Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Hunger Games

Now down to the third book of 'The Hunger Games' trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Started the series shortly before the holidays, and it edged out the two other books I was reading then.

To say that the story is gripping seems tired, but that's exactly what it is. It has totally gripped my attention, and I'm normally an attention-deficit reader. What exactly do I like about it? Let me explain in 3 subheads (spoiler alert!).

Likable heroine
Katniss is the 16yr-old from whose POV the story is told. Named after an edible tuber, she struggles with self-doubt and a complicated love life, just like any normal teenager. But that's the only thing normal about her. The rest of her is, well, heroine material.

She's a hardened hunter who feels most at home in the wilderness, and she can be deadly with her weapon of choice--the bow-and-arrow. She not only survived two Hunger Games, she was also able to defy the puppeteers behind these, and eventually subvert an oppressive system that had been entrenched for 75yrs.

But of course these are only obvious to the reader. As far as Katniss is concerned, she is just a girl from an impoverished district who will do whatever it takes to keep her family and friends alive. Hunting in the woods, and selling meat in the black market, are punishable crimes where she lives, but those are the only means she knows to feed her family. Her special skills were learned the hard way, as she struggled to keep herself and her family alive. It wasn't because she had a choice.

But in the end, what makes her a likable heroine is her sensitivity to people's suffering. Her actions are triggered by compassion. She has an impulsive tendency to aid people who, like her, suffer cruelty in the hands of the same oppressors. I'm not sure the allusion to Robin Hood is deliberate, but the bow-and-arrow, the rebellious streak and the pro-poor sentiments are hard to miss.

Riveting plot
Set in post-apocalyptic North America. Now there is one country, called Panem, composed of the Capitol, where the seat of power is, and 13 districts. Except for 13, all the districts provide everything the Capitol needs--food, garments, electronics, fuel, even soldiers.

Most of the story is about a fictional reality TV show called 'The Hunger Games,' where children from the 12 districts are forced to kill one another until only one remains. The participants, called tributes, are drawn randomly every year. They are called tributes because they are in effect sacrificed on the altar of the Capitol, as a reminder of their defeat in a revolution 75yrs before that led to the isolation of 13.

The story is both a critique and a frank portrayal of the power of media. It shows how, even in reality TV, everything is contrived, including the celebrity's image. But this image, usually the handiwork of brilliant stylists, has the potential to sway people's opinion, and even spark a revolution.

Lots of action!
'The Hunger Games' is reality TV taken to extreme. It happens in an era when viewer's appetite for violent entertainment can no longer be satisfied by make-believe. They have to see not just actual blood and gore, but children--some barely into their teens--going at it. Ironically, it reminded me of gladiators who killed one another in the arena for the entertainment of Roman citizens. Is it saying that post-apocalyptic humanity will regress to the brutality of ancient civilizations?

Anyway, in the Games, the arena is designed carefully so it can kill the tributes creatively, if they don't fall in each other's hands first. There are booby traps, killer wildlife, poisonous fruits, and extreme weather disturbances. The tributes can also die from thirst and hunger if they don't know how to source food and water within the arena.

The best part of the story, in my opinion, is where we follow Katniss in the arena. We feel her thirst, fatigue, paranoia, fear, hatred, even the physical pain of her injuries. We see how her survival is a result of both her own attributes--strength, hunting skills, resourcefulness, and intuition--and her alliance with the other tributes. The latter can be partly attributed to luck, because she is no sunny personality, and making friends is not her strongest suit.

Overall, I like how the spartan life in the districts, particularly in 12 where Katniss lived, is juxtaposed against the opulence of the Capitol. It's not just in the availability and variety of food, or even in their taste in entertainment, but in people's mindset as well. We see the difference in how people in the districts and those in the Capitol reacted to the war.

We see Katniss' styling team, who are portrayed as overly concerned with trivial matters, such as beauty and fashion. Katniss defended them, saying how they are is not their fault, and that they're essentially just children themselves. I'm betting this is a critique directed at citizens of certain counties, where the abundance of resources made people soft and shallow, and removed from the suffering of the majority of humanity. But soft and shallow people tend to think hunger and oppression can happen only in movies, or in fictional countries like Panem. I'm not sure the message will hit home.

I was almost done with 'Mockingjay' when I realized the last page was missing. I went back to the bookstore to have my book replaced, but they didn't have a ready copy then. They said they'd call within the week. Here's crossing my fingers.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Auspicious vibes

There are days when I just feel the universe is smiling down on me. This is one of them :)

All the parameters--signs, if you must--have been met.

I hope this holds.

Perhaps I should buy a lotto ticket?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cormorant weekend in Paoay, Ilocos Norte

I knew from my first visit to Ilocos Norte on my birthday last year that I would go back. I thought the province had a charm about it that made me feel at home right away. It was simple and unpretentious, but it radiated pride and quiet dignity.

I also think it is the perfect tourist destination. There's something for everyone--old churches, a distinctive cuisine, sunbleached beaches, sand dunes, and rarely reported birds. For those who fondly look back to the Bagong Lipunan era, it is here that they will find kindred souls everywhere. It seems that everything, from the infrastructure to the garden landscaping, has the stamp of the late Apo and his heirs, or was created as an ode to what this family represented.

I had a chance to go back when the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines was invited to participate in the 3rd Return of the Great Cormorant to Paoay Festival on November 20.

Ilocos-based WBCP members Pete Calope and Richard Ruiz, who showed us the Silky Starlings in Laoag last year, were the first ones to report sightings of Great Cormorants in Paoay Lake a few years ago. They then lobbied with the local government to include it among the town's tourist drawers, which include the historic Paoay Lake and the local cafe that invented the pakbet pizza. The annual festival is the result of their efforts.

Gina's endurance test
We initially wanted to take the bus, but fellow bird club member and volunteer Gina Mapua wanted to test her long-drive endurance, so we took her truck. Armed with a GPS and a roadmap bought from a gas station convenience store, we tracked our way to Ilocos, avoiding the usually busy thoroughfares and opting for the barangay roads with the idyllic countryside view. Counting the meal and gas stops and a couple of wrong turns, our travel time totaled 12hrs, which wasn't bad considering that bus trips normally take 10hrs. Gina is a speed junkie, it turned out. Which wasn't surprising since her other car is a Subaru, which she said can run up to 240kph without wobbling.

In Paoay, we stayed at Casa Emilia, perhaps the only hotel in town. It was nice and homey, and had a kidney-shaped pool. Too bad I didn't bring a swimsuit. It was right across the municipal hall and beside the famous Paoay Church. It was late when we got to town, so we got to see the church in all its halogen-lighted glory. The dramatic lighting actually made it look majestic, rather than spooky, which is what one would expect of a centuries-old structure.

We left for Paoay Lake early the next day. We wanted to be at the view deck before 8am so we could set up. But we did expect the program to start late because the governor, Ms. Imee Marcos, was guest of honor, and we didn't think the VIPs would be there by 8am. On our way to the lake, we went past a group of majorettes with their school band waiting for the parade to start. It was still a long way off from the lake, so we knew it would a while before the parade would get to the site.

Kids at the viewdeck
When we got to the view deck, Richard and Pete were already showing some kids the few ducks that were in the lake. I saw some of the kids had illustration boards, and I found out later they expected a drawing contest. But that wasn't part of the program. I just knew there would be a coloring contest, but our own coloring sheets would be used. I thought perhaps a drawing contest would be a good idea for next year.

While waiting for the parade participants and the VIPs to arrive, I helped Mike tape bird cutouts to coconut spines (used to make 'walis tingting,' the native broomsticks). We made quite a lot, and the schoolkids and their teachers loved them. Gina, who was to teach origami, also made paper crane prototypes.

When the parade participants arrived, the venue suddenly got crowded. People spilled to the middle of the highway, which I thought was dangerous, but then again very few vehicles went that way. I figured the traffic going to and from Laoag took the Batac route.

McDonald's Laoag was an event sponsor, so Ronald and Grimace were there, to the delight of the little kids. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and I ended up having my picture taken with the mysterious Grimace as well.

Everything was fun to watch--the little girls in their majorette costumes, little boys with their band instruments, basketball players in their team colors, school kids looking about with anticipation, and curious folks hanging around. It was a classic Pinoy barangay fiesta, but with the bird-themed decors, it had a unique environment-awareness twist.

Borgy's mom
Then the governor arrived. I didn't expect Borgy Manotoc's mom to look so young and lithe. She won me over with the huge sunshades and the Crocs flats. In her speech, she revealed that she suffers from ornithophobia, or the irrational fear of birds. She attributed it to seeing headless chicken running around their kitchen as a child. Her mom--the former first lady Imelda Marcos--would only eat chicken slaughtered in their own kitchen, and sometimes it took more than one cut in the throat to kill the birds.

On the other hand, her dad, the former president Ferdinand Marcos, had a love for birds, and in fact was instrumental in starting the Philippine Eagle Foundation, the co-sponsor of the 1st Asian Bird Fair.

In support of the municipal government's effort to promote birdwatching in Paoay Lake, she approved the release of fingerlings into the lake, which are expected to restock the fish population therein. She also announced that the provincial government would manage the view deck, as well as the planned boat dock that will be built somewhere on the lake shore. Overall I think she has great plans for Paoay. I just hope the good intentions will bear good fruit, and not end up paving the road to perdition.

Coloring and origami
After the speeches and the mid-morning meal of pancit and native snacks, we took over. Gina and her origami students moved to the next cottage, while I and Arnel took charge of the coloring contest. I gave a brief introduction of the six bird species that were on the coloring sheets. There were at least 20 participants, mostly grade schoolers. They looked serious as they were coloring, and I wished everyone would win a prize. And true enough, James, the representative of the municipal government, announced that everyone who joined would get a prize, and the top winners will be announced during the school flag ceremonies the following Monday.

The festival activities officially ended shortly after 1pm, with Gina and her origami class finishing last. Paoay Mayor Bobby Clemente then treated us to lunch at Herencia Cafe, home of the pinakbet pizza. We met the cafe's owner, who also happened to be a birder. earlier at the view deck, but his name escapes me now.

Because it was a weekend, and the cafe was already full-packed when we got there, we had to wait a while for our food. I knew everyone was hungry because the corn bits (local name: 'kornik'), also a local specialty, on our table kept disappearing. But I appreciated the fact that the restaurant was fair to the diners who got there first, and served their food ahead, even if the mayor was on our table. He, too, had to wait like the rest of the paying customers.

But when our food finally came, it did not disappoint! It was well worth the wait. All the exposure I had to Ilocano cuisine was at my cousins' place here in Tandang Sora, but they are mixed Ilocano-Ilonggos who grew up in Mindanao, so their version may have been more fusion than authentic. Also, I generally avoid salty food, so dishes with bagoong and patis rarely make it to our table.

Pakbet pizza
But at Cafe Herencia, I knew what I was eating was the real thing, and I was having it right at its birthplace. The pinakbet pizza was good, and Doc Pete showed us how to eat it with patis or bagoong, instead of catsup. But I still liked mine with chili sauce. The dinuguan looked like crumbly pudding, and in it were bits of crunchy bagnet. There were two vegetable dishes that looked similar to me, and they registered similar shades of salty and bitter to my not-so-discriminating palate, but apparently they were distinct. I don't recall what they're called now, but one was soupy and the other was somewhat dry.

I tried to just have a little bit of everything so I don't overeat, but because there was so much food I still ended up eating more than I wanted to. Arnel wanted to walk around the park and the churchyard, and have a latte at the neighboring coffeeshop, but I was too full to move around. The afternoon heat also made me sleepy and long for the AC in our room. So we decided to postpone the walk and the coffee and head back to the hotel. We agreed to meet Mike at the lobby at 4pm, then we'll go exploring.

And so after our nap, we proceeded to the lobby, and the mayor's driver was already there to pick us up for our tour. But the place Mike wanted to go to, the patch of sand dunes we saw on the hotel lobby map, required a 4x4. The driver left to look for a more suitable vehicle, but it took him so long to come back. Meantime, we walked around the plaza and checked out the new landscaping of the churchyard. There were champacas and sampaguitas planted around the church lawn. Both have white, pleasant-smelling flowers. This was Madam Imelda's idea, and she also provided the funds for it, according to Mike. That figures, I thought.

By the time we got our 4x4 vehicle, we had a different driver, and it was already getting dark so we couldn't go to the original destination anymore. Instead the driver took us to a nearby sand dune patch just 10mins away. I expected to be disappointed, but when we got there the sun was just about to set, and the landscape was awesome!

Sunset at the dunes
There were shallow ponds on the sand reflecting the tangerine sunset. There were also clumps of grass that looked like they could be harboring wildlife. True enough, nightjars were already starting to stir and call out to one another, and we figured they were hiding inside the grass clumps. Good thing Arnel brought his flashlight. He trained light on one of the clumps, and we saw some bright spots, which turned out to be the eyes of a couple of Savannahs. The birds took off a few meters from where we stood, and that was my first time to see this species in flight up close.

We also checked out one of several ponds there, and it was teeming with yellow toads. We didn't know what species it was, so we took some pictures for ID later. James of the Paoay LGU, who was also our guide, gave a tentative ID during dinner back at the hotel, but I can't recall it now.

We left the sand dunes when it got too dark to see anything. We had another Ilocano-cuisine meal at the hotel, then we went out for a walk. Nights were already getting cool in Paoay, but not too cold to be uncomfortable. In short I loved it! We went to the coffeeshop where earlier I saw a WiFi sign. The coffee was good for its price, and the proprietor took pains to present it nicely. I appreciated the effort. And of course, WiFi meant I was able to log on FB.

The following morning, we left early to meet up with Doc Pete and Richard in Laoag. We were supposed to go straight to our meeting point, but we got waylaid by Paoay Lake, which looked magical in the sunrise. We hoped to spot some Cormorants, but were disappointed. Still, the sight of the lake with the rising sun mirrored on its peaceful surface was worth the stop. Later, we were told that the Cormorants came by shortly after we left. Oh well.

Laoag birding
Upon meeting Doc Pete and Richard, we proceeded to the Laoag Chinese Cemetery, hoping to spot the Silky Starlings. But they were not yet around. We did see a Blue Rock Thrush and a big flock of Red Turtledoves (or some other pigeon... I don't recall now). We also checked out the grasslands near the viaduct, which turned out to be a promising birding spot for beginners. I think we saw more Turtledoves there. The grass, which Doc Pete called 'Tambo,' were taller than an adult human. I figured the same grass species must have been abundant in the former grasslands in Tambo, Paranaque, where the SM Mall of Asia now stands.

We then went to Doc Pete's place where he and his wife hosted breakfast for us. I liked his place a lot. It was overlooking a small rice paddy, which was actually a toy farm. They had a lot of bird-themed stuff around the house, including table napkins with Cardinals on them. After breakfast at Doc Pete's, we proceeded to the Batac market to buy Ilocano goodies.

By 9am, Gina, Arnel and I were off for Manila. Mike was taking the evening flight so he had more time to go around. Our trip back to Manila was less eventful because we didn't take any wrong turns. Gina was also driving faster because it was daytime and she could clearly see the road. We got stuck in traffic in some barangay road because of a fiesta, which upset Gina, but other than that the trip went smoothly. We were tired and feeling fluey when we got to Manila, but the wonderful weekend was well worth it.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Gym chronicles: Body Attack

I left work around mid-morning last Monday because I was feeling the early symptoms of a bad cold. But on my way to the cab queue, I thought of going to the gym instead. After all I already had my gym bag with me. And it was probably my lack of workout over the weekend (we were in Paoay, Ilocos Norte) that made me weak and susceptible to whatever bug was floating around.

So instead of going home, I proceeded to Fitness First Fort Bonifacio. I noticed that unlike SM North and Eastwood, FF Bonifacio had more natural light coming in. It made the place feel less cramped than it actually was. It reminded me of FF Ortigas where I mostly went early this year, except that one was near the top of a high-rise. FF Bonifacio was on the 2nd floor of a low-rise building, but it had a good view of the vacant spaces across the street and some buildings under construction.

The group exercise studio itself had a lot of sunlight streaming in. It upped my mood a bit, and made me confident enough to join Body Attack even if I was feeling off. I actually came in time for Retro at 11:15, but I wasn't too keen on memorizing steps, so I decided to skip it and hit the treadmill while waiting for Body Attack at 12:15.

Cardio challenge
The latest FF booklet lists Body Attack among the intermediate level classes and describes it as a "sports-inspired cardio workout for strength and stamina." It was indeed a cardio challenge--the warmup was enough to get my heart pumping like mad again, just minutes after I got off the treadmill. Before long my omni-dry shirt was soaked in front. And all we did was march around and stretch a bit.

Then the action started to build up. We basically had to do some running and shuffling. I'm used to running, but this wasn't just any running. We had to lift our heels so that they pointed to the butt. We also did knee and leg lifts that looked simple but were actually killers when done repeatedly. The part I found most challenging was running with our knees raised. I couldn't even do it long enough when rested. When I was exhausted, it was just impossible.

There was also a jumping set, which was done differently from the Body Attack class I attended at SM North. There we moved in a square--step right, jump; step back, jump; step left, jump; and step forward, jump. This time, we bent forward from the hips, touched our trainers on the outer side, stood up and jumped--repeatedly, and in one smooth movement. I thought the SM North version was more fun, but that could have been because the instructor was a funny girlie guy and he made the jumps look like we were shooting hoops.

Of course, we also jogged around in a circle. At SM North I just ran around in my most comfortable running form, which was more akin to a lazy, foot-dragging trot. But here the instructor actually called me out and demonstrated how I should lift my heels, and later raise my knees. I looked around, and true enough, everyone else was doing the forms perfectly, or at least, from the look of agony on their faces, trying to.

This was an insanely fit class! There was a tall, 40ish lady out front who did everything with panache, even the superman jumps (note to self: at least wear something stylish next time, so even if I looked awkward I wouldn't look dumpy). There were also others who looked overweight to me, but were able to execute the moves smoothly. I was motivated to try harder to keep up with them, but sweat was pouring down my face and to the front of my shirt. I looked like I joined a 42km marathon, not a 50min exercise class in an air-conditioned gym.

Perhaps I was just paranoid, but it really seemed like their likewise insanely fit instructor was looking straight at me when he demonstrated the easy options. When I did the easy-option pushup (the arms-outside-the-mat version), I saw globules of perspiration dropping from the tip of my nose to the mat below. By the time I was done, I had a small puddle there.

The abs exercises were a welcome break from all the literal leg work. We were at least on our backs. I've also done those routines in other classes so I knew what to do without looking at the instructor every few minutes. For cool down, we did basic stretches, first on our knees then on our feet. I thought the routines felt good and relaxing after the intensive cardio punishment. I was glad I made it through to the end without embarrassing myself, but my ears were ringing when I left the exercise studio.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Champions of science and conservation

There's still a cloud of grief hovering over my home three days after the tragic killing of Leonard Co, a noted botanist and a colleague of my sister Lala at the Institute of Biology, UP Diliman.

I never really knew Sir Leonard on a personal level, but his name has always resounded around the conservation and nature enthusiast circles, and has inevitably reached our household.

Living in the same house as Lala, I have come to know Sir Leonard from second-hand anecdotes told by a fan girl. I knew, for instance, that while he was the acknowledged plant expert at IB, with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Philippine flora, it wasn't until 2008 that he finally "graduated" from college. The University awarded him an honorary Bachelor's degree--truly hard-earned and well-deserved--in recognition of his significant achievements and contributions to the field of Botany.

I also knew that Sir Leonard and Dr. Dan Lagunzad, another plant expert and a senior Botany professor at IB (who, in an uncanny twist of fate, lost his battle with cancer and passed away the day after his longtime colleague), were always on the lookout for potential plant people they could groom to follow in their footsteps.

Idol Uly
One of those they were eyeing was Ulysses Ferreras, a plant enthusiast who just came to IB one day dragging a sackful of plant specimens he wanted identified. Uly eventually struck up a friendship with Sir Leonard and Sir Dan, and sort of became their disciple and apprentice in the field.

He also became a friend of my family, and had joined several of my sister's field expeditions representing the plant component. He even bacame a member of the bird club at one point, which we had to be discreet about as Sir Leonard was a jealous mentor and didn't want his plant proteges defecting to the bird group.

That Lala looks up to Sir Leonard as a hero/mentor is not something trivial. A wildlife biologist, my sister is all too familiar with the amount of work a field researcher puts into every expedition. From the Babuyan islands to Jolo, Sulu, she had planned and executed some very challenging research expeditions, sometimes with research assistants, at other times by herself with her local guides.

Lala's team composed of local guides and porters take
a rest stop after a long trek in Zambales
The published articles that such expeditions yield do not give a clue to the long and difficult trails the researchers have to ford, the flooded rivers they have to cross, the wild animals they have to steer clear of, and the most dangerous of all--as Sir Leonard's senseless death has shown--the armies of either side of a long-winding political war that has lost its relevance a long time ago.

Crossing a flooded river in Isabela with local guides and porters

Sign of life
When Lala leaves for the field, we all know that it would be weeks before we would hear from her again, often via an MMS image of the wilderness in which she luckily finds a cellular signal. Her messages are our only indicator that she is alive and well. The rest of the time, we could only trust that the One who called her to that profession will also protect her, for as long as she still has a job to do.

When she returns from the field, she goes back to her classroom job in the state university and earns around the same salary as a first-level call center agent. No HMO coverage, no insurance benefits--she has to pay for those herself.

This is the cost of doing science in the Philippines. It is no wonder that not many people, even among graduates of the state university, are willing to do it. The price is just too steep. Very few people have the courage and grit to take on the challenge, and that the best of them had to be martyred is just sad.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Gym chronicles: Body Pump

If lifting weights is what you need, but the stationery machines bore you, then Body Pump is the class for you. This routine combines strength training and cardio workout, all in about an hour.

In the latest Fitness First booklet, Body Pump is listed among the advanced level classes. It is described as a "revolutionary weight training workout that strengthens, tones and defines every muscle in your body. All the benefits of working with weights in one action-packed, highly physical class."

I'm not sure about action-packed, but the class is indeed challenging. Body Pump is basically about lifting light weights repeatedly, and in different forms and speeds to challenge different muscles groups. The class requires a stepper, which is used as a bench, a mat, a bar, and weight plates.

Students can pick the weight plates they're most comfortable with, which for me means the lightest (1.25lbs). There is an option to add more weight to up the challenge.

The bar routines consist of a warm up set of easy lifts, shoulder presses, bench presses, squats and lunges. Free weight plates are used for chest and shoulder flies. Pushups and crunches are done on the mat.

The routines are done at an alternating slow-and-fast pace, which can get the heart worked out as well. One muscle group is targeted for the duration of one song, around 3mins or so.

Overall, I like Body Pump. It's a complete top-to-bottom workout that I can do without too much impact on my knees (currently the weakest link in my body, thanks to Wushu). I like that it has routines zeroing in on my upper arms, particularly the triceps. I need to trim at least an inch of flab there that hangs down when I raise my monkey arms.

I also like the instructor at SM North FF. He's a tough-looking girlie guy who can motivate the class with humor. At times he asks us to smile in the middle of a really agonizing routine. That never fails to crack me up.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Twitchers and birders

In an earlier post, I mentioned something about 'twitchers,' those zealous birders who would go any distance to see their target birds, so they could add these to their life or tick lists.

I've met a few of these true-blue twitchers over the years that I've been birding in the Philippines. They were expats--mostly Brits, but there was also a Dutch dude. A couple of them were in the bird tour business, which technically means they get paid to twitch.

You can tell they're twitchers because they don't mind spending a lot of money to go to remote places--usually without good roads or sleeping facilities or bathrooms--all for just a split-second glimpse of some bird. Of course, for the bird tour dudes, the motivation may have been partly business.

I admire the commitment of twitchers. They don't mind not bathing, or eating full meals, or even talking to another living soul--for days at a time--while they stake out their target species. It seems that the rarer the bird, the more ridiculous the lengths they would go.

Dude birding
Meanwhile, a lot of the birders I've met in the Philippines are 'dude-birders,' or those who watch birds because they're simply fascinated with them. They would rather bird in the shade, or some spot where they can have coffee or beer, than stake out under the tropical sun or in a mosquito-infested forest. Consequently, they rarely see something rare or new, which is fine with them, because they also don't tire of seeing the same common birds all the time.

The first time I went birding was in 2004 at the
American War Cemetery, Fort Bonifacio

As a casual birder, I'm more of a dude-birder than a twitcher. I don't really keep a list, but I can easily pick out which species in the Kennedy field guide to Philippine birds I haven't seen before (half of them, actually!).

I do go to places where particular species I haven't seen before are reported by other birders, but only if these places are accessible and don't require days of camping out. When I visit a new place, I make sure I bring my bins and keep a mental note of what species to look out for.

So when I was in Batanes last June, I made sure I ticked off the Japanese Paradise-flycatcher and the Brown-eared Bulbul, both of which can only be found on those parts of the country, albeit they're very common there. When I was in Laoag December last year, I made sure I visited the city's Chinese Cemetery where the migrant Silky Starlings have been reported, so I could tick those off, too.

I saw the Japanese Paradise-flycatcher at a church right across
this small cafe in Batanes

At a lovely lighthouse in Ilocos, just a few minutes from Laoag
where I earlier saw a flock of Silky Starlings

But when I go home to Iloilo, I never bother to go up the hinterlands of Panay in search of the critically-endangered Warden's Hornbill, which is what a committed twitcher would do. It's not so much the distance or the travel time that I mind, but the poor odds of actually seeing the bird. The more endangered birds are, the more difficult they are to find, because there are so few of them left in the wild. So chances are, the hours of hiking up the mountains of Central Panay, and camping out if there are no homestay options available, will be for nothing.

Casual birding with my family in Lambunao, Iloilo

Which is why I'm okay watching birds that are common, but may not be readily seen in Manila, such as the hordes of Asian Glossy Starlings that weigh down Iloilo's electrical wiring. Or the flock of Pink-necked Green-pigeons that entertain the security guards on duty every afternoon at the College of Fisheries, UP Visayas campus. I've seen those birds many times before, but sometimes seeing a species in better light or from a different angle or distance makes it more interesting.

Competitive birding
But not so for most twitchers. A glimpse is all they need. And then the bird gets boring. Or they may want to see it again, but for next year's tick list. That's because twitching is usually less about the birds than about competition. You compete with other twitchers, or with last year's tick list.

I came across two articles (see below) about the seemingly innocuous world of twitching, and how when taken to the extreme it can break up marriages, ruin friendships, and skew up people's perspective of life. It was after reading these articles that I thought of writing this blog entry.

The first one is from 2008, so it's somewhat old news. It's about Adrian Riley who went twitching-crazy in 2002 and wrote a book about how it ruined his life.

The bird brains: the dark and dishonest world of twitchers
10 January 2008
"This strange obsession breaks up marriages and brings enthusiasts to the brink of breakdown, as Adrian Riley, once one of Britain's most obsessive twitchers, reveals in a new book." Read more

The second one is a reflection of an ex-twitcher, now a casual birdwatcher, on twitching, which was featured in the recent BBC documentary 'Twitchers: A Very British Obsession,' aired last week I think. I haven't seen it yet (I don't know when it will be available on my side of the globe), but based on reactions I've read online, it has apparently exposed the ugly side of birding when it becomes a competitive obsession.

The dark underbelly of birdwatching
11 Nov 2010
"The extremists of the birdwatching world are the “twitchers” – the fanatical collectors, the men and women prepared to pay any price to get a new bird on their list."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gym chronicles: Hot Flow

The first time we attempted to do Hot Flow at the Eastwood Fitness First was on October 25, Monday. I distinctly remember the date because that was local elections day, a non-working holiday for everyone but us.

There we were, Eleanor and I, feeling smug because we were the first to arrive for the 730pm class. We left Body Pump early just before that so we could adequately prepare for "an exhilarating workout [that] builds physical coordination and mental focus," which is how the Fitness First website described Hot Flow.

But then it became obvious that no one else was coming. There was only one other student there, looking as confused as we were. Thankfully, a nice (and somewhat cute) trainer came and told us that Hot Flow was scratched for that day, because the gym closes early on holidays.

Though frustrated because we drove all the way from SM North and paid for parking, all for nothing it turned out, we were still determined to try Hot Flow. We were curious because the website says it is done in a room heated to 37 degrees, and is especially designed for "those ready to challenge their fitness level," and we believed that was us. NOTTT!

We finally found out last night. Eleanor, Pinay and I went together. The class was smallish--about a dozen people. The instructor was the same lady who taught Body Step at SM North. I've attended that class twice. She didn't strike me as someone very flexible then--I thought she was built like one of those lady body builders. But last night she impressed me with the contortions she could do.

Yes, some of the yoga poses we did, or were expected to do, were veritable contortions. At one point, I saw the instructor's foot was suddenly next to her face, and I couldn't tell how it got there. I thought some of the poses were difficult because my legs were long and unwieldy to swing around. Then I saw one advanced student out front who was tall and muscular, with really long, skinny legs. He or she (I couldn't tell the gender from where I was positioned) was able to pull off most of the poses, not without difficulty, but still with a lot of grace.

For the most part, I tried to keep up with the poses that were doable. Many of them were similar to what is done in Dynamic Flow. The transition between poses was rather fast, which was just as well because I couldn't stay in one pose for more than a few seconds.

The instructor called out the names of the poses--or 'asanas' in Yogalese--and their English translations. I didn't know most of them, except the ones I've done in other yoga classes, like the child pose, the downward facing dog plank, the cobra roll, and the cat stretch. We also did--or at least attempted to do--the warrior poses, the dancer, the scorpion and the bow.

Where it got too difficult, I stayed in the most comfortable position. And because most poses were advanced, ironically, I didn't feel adequately worked out. Good thing the room was heated so I still sweat like I was in the dessert. I'm not sure the heating got to 37 degrees though.

Overall, I would recommend Red Flow to intermediate or advanced yoga enthusiasts. There were a couple of them there and I think they enjoyed the workout. They stayed after the class to chat with the instructor.

Not for newbs
I wouldn't recommend Red Flow to beginners or those who haven't tried yoga before. The difficulty level of the poses might discourage them. Although Pinay thinks Red Flow is the ideal workout for her, because it didn't tire her so much like the cardio-heavy classes. I guess it depends on what you expect from yourself. I personally prefer workouts where I don't have to resort to the easy options.

After the class, we proceeded to Pinay's condo just a couple of blocks away. We carbo-loaded on lasagna and eggplant and watched some local soap, then Eleanor and I took off.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Gym chronicles: Body Combat

We were supposed to do Wushu yesterday, but Eleanor had to work extra hours for an urgent deliverable. It's one of those rare ones that she couldn't say no to. So we decided to go to Fitness First North Edsa for group exercises instead. We checked the timetable and on the menu was Body Combat at 6:30pm.

Here's what the Les Mills website says about Body Combat:

BODYCOMBAT is the empowering cardio workout where you are totally unleashed. This fiercely energetic program is inspired by martial arts and draws from a wide array of disciplines such as karate, boxing, taekwondo, tai chi and muay thai. Supported by driving music and powerful role model instructors, you strike, punch, kick and kata your way through calories to superior cardio fitness.

We haven't done this before, and because it sounded martial-artsy, and we were supposed to do Wushu anyway, we decided to try it.

Popular class
The group exercises studio was packed when we got there. We were late only a couple of minutes, but already the room was filled to almost overflowing. I figured some people had been waiting outside way before the class started. That's an indicator of how popular a class is. Other popular classes I've gone to are Hip Hop and Body Jam. Body Step had only eight or so students the last time I joined in. Body Attack and Body Pump get decent crowds, but not overflowing like Body Combat.

But as the case usually is in gym classes, people always crowd around the back. So Eleanor and I thought of pushing our way across the room, towards the middle right area, which we figured would be less packed.

True enough, we found ourselves a couple of square meters, just enough for us to move around. But I soon found out that space would have been too small if the people around had long legs, because Body Combat routines had a lot of front and back kick sequences.

And so the class started. The instructor was a shortish, stocky guy, the kind that reminded you of Bulldogs rather than sleek German Shepherds, but he had the energy of a Mini-Pinscher. At least his sound system worked okay, and I could actually make out what he was saying over the loud, 'energetic' music.

We did the slow Tai Chi-like moves first. After a couple of those, the routine accelerated. Mostly it was a combination of punches--jabs, hooks, uppercuts--front and back kicks, and basic footwork, all done in varying speeds. Form was important, as the instructor kept saying. But I could barely see the forms he was demonstrating onstage, so I just copied what the serious students out front were doing.

Serious signs
I could tell they were serious because 1) they looked fit and confident (not hyperventilating or looking around copying what others were doing, like I was), 2) their workout outfits were snug and stylish (not old T-shirts soaked in sweat--even I wouldn't wear that), and 3) they had their game face on (that intense look when a person is really about to punch someone).

And so we punched and kicked, shuffled our feet, punched and kicked again, shuffled our feet, and then did everything faster. A little more than halfway through, I looked around and saw the crowd had actually thinned out. I realized that to most people such cardio workout was a little too intense.

Overall, I think Body Combat is great for moderately fit people whose heart can withstand some heavy pumping. Beginners may want to take it easy, while advanced students will enjoy the endurance challenge.

Lucky for Eleanor and I, our hearts have been pushed beyond their normal capacity in Wushu class. So even if at some point our postures were awkward, or we looked to the left when everyone else looked to the right, or vice versa, we were able to take the intense cardio punishment. Not only did we stay all the way to the cool down portion, we also still had energy left for another class.

But Eleanor had to go to a dinner party. I considered joining the Pilates class, but decided to go home early, which was just as well because the traffic was really bad last night. And it was our housemaid Jovy's birthday, so we had a post-dinner caloriefest of cake and ice cream.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Birdfests and birdwatching

From the afternoon of September 23 to the early morning of the 28th, I was in Davao City, the last foothold of the Philippine Eagle. Main itinerary item was the 1st Asian Bird Fair (ABF) that ran from September 24 to 25 at the Waterfront Insular Hotel.

The 1st ABF was jointly organized by the Davao City government, the Philippine Eagle Foundation, and the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP). There were some 300 participants at the event--conservationists, nature enthusiasts, wildlife photographers, and birdwatchers. I was among the latter. I was there to help man the education booth where kids learned about Philippine endemic birds, particularly those found in Mindanao.

Kids learn to make origami birds at the ABF's Education tent

Birdwatching as a recreational activity is still somewhat new to Filipinos. I attribute that to the fact that it was the Spaniards and the Americans who colonized us, not the Brits. It seems that where the Brits were in Asia, birdwatching flourished--India, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc. People in these places have at least heard of birdwatching, even if they're not birders themselves. Here, it's rare that I don't hear a coarse joke when I tell people I'm a birdwatcher, or a birder.

Mainstreaming birding
WBCP has been largely responsible for mainstreaming birdwatching in the Philippines. There have been birders and birding groups before it, but it wasn't until WBCP that birdwatching got media attention, and eventually government support. The Department of Tourism under former Secretary Ace Durano initiated projects that promoted a number of localities in the country as birdwatching destinations.

The Philippine Dept of Tourism in partnership with WBCP published two volumes of guidebooks identifying the localities with bird tourism potential

What's the big deal about birdwatching? Birdwatching is simply observing birds in their natural habitat--not in cages, not in aviaries. The big deal is in the fact that the Philippines has more than 600 endemic species, meaning these birds can't be found anywhere else but here. And since we are an archipelago, we have a number of small-island endemics, which are among the rarest birds in the world.

Such birds are of particular interest to avid birdwatchers--or 'twitchers' in birding lingo--who keep a life list. Such lists contain the species they've already seen, and twitchers travel the world to expand their lists. Many of them shell out serious money just to get a glimpse of rare birds. Birding trips usually require porters and guides, which can translate to income for locals.

Another good thing about birdwatching is there is no special infrastructure needed. Birders come for the birds, and they expect these birds to be in their natural homes, which, for Philippine endemics, usually mean the forests. In places without hotels, birders camp out. In places where there no roads, they ride horses or carabaos, or walk.

Then there's also the non-monetary benefit. Once the locals realize they have something special in their midst that people from across the world come to see, they are more likely to protect it. Protecting birds means protecting the forests they live in, which can have a multiplier effect for the goals of conservation.

Bird festivals
So back to the ABF...

The 1st ABF was also the 6th Philippine Bird Festival (PBF). The PBF is an annual event organized by WBCP to promote awareness of Philippine birds among school children. I've been a part of it since the first one in 2005.

WBCP members and guests from Borneo at
NAIA 3 before
the flight to Davao for the ABF

The first two PBFs were in Quezon City. Then we brought it to Cebu to highlight the critically endangered Cebu Flowerpecker, possibly the rarest bird in the world. Then we went to Puerto Princesa to showcase Palawan's endemics. After Palawan, the PBF came to Balanga, Bataan, which is a known pitstop for migratory birds.

This year's PBF in Davao focused on the Philippine Eagle, our national bird and one of the most critically endangered raptors in the world. It is among the important species on the list of birders who come to the Philippines. Davao City was picked to host the event because the Philippine Eagle Foundation is based there.

The Davao City government provided buses for ABF delegates

I was personally glad that we did the PBF in Davao this year. I hadn't been back in Davao since 1999, and to be at the Insular again was a fitting homecoming. Also, as a durian lover, the city was paradise for me. The post-event trip to Eden Garden Resort was a wonderful treat for us. But the highlight of my post-event itinerary was my solo trip to The Pearl Farm. More on that in another entry.

All photos here by Arnel B. Telesforo

Monday, October 25, 2010

A sharp mind must sit on a fit body

That's the mantra I go by these days.

I've been working my butt out since the guys at work decided to do 'The Biggest Loser' challenge. I have an excess 12lbs around my girth so I signed up. But more than losing fat and gaining muscles, my target is to get into a fitness regiment I can keep in the years to come.

I know that to keep my mind sharp, especially as I age, I need to keep my body healthy and fit. I'm just lucky to have a job that doesn't challenge me so much mentally and physically (yes, I love my job!), so I still have the energy to go to the gym after a day's work.

With my gym buddy Eleanor, I leave the office shortly after 4pm, and go either to the nearby Fitness First for weight training and group exercises, or to Sta. Cruz for Tai Chi or Wushu.

I've been a member of Fitness First since January this year, but I only got the interest to go daily when this fitness challenge at work started, and when my colleagues Em and Eleanor also signed up for FF membership. The three of us now keep the same work schedule so we can go to the gym together, although Em mostly does weights while Eleanor and I attend the group classes.

Our interest in Sta. Cruz was originally Tai Chi only. But since there are only two of us, the master had us join the Wushu group, and only taught us Tai Chi when he's free. It's fun! We get to watch the really good students showcase their moves during practice. The stretching, jumping and running around in the non-AC gym also make me feel more than adequately 'worked out.'

If I keep this up, I'd still win even if I don't lose any weight by mid-December, because by then I'll have a fitness routine I could do beyond that period.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I'll throw you to the dogs!!

I got a lot of anger to dump in here, but why bother? Not gonna change a thing. They don't know that they don't know, those fools!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Crazy things I do, part 3

Read Part 1
Read Part 2

We scheduled our dive weekend eight days after our last classroom session at Diver's Network. Our instructor, Luis Nazareno, said we had to confirm by Wednesday so he could make reservations at the dive resort.

It was knotty for us that week because Em and Eleanor both had colds, and we were not sure they would be in shape for the dive that weekend. We were worried about congestion because that could hurt underwater, and we didn't know how to equalize yet.

I also had a salon appointment that Wednesday that I intended to keep because of the 70% discount. I was aware of the hair science law that forbade hair washing for 3 days after a major treatment, and the crime I was premeditating was to be committed in salt water, which made it a capital offense.

But if we didn't do it that weekend, it would have been at least a month before we could get a weekend with Luis. And he did say there were new drugs out there that could take care of congestion, and our issue was more cough than congestion. So even if Eleanor's cough made a horrible echo in her chest, we gave Luis the green light that Wednesday. My hair would just have to be collateral damage.

Things in my bag
Friday night, right after we came home from the UP screening of the 'The Cove' (the docu about dolphins, which was perfect for the night before my first dive), I packed my bag. There were only three important items in my list: sleepwear, extra pair of contacts, and a swimsuit. The rest were my usual travel things (bathroom kit, sunblock, iPod).

All Luis said to bring was something to wear under the wetsuit. To me that meant only a basic swimsuit because that's all I had. I asked how many to bring, and Luis said that would depend on how hygienic I am. So I brought only one :)

The extra pair of contacts was reserve, in case I lost my current pair. I was warned we would be taking off our masks underwater, and there was a huge chance I'd lose my contacts.

It was past midnight when I finally felt okay about my preparations. So with my outfit for the next day and my backpack by my bedside, I set the alarm on my phone to 5:00am. Our arrangement was for Em and Eleanor to meet up with Luis at Diver's Network at 5:30, and the three of them will take Luis' truck and pick me up at the Buendia Shell station. And so I went to bed happy and excited.

And the next thing I knew, I was looking at the wall clock and it was 5:28. The alarm didn't go off! I forgot to set it to a weekend. I reached out for my phone and texted Em that I was on my way, which was technically a lie. But I figured that if I could change and step out of my front door in 3mins flat, I could turn it into truth. And I did. To keep the long story short, I got to the meeting point all of 7mins before they did.

The road south
The drive to Diver's Sanctuary in Batangas was an easy 3hrs, counting in the breakfast stop at the SLEX McDo. We went via Tagaytay, which turned out to be a scenic route.

Em, who was seated shotgun, was asleep most of the way. Eleanor, who was still nursing a cough, also took short naps. I felt somewhat drowsy, too, but I didn't fall asleep because of the McDo coffee.

Also, I didn't want our driver to be the only one awake, partly because I thought that was rude, and also because I sensed he was probably as drowsy as we were. And so to keep myself awake, I watched the view go by--gates to tech parks, pineapple farms, the Taal lake and volcano, and people going about their business. I also tried to make conversation with Luis to make sure he was alert. He was chugging C2 green all the way, and I didn't know if that was a good sign.

And finally we got to the town of Bauan (I didn't know that was its name until Luis had us write it on our dive logs). We stopped at a parking lot. Luis said the resort was just around the corner. But--surprise, surprise--we had to ride a motorboat to get there. I was suddenly thankful that we rode with Luis. We would have gotten lost if we were on our own, even with detailed directions.

We unloaded our stuff and waited for our boat. It was midmorning and the sun was nice and warm. Luis mentioned something about us being lucky because his class just the day before had to dive in gloomy weather. I agreed.

The boat ride to the resort was short. The resort itself was unremarkable. I thought it had the look and feel of a spacious garage. But I soon found out it was perfect that way. Divers spend a lot of their time underwater, not lounging around the resort grounds. And they tend to make a mess when they're on the surface--wet stuff, dripping gear, tanks that need refilling, etc.

The Diver's Sanctuary's cafeteria looked out to a not-so-breathtaking view, but you knew there's a busy traffic of divers just beneath the sleepy surface.

View from the cafeteria: Our rooms were in that structure to the left of the blue building. The rooms were basic and clean, but we barely spent time there.

How I felt
I wanted this blog entry to be about the actual dive lessons, but right now I don't remember the details of those. I only recall how I felt--like I was in a fat camp. At least that was how I imagined being in a fat camp would feel like.

The challenge for me was two-fold: I had to overcome my physical limitations--tiredness, slow reflexes, and excess poundage; and my psychological issues--fear and lack of confidence.

I already mentioned in a previous entry my tendency to be overcautious, which I attribute to age. Ironically, it was Luis, who didn't really know me apart from my name, age, and contact details, who made me realize I had that issue. At one point, perhaps tired of all my questions, he told me to stop overthinking and overanalyzing, and to just relax and enjoy the experience. From then on I had a name for my problem: overthinking and overanalyzing.

Thankfully, by our last dive that weekend, I actually stopped thinking about what I was doing, and just did it. The physical part was easy once the mind part got sorted out. And that's how diving started to grow on me.

Dive drills
But back to the lessons, here's what I remember...

The first thing we did was try on and pick the equipment we needed--masks, BCDs, regulators, fins and wet suits. But we didn't put them on yet. Luis asked us to get into the pool first and show him that we could float for--was it 20mins? I don't remember now. He explained that it would be irresponsible if he didn't make sure we could handle ourselves in water before he let us dive.

And so we showed him we could float. When Luis went to get something, a diver nearby remarked that our instructor sounded strict. I thought it was better that way. Still I was relieved it was just a floating drill. I was afraid he'd ask us to do laps.

After the floating part, we got out of the pool, and Luis showed us how to attach the regulator to the BCD and the air tank, how to check our air tanks and the air quality, how to read the gauges, how to balance weights, and how to put on our wet suits. These may sound easy but they weren't. There was a lot to remember, and some steps actually required physical strength--a full dive setup can weigh up to 25kgs on the surface!

'Lefty-loosy, righty-tighty': Once the regulator was attached to the tank, we opened the valve by turning it leftward (counterclockwise) all the way, and then half-a-turn rightward (clockwise).

Luis said that in the Philippines, a lot of the pre-dive checks and preparations are done by the dive resort staff. But if we dive abroad, we have to do everything ourselves. Even if I didn't plan to dive ever without a knowledgeable dive master, I'm still glad we did the pre-dive preparations. It made me understand the whole process, and understanding helped calm my nerves.

So after we put on our wet suits and BCDs, the lessons started. Basically, we did drills in the pool first, and we repeated these in open water. Here's what I remember we did (not listed in the order we actually did them--everything was a blur, and I remember only bits now):
  • Remove our regulator, retrieve it, put it back in our mouth and purge it
  • Remove our mask, put it back on, and clear it of water (this was particularly challenging for me because I had my contacts on, so I had to close my eyes all the way)
  • Remove our BCD and put it back on (we did one version on the surface, which to me was harder because we had to balance ourselves on top of the floating BCD, before we could put it back on)
  • Remove our weight belt and put it back on
  • Switch from regulator to snorkel (on the surface)
  • Swim without a mask
  • Swim without a regulator (I think we only did this in the pool)
  • Simulate a quick solution for leg cramps (this, too)
  • Retrieve an object from the pool floor (and this)
  • Simulate an emergency ascent (No Air Can Be Bad?)
  • Hover (where I failed horribly)
  • Find our way using a compass
  • Check one another's equipment--BWRAF
  • Simulate emergency measures (on the surface--we had to push our 'injured' buddy to the shore)
  • Experience how it felt to run out of air (not pleasant!)
I may have missed other drills we did, but my list pretty much covers the memorable parts. Everything was done underwater, both in the pool and in open water, except where I indicated otherwise.

Sea critters
But the most amazing thing about that weekend was seeing underwater creatures up close. I've snorkeled in nice places before, and I know what the underwater world looks like, but only from the top view. This time I actually sat on the seabed and examined a sea cucumber. Luis picked it up and had me touch it. It looked like a huge caterpillar, and was as soft, too.

We also saw a pair of lovely sea moths. Luis said they were rare, and we were lucky to have chanced upon them. They looked like they had wings and were actually 'flying' underwater. Here's a video of these cute creatures on YouTube (NOTE: I don't own this video. I linked to it just so we'll have an idea of how the sea moths look).

We also saw what Luis IDed as a Flying Gurnard, another sea creature that had wing-link body parts. This one's not so rare, but it was no less amazing. I wish I had an underwater camera (and knew how to wield it while hovering) to document everything.

Other creatures we saw were a lion fish, schools of clown fish, and other colorful species I didn't bother to ask Luis to ID. There were lots of corals and marine fauna I was dying to examine, but I thought I'd read about them first. Luis himself saw some juvenile White-tipped Sharks that weekend. Good thing they didn't come out when we were diving around the ravine where they were hiding.

Packing up
After our last lesson on the 2nd day, we rinsed our wet suits and dive gear, the way Luis had shown us the day before. We showered, packed our personal stuff, and settled the resort bills. By the time we were done and ready to go, it was after sundown.

We rinsed and put away our dive gear at the end of the day.

The boat picked us up and took us to the parking lot where we left Luis' truck. After loading up all the dive equipment, we were off. We stopped for dinner at a pizza place in Tagaytay called Carlo's. There Luis showed us how to log our dives in a tiny red logbook. He also showed us his dive computer and what it could do.

By the time we left the pizza place, we were too full and tired to talk, so everyone was mostly quiet on the way to Manila. I felt sorry for Luis who had to drive. But I was too wrecked to make any more conversation. That weekend felt longer than 2 days, and we still had to go to work the next day.

Our class: Em, myself, Shifu (Luis), and Eleanor

But looking back now, that weekend was really fun. The diving drills were actually easy. I've been swimming since I was kid (I grew up just 10mins from the beach), and I'm generally comfortable in water. I don't understand why I felt so edgy at first. The rest of that week I couldn't stop thinking about the next dive. And I did dive again two weeks after--at The Pearl Farm in Samal, Davao. But that's for another entry.

All photos here are by Eleanor Joy Tan.

Read Part 1
Read Part 2

1st Asian Bird Fair/6th Philippine Bird Festival

I will be in Davao City for the 1st Asian Bird Fair/6th Philippine Bird Festival this weekend. The event will run from September 24 to 25 at the Insular Waterfront Hotel. There will be interesting lectures on birds, birdwatching, ecotourism and more. Perfect for students and educators. FREE ADMISSION!

Those of you reading this who are from Davao, or have friends and relatives in Davao, please spread the word.

Here's the video teaser for the event.

This is organized by the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, of which I have been a member since 2004, and the Davao City government.

I will leave with the bird club folks on Thursday noon but will come back alone early on Tuesday. I'll be heading straight to work by then, as per my usual MO. I'm hoping to catch some diving Monday morning, but I'm still waiting for a callback from the dive resort.

Those of you waiting for the 3rd installment of the 'Crazy things I do' series that chronicled my dive lessons, I beg for your indulgence. I so want to write it but I have a long-overdue commitment that I have yet to fulfill, and I swore to myself that until I get that out of the way, I won't do anything fun. Please bear with me.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Crazy things I do, part 2

So we decided to give diving a go. Luis, the instructor, said we could pay for our books first--that's P3K each--and the rest before the weekend dive. Em, the sweetheart that he is, volunteered to deliver our payment and pick up the books from Diver's Network. When I got back from a long weekend, my PADI Open Water Diver Manual was already on my desk. And there was no turning back.

That evening, I gingerly unwrapped my book of the clear plastic packaging. Browsing the contents, my impression was, wow, there’s so much to learn! Do I still have space in my brain for this? Am I fit enough? Are my reflexes still up to the challenge?

The book
The book cover was blue with pictures of beautiful people in diving gear, smiling and looking like they were enjoying themselves. There was a table and a dive planning guide enclosed, but at that time I had no idea what they were for. But the table had numbers on it, and I thought, dang, there's math involved.

Here's the PADI dive manual, with the Dive Planner and the table. Our instructor had a jumbo version of the table that was easier to read. BTW, I filched this image from the Net. If it's yours and it bothers you that it's here, let me know and I'll take it down.

Inside, the lessons were presented simply and logically. As a content specialist working in the learning and development industry, I was impressed by how the content was designed. The language was accessible and the layout was easy on the eyes. It was optimized for self-study. Every few pages, there were self tests. At the end of each section--there were five--was an assessment, which the student had to complete, sign, and submit to the instructor.

So on to the lessons. Wednesday, August 25, I tried to come to work an hour earlier, as we have agreed. I failed, of course. So leaving early felt awkward. But Em, Eleanor and I are ninjas, and so we were at Diver's Network before 5:30pm.

Our classroom was a cozy office with a table and a whiteboard. I thought our class of three was just perfect. If there were more of us, plus the instructor, our cubbyhole would have been too crowded.

The lessons
And so the lessons began. If I wondered at first how we could go through all the lessons in 5-6hrs, I soon found out. We went straight to the assessment pages and went through each question. The questions became the instructor's talking points, which did save a lot of time. It was assumed that the students have read, or at least scanned, the lesson pages. We had a short assessment at the end of each section. The items we missed became takeoff points for further discussion.

Because I didn't do much pre-reading, I was dependent on the instructor's lecture. I was the annoying orange who asked all questions from the top of her head, even before she thought them out. I figured that the more questions I asked, the more I would know. And that the more I knew, the less scared I would be. But it didn't really work that way. I was still uneasy about the whole thing, even after the questions. And asking questions just led to more questions.

The instructor
Thankfully, our instructor was up to the challenge. Luis Nazareno fielded my half-baked questions like a sport. His manner was courteous, composed, and confident, and he always ended his answers with encouragement. Let me explain why this is important, especially to people like me who are of a certain age, and are therefore overcautious.

Learning to dive, at least to me, is like learning to drive. If I didn't do it right, I could potentially maim or kill myself, or other people. Plus, I am aware that at my age, my reflexes are not as quick anymore, and I don't heal as quickly when injured. In other words, I'm not very confident about diving. So if you gave me an instructor who sounded unsure of himself, or someone who didn't exude or inspire confidence, I'd just walk all over him--on my way to the door.

That that didn't happen says a lot about Luis. The instructor matters not just in the overall learning experience, but in the student's psychological preparation as well. And Luis has delivered on both, even if he had to chug mugfuls of warm Coke Zero in between.

And so our first classroom session ended. We got three out of five sections out of the way. We only had to do two more.

The next day, I came to work late again. And leaving early was more awkward now because I did it two days in a row. And this time it was raining really hard. But we still managed to slip out smoothly, and Em was able to maneuver through Edsa despite the low visibility. That was his first time to drive in the rain without supervision. To his credit, he was also able to park in front of Diver's Network unassisted, and didn't run over a garbage bin or a pole. If anything, this diving adventure forced us to get out of our comfort zones and take on normal-people responsibilities.

The dive table
On to the second classroom session. We did the same thing: went through the questions in the assessment page and discussed the concepts. For some, there were instructional videos. The challenging part was about dive planning, where we computed the needed surface interval for multiple dives. This was where the table with numbers figured. There was no math, but there was a formula we had to apply. The tricky part was understanding the backbone of the concept--why we needed to do it and how each step related to the next. Once I got that out of the way, working the formula was easy.

When we were done with the 5th section, Luis gave us time to get some refreshments, because we were to take a real assessment afterward. By real I mean we had to do it without our instructor's coaching, and there was a passing score. That scared me a bit. Luis tried to assure us that no one ever failed the assessment. Still I had that lingering concern that I might be the first.

We went to a nearby Kopi Roti. Their dumplings were surprisingly good. I felt my brain going jelly so I also ordered coffee for takeout. The coffee turned out to be stronger than I'm used to, so when I got back I felt my hands were shaky and my heart was palpitating. But that could have been my nerves.

The assessment
It was a 50-item test with a passing score of 38. I was the last one to finish because it took me a while to recall some things. I knew the information I needed was filed somewhere in my brain, but my retrieval was slow. It clearly wasn't a quad-core moment for me. But I waited, and thankfully the answers came. I scored 44. The six items I missed were either not discussed during the lectures (they were in the book, but I didn't go very far reading it), or they felt like trick questions. But the score didn't really matter to me. The important thing was I passed.

We discussed the items we missed. Then Luis cut out the assessment pages from our books. These were the ones he helped us answer during the lecture. My assessment pages were messy because I wrote notes all over them. Too bad Luis had to take them.

And so ended our classroom sessions. We scheduled our confined and open water dive weekend with Luis, and we were done. I'll write about the weekend in my next entry.

Read Part 1
Read Part 3

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Crazy things I do, part 1

Read Part 2
Read Part 3

Sometimes it pays to give in to compulsion. Because I didn't think too much about my choices, now I'm a certified open water diver.

It started with talk of going skydiving. But after a number of dead-end queries, we put that one off. The next accessible option was to go scuba diving. And for that Em found a lot of resources.

After looking over the choices of dive instructors online, he picked a dude named Tomas Morato, who runs a dive shop called Diver's Network at--and this is uncanny--Tomas Morato Ave. in QC. The shop is just 15mins away from the office, so we decided to drop a visit one lunchtime. Tom wasn't there, and instead we met another instructor, Luis Nazareno, who answered all our queries like a seasoned interviewee.

Once we had the information we needed--basically the costs (PhP11.5K each for our group of three, plus the resort fee of PhP3.9K each for a weekend) and the schedule (5-6hrs of classroom session and one weekend of confined and open water dives)--there was only one decision left to make: to dive or not to dive.

So over lunch at Brothers Burger across Diver's Network, Em, Eleanor and I mulled it over. I had known all along I wanted to do it. I've been birdwatching for 6yrs now and many of the birding sites I visit are also dive sites, or have dive sites nearby. In fact, there have always been more divers than birders around, and it was a pity that for all the resources I spent to get to those places, I could do only one thing.

I also realized that in the delicate web of life, avian biodiversity is somehow connected to marine biodiversity. And if birds have managed to awe me, I expect marine wildlife to be amazing as well. I've seen enough David Attenborough documentaries to doubt that.

So the decision was made for me. And I didn't even stop to consider my budget, or my schedule, or my physical fitness, or the fact that I was about to make a salon appointment for my hair treatment. I just gave a yes. As did Em and Eleanor, thankfully.

The next thing we had to decide on was when we wanted to do it. It was tricky because classroom sessions all had to be done on weekdays because the instructors were all diving on weekends. Luis did say we could arrange for an after-hours schedule or do the classroom part in one go. But at that time we had to consider the schedule of Ryan, supposedly the 4th group member, who had to come from Makati. But in the end Ryan had to skip, so only the three of us had to sync our schedules.

For me, that meant coming to work at least an hour earlier so we can go early and be at Diver's Network by 5:30pm. That would give us until 8:30pm or 9pm. And we planned to distribute the classroom sessions over 2 consecutive days. We picked August 25 and 26, Wednesday and Thursday. And for our weekend dive, we picked September 4 and 5, the weekend of the next payday, and also the only weekend in September that Luis was free.

And so everything was set. All we had to do was show up for our lessons. I will write about that in my next entry.

Read Part 2
Read Part 3

Monday, August 30, 2010

'I need a dump truck to unload my head'

That's a line from Bob Dylan's From A Buick 6, which was alluded to in a friend's FB status today. He posted some lines from his new song, and somehow was able to weave this in. I never really related to that Dylan song, but that line so sweetly articulated my state of mind at the moment. Thus, this blog entry with it in the title.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Lightness of being

People often mistake me for nice and sweet. At least people in Manila. The culprit's my accent. I find it funny when people get shocked to discover that I'm actually very mean and dark. Back home, people who know me would laugh at the suggestion that I'm sweet. Truth is, I feel like puking when people say that. Other times I get pissed.

But lately, I'm finding it easier to not disappoint them. I find that it actually works to my advantage--them thinking I'm nice. And I don't mean that in a self-serving way. What I'm saying is, I actually draw inspiration from their expectations. I get motivated to be nice and polite, to see the good in people, and to not think ill of anyone. And I find that it makes me like myself better. I feel light and positive, like a Jedi.

Is this age kicking in? Am I finally maturing? Or, will I cringe when I read this entry tomorrow?

Lightness and positivity aside, I accomplished something very important today: I passed the exam for my open water diver's license. It wasn't exactly a walk in the park, considering that we were usually very tired during the classroom sessions, so I'm really proud of my performance. Or perhaps I'm just relieved to know I still have it. These past months I've been feeling slow and stupid. I don't absorb new learning as easily anymore. I blame age, but then again, it could be my diet.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Consolation prize

Okay, by this time the whole universe knows the Ms. Universe crown almost sat on Ms. Philippines Venus Raj's head today. But that's a big almost. At 4th runner-up, she was three steps behind the title winner, Ms. Mexico.

So why does it deserve a mid-workday entry here?

First, because I have nothing to do and 6pm is 68mins away. And second, like most Filipinos, I was hoping for some good news today to wash down the bitter taste of last night's national nightmare. But it wasn't meant to be. The almost good news is just not enough to wipe away the country's grief and shame.

But I don't want to dwell there. I'm going now. Have to see a doc.

I Got Life

I got life, mother
I got laughs, sister
I got freedom, brother
I got good times, man

I got crazy ways, daughter
I got million-dollar charm, cousin
I got headaches and toothaches
And bad times too
Like you

I got my hair
I got my head
I got my brains
I got my ears
I got my eyes
I got my nose
I got my mouth
I got my teeth
I got my tongue
I got my chin
I got my neck
I got my tits
I got my heart
I got my soul
I got my back
I got my ass
I got my arms
I got my hands
I got my fingers
Got my legs
I got my feet
I got my toes
I got my liver
Got my blood

I got my guts (I got my guts)
I got my muscles (muscles)
I got life (life)
Life (life)
Life (life)

- From the Broadway musical 'Hair' (Nina Simone has a mean cover)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Am I too drunk on Hollywood trash?

Today's protracted hostage drama in Luneta didn't end well. Lives were wasted. Blame's flying around like the proverbial shit that hit the fan. I, too, spewed a few mouthfuls laced with invectives, especially at the 'maso' portion. Mga h!jo de put@! Saka l!nt! nila! Where did you leave your brains today?

I criticized left and right, like I was a some big-time crisis management consultant.

Why didn't a sniper take him out when he was standing by the bus door earlier? Were the authorities being soft on a fellow uniformed man? Were they perhaps sympathetic to his cause, regardless of how stupid his means of getting it out?

Why didn't the police come prepared with masks if they knew they were to use tear gas? They looked stupid and unprofessional holding hankies over their faces. They didn't inspire confidence, to say the least. Talk about getting caught with your pants down while the world watches!

Why didn't anyone think of pulling out the spec sheet for the bus? The police obviously didn't know about the shatter-proof windows and the emergency door. I kept posting comments on FB about how operations should always be backed by relevant intel, and about how this one clearly wasn't.

Why didn't they immediately cordon off the site to keep people away? Not only so they won't get in the way of police operations, but for their own safety. The media and the curious onlookers (mga 'usisero,' as they're called here) obviously got in the way. And the whole world saw that.

I had a lot more nasty things to say, the nasty person that I am and this being the mother of all nasty hostage crises I've ever 'witnessed' by proxy (through media). But now that the smoke has cleared, and I've calmed down somewhat, I realized a few things:

  • This is not a plot from a Tom Clancy novel, and the maneuvers I've read in Rainbow Six may not be workable in actual situations where real lives are at stake. A real-life hostage situation is always volatile. You can never predict where it will lead. There is no simple if-and-then logic at work, especially since hostage takers are usually suicidal and impulsive and are rarely rational.
  • The ground police team did what they could--which, it turned out, wasn't much--given the resources at their disposal and the time constraint. Except for what I heard on the radio, and read from tweets and blogs and FB posts, I wasn't privy to the circumstances that led them to do what they did, and not do what I thought they should have done. But a postmortem of the incident should be in order, not so much for blame pinning but so they could better prepare for similar cases in the future.

  • The police is still smarting from accusations of brutality and overkill, that's why they allowed the media to cover the negotiations. They made sure there was transparency so they wouldn't be accused of excessive use of force or human rights violations, in case they saved the hostages but ended up with a dead hostage-taker.

    Remember that military officer who hijacked the flight control tower some years back? No one else was hurt but he ended up dead. The police was accused of excessive use of force. But what would have justified the use of such force? A downed airplane? Unfortunately, such was the case today. Because some hostages were killed and others were hurt, the killing of the hostage-taker was justified in everyone's eyes.
Now I'm not trying to be an apologist for the police here. No way! That would be like being Lindsay Lohan's publicist, except I don't get paid. But I just thought it would be fair to everyone if I took a step backward and look at my initial viewpoint critically. In short, debate with myself. So there!

But to wrap this up, I noticed there's one missing piece in this puzzle. How come the Palace is silent? The world just saw us shit in our pants and now we're stinking up the place. Where is PNoy? I understand if he chose to distance himself while the crisis was ongoing, but it's over now, and we are suffering from a collective national shame! Where the f*ck are you?!

Oh boy, there's nasty me again.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


I got rose-colored toes and bloody fingernails. Had the toes done by a professional at David's-Robinson's Galleria for P130+tip, and the nails by Jovy at home for zilch. And looking at them closely, yes, there's a difference. I want my nails redone by a pro, but how do I do that without hurting Jovy's feelings? And is there really a need to spend some more just to see color on my nails, which will look perfect only for 2 days max?

Geez, the issues I'm concerned with these days. But while I'm at it...

I want to say to James Yap that the breakdown of his marriage may yet be the best thing that happened in his life. He has so much future ahead of him, and he deserves better. I didn't know him from Adam until the day he married that fat game show host, but now that they're all over the news, and I've heard his mom speak in his defense, I have somehow formed my opinion of him--accurate or not, doesn't really matter.

And I want to say this to Kris Aquino: Shut your pie hole, b*tch! The more you yak about your sad existence on TV, the more you sink in your own sh*t. Stop insinuating that James Yap is solely responsible for the failure of your sham of a marriage. You and he were doomed from the start, and you don't have to be smart to see that.

But between you two, it was you who stood to gain from that ill-advised union. You, with your colorful past and the unresolved father issues. Sure you had more money and a (somewhat sullied) pedigree, but what did he need those for? He was already a promising basketball star with a respectable salary when you met him. He was not doing so bad. He could have met someone more deserving of him than you, and by that I mean any Filipina under 30 with a pleasing personality.

But you had to enter the picture and ruin his life, you sl*t! And now you shamelessly project yourself as the aggrieved party. Just listen to yourself, and see if you won't make yourself want to kill you.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reunited with Lyra and Pan

Not because I particularly liked 'His Dark Materials' but because the audio book production is excellent. Better than the novel itself. It could be the distinctly British accent of the narrator and voice actors. Along with the slow pace of the novel--almost boring actually--it makes the book a great bedside 'read.'

I wish the people behind this production would do a better novel. Jesse Bernstein of the Percy Jackson series is still among my favorites. He can bring to life a heavy fantasy story all by his lonesome. He did all the parts himself. But he is best as Percy, and I couldn't imagine a better Percy. His delivery of Percy's lines shaped Percy's character in my mind, and made the actor in the film adaptation seem lame.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Speaking of overrated...

I rarely get disappointed when my expectations are low, but damn you, DB! When I picked up your book I expected to at least be gripped by suspense, not by rage at how your bad writing ruined a promising plot. And this comes from someone so lowbrow she actually has a Twilight blog.

It was so predictable that that bit of drama about the villain's true identity at the end almost made me laugh, because I smelled that 'twist' from the onset. Geez! And for supposedly smart people--a Harvard professor and a bleeding-edge scientist--the characters made stupid decisions. Case in point: if you knew the information you had is the only thing keeping you alive, would you reveal it and expect to live? Guess what... that's exactly what the main protagonist did! And the information he revealed, of course, proved to be pivotal in the plot, as it set in motion the sequence of events that the reader was led to believe could end in a cosmic Armageddon.

That part about the protagonist revealing crucial information at the threat of death was just an obvious cop out, an indicator of a lack of sound technique on the part of the storyteller. It's such a pity because the plot had a lot of promise. It was also obviously well researched. It had the potential to spark curiosity, to trigger questions of long-held beliefs, but that opportunity was wasted. Now, why would anyone take seriously the part that tried to debunk popular beliefs, when the characters that challenged these beliefs were obviously just caricatures of real people? That's what I mean about the bad writing distracting readers from whatever nuggets of gold are in the book.

Overall, reading it felt like watching a B-movie. No, worse--it felt like watching that ultimate bomber, 'Legion.'