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