Feb/March in the Philippines

I was in the Philippines from February 14 to March 7, spending a few days in different places – Tarlac, my hometown, Manila and Coron.

Coron, Palawan, Philippines has become a more visible and popular destination, not only for the well-to-do but also for backpackers. There are a few expensive hotels and many hostels and room rentals. The overhead is manageable. There are also amenities that are free or low-cost.

I heard that Coron is going to be like Boracay in 5 to 10 years – overcrowded, noisy, commercial and expensive, dotted with condos and golf courses and not to forget, the ubiquitous videoke bars. Of which, I should mention that one time I woke up in Estipona, Pura, Tarlac at 2 in the morning I heard a distant voice from the next village singing a popular song … “I write a song” by … I can’t even remember the name of the famous singer. Senior moment, I guess. The thing is that Coron has several Islands, part of the Palawan province complex, including the iconic El Nido. You can visit any one of them, especially in this Year of the Water Snake. Coron Is Water Heaven. True, there will be heavy traffic in one or two islands and you may have to wait to dock your catamaran. But there are other islands to choose from. There is also a hot spring resort many backpacking young foreign couples repair to after 5 in the afternoon. Water temperature: 38 degrees C on the lower level and 42 degrees C on the upper level of the pool. There is an entrance fee in every island – for maintenance and upkeep – of about PhP 100 to 300 (about $2 to $5).

For those who love mythology and its lessons for us in life, we quote from two famous authors who put in historic and symbolical context some of our ancient images.

Mircea Eliade in his book “The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion” has something to say about the waters:

The waters symbolize the sum of virtualities; they are fons et origo, “spring and origin,” the reservoir of all the possibilities of existence; they precede every form and support every creation … This is why the symbolism of the waters implies both death and rebirth. Contact with water always brings a regeneration – on the one hand because dissolution is followed by a new birth, on the other because immersion fertilizes and multiplies the potential of life.

Joseph Campbell in his book “The Power of Myth” says:

The power of life causes the snake to shed its skin, just as the moon sheds its shadow. The serpent sheds its skin to be born again just as the moon sheds its shadow to be born again. They are equivalent symbols. Sometimes the snake is represented as a circle eating its own tail. That’s an image of life. Life sheds one generation after another, to be born again. The serpent represents immortal energy and consciousness engaged in the field of time, constantly throwing off death and being born again. There is something tremendously terrifying about life when you look at it that way. And so the serpent carries with it the sense of both fascination and the terror of life.

I was with a medical mission from Pennsylvania, a group of mostly Filipino-American doctors who have done work in India, Uruguay, Thailand and the Philippines. Five years ago, I was the only acupuncturist in the group. I managed to do some treatments because a couple of doctors referred patients to me. This time around, I did not get any patients. When I applied to join the group, I told an organizer that I was an acupuncturist. She told me that I could carry their equipment. So even when a doctor told me that I should be in the hospital to await referrals, I stayed in the hotel and read  and practiced Chinese calligraphy and meditated and did island-hopping one day. It was not the thing I came to do but hey, it was better than carrying luggage. I was told that there were more than 20 tubal ligations in one day. When a priest was told about it, he expressed shock that the procedure was being done in the hospital. Perhaps he had nothing to do with it, but the next day, only 2 or 3 women appeared for the surgery. The Reproductive Health Law was passed only recently in the Philippines. The Roman Catholic Church has been its main and strident opposition over the years. A wag remarked and only half-jokingly that the priests should be required to undergo vasectomy.

I have included photos from the old hometown, my Zhan Zhuang and Tai chi chuan DaoRen seminar and my evening with Palanca Literary Hall of Fame recipient Ed Maranan. Ed and I had a “sighting” of Imelda Marcos at the art exhibit of Joly Benitez and Jana, father and daughter, at the Erewhon Gallery. I knew Joly from the 60s when he worked for senator Helen Benitez (and later Imelda) and I for Senator Lorenzo Tanada, the famous Filipino nationalist and opposition leader. He did not recognize me when I was introduced to him. I did not recognize him either because he had become terribly emaciated. Jana told me that she studied wu-shu/contemporary Chinese martial arts in Wudang. I wanted to talk to her about it but she was too occupied at the time. Later, Ed and I joined a banquet with his family at Muang Thai, owned by Maranans. I can say here that their version of the cuisine is better than the restaurants I tried in Thailand!

Of course there are plenty of shots of Coron where I spent more than a week in idle rustication. There are photos of tamarind fruits and cashews both yellow and red. For those who do not know, cashews are probably the only trees with nuts outside the fruit. The fibrous fruit, usually dipped in salt, is sour and sweet and tangy. It is eaten raw or made into a juice. Coron is a prominent producer of cashew nuts. Aside from the cashew and tamarind, we had mangos and duhat, a black cherry that I have seen only in the Philippines. Perhaps they were transported to the Philippines from Mexico by the Spanish galleons during the Conquista. There were red snappers, clams, crabs, and shrimps for dinner. Fresh coconuts could be ordered anytime. I have no recommendations, but Sophia’s Garden Resort, where we stayed, was impeccable if a bit expensive, its staff were always thoughtful and friendly. There are a few island-hopping facilities offering tours. Ask for Al Linsangan. He is famous on the island. He has good credentials. One of our regrets: when we contracted a different outfit, we were slapped with hidden bills. Be sure to negotiate all the terms before paying because you may be asked to pay for undisclosed expenses.

I’ve featured Rose, our host and guide, who arranged one of our trips. She was a sparkplug. She knew everything and everybody. You have to learn to harness her because she can be very hyper. I’ve also photographed the hotel staff at Asia Grand View Hotel, where we had a few dinners, on our last day on the island.

One of the amusing surprises in Coron: I did not know any of the passengers on our island-hopping tour. While we were lunching at a nipa hut on one of the beaches, Maria formerly from Uruguay now living in Spain asked the young woman across the table, Why are people asking you to pose for pictures with them? The mother answered, She represented the Philippines in the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant in Las Vegas. We were told that she, Janine, won first runner-up. She looked simple, with that quiet, slim and unpretentious beauty of the Filipina from the back country. I did not know she was that important to the public until everybody who heard of my encounter was asking me to show my photos of her. So I had “sightings” of prominent women on this trip: Esperanza del Rosario, the widow of my former minister in the old hometown, whom I had not seen for more than 40 years (she attended my Zhan Zhuang and Tai chi chuan DaoRen seminar); Imelda, the notorious first lady of the dictator Ferdinand, who seems to make a good copy even now; and Janine (sorry I don’t have her last name), Binibining Pilipinas/Miss Philippines., whose morena image appears on several advertising billboards in Manila; and last but not least, Loida Nicolas Lewis, University of the Philippines. college of law contemporary (mid-60s), true friend, New Yorker and fellow anti-Marcos adherent. Loida is  one of the strongest-willed and most generous and honest persons I know.

I would like to thank family and friends for their hospitality and INAM (ATRC), the NGO  that runs a healing and acupuncture center and sponsored many of my seminars since 1998, and the indefatigable Annie Sollestre for organizing the seminar for me.



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