A Double Loss – Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines

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Monica Babiera Sandalo

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

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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.

Jeongjeon

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Next up:  Antidote for jet lag – go hiking with fellow bloggers!



 

Three weeks of festivities – Moalboal, Philippines

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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.

Thered1

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

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Jungle Trail
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.

MANGROVE FOREST TOUR

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.

JUNGLE TREKKING

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.

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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

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Another huge limestone formation containing several caves

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There were hundreds of wooden steps through and over the rock formations

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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.

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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

Monkeys and lizards were on display

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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.

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Steve thought this resembled his walking path after too many glasses of wine!

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A community of sand crabs

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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.

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There’s one of those elusive little sand crabs!

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

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Next Up:  Party time at Port Aransas, Texas!



 

A river runs through it – Palawan, Philippines

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Puerto Princesa Underground River

Let’s see, where were we?  I have obviously fallen behind in my blogging.  I took some time off to socialize here in Texas, while enjoying the holidays and pausing from any activities that might tax my brain.  So here we are in a new year, and I still have stories to tell from our trip to the Philippines!

Sabang, Palawan

Parking can get a bit tight in parts of Palawan

Anyhow, in my previous post I was hinting about an amazing experience we enjoyed in Palawan.  If you’ve followed us during our travels, then you know of our explorations of caves big and small, which never fail to thrill and amaze us.  But here in Palawan was a cave that topped all others!

Just a 20-minute boat ride from our resort was the Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park, established in 1971.  Because of its globally significant natural value, it was inducted onto the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999.

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The park encompasses one of the world’s most impressive cave systems, and its main feature is an underground river.  This river flows 5.09 miles as it passes through incredible rock formations before dumping directly into the sea.  The lower half of the river is brackish and subject to the ocean’s tides, making it the most unique natural cave phenomenon of its type in existence.  Our guided tour went only .7 mile into the cave; the remainder is off limits except for geologists and researchers with special permits.

Puerto Princesa Subeterranean River

Getting ready for our ride into the cave, the opening is to the right in the photo.

We walked a short distance from the motorboat to a paddle boat, locally known as a “sakayan” or “bangka.”  Our guide told us that access to the cave is limited each day, and the “no permit, no entry,” policy is strictly enforced.  This is part of the effort to conserve the river and cave in their natural state, as well as to avoid disrupting the ecosystem within. So after handing Steve the spotlight we rowed off in anticipation of what wonders we would see inside the cave.  We weren’t disappointed!

Puerto Princesa Subterranean River

The river flow is calm but steady.

Of course it was pitch black inside, but Steve was instructed by our rower/guide on where to point the spotlight as he described the various formations we were looking at.  Some were familiar from other caves we’ve explored, but many were unique to this environment. We glided over the river’s jade-green waters, in awe of the beautiful surroundings and almost complete silence – interrupted only by an occasional bat flying overhead 😉

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There’s nothing small about this cave system!

Hundreds of formations lined the river, ranging from very small to gigantic groups of stalactites and stalagmites.  As you may know, stalactites are the ones that hang from the ceiling of a cave, like the one shown below that they call the “Jelly Formation”…

Jelly Formation, Puerto Princesa

Jelly formation

…while stalagmites rise from the floor due to the accumulation of material deposited by water dripping from the ceiling.

Dripping Candle

The “Dripping Candle” stalagmite rising from below

Some of the formations looked similar to everyday objects, and of course the locals with their vivid imaginations had names for all of them.  Our guide made the trip very entertaining, as he pointed out a “Holy Family”, the “Crocodile Head”, the “T-Rex”, an upside down pile of poop, a lion and more.  Some were easy to visualize, others not so much.

Holy Family formation

The “Holy Family” formation

Italian Chamber

The Italian Chamber cave room measured 393 ft. wide and 196. ft high

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We were amazed at how these thin “sheets” of rock became separated from the wall through the water’s action. We’ve not seen this before

Hardhats were required, partly because some of the stalactites were low-hanging, but also because of the thousands of bats hanging from the ceiling over our heads.  We were advised to keep our mouths closed anytime we looked up, or to be prepared for a snack of guano droppings – yuck!

Puerto Princesa Subeterranean River and Cave

Thousands of bats hung precariously on the cave’s walls and ceilings

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After spending 45 minutes in the dark, we were happy to paddle back out into daylight. Our guide surprised us by giving me the SD disk out of his camera so I could post these photos of our tour (only a few of my pictures came out because my camera was not set up for low-light shots).  I am grateful to Jun, our guide and rower, for these amazing photos taken inside the cave.

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Light at the end of the tunnel

Puerto Princesa Underground River

The river empties into St. Paul Bay, completing its journey through the mountain and into the sea.

The eye-catching formations that could be admired only by using our spotlight put this cave at the top of our list.  It is absolutely pristine, due to the fact that there are no floors to be trampled over and the guides keep visitors safely out of “touching range” of the formations.

I could see why this park was nominated and officially recognized as one of the world’s New Seven Wonders of Nature.  The park shares the honor with Jeju Island in Korea, the Amazon in South America, Halong Bay in Vietnam, Iguazu Falls in Brazil, Komodo in Indonesia and Table Mountain in South Africa.

Sabang Beach

Back to the outrigger for the short ride home

Because of the cave’s popularity, tourism is booming and is now the main means of livelihood for island locals.  From what I saw during our visit, it is well-managed and controlled so far – I hope they can continue to handle the influx of tourists.  We totally enjoyed the experience of what we saw looming in the darkness, and highly recommend it to anyone coming to the Philippines!

 

Next up:  It’s a jungle out there!



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A slice of “2014’s Most Beautiful Island in the World” – Palawan Island

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Sabang Beach

My country is an archipelago of 7,107 islands brimming with wondrous natural treasures and beauties – both in nature and in the people.  Among many other things, white sand beaches, beautiful jagged mountains and amazing scuba diving locations can be found there.  Unfortunately, some islands are overdeveloped and others overrun by tourist and entrepreneurs, but many remained unspoiled.

One island that is considered a last frontier in the Philippines is Palawan.  It is a hidden piece of paradise that was recently named 2014’s “Top Island in the World” by Conde Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice Awards.  A recent article  by Huffington Post Travel accompanied by stunning photos also dubbed Palawan The Most Beautiful Island in the World.  We had to make this our new island to check out on our recent trip to the Philippines.

St Paul Karst Mountains

A small section of the St. Paul karst mountain range

Accolades like these make me proud and motivated us to experience the island – if not all of it then at least a slice of paradise.  To get there we left my mom’s house and drove the three hours from Moalboal to Cebu City, where we caught the hour and fifteen minute flight to Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan island.

Palawan Island

Cebu Interanational Airport

But we weren’t there yet!  From the Puerto Princesa airport we had to endure another two-hour van ride that hauled us over the narrow, twisty and hilly road to the Daluyon Beach and Mountain Resort in Sabang.  At least the concrete road was in good condition!

Highway to Sabang, Palawan

The driver told us this passenger truck was on its last trip of the day from the city to Sabang

The drive there was long but very scenic.  Our driver pointed out several places to check out if we had time, including Honda Bay for island hopping and snorkeling, and Ugong Rock for rock climbing.  We stopped for a few minutes at a large karst mountain range, where if you are imaginative you can make out the “elephant cave” hovering over the small nipa huts.

Elephant Cave

Karst mountain range with rice fields in the foreground

Can you see it in this closeup?

Elephant Cave

Can you make out the elephant hovering over the nipa huts?  Steve couldn’t!

This unspoiled rock formation is immense, and within the range are numerous caves and narrow passageways carved out of the limestone.  A trail here can be followed by folks who sign up for the Ugong Rock Adventure.  We intended to take it, but many of the excursions here were far from our resort and involved long drives – which we just weren’t up for at the time 😦

For those not familiar with “karst”, I should explain.  Karst refers to water-soluble rock, including limestone, that can be dissolved by acidic water to form many different topographies, including interesting caves, outcroppings or even entire mountain ranges.  In combination with other types of rock, the resulting formations and features can take on amazing complexity and beauty.

Our driver took a picture as we posed for a few minutes to soak in the sweeping, serene, pastoral panorama.

Karst Mountains

More karst mountain ranges behind us

After a long travel day we finally arrived at our fabulous room with a beach view, where we holed up for the next 5 nights.  If you plan to come to this part of the island, we cannot recommend this resort enough.  Although there are other places to eat that we enjoyed a lot, these rooms facing the beach are by far the best on Sabang Beach.  That said, this is a very big island and there are many other areas that we did not see during our stay.

Daluyon Beach and Mountain Resort

This is what we came here for!

Our mornings and evenings were spent walking up and down this white sand beach surrounded by the St. Paul karst mountain range.  Unfortunately, due to high waves this time of the year, the warning flags were up and we were forbidden to swim in the ocean. The lifeguard told us the waves are this high during the months of October to December. The best time to enjoy calm waters is in the summer, but be prepared for huge crowds and very hot weather!

Sabang Beach

Sabang Beach

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And so our exploration of the beautiful island had begun.  Within hiking (they call it “trekking” here) distance of our resort was an underground river in the heart of the karts mountain ranges a UNESCO World Heritage Site which put us in awe. But more on that and our other Palawan adventures when we come back after the holidays….

 

 

 



 

Days filled with outdoor fun – Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines

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Banana Leaves for umbrella

This is the 3rd in our series of posts about our trip to the Philippines.  Check out #1 here and #2 here if you’re interested in the first two installments.

Laughter

Laughter and good times were the order of the day!  With Beboy, Gigi, Bebut and Gwen

Aside from spending quality time with family, we also sneaked out to have some outdoor fun with my longtime hometown friends.  A favorite pastime during our visit was to show up at a friend’s house where we would sit, talk, laugh and eat all day long – forgetting about time as we can only do while in my country.

My childhood bff Gigi and her husband Stan flew in from Australia while we were there.  Although we don’t normally talk very often, when we do, it seems like we just pick up where we left off the last time.  You see, we have known each other since kindergarten, as our mothers were co-teachers at our public school.  During our growing years our hometown was very small, and we knew everyone.  Most of the original “locals” are gone now, but Steve was still amazed when I yelled out the name of someone and started an exciting chat as we walked down the street.  But I digress…

Anyhow, I am proud that my  hometown has one of the best scuba diving areas in the Philippines, and according to many of the divers there, some sites are world-class.  That’s why Steve selected Moalboal as his place to get certified during our trip in 2009.  Although he hadn’t dived since then, he was excited to get back out there on this trip to enjoy the beauty – after taking a “refresher” dive off the beach at the resort where he stayed for 2 nights.

It’s quite ironic that an island girl like me who grew up here has never seen and experienced the beauty below the surface of the sea.  But Steve and Stan dove together several times; Stan is a very experienced diver, and Steve was happy to tag along as his partner on their adventures.  Judging by their big smiles and excited talks afterward, a good time was had by all!

Scuba Diving in Moalboal

Diving partners Stan (left) and Steve heading out to the diving boat

Diving in Moalboal

Off they go to Pescador Island, the destination for this dive – that little island in the left of the picture

Since we don’t have underwater cameras, I found this video clip of some of the amazing creatures they saw under Pescador Island:

Steve assured me that this is exactly what it’s like there, although they didn’t encounter the “clouds” of sardines swimming around on this dive as he did in 2009.  But what a fantastic adventure!

On another day we took an early morning walk with Stan and Gigi, but halfway through a sudden rain storm hit us.  Although the rain felt good, we didn’t want to get drenched. We were happy when Gigi asked a lady along the road if she could spare some banana tree leaves for us to use as umbrellas.  We showed our husbands how we dealt with rain storms in the days when we didn’t have such luxuries – they were impressed!

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Four umbrellas coming up!

Banana leaves

And viola, we have instant umbrellas!

The rain did not let up after we donned our new rain gear, so we took shelter near a school to wait it out.  When it was apparent that the storm was going to last for a while, we were finally able to flag down one of the ubiquitous “pedicabs” that service the areas around town.

As I explained to Steve, in the Phlippines a pedicab is a motorcycle-propelled cab that holds up to 4 passengers or more and the driver.  A “trisikad” is the same except the propulsion is via a bicycle.  You don’t want to get stuck behind a trisikad when you’re driving through town!

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Just another day in the Philippines!  Isn’t it obvious that Steve loved riding around in these things?

Near Moalboal is a big tourist draw, the Kawasan Falls.  It’s only a 30-minute drive from home, but believe it or not I had never been there.  Because of my ultra-strict mother, I was a sheltered child (cue violin music here) and not allowed to go anywhere she thought danger lurked – and swimming at the falls was one of them.  Although she gave her blessing this time, she didn’t fail to offer us many warnings about what not to do while there.  At 96 she is still very protective.

Kawasan Falls

The walking bridge had been destroyed during the typhoon “Quennie” we endured on our first day here, so we had to walk with a guide across this hazardous passage.  Good thing mom didn’t know about this!

The waterfall consists of three tiers, but we were told by the locals at the gate that we could not go above the lower falls.  The recent typhoon had washed away foot bridges and trails, and we had to have a guide to get us out there.  Due to the recent heavy rains, the waterfall was gushing with beautiful clear water.

Kawasan falls

Kawasan Falls

Stan, Gigi, me and Steve – look mom, we survived!

Along with all the fun was a little business I had to take care of.  On Facebook I led a group of Moalboalanons to take on a small project in our town.  Thanks to FB, our membership is global.  We mostly chat on Facebook or use Skype for our meetings.  Since I had not met most of them, this visit was my chance to meet, in person, the active members who were doing a lot of our project’s work.  We have had limited success on our initial project, but we’re looking forward to doing more good things for our little town.

Trashbins in Tulay

Our first project  – installing trash bins along our rock pier – called  Tulay

Facebook Tulay

Facebook Tulay group local active members – Joe D, Dong B, Creamz Blue and Vincent E

After filling our eight days with family bonding and fun with friends in Moalboal, it was time to move on and explore another island…

Next up:   Experiencing a slice of The Most Beautiful Island in the World for 2014



Quality time with family in my hometown – Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines

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Monica Sandalo

After 17 days in the Philippines visiting family and  then enjoying some island time on Palawan, we are back in Texas.  We picked Betsy up from storage and drove just 85 miles south to rest and get over our jet lag at Lake Texana Park and Campground in Edna, Texas (Steve’s review here).

It had been a whirlwind trip packed with family bonding and fun with friends, and as they say, time flies when you’re having too much fun.  In our case there was some suffering of sore butts because of our 17-hour flight back home with a stop in Seoul, South Korea.

Monica Sandalo

Mama Monica with her handsome son-in-law

Our priority in flying across the Pacific Ocean was to visit mom, who was delighted to see us.  She is now 96 years old and in fairly good health, still mentally sharp but weakening physically.  Since she loves to tell stories about her past, Steve was fascinated to hear her WWII tales – particularly about the Japanese invasion in our hometown.  She recounted how the family evacuated to the hills, living in caves and burying their treasures as Japanese soldiers burned all of their homes to the ground.  And during this 2-year period she even added two more children to the clan while they were in hiding!

As my mother is the only surviving witness to these events, she recently told her story in a documentary that detailed the Japanese aggression in our town.  Steve was blown away by her detailed recollection of what happened all those years ago.

Mom also showed Steve the U.S. map and pictures of Betsy that she had plastered on the hallway wall to keep tabs of our travels.  I had provided her with a map of the U.S., and each time we talk on the phone I tell her which state we are in and my sister updates the map. Well, it was a bit out-of-date when we arrived, so Steve made it current and shared memories with mom about the places she has visited in the states over the years.

Lowes RV Adventure USA mapWhen not listening to mom’s stories, Steve made himself handy during our stay.  He helped my brother Edgar change a flat tire, and worked on my sister’s kitchen drawers.  Everyone was happy to have someone in the house who could handle some of the maintenance issues.

Changetire

Steve and my brother Edgar replacing a flat tire

We both instantly became “tech support”, as Steve worked on sister Thelma’s mini laptop, and I figured out her WiFi hotspot.  Just keep the cold beer coming and we’ll do anything!

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Night life was mostly restricted to the battle of words, as Steve played Scrabble with Thelma and my brother-in-law, Boni.  It turns out they were pretty well matched, as each of them won games during the marathon.

Scrabble with family

Like any other Filipino home, food is served/offered several times during the day.   Steve had never eaten so much rice in his life before coming here!  Rice is serve for breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with fresh fish, seashells and vegetables.  We ate so much that we both got sick on our second day – just too much of a good thing that our bodies weren’t ready for.  But it was hard to say “no” to Thelma’s awesome cooking from scratch with all fresh ingredients and organic vegetables.

Sea Shells

How about some fresh seashells?

One day Steve was offered cooked sea shells and he had to learn how to remove the meat from inside the shell using a safety pin 🙂  He’d never had it before and was willing to give it a try.  He was also introduced to a local fish called Rabbit Fish (known locally as Kitong) and he said it was one of the best white fishes he had ever eaten.  Served grilled or fried, we devoured it with gusto as we won’t see it served anywhere back in the states.  There’s a huge benefit to living close to an abundant supply of so much seafood that we could buy fresh off the boat every morning or delivered to us.

How to eat sea shells

Nothing can compare to this seafood!

In every Filipino celebration or gathering, lechon is always at center stage.  As usual, when Steve and I were invited to my sister Eyen’s party, the whole roasted pig was in the middle of the table.  Lechon has been hailed as “best pork ever “by Anthony Bourdin in one of his “No Reservations” episodes.  Steve is no stranger to this offering, but he looked so sad in this picture as we were both still feeling sick from the previous evening’s meal, and lechon is very rich and fatty.  It was the saddest day of our trip 😦

Lechon

You haven’t lived if you haven’t tried pork lechon, especially the skin. This picture makes our mouths water!

We were able to see about half of the family during this visit, since my brother Juhn was also in town.

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Left to right next to us – sisters Thelma and Eyen, and Eyen’s husband Boni

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We met up with brothers Alex (left) and Juhn

When the typhoon rains let up I was ready to be Steve’s tour guide, and happily showed him around the area.  Like most other towns, Moalboal has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years.  With the growth comes traffic congestion and bigger businesses, but the roads have not kept up with traveler’s needs.  Many years ago I would stroll down the streets and be flagged down by neighbors and friends so we could have a chat.  Now I feel like a stranger when I walk around to do my errands, and it seems like nobody pays attention to me.  And they call this progress?  I don’t think so!

Here’s a peek at what Steve saw in my not-so-little hometown of Moalboal:

Main Street, Moalboal

The main drag through town with fruit stands lined up along the street

Town Plaza

The town plaza

Provincial Road

The highway leading to the south

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Tulay – our rock pier that holds lots of childhood memories

Moalboal Bay

At low tide folks go tide pooling to gather seashells for dinner

Fresh fruits are in abundance all year round, and fruit stands line the main drag.  Mango was Steve’s daily treat, and he only missed it once when he got sick.

Scenes of everyday life that made Steve smile and shake his head in wonder and awe:

Our visit was just too short, and we made sure Mama’s time was filled with our presence and spent quality time with her. She was even happier when she learned I will be back for her 97th birthday next year and she gave me a big smile 🙂

 

Next up:  Childhood friends meet up to have some fun



 

 

 

The wonderful people and places of the Philippines

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[This is Steve’s post about his experiences in the Philippines]

My third trip to the Philippines during the past 12 years has inspired me to think about all the good times I’ve enjoyed during my visits, while also reflecting on what I’ve learned about the good people there.  I’ve also found that I get somewhat depressed about the hardships that folks have to deal with in their day-to-day lives on the many beautiful islands (7,107 to be exact).

Philippine Map

We spent 8 nights with Mona Liza’s family in Moalboal on the southwest end of Cebu, then several nights on gorgeous Palawan – the island to the left in the image.

I want to stress that this post is a very general comparison of life in the Philippines, in contrast to living in the good old USA.  Like any place in the world, there are many exceptions to the following characterizations, but I thought it might be worthwhile to offer my insights into what I observed while there.

Jeepney

Just another day heading into the office or school

Pasil, Cebu

Squatter’s shacks along the water – the worst of life in the Philippines

My recent trip reminded me how upbeat, tough, resilient and flexible the Filipino people are.  These folks generally work hard for extremely low wages, and there are no pensions, retirement plans or medical benefits in sight.  There’s no “attitude” here as there is with many young people in the USA, and these are non-violent people.  Their biggest joys are spending time with family and chatting comfortably with complete strangers.  They are friendly, helpful and respectful with anyone they meet.  Life is much more leisurely, and it’s almost as if time is not a factor when trying to get their jobs done (ie. a very low-stress lifestyle).

Tri-sikad

Mona Liza’s sister Thelma returns home from the market – this is the way to get around town, and I totally enjoyed the ride several times!

Wanna talk about tough?  Many people in the U.S. choose between living in areas that experience either brutal weather or earthquakes.  In the Philippines you get both!  We arrived in the midst of a “signal-1” typhoon, which caused some damage but never made the news.  Several typhoons cross the islands each year, but only the “super typhoons” make the news.  Fortunately, the recent huge typhoon Hagupit headed north of our stops and spared us and ML’s family.

Kawasan Falls

The typhoon we endured while on the island of Cebu caused quite a bit of damage at the popular waterfalls

No matter how terrible things get with regard to weather or their job situation, Filipinos rarely fail to show up at church on Sunday to thank God for what they have.  Amazing!

Farmers Market in Moalboal

A typical market that we enjoyed on a daily basis

Although I love the beautiful islands and warm Filipino people, I have to admit that I’m probably just too spoiled to live there full time.  I would never drive there; although the drivers appear to be insane as they negotiate the roads with no attention to any kind of traffic laws, they somehow make it work and defy my certainty that accidents must occur every few seconds.  On my first trip in 2002 I was terrified as we weaved through traffic at high speeds.  This time I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.

Sabang, Palawan

You think you’ve seen crazy drivers?  How many violations can you spot here?

Sabang, Palawan

Hauling coconuts to a stand for sale. We loved drinking the milk and eating the meat of these yummy delights!

Saavedra, Moalboal

Life can be difficult here, but they always get the job done

Despite the fact that I don’t speak the language or even fit in very well, I always look forward to my next adventure in the Philippines.  So many beautiful islands to explore and friendly people to hang out with.  You simply must make a trip there one of the items on your “travel bucket list” – you won’t be disappointed!



 Next up:  More about our exciting visit to the Philippines

Playing tourist in my hometown – Moalboal,Cebu, Philippines

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San Juan Nepomuceno Ruins

How time flies when you are having too much fun in the Philippines.  I’m back after a one-month visit to my home sweet home in Moalboal, Cebu, where I survived daily temps of 90 degrees with 96% humidity.  Whew!  It felt like being in a sauna 24/7.  So where the heck is my hometown of Moalboal?   The Philippines is situated in south-east Asia in the South China Sea, between Hong Kong, Vietnam and Indonesia.  My country is an archipelago made up of 7,107 islands, and Moalboal is located on the southwestern tip of Cebu island, in the central part of the Philippines.  The flight from New York – where the overseas portion of my flight originated – to Cebu took 14+ hours, including a stopover in Incheon, Korea.  Yes, that’ s a lot of sitting on airplanes!

Moalboal,Cebu

Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines

Despite the heat and humidity I played tourist in my town, hanging out with old friends and bonding with family.  My blog would be far too long If I related all the fun activities I did while in the Philippines.  I will spare you by giving just the highlights, or I might put you to sleep.

  1. The main reason for my visit was  to celebrate my  mom’s 95th birthday on May 4.  She is an amazing mother who raised her dozen kids alone, as my dad passed away early.  I am #11 in the family hierarchy, and I certainly hope her longevity is passed on to me.  Her birthday celebration began at 4AM, when she was awakened by a dawn serenade given by family and friends.  The day ended with a family tribute to her, as she was surrounded by her ever growing big happy Sandalo family.
  1. Every town in the Philippines celebrates a fiesta in honor of a patron saint.  My hometown’s fiesta is every 15th and 16th of May, when we celebrate our patron saint, San Juan Nepumoceno.  The fiesta is part and parcel of Filipino culture, the roots of which goes back to before the Spanish arrived in 1500.  Fiesta is the time of eating, drinking, and revelry all over town.  But due to the regional elections during the month, fiesta activities were somewhat limited.  A fiesta would be incomplete without lechón, or slow-roasted suckling pig, the Filipinos most beloved dish.  Anthony Bourdin of No Reservations hailed it as the best pork ever!
  1. If you like scuba diving, my town is home to one of the best diving destinations known globally as Pescador Island.  The diving spots there offer an amazing “sardine run” and various  underwater creatures.  The coral you see underneath is one of the best of the world.  Unfortunately, I have not seen it first hand, but Steve had an amazing time when he dove there a couple of years ago.  On this trip we hired a boat and went to Pescador Island where my friends and I swam in the crystal clear waters and watched divers and fishermen around the island.
Busay Cave and Spring, Moalboal

Busay Cave and Spring

  1. Although my town is mostly known for the diving its coastline’s multiple reefs provide, there are many more natural wonders to explore.  The mountains inland offer spectacular vistas and the area is covered by dense tropical rain forests and rice fields.  One is the Busay Cave and Spring, which is an underground spring where the town get its potable water supply.  Once I dipped into the the cool fresh waters it was difficult to get back out into the sun and sauna again.

We used to have beautiful long white beaches, but because of a typhoon in 1984 much of Panagsama Beach (Basdiot) has been blown away.  The typhoon damage and poor coastal development have led to the sand being washed away.  Today Panagsama beach resorts cater mostly to divers, and diving schools and dive centers dot the area.  The many diveshops in Panagsama beach are mixed with a lot of bars and restaurants, and you can find both luxury and budget-friendly accommodations.

About 7 kilometres north of Panagsama is White Beach or Basdako, meaning ‘Big Sand’, a nice white sandy beach lined with a beautiful coral reef about 30 meters out.  This is a very popular beach among the locals as well as  tourists where accommodations are pricier.  My mom, who seldom gets out of the house, was so happy when my sister Becky and I took her there for relaxation away from the family. During our bonding time with mom I observed that she may not be a spring chicken but she is still very mentally sharp.

5) Our small town has a burgeoning economy and has grown amazingly fast since my last visit.  Because of that, it seems to me that our town has shrunk and is getting very crowded.  However, I was also pleased to see many visual improvements.  The town now has a Heritage Park and a to-be-completed multipurpose building.  Our “Tulay” (wharf), of which everyone has fond memories, had been extended.  I was even more glad to know that one of the leaders credited with these improvements is my childhood best friend, Asuncion Palmitos.  Kudos to you my friend, I’m proud of you.

I hang out with her and other friends while there.

Best Friends Forever

(l to r) Asuncion Palmitos, Gigi Page and I- childhood friends

These and many more fun outings made Steve jealous – he is going to be sure to go home with me next time!

Finally, be sure to click on the pictures below to see scenes you only see in the Philippines:

Next up: Back on the road!

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