Immortal Fish, Phosphor Bubbles

Friday, December 4, 2009


These fish will never go hungry, never dig up the gravel and cloud the water, never poop and never die.  Because they’re 3D digital constructs, that’s why!

This is a sample of Dream Aquarium, a virtual aquarium screensaver – and apparently one of myriads available nowadays.  As someone who likes to stare into an aquarium especially when I get writers’ block, having a digital aquarium right on my desktop is a nifty and relaxing convenience, without the problems of a real aquarium. 

Yes, I’ll never have the satisfaction of seeing my fish grow or breed, but on the other hand I won’t have to clean the glass, nor worry about the Ph of the water, or who’ll feed my pets when I go out of town.  I won’t have to worry that the new fish I introduced considers my current tank residents part of the menu or vice versa, or that Fish A likes its water acidic and Fish B likes it alkaline.  And these Archer Fish will never shoot out the lights – I’ve seen  that happen once with a real archer fish, it spotted a bug on the light bulb and zzzap! No more lights. 

Best of all, though, I’m not encouraging anyone to damage the coral reefs. Given my requirements and lifestyle, this virtual aquarium thing seems to be just the ticket for me.  If there’s just one thing I wish Dream Aquarium had, it would be the option to have saltwater fish models and a coral reef-themed tank.

Kublai’s Rock

Monday, November 23, 2009

07 exterior copyOnce upon a time, the great warlord Genghis Khan asked his generals, ‘What is best in life?’

One hulking northern barbarian said, ‘To crush your enemies, drive them before you, and hear the lamentation of their women!’

But wise Kublai, grandson of Genghis, said, ‘Wrong! What is best in life is a mug of ice-cold beer in the hand, great food in the belly, and rock music in the ear!’  And Genghis had to say, ‘That is good.’

08 interior copyThat hulking barbarian is some kind of Governator now, with all the woes of California sitting heavy on his troubled brow, but wise old Kublai rocks on at Kublai’s Rock, a hip and cozy restaurant and bar at the Magallanes commercial center in Makati.  Kublai’s Rock offers a well-stocked bar, an equally well-stocked Mongolian barbecue buffet – which is what Cat and I always have when we’re there – and a new discovery for us, some great ala carte dishes as well.

What can I say about the food? As soon as the dishes started coming out, Cat practically had to beat me off them with a stick to make me shoot them instead of tucking in right away! We got to shoot and sample five of Kublai’s signature dishes; the best-selling Barbarian Burger, excellent beer companions in the Spicy Chorizo Sisig and Seafood Combo, the very filling and tender KR Kababs, and even one for the health in the form of bite-size Laing.

03 barbarian burger copy

The Barbarian Burger is huge, easily the equivalent of three or four burgers from the major fastfood chains, and much beefier – in all senses of the word!  Truly something to satisfy an appetite gone berserk, by Crom! As if the burger wasn’t hefty enough, it comes with a side of thick-cut fries and crunchy onion rings.

02 chorizo sisig copyThe Chorizo Sisig was a sweet-and-spicy dish, basically skinless sausage in the Fil-Hispanic style – garlicky and peppery, just the way I like it – served on a sizzling plate with a topping of onion rings and sliced chilies.  Classic beer food, but I could have this for breakfast!

01 seafood combo copyThe sisig also went well with the Seafood Combo, another sizzling plate dish, this time of squid rings, shrimps and I believe clams, fried in tomato paste and spices then served topped with melted cheese.  Really rich and filling!

04 laing copyWith all these treats, the Laing made a very welcome side of vegetables.  Kublais’ Rock presents this classic Pinoy dish in an intriguingly new way, as bite-size rolls of taro leaves cooked in and topped with a rich, thick coconut cream sauce and garnished with red chilies.  My tastebuds having suffered permanent damage in India (grin), I would’ve welcomed even more of the chili garnish here. 

05 kabab copyFor Cat and I, the great star of the evening was the Kublai’s Rock Kababs.  Thick chunks of beef, pork and chicken grilled on skewers with mushrooms, green bell peppers, onions and tomatoes, and served with a sort of rice pilaf, this dish alone could easily satisfy two rather light eaters.  The meat was very tender and with a light, herby-peppery-smokey flavor that’ll make you scream for either of two things: Rice! or Beer! Me, I would’ve wanted both …

As the Governator said: I’ll be back.

Kublais’ Rock is open from 5:00pm to 2:00am every day, and frequently hosts viewings of major sports events where patrons can watch the action on their three widescreen plasma TVs.  Belgian beers are now also available at the bar.

Ondoy’s Insights, Part II

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

As a new storm develops off the east coast of Mindanao, threatening to bring more rains to flood-wracked Manila, I’ve been forced to think of how I should deal with future emergencies.  While my house came off OK, my street is in a low-lying area and we’re in a cul de sac that’s easily cut off by flooding. Water came within 2 inches of entering the house. I believe in preparing now for a flood that’s possibly worse than the last one.  And as Cat and I helped out the the CFC (Couples for Christ) center in Sucat, I also observed some things that bear thinking of for the next disaster.

Home Strategy:
I don’t quite foresee flooding here on a level with that experienced in Marikina or Cainta, as the density of houses is not as great and drainage probably better.  We have a roofdeck and my sister’s house next door is roomy and has a 2nd storey; no problem with where to run. My main problems will be isolation, as the floodwaters block the street, and loss of electricity over a period of several days. 

Solutions: lay in a stock of canned food and bottled water good for 2-3 days at least, draw up a checklist of what needs to be done/stuff to be moved should floodwaters enter the house, have some clothes ready packed, have a first aid kit with lots of disinfectant (for injuries, and if I have to wade out/in). That’s done. (Is this kind of planning easier because I’m a gamer? I think so. Games make you think strategically, and I think that’s as valuable as stuff you learn in college.)

Observations on Relief Program at CFC:
It was great to work with the volunteers at the CFC center, inspiring and kind of humbling to see that kind of bayanihan spirit still so vigorous.  So many donations, so many volunteers!  Filipinos do shine in adversity.  I think though that we can still improve the way we do volunteer relief work.

Item: I think we should reconsider the idea of sending flood victims instant noodle packs.  I seriously doubt if many of them have the facilities to cook or even heat water.  Same observation goes with oatmeal and rice. Perhaps we could focus on sending biscuits, and bread – stuff that people can eat without preparation or need for utensils.

I sort and pack food with the young volunteers Donating raw ingredients or stuff that needs preparation like instant noodles maybe should go to groups that are running soup kitchens.  Anton Sheker’s group also had a good idea – they prepared hardboiled eggs.  Thousands of eggs. Hardboiled eggs are a great relief food – they’re nutritious, they’re easy to eat, and they come in their own sanitary packaging.

If you’re planning to give cooked food, cook it in a way that maximizes shelf life.  You don’t know how long it will take for the food to reach the victims, so a dish that will spoil in just a few hours is sub-optimal.  The funny thing is, we Filipinos actually have the exact solution for this in our traditional culinary repertoire already! They’re called adobo and paksiw.  Cooking in vinegar practically pickles the food, letting it last for days even without refrigeration.

Item: Canned goods are only useful if they can be opened.  I wonder how many victims have can openers? Not many, I’d bet.  That’s why I told Cat to select only cans with easy-open tops for donation and for our own emergency rations.

Item: Not all PET bottles are equal.  Some brands come in relatively flimsy bottles, and we had bottles cracking and leaking as we packed them.  Bottled water for donation to relief efforts should be chosen for the sturdiness of their bottles as well as cost and quality. Also, I believe it’s far more useful to send 1-liter bottles.  Less waste afterward, for one, and more is better. 

All that plastic ... where will it end up?Item: Next time, perhaps advisories could be sent to would-be donors on what is appropriate to donate, and to sort the items to be given.  One of the overwhelming tasks facing the volunteers was the need to sort the great piles of clothing donated into packages by user – adult males, adult females, male children, female children.  Next I donate clothes I’ll put my shirts in one bag, shorts and pants in another, and Cathy will do the same with her items.]

The mountainous task of sorting clothes

Item: I think we could also have used more coordination.  One of the things local governments or homeowners’ associations can do in the future is to hold seminars on dealing with disaster, both as victims and as aid volunteers.  The people at the center were actually getting swamped with the number of donations and volunteers. 

If team leaders had been assigned to each task/area we could have been much more efficient.  I got assigned to pack food and water, and I was able to speed things up by organizing the young volunteers into an assembly line – A, ready the bag, B, you put in item1 and pass to C, who puts in item2, and so on until the pack is complete and ready for transport. Before I went in the kids were all over the place scrounging for items, each making up pack on their own.

Human conveyor belt!

Come to think of it, this is where training in organizations like the Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts or heck, even the much-dreaded CMT could’ve been put to good use.  I remember hating my CMT with a passion – what the heck was I supposed to learn baking my brains out in the sun in formation? If they’d used the time instead to do stuff like teach us CPR, basic rescue work, swimming and water rescue techniques, team-building and leadership, stuff like that, I would’ve  been much more motivated to attend my CMT classes.

I don’t think we can deny any longer that global warming has made our weather more violent.  And it’s going to get worse before it gets better, if at all.    Best thing to do is be prepared for the next blow.

And for that lesson – thank you, Ondoy.

Ondoy’s Insights, Part I

From TIME: “Last weekend's flood was in large part the result of the capital's poor drainage and sanitation systems, which have been neglected by several successive administrations in power. As Ketsana rained down upon Manila, sewers that were clogged up by plastic bags and other refuse led to roads becoming rivers and gardens lagoons. Video images of desperate people riding floating pontoons of garbage down inundated streets were a sign not just of the consequences of the flood, but also its causes….”

When will the Filipino people ever learn?

As Cat and I packed relief goods for the victims of Typhoon Ondoy (aka Ketsana), I had to comment on the irony of the situation.  The priority is to get those goods to the people who desperately need them as quickly as possible, and in a useful condition.  Plastic bags are a cheap and practical solution to this, as they’re light, cheap, and for packing food and bottles of drinking water, watertight. 

That last consideration has now gained in importance because the floodwaters in many districts have tested positive for E. coli bacteria. As I told Cat, I don’t think we have a choice right now but use plastic. The other side of the coin is that the relief goods may be coming packaged in the very things that will contribute to the next mega-flood. Moreover, a lot of the items come in – you guessed it, non-biodegradable plastic or foil wrappers.

I hope the affected people realize this and take care to dispose of the waste packaging properly.  I want to help. As one whose house was almost flooded, escaping by only 2 inches and perhaps an hour of rain, I have this distinct feeling of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ for the victims.  But the thought that I may be handing the weapon that will drive me out of my home to unwitting perpetrators sends a chill down my spine.

Ten Easy Things You Can Do for the Environment

Sunday, September 20, 2009

DSC06646I just blogged about participating in the International Coastal Cleanup, and while I hope more people join the succeeding ICC’s, I realize not everyone can. If you’re a concerned citizen of Mother Earth but lack the time or resources to join some of the more visible efforts, you can still do your share right at home.  Here are ten easy, common-sense things you can do to help protect the environment:

  1. Segregate your waste.  At the very least, segregate your biodegradable garbage – trimmings from meat, fruits and vegetables, spoiled food, paper or carton that’s been used to wrap food – from the dry/non-biodegradable stuff like plastic. Better yet, practice composting your organic waste if you like gardening.

  2. Don’t litter!  What does it cost you to find a trash can when you need one? A few calories’ worth of effort?  Compare that to the calories that would’ve nourished a child, if the plastic you threw away hadn’t killed that fish … Yes, that’s how much life can be connected.  Keep a plastic bag or small trash bin in your car, put your trash in there while you’re driving or traveling, and empty it when you get home. How easy is that?

  3. Be a responsible vacationist. When you travel, leave no litter behind you, and take home nothing that should remain in its natural environment. If you go to a beach, take care not to step on corals because this will damage them.  And no matter how tempting, don’t try to take any wildlife home. It’s unlikely you can keep it alive, whatever it is, and taking it from its environment means you’re not letting it breed.  
  4. Get your cat neutered, and better yet, keep it indoors. Stray cats are hell on our bird population.  The Philippines is one of the countries that has the most diverse bird populations, many of them unique to our islands.  As cats are very prolific and likely to become feral, they are in position to really threaten our wild birds.  So keep your cat where it can’t do harm to our wildlife, and keep it from filling the neighborhood with stray kittens!

  5. Buy groceries in bigger packages.  Even as we push for more eco-friendly packaging, we cannot help but get some of our necessities in plastic or styrofoam, etc.  But you create less waste if you buy less packaging – so buy in bigger quantities when you can.  The tingi system may seem cheaper, but only until you realize that a) the packaging costs more than the product in those tiny sachets; and b) it’s Mother Earth that pays the price in the end for all that plastic.

  6. Don’t be a consumer of endangered animals and plants.  You might say I’m not one of those, I never buy tiger skin or ivory anyway – but what about other products within your range?  From your dinner plate to your living room to your aquarium, ask yourself if there’s anything there that shouldn’t be. 

    • Don’t eat sharksfin, or other endangered species like the mameng (giant wrasse), or pawikan (sea turtle).  You’ll be doing yourself good too, as sharksfin tends to have high concentrations of mercury, and sea turtle meat is sometimes toxic.

    • Don’t use Chinese medicines that contain products like bear gall, rhino horn, tiger’s, er, privates, seahorses, and the like.

    • Don’t keep endangered species as pets.  If you want something other than a cat or dog, choose something that’s bred for the pet industry, not a wild-caught animal.  If it’s very unusual, chances are it comes from the wild.

    • If you’re an aquarist, ask reliable sources if the fish you want is farm-raised. Especially if you want to start a salt water aquarium. Some saltwater species can be bred in captivity now.  Most, though, cannot; buying them encourages, among other things, cyanide fishing.

    • Don’t purchase shells and corals when you go to a beach resort, or collect live ones. 

  7. Be a locavore.  Prefer to eat stuff that’s been grown or caught near where you are, and in season.  Save the imported stuff and out-of-season fruits for special occasions. Doing so not only gets you cheaper food, it means you’re not contributing to the carbon emissions caused by shipping that food from where it was produced to where you are.

  8. Replace your laundry soap with an eco-friendly organic soap, e.g. the Victoria brand laundry soap. 

  9. Reduce the time you keep your car’s engine idling. If you’re not going anywhere, turn the engine off. Keep your vehicle well-maintained, and prefer ‘cleaner’ fuels such as E-10.

  10. Spread the word. The more of us who take care of Mother Earth, the better off we’ll all be.

If you own a business:

If you own a commercial establishment like a restaurant, cafe, bar, resort, hotel, etc., make it easy for your guests to dispose of their trash. Provide marked trash cans at convenient locations.  You might see it as extra cost at first, but it actually makes a better impression on your customers.

If you own a farm, do make sure you have proper drainage and waste management. That river in back is not the place to channel your pigpen’s runoff! Yes, it’s extra cost – but it might be your kid that gets sick swimming at a contaminated  beach miles away, a beach contaminated by your farm’s runoff.  Even if your kids will never swim there, consider that you’ll still be affecting someone’s kids.

ICC 2009 at Anilao

Yellow-lipped sea krait. Image from wiki commons, used under the Creative Commons license

Ask me what I’ll remember most about this year’s International Coastal Cleanup, and I’ll have to say it’s this guy. 

For the first time since my childhood in Puerto Galera, I saw a sea snake – and this time not one immured in a net, but right out in the open with me.  First reaction – holy shit, it’s a sea snake, get a closer look! So I take off and swim toward it.  Fortunately common sense returned when I got right above it – it was only about 8 or 9 feet below me, hunting among the corals – for when it stopped its search among the crannies to stare at me, I realized I was looking at one of the most poisonous denizens of the reef. 

Yes, sea snakes are docile compared to their terrestrial cousins the cobras – but having no experience swimming with them, I had no idea what their limits were.  I backed off, and was able to continue observing it for some minutes before I looked up to see Cat about to enter the water, and I swam off to meet her. Cat tends to stop and tread water to clear her mask ever so often, and I was afraid she’d do it near this snake. 

But damn, that was one fascinating encounter. The yellow-lipped sea krait, for that’s what the snake I encountered was, is common throughout Southeast Asia. The pic I found of it (above) is of the Indonesian variety; are the kraits at Anilao a different sub-species? Because its snout looked more vividly yellow than in the picture.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I was in Anilao with Cat and her sister Arlene to participate in the ICC.  Not being certified scuba divers yet, Cat and I had to content ourselves with snorkeling in front of Planet Dive, and picking up whatever I could reach (which is about 20 or so feet).  Cat was literally left holding the bag.  The good news: there was hardly any trash in front of Planet Dive at all.  All I picked up were a freshly discarded PET soda bottle and some plastic food wrappers.

Boatmen in their new Caltex gear prepare for the diversThe other scuba teams toured the dive sites around Anilao, each team going to just one or two sites.  A surprise power interruption, announced only the day before, put a limitation on the cleanup – because there’d be no chance to refill until power returned late in the afternoon, depth for the divers was limited to 30 feet.  Fortunately this was also the depth where the greatest concentrations of trash were expected.  The divers set off Dive master Butch Javier with his findsThe teams made two dives, one before and another shortly after lunch.  As expected, a majority of the take was plastic in one form or another – grocery bags, toys, and Arlene’s group found no less than 18 disposable diapers in one spot. No kidding. Various dive sites also had differing levels of trash – Bubbles and Bebot’s, the dive sites Arlene’s group worked on, had relatively very little.  Mainit on the other hand seemed to suffer more, as the divers who’d gone there returned with laden bags.

Sorting and cataloguing the collected trash16 ... 17 ... 18 diapers!

But there’s good news, however. According to dive master Butch Javier, leader of the team Arlene was in, the amount of trash hauled in during the ICC over the past four years has dropped drastically.  Six years ago, Javier says, the teams would bring in sack after bulging sack, practically filling the beach in front of Planet Dive with sacks.  Now only a few bags are brought in. 

If you think you’re seeing a lot of Caltex logos here, you’re not mistaken.  Caltex Philippines has been a strong supporter of both travel and environmental initiatives, and I was very glad yet totally unsurprised to run into Caltex brand specialist Ickhoy de Leon overseeing Caltex’s participation in the event. 

Me with Ickhoy Along with Ickhoy were also some familiar faces from DPP – Tok Paler, BJ Hernandez, Momon Baula, Jiggie Alejandrino, and Kha Santia, to name only those I knew already.  Tok was badgering me to stay overnight, as we’d only planned a day trip, and I told him we would if it rained hard.  The road to Planet Dive can be risky in a hard rain, as it’s prone to landslides. Tok’s solution: let’s drink up and do some karaoke, that should bring in the rain!

In the end it did rain, but not too hard or long enough to prevent our going, rather to my regret.  We packed our gear and drove off just as the bar was opening and the after-event party getting started. Only later did I find out Arlene would’ve been amenable to an overnight … I should’ve convinced Cathy!

I have to say the development of dive resorts has been an improvement for Anilao.  With the local populace offered an alternative employment from fishing, the area could be declared a no-take zone, with very visible effect. The waters right in front of Planet Dive are simply teeming with marine life, right from the surf line.  And as divers tend to be more conscious of how they use the environment, there’s a lot less trash to be found here than off the more popular public beaches. I recall a conversation many years ago with the owner of El Capitan, the resort that is now Divers Sanctuary; she was telling me she was considering converting her property into a dive resort, because “binababoy ng customers yung lugar” (customers were messing up the place like pigs).  If the Filipino public want to continue enjoying their beaches, they should clean up their habits.


Cleaner waters and better environmental policies (and sticking to them!) will eventually open up more dive sites as our reefs bounce back.  As the world recovers from recession, divers from abroad will begin to look toward tropical Asia again – and if the Philippines can play its cards right, there’ll be jobs for people like this poor Badjao boy hawking pearls. 

I’ll be back next year to do my part – and I swear, it’ll be as a diver.

Photography Workshop in St Scho

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Cat and I had the pleasure of doing a photography workshop as part of these senior high students’ Visual Arts program.  Great fun! It’s such a pleasure to discover that some of these young people have an eye for making images, and as their teacher Louise Arnaldo told me, quite a few of them are planning to enter Fine Arts when they graduate.  Maybe some of them will become photographers too.

Cat and I seem to have found our niche, which jives in perfectly with what I do for Kodak here: acting as a bridge for people who’re interested in photography but are still using point-n-shoot cameras.  I have to say that some of the best photos that came out of this workshop were taken with point-n-shoots.  You may not have too many options, but they’re still a lot more than the Kodak Brownies and Instamatics photogs of my generation started with! It really all boils down to seeing light and excluding whatever doesn’t belong.

Great work, girls – no, make that great work, ladies!

Are Saltwater Aquariums Bad for the Environment?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I used to be an enthusiastic aquarist, and only the lack of space where I live now is keeping me from starting a new one.  But ever since I was a kid, I dreamed of having a saltwater aquarium; having grown up going to Puerto Galera every summer, I wanted to bring back a piece of that wonderful ocean experience with me. Turns out it may have been a good thing I never did get one.

Why? Well, I was wondering about this magnificent dragon-like fish, the ribbon eel, and in researching it, found some disturbing facts.  I was wondering what had happened to this fish, as I used to see a lot of them in aquariums in the 70’s and 80’s, but now I don’t; and I used to see them in Batangas when we’d go snorkeling there, and up to now I’ve yet to see one again in Anilao. Last time I saw a ribbon eel in the wild was in Bauan, off the El Capitan resort (now Divers’ Sanctuary), back in 1994.

Have they gotten scarcer? Have they simply lost popularity with aquarium keepers? Or worse – have they been overfished?

The latter may just be the answer. Up to now, most saltwater fish are sourced from the wild, unlike freshwater aquarium fish which now come from farms. Government officials will usually say this is good for the fishing communities, as it gives the fishermen an additional source of livelihood; but on the other hand it encourages destructive practices such as using cyanide to stun the fish (killing other organisms in the area), and overfishing the sensitive reef habitats.  (Here’s another article on cyanide fishing, this one focusing on the Hong Kong food market, and another from Australia, on why it’s a bad idea to buy cyanided fish.).

If you’ve ever gone snorkeling or diving, you’ll notice that some of the most beautiful fish are only seen in ones and twos, scattered across the reef.  In other words, there aren’t too many of those species on any one reef. Giving fishermen incentive to catch more of them – which is exactly what market forces do – can lead to unsustainable harvesting.

From an environmentalist’s point of view, a saltwater aquarium has many negatives: it encourages the destructive catching of reef fish; it adds to electrical consumption by its need for pumps, filters and lights, and in temperate regions, heating; and because some fish like the ribbon eel are very sensitive and hard to keep, fish mortality is often high.  Which in turn can drive even more buying, driving the cycle of overharvesting.

So: goodbye to my plans for a saltwater aquarium, and I’ll just use the money to get to Batangas. Where I’ll see more than I can keep in any aquarium, even if I were as rich as Henry Sy.  And when I do get space for a new aquarium, I’ll be happy to stock it with gouramis.

Encyclopedia of Earth

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A nice handy reference on the environment at Found it while browsing for info on Crown of Thorns Starfish, which I saw way too many of in Zambales last May.  Just hoping the troublesome buggers won’t be too numerous in Anilao …

Looking Forward to ICC 2009 in Anilao

It’s that time of year again when we take the beaches – to clean up after the more witless members of our obstinate species. It’s International Coastal Cleanup Day coming up, and this time it falls on a long weekend. Why is the ICC so important? Just look at this picture below:

Better yet, click on it (Nat Geo story on the Eastern Pacific Garbage Vortex).  This trash is just part of the great Sargasso Sea of debris floating practically right outside our backdoor. We’ll never be able to get it all – but if we can at least reduce the amount of additional waste that’s going there, it’ll help.  Help save our reefs, fish, turtles, seabirds – and let’s not forget, our fishermen and anyone who likes to eat fish.  And I happen to be partial to my tuna belly.

So it’s off to join the Scubasureros – and if I can’t dive on the day, I can at least cover the event, then snorkel after. I’m looking forward to another fun day, this time at Anilao with Cat and Cat’s sister Arlene.  With luck Cat’s new diving choirmates Jon and Jong will join us, and we can stay overnight for the long weekend. Not sure yet whether we’ll be there on the 19th or 20th though.

And not sure yet if the weather will cooperate! Last year’s ICC turned out nice and sunny despite a leadup of rain over the days previous, but this year has been the wettest September I can remember.

Mutton Rogan Josh @ New Bombay

It’s a bad thing when I leave home without a proper breakfast, if you ask my wife Cat. Because when I do it, I get ravenous – and we can end up a spending quite a bit eating out. But I was not to be denied, as I’d just finished an article and fixing my computer in an all-nighter, had a major meat craving, and I knew the original branch of New Bombay was literally a hop skip and jump away from our meeting.

So we end our meeting late in the afternoon, and I tell Cat I’m hungry.  We wrangle over where to eat, then I pop my secret weapon – the word “kabab.”  Instant yes!  

Well, we didn’t order kabab as originally intended, as I got fixated on the mutton rogan josh while Cat went for a dish of paneer tikka. I ordered chapatis to go with it, which in hindsight was a mistake – hungry as I was, rice would’ve been more filling.

But the food was incredible – never mind that New Bombay at De La Costa looks rather dingy, the food is real North Indian and there’s no cuisine I like better! The mutton was very flavorful, and there was a nice added crunch from the generous amount of chopped almonds thrown in. The only complaint I had with it was the presence of many small sharp bones – the price I guess of eating the bonier cuts of mutton.  The paneer tikka was also great, especially with coriander chutney as dip.  Hungry as I was, I ended up ordering a side of samosas too – and again, those were great. Definitely eating there again!

Epilogue: got to chatting with my old friend Vimla, and she’s a fan of the rogan josh and korma mixes from Santi’s, and she gets her yogurt supply from New Bombay itself.  Gotta try those!

The Magnetic Mountain Points Home

Among the tales that captured my imagination in childhood, the maritime adventures from the Arabian Nights stand out as among the most inspiring.  They fed my love of the sea and my eternal craving for sensawunda, and they still do til now.  The Sea Rovers of Syrene setting is inspired by this.

sindbad-1Among those tales, one of the most fascinating elements for me is the legend of the Magnetic Mountain, featured in the story of the Third Kalender Prince.  The Magnetic Mountain was a perilous landmark for sailors, for coming too near was said to draw out the iron nails from a ship causing its timbers to come apart.  Only when the Kalender Prince shot down an idol of a rider in brass with a bow of brass and lead arrows did the menace come to an end.

Now I’ve always known that many of the Arabian Nights voyages were to Southeast Asian waters, but little did I know how close to home this legend was to bring me.  When doing my research for Syrene I came to the conclusion that the Magnetic Mountain story was a fantastic justification for Indo-Arabian ship construction vs. Western and Chinese, the former having hulls ‘sewn’ together with rope while the latter used iron nails.  Ships of this ‘sewn’ construction were apparently better at surviving going aground or colliding with submerged reefs, always a danger in the shallow tropical seas where the Arab mariners traded. The flexible sewn timbers would bend and spring back, while rigidly nailed timbers would shatter.

This was the conclusion of James Taylor in his article for the British Yemeni Society:

According to al-Jahiz, in the last decade of the 7th century CE, al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf ath-Thaqafi, the iron handed Marwanid viceroy of Iraq, tried to introduce flat-bottomed, nailed ships like those of the Mediterranean to the waters of the Arabian Gulf. The experiment failed because experience had taught Arab seamen that the ships they were used to, in which the planks were fastened together with coir ropes and daubed with grease, were better equipped to withstand the frequent groundings and collisions with the sandbanks and submerged reefs that abound in the inshore waters of the Red Sea and the Gulf.

But what of the specific landmark, and the action of shooting at something to dispel the evil?  I found this blog post only yesterday, and it was an eye-opener.  Apparently there were indeed  seamounts in the Philippine archipelago where magnetic anomalies caused compasses to go wild, and rough water nearby spelled fatal danger for any ship that made a navigational error here.  As Spanish historian Pedro Chirino relates:

In the island of Mindanao between La Canela and the river, a great promontory projects from a rugged and steep coast; always at these points there is a heavy sea, making it both difficult and dangerous to double them. When passing by this headland, the natives, as it was so steep, offered their arrows, discharging them with such force that they penetrated the rock itself. This they did as a sacrifice, that a safe passage might be accorded them

Compare this to the Arabian Nights version:

On hearing this the pilot grew white, and, beating his breast, he cried, "Oh, sir, we are lost, lost!" till the ship's crew trembled at they knew not what. When he had recovered himself a little, and was able to explain the cause of his terror, he replied, in answer to my question, that we had drifted far out of our course, and that the following day about noon we should come near that mass of darkness, which, said he, is nothing but the famous Black Mountain. This mountain is composed of adamant, which attracts to itself all the iron and nails in your ship; and as we are helplessly drawn nearer, the force of attraction will become so great that the iron and nails will fall out of the ships and cling to the mountain, and the ships will sink to the bottom with all that are in them. This it is that causes the side of the mountain towards the sea to appear of such a dense blackness (Lang 1898, 102-3).

The prince then dreams that he must dig up a brass bow and arrows, and shoot down a brass horseman that is on top of the mountain.  If you account for the story becoming distorted in the telling, with the act of shooting at the mountain becoming an attack on its guardian instead of a propitiatory offering, this jives perfectly with Chirino’s account. 

A legend more than a thousand years old, that first came to me through the Arabian Nights, now revealed to come from practically just outside my door.  How’s that for inspiring a sense of wonder!

Note: the blog of Paul Manansala, a Filipino researcher, has many interesting articles on the ancient Philippines and its maritime links with the rest of Asia.  Very interesting reading!

Celebrate the Sea 2009

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The long weekend of June 12-14 was a blast (save for Saturday, which I spent sick dangit), as Cat and I got to attend Celebrate the Sea 2009 and meet one of my personal heroes in photography and exploration.  I’m talking about David Doubilet, whose photos in National Geo have been inspiring me since I was in high school. 

Ocean Geo managing editor Joe Moreira and Usec Cynthia Carrion Joe Moreira opens the forum on Changing the Face of Terror Cinematographer Peter Scoones speaks his mind Cinematographer Leandro Blanco speaks; beside him are Joe Moreira and Jennifer Hayes What better place for a forum on sharks than a room with a view ... of sharks Cat with Lynn Funkhouser, David Doubilet, Mathieu Meur, our new friend Leah, Michael AW, Joe Moreira, Isabel Ender and I'm missing the name of the last person

I’ve also gained some new inspirations: Michael AW, another celebrated underwater photographer and author of Heart of the Ocean, a book photographed entirely in Philippine waters; Peter Scoones, cinematographer of the ground-breaking Blue Planet BBC series; Lynn Funkhouser, whose beautiful shots reassured me Puerto Galera where I spent so many great summers is still as beautiful underwater as I remember it; Joe Moreira, the uber-cool managing editor of Ocean Geographic; and our own Undersecretary Cynthia Carrion, who’s very active in environmental preservation.

Cat and I got to view some really awesome films and presentations, and sit in on some thought-provoking forums on current environmental problems.  I missed one forum on Saturday, though, that I had really wanted to attend – a debate on whether oceanariums are beneficial for the environment or not.  Cat and I got to sit in though on a forum on ‘changing the face of terror,’ Michael AW’s advocacy to reform the image of the shark, which interestingly morphed into a discussion of the dynamics between environmentalism and deeply entrenched Asian cultures (specifically, the Chinese appetite for sharks’ fin soup). 

The presentation I enjoyed the most was Doubilet’s talk on his evolution as a National Geographic underwater photographer, where he kinda let us into his head and showed how he learned to see as an underwater image-maker.  Very fittingly, Doubilet noted that light is still the first and most important ingredient to his vision, and talked about how he learned to shoot underwater using available light and monochrome film.  Now B/W and underwater don’t often get associated together, because most underwater shots nowadays are all about the psychedelic colors of reef life; but Doubilet’s shots really illustrated how you can get stunning visuals from shafts of light and the way water refracts and diffuses light.  (I think I’m gonna end up grabbing that second hand Nikonos I saw downtown next payday …)

Why a Bearcat?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Well, why not? The idea for this blog came into being while I was editing my shots from my Davao trip.  As I picked shots that would go into my existing blog, The Madman’s Cave, I realized that blog was out of focus: too many disparate topics mashed together.

So I made up my mind to start a new blog. Where does the bearcat come in?  Simple – out of the pics I got in Davao, this portrait of a sleepy binturong was one of my favorites.  And I’m very much into the sea – I’m addicted to snorkeling, and I’m starting to learn scuba diving.  So oceanbearcat seemed both appropriate and an odd enough juxtaposition to be memorable.

From now on, this blog will receive my thoughts and comments on travel, photography, cooking, and dining out, which are at least pretty much related to each other.  Yeah, even the photography, because I’m mostly doing food photography these days.

My gaming and writing will be continued in Madman’s Cave.

From Batangas to Davao and Back

This May has been one of the most hectic, fun, and adventure-packed months I’ve ever had.  I can hardly believe it – in the span of a mere thirty days Cat and I have gone to some great places in Davao, then to Iba, Zambales, and ended the month with a bang, or should I say a splash, in Anilao, Batangas.  Whee! 

We started the month with an overnight trip to Batangas city to give a workshop for the Batangas City Camera Club, which they sponsored to recruit new members.  Cat and I had great fun with that group, and just a few days ago I received a YM from their president Bhoyet that all the participants from the workshop ended up joining the club. 

Even better, one of my students from the club told me she got my lecture, and found it better than the class offered by another photography center here.  That was really heart-warming for me, as it validated the course Cat and I designed and my decision to switch the normal sequence of teaching photography.  Most photo instructors teach the camera first, but I decided I’d give my students a ‘softer’ entry by teaching light and composition first, then teach them how to use their cameras only after they had an idea what they were trying to achieve.

Mere days later, we were flying off to visit Cat’s parents in Davao, a visit made even more fun by the presence of Cat’s sisters, Jerrie with her family and Arlene, with her boyfriend, Leo.  Cat’s mom really rolled out the red carpet for us, or should I say, the red tablecloth – there seems to be no word for ‘meal’ in Davao, as every time we sat at her table there was a feast! 

We missed the durian harvest from the family farm (darn!), and it seems global warming has altered the weather in Davao from the usual sunny mornings and rainy afternoons to all-day rain for days at a time, but we still got to check out some good places.  Cat and I did a ‘bridal shoot’ with a white peacock in Eden Park; I got to shoot an injured but very dignified looking Brahmin Kite at the Philippine Eagle Sanctuary; and the day after we did the 380 meter long zipline at Camp Sabros. 

Peacock sunrise, Eden Nature Park

White peacock, Eden Nature Park Brahmin Kite, Phil. Eagle Sanctuary
Rainwater on Lilies, Phil Eagle Sanctuary
"Mickey Mouse fruit," Eden Nature Park
The night after doing the zipline we had a great lechon dinner with Cat’s cousin, Nena, and the Palma Gils – a very large clan indeed! – but had to eat and run so we could interview Rhonson Ng for a DPP article.  Rhon gave us compli tickets to a concert by The Dawn at Matina Town Square, but as the night was running late and the opening acts were not quite to our taste (Viva Hot Babes singing – not hot, and no good singing either) we wandered off and found this nice reggae band doing their thing in another part of the mall.  I really liked the expressions of their lead singer, and he didn’t have a bad voice either.  ISO 3200 on my Nikon, and damn the noise we’re going monochrome!
DSC_3793 DSC_3763 DSC_3784

There was a fortunate break in the weather when we visited Chema’s resort on Samal Island, where Cat’s cousin-in-law, Quincho, treated us to his Kapampangan cuisine and a virtual river of beer.  The weather was less kind when we visited Samal Island again a few days later to shoot Hagimit Falls and the Monfort Bat Caves, with intermittent cloudbursts throughout the day – but I’m now convinced the gods like photographers, for every time we took out our cameras the rain would stop! 

Chema's Chema's

We were joined on our Samal odyssey by Cat’s adventurer cousin, Raymond, his sister Josie who was our guide around the island, and very very luckily by another cousin, Chubby, who manages the Sonriza resort.  Had Chubby not volunteered to drive us to the falls and caves in his van, we’d never have gotten there – Cat’s old Mazda would not have been up to the steep dirt roads to the falls.  We ended the day with a feast of grilled fish at Sonriza – nice, simple, Filipino fare, eaten with a tasty dip of soy sauce, native lemon and chilies.  (I say ‘native’ lemon to differentiate it from the yellow American lemon, but what we had was more like the Indonesian jeruk nipis than the dayap.)

Bathers at Hagimit Falls, Samal Island Upper Hagimit Falls, Samal Island Flying Foxes, Monfort Bat Caves, Samal IslandFlying Foxes, Monfort Bat Caves, Samal Island

Raymond at the Bat Caves

We capped our stay in Davao with a visit to the Crocodile Farm, where again Cat and I shot some wildlife – I got a nice one of a sleepy binturong, a very Jurassic Park-ish portrait of a Philippine Sailfin Lizard, and two crocs having a territorial tussle.  My only quibble with the croc experience was the failure of the damn things to jump when baited – seems it was mating season, and they had their minds on other things.  I also had a huge surprise when I ran into Ron Rocero, who I shot about to do something unspeakable to a poor innocent yellow python.  I also got a shot of Cat holding a Burmese Python some four Cathys long and almost one Cathy wide.  We capped our visit to the farm with a lunch of spicy Crocodile Sisig.  Yep, croc sisig! Crunchy, spicy, sizzling hot – and yes, it kinda tastes like chicken. 

Binturong, Crocodile Farm, Davao Sailfin Lizard, Crocodile Farm Young Osprey, Crocodile Farm Battling Crocodiles, Crocodile Farm

The most dangerous wildlife in the Crocodile Farm ...

Spicy Sizzling Crocodile Sisig!

I was actually reluctant to return from Davao, but Cat had already committed to go with her choirmates to Zambales, and there was work to be done for the magazine (DPP).  So back to Manila, two days’ rest, and then we’re off to Iba, Zambales via the new SCTEX highway.   Cut through the hills of Zambales only last year, the highway goes through some very scenic country – Cat and I are now planning to go there again by ourselves, stopping to shoot landscapes wherever we find a good spot.  The place we stayed at in Iba, Tammy’s, was a letdown however – the resort’s owners were not taking care of their beach at all, and the shore was littered with plastic debris – a lot of it from careless guests.  I’ll not record my rant here about the masa losing their rights to the sea in my eyes, but suffice to say I was mad.  Would we take better care of our environment had we remained animist instead of converting to Christianity? I wonder. 

The morning after we arrived in Iba, however, we hired a boat to take us to a snorkeling spot farther south, and here at least I got to see some living things (there were none by the shore of Tammy’s).  In fact, we got to see a beautiful reef in very shallow water, but I also saw a sight that filled me with foreboding: there were hordes of crown of thorns starfish crawling over the corals.  We also noted that the reef contained no large fish – in fact I saw nothing more than a foot long.  All the fish seemed to be juveniles, even those of species I could identify being smaller than what I usually see in Batangas.  Is there a correlation between the scarcity of mature fish and the proliferation of the crown of thorns starfish? Again, I wonder. 

On the road to Iba, I found that Cat’s choirmates John and Jong were about to complete their scuba course (I think I got Jong hooked on the sea after introducing him to snorkeling last year), and they invited us to go with them to the Outrigger resort in Anilao for their checkout dive.  Could I refuse?  Turns out I could, but not Cat.  Before I knew it Cat was tempting Arlene with the prospect of a dive, and the lure of the sea being what it is, Saturday morning found us all driving down the Star tollway again, this time to Anilao. 

Jong checks his gear! Jong and John suited up and ready to dive! Divemaster Roger with the Drunken Dugong

It had rained dire wolves and sabertooth kittycats Friday night, but breaks in the clouds had led us to hope the skies would clear in time for our dip.  No such luck!  A squall caught us just as our boat was approaching the designated dive site. I was soaked before I’d even seen a single fish!  The only remedy to the situation, of course, was to jump overboard.  Oh glory!  There beneath the rain-stippled water was a paradise of soft and hard corals and hordes of varicolored fish.  Schools of sergeant-majors, apparently used to being fed by divers, rose to greet us, and all around grazing on the corals were several kinds of parrotfish, triggerfish, Moorish idols, and  surgeonfish.  I also spotted some javelin-slim cornetfish, several cleaning stations with their cunning wrasse attendants, and some electric blue bird wrasses. 

(Photos of fish below not mine – follow the links to the source sites; species shown also not necessarily the same as what you find in Anilao)

Sergeant-MajorsParrotfish Triggerfish Cornetfish    Sailfin Tang Moorish Idol

The sight just brought me back to my childhood days learning to snorkel in the rich waters off Puerto Galera, and I was in bliss.  I was actually following John, Jong and Arlene as they descended, and if it would’ve been all right to bum some air off them I think I would’ve followed them down all the way to the deepest spot they reached, some 40 or so feet down.  Hi there! See the friendly drunken dugong?  Or is it the Philippine Giant Albino Puffer?  Alas, though, I had to stay near the surface with my snorkel. Now I’m really determined to get certified as a diver!

Pounding surf at the Outrigger wharf

Our snorkeling however was cut short as the waves began to pick up, and we were called back to the boat before conditions got even worse.  We were riding a substantial chop on our way back to Outrigger, and I just had to ask Cat how many Hail Marys the water would rate from her mom (she’s been known to take to her rosary when the water gets a little rough).  Getting off the boat however was an ordeal, as the rising surf made the light craft bob and weave like a Pacquiao.  I eventually opted to jump into the water than chance the wildly weaving ladder, but badly miscalculated my ascent to shore.  A wave took me by surprise and my knee slammed into a rock with force enough to break the skin – but fortunately, not the bone.  So there I was with my knee running with blood, stinging with the seawater wash I’d given it and ringing like a gong, but … I wasn’t even cussing as I normally would.  That’s how happy I was.  Damn, I love the sea.

And that is how I’m ending the month of May.  Not bad, eh?