectic as my schedule was and as hot as the days were, being able to bond with family and reunite with cousins and high school classmates made this visit very precious for me.



It’s a Jungle out there – Sabang, Palawan, Philippines

St Paul Karst Mountain. Palawan
St. Paul Karst Mountain Range in the background, said to be twenty million years old.  Our resort is hidden behind those coconut trees on the right

I promise this is my final (delayed) post covering our trip to the Philippines, then I’ll get back to reality here in southern Texas.  To view my previous Philippines stories, check out:

After being amazed and fascinated by what we saw during our exploration of the Subterranean River Tour, we turned our interests above ground.  Just down the island from our resort were two natural attractions; the Jungle Trekking Tour and the Mangrove Forest Paddle Tour.

At first we weren’t really interested in doing the Mangrove Paddle Tour, since I grew up with mangrove trees behind my house, and we had already kayaked through mangroves in Florida.  We also discovered that we would have to pay an entrance fee and hire a guide to see this one.  But it was a beautiful day and we had nothing else to do – why not?

Mangrove Paddle Tour, Sabang PalawanGetting underway, we learned from our guide that these activities are community-based, sustainable eco-tourism projects managed by the area government.  Local guides on these tours were former fishermen or farmers who are now employed to help generate income for the community.  Just the thought of helping the local economy encouraged us to do both activities.


I immediately became a translator for Steve, as our guide could only describe the tour in Tagalog.  It was a quiet and relaxing ride as he slowly paddled us deep into the forest while following the river path.  I was impressed as he explained many details of the mangrove forest and why they are protecting it – and more importantly why they are proud to have it in Sabang.  The untouched old-growth mangrove trees, especially within an island forest, can rarely be seen these days, so the community is devoted to protecting them.

Mangrove Forest
Old-growth mangrove forest
Mangrove Paddle Tour
Just another day in mangrove paradise!

Since we took the first tour of the day, wild exotic birds could be heard and seen flying overhead, and we were able to spot several snakes sleeping on branches overhanging the river. I recoiled when I saw them, but our guide assured me that they sleep during daytime hours and there was no danger of me being attacked or eaten.

Deeper into the forest, the mangroves stood very high above the forest floor.  But what excited me most on this short paddle tour were the colorful little crabs.  There were red, blue, white and orange crabs all along the shore.  It was just too bad that in my excitement I was unable to focus on these tiny critters.


After the tour, our guide dropped us off at the Jungle Trail trailhead, where a new guide took over.  I berated myself halfway through the hike, since I had become one of those people I usually criticize – folks who wear flip-flops while hiking.  However, I somehow survived the fairly difficult 6-mile round trip over mountainous terrain.

The trail passed through a lowland forest in the shadow of Mt. St. Paul, and ended where the Underground River tour began.


Jungle Trail
Some of the tree roots here are more like walls!

Our guide pointed out some amazing works of nature as the hike progressed. Tarzan and Jane would have been very happy here among the hundreds of vines that hung all around us.

Jungle Trail
Do you see the knot in that vine?

The trail was quite challenging, and we trekked through several different forest environments.  We enjoyed new bird sounds we had never heard.  Halfway through the hike we came into a rugged Karst Forest, formed from soil erosion.  We noticed some plants that had adapted to the thin and poor soil there, and they seemed to be hanging on for dear life.

Jungle Trail, PPUR
This huge tree had grown from inside a hole at the base of the rock
Limestone cliffs
Striking limestone cliffs
Another huge limestone formation containing several caves
There were hundreds of wooden steps through and over the rock formations
We also saw several varieties of cactus on this hike

Finally, we came upon a swampy ecosystem described as a major provider of several ecological functions.  These plants and trees improve water quality as they absorb nutrients and toxins, providing habitat for a variety of animal species.


At the end of the trail we noticed a gathering of people.  As we got closer we were happy to find that several Monitor Lizards and monkeys endemic to the park were entertaining the visitors.  Of course, they work for food!

Monkeys and lizards were on display


Monitor Lizard
Is he giving me the eye?

Puerto Princesa Jungle Trail

It was a jungle out there, and it took us about 4 hours to take it all in.  The diversity of flora and fauna amazed us as we trudged along, and it was unlike any other trail we had followed before.

Daluyon Beach Resort
Time for a little nap on the beach after an arduous hike

During our early morning walks, the clear pristine beaches beckoned us to stop in wonderment at the works of art created in the sand overnight by the nocturnal critters.


Steve thought this resembled his walking path after too many glasses of wine!
A community of sand crabs
These little “balls” are created by sand crabs – they form them with their saliva so the sand won’t fall back into their hole. Is that amazing or what?

Beach crabs were also fun to watch as they scampered away when we walked by.



There’s one of those elusive little sand crabs!

And that concludes our awesome vacation in the Philippines.  In closing, let’s enjoy a local San Miguel beer, which is actually quite good.  Cheers!