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.



Days filled with outdoor fun – Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines

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 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!

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!

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…



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

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.

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!


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 😦

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.

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





The wonderful people and places of the Philippines

[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.

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).

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!