A Yucatan shaman wafted incense around me and blessed me with crystal water before I set foot at Chichen Itza, the Mayan Mouth of the Sorcerer.
My local guide insisted on it, given all the enraged ghosts inhabiting the temples and sinkholes of the complex.
From the top of the terraced pyramid, the Temple of Kukulkan (El Castillo), Mayan priests tore out still-beating hearts from countless humans they sacrificed to summon the rains.
Others they beheaded – noble enemy warriors, innocent children and men, as well as losing (or winning) players in their ball games (up to now, archaeologists don’t know which), before tossing their carcasses in the sacred cenotes – one hidden below the temple and another close to it.
During the spring and the summer solstice, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts triangular shadows on the balustrades, creating the semblance of a giant serpent wriggling down the steps – the feathered-serpent god Kukulkan himself.
And when you clap your hands in front of the staircase, the cry of the Quetzal – the bird sacred to the Mayas, whose feathers adorned the headdresses of their kings, echoes back.
You wonder how the ancients had such sharp ears for acoustics that the place still attracted the world’s best singers, like Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, even after two thousand years.
Sadly, El Castillo has been cordoned off for 11 years now, after an American visitor fell on the steps to the top and died. Inside the temple are two more temples and a chamber with a Chac Mool statue, associated with Tlaloc, the rain god, alongside a Jaguar throne, painted red and studded with jade.
Chacmools were used as techcatl, or sacrificial stone. Mayan priests stretched their victims over them so their hearts could be cut from their chests. So far, archaeologists have found 14 chacmools at Chichen Itza.
Not too far away from El Castillo stood the Temple of the Jaguar, overlooking the Great Ball Court with a couple of stone hoops where players shoot a hard rubber ball using their limbs or their hips, the Mayans’ ancient version of basketball.
The difference is, stakes are much higher here. The reward or punishment (archaelogists can’t say) for winning or losing the game is the player’s head.
The bas relief panels on the walls, confirms this, showing one player whose head has been lopped off, with blood spurting from his neck.
Other bas reliefs are just as fascinating and as grisly. The Tzompantli, or Skull Platform shows impaled skulls while the Platform of the Eagles and the Jaguars depict eagles and jaguars devouring human hearts.
On the other hand, the Temple of the Warriors contain a thousand columns with bas relief of warriors. The columns once supported the extensive roof.
My one regret? I should have taken a bus and toured Chichen Itza on my own without a guide. And My Mexican seat mate agreed.
My guided day tour lasted from 7AM to 9PM although my total time in Chichen Itza itself was just two and a half hours, max, which for me, was not enough.
The call time for my day tour was 6:55 AM at the Oasis Smart Hotel in Tulum Ave., Cancun, where I was picked up and transferred near La Isla Shopping Village where my assigned tour bus was parked.
I paid 300 Mexican dollars (around P870 at 1MX:3PHP) to cover the transfers, 2 hours travel each way to Chichen Itza, lunch, plus 45 minutes at the Ikkil Cenote and half an hour’s visit to Valladolid, part of the country’s “Magical Villages Programme”.
Not bad, considering that my Mexican seat mate paid double and identical tours online go for nearly 2,000 Mexican pesos.
But I got my tour from a hotel marketer in La Isla and was lucky I wasn’t scammed.
New hotels hire marketing guys to promote their packages and dangle “almost free” day trips to tourist attractions in exchange for a “warm body” willing to pay a token fee and listen to the hotel’s sales pitch, which lasts for about an hour.
The marketers promise free transfers from your hotel, free breakfast plus a “free” tour of Tulum for the rest of the first day and a “free” tour of Chichen Itza on the second day.
Because I was on a shoestring travel budget, I took my chance. On the day of my trip, the marketing guy cancelled at the last minute due to bad weather. On the second day, he told me I can’t do Tulum because I have no credit card – a prerequisite. (He conveniently forgot I told him about that earlier.) On the third day, I finally got on the bus!
Our guide says we’re lucky to get him because he’s been in the business 30 years and learned from archaeologists who worked at Chichen Itza, one of 10 elite guides of the 300 accredited in Cancun with deep knowledge of the site and the “Mayan secrets” handed down from his forebears.
Yet he complained his “liar of a boss” coerced him to guide a “few tourists” on his day off when there’s a bus full of us, 65 total. (How can such an elite guide be so gullible?)
Then he passed around a replica of a Mayan god in onyx, a couple of obsidian and the Mayan calendar in papyrus (all for sale, we’d learn later). He recounted how his grandpa revealed before dying that he was born in the full moon of the Mayan calendar and that he has to use the energy of his moon phase to harness the energies of the universe.
He cited a guide-friend who studied French and mustered it in 7 days because it was the week of his Mayan moon.
And we can all accomplish feats of greatness if we’ll cough up 400 Mexican pesos for our very own Mayan birth certificate in papyrus. The papyrus, in very limited supply, is pounded into paper and hand-painted by poor villagers to fund the schooling of their kids – curse be to those who don’t buy them.
My Mexican seatmate sighed and shook his head. “They’ll do anything for tourist money,” he muttered.
I googled the phase of the moon in the Mayan calendar on my birthday and got it for free.
Everything else after the temples was anticlimactic.
I did like the lunch buffet which featured dishes cooked the traditional way, in a pit with a fire at the bottom, particularly the “Cochinita (baby pig) Pibil” with red pickled onion. It’s pork marinated in citrus juice, seasoned with annatto seeds and wrapped in banana leaf before being buried in the pit and slowly roasted.
We visited a cenote at Ikkil but with less than an hour, I decided not to take a dip in the dark cold waters.
“A friend of mine nearly drowned in a cenote,” my new Mexican friend confided. “He thinks it’s the ghosts of those sacrificed. They want vengeance.”
I was owned by half a hundred tigers in three continents, over twenty lions, a leopard, a puma and a cheetah.
The jaguar was the only big cat I haven’t cozied up to.
Until the other day, when I met Cubae, the loneliest jaguar in La Paz.
For two months now, Cubae, a 15-year old jaguar who lived with his human family all his life, had languished in the Animal Hospital of the Vesty Pakos Zoo just outside Bolivia’s de facto capital, a victim of politics.
When I visited the zoo, he gazed at me, an over-large cat in the confines of a too-small cage, with the saddest eyes I’ve ever beheld.
Then he blinked and padded regally to where I stood. He pushed his nose against the wires, wanting to be comforted.
People killed Cubae’s mom when he was a cub. Horatio, the local biologist who rescued him, did everything to place the young cat in a zoo but found no takers. Everyone’s collection consisted of adult jaguars then. They were bonded to each other, mostly from birth, with established groupings. They will kill a strange cub first chance they got.
Taking pity on the helpless baby and with no options left, Horatio hand-raised Cubae. He built a huge enclosure for the jaguar in his Yungas property near La Paz. For a decade and a half, he nurtured the orphan, playing with him everyday. His whole family took part in the jaguar’s care. Neighbors were scared but they never had an untoward “incident” with the cat, even after he grew up.
Today, Cubae is an old jaguar, with a few years left to live. Suddenly, Bolivian government authorities persecuted Horatio for raising an exotic animal sans permit. They gave him an ultimatum – give up his cat or go to prison. Last year, he was forced to surrender Cubae to the state.
Problem was, Bolivian zoos had no place for a baby jaguar then. And they have no place for an old jaguar now.
They can’t throw Cubae in with other jaguars. He requires a huge enclosure where to spend the rest of his years – half a decade at the most – in peace.
At last, an independent custody center for threatened Bolivian wildlife operating a 35-hectare protected park near Santa Cruz, the AFASI Foundation (Friends of Wildlife), committed to build an enclosure for the old jaguar.
In the meantime, Cubae has nowhere else to go and authorities allowed him to stay with his human family.
About a month after the Santa Cruz enclosure was finished, they must be making arrangements for Cubae’s transfer when another kink surfaced.
It’s complicated – needless to say, expensive, to transport a huge predator. First, you manuever him inside his moving cage, which means you sedate the animal – at the risk of killing him if you use too much drugs and getting yourself killed if you use too little.
Transporting the jaguar close to a thousand kilometers, mishaps can happen. If he survives the journey, you still have to get him used to his new environment and new carers, subjecting him to immense stress.
Old animals like Cubae are set in their ways. They loathe disruptions to their routine. Relocating destroys their peace of mind and their health. And they happen to be very good at hiding ailments. They just drop down dead and that’s it. They look magnificent, all power and ferocity. But truth is, they are most fragile.
As if that wasn’t enough, the administration changed again. With it came another reshuffle of authorities.
Out of the blue, police raided Horatio’s home and tried to arrest him. Outright, they confiscated Cubae although there was no zoo prepared to receive him.
When a public official informed them of plans in place to transfer the jaguar to AFASI’s facility in Santa Cruz, the new commander refused to listen and accused the former of being an “accomplice” to “illegaly keeping an endangered animal” because she “knew about the jaguar and didn’t do anything”.
Shortly before the confiscation, the Vesty Pakos Zoo got an unexpected call from police, a request to borrow a big cage, with no other details . Operations like these are “classified”, so the zoo was kept in the dark. Next thing they knew, Cubae was dumped on them. Never mind that they already have lots of jaguars, a handful of pumas and a lion, no space and making do with a budget that’s half of what they need.
Keepers and vets did the best they could under the circumstances. But they can only squeeze Cubae in their one available quarantine cage at the animal hospital, next to two foxes and a nervous puma.
Cubae’s human family visits him when they can although it’s always traumatic for both parties.
When it’s time for his humans to leave, the jaguar cries like a child bereft.
He doesn’t understand why he can’t be with his family anymore, why he’s being punished, condemned to live alone in a cramped cage in an alien place when he did nothing to harm or offend.
I know how big cats cry. You can’t imagine half-ton apex predators, who kill prey over three times their size with a single brain bite, are capable of making such a sound. But they do.
My favorite tigress, Dao Ruang, used to cry whenever I tried to leave her. She knows I can’t bear to go if she cries and she can extend my stay with her for hours if she does. She whimpers like a human child in pain and rubs herself against me and the bars of her cage. It’s the most heart-breaking sound I’ve ever heard. I can never forget it for as long as I live.
Having been hand-raised, Cubae obviously craves human company and knows how to solicit it.
It didn’t matter to him that I’m a complete stranger. He came over to me without hesitation. So, I sat on the floor outside his cage, talking softly, telling him how beautiful he is, asking how his day went and how I wish things will improve for him soon.
At one point, he butted his head against the bars – the usual greeting of one cat to another. Then he tested me to see if he can “ask” me to do things for him, as he must have often asked his beloved humans.
And he almost made me cry.
Deliberately, Cubae looked at me, holding me in his amber gaze to make sure he has my full attention. Then slowly, he gnawed at the side of his cage, still looking at me.
His wish was clear enough: “I hate this cage. Please let me out.”
Before, my tigress made the same request.
Initially, I interacted with DaoRuang from the rear of her enclosure. The bars there are backed with wire mesh for extra security (She’s a notorious biter). However, first time I approached her from the front, the cage door, she went berserk, desperately pawing at the padlock.
When we first met, Dao’s keepers haven’t let her out for two years. Needless to say, she expected me to be the one to free her.
If she’s human, she would have screamed at me: “Get me out of here, please!”
But I don’t have the keys. I sank to my knees before her and broke into tears.
She calmed down then and strangely, she tried to comfort me.
From that time on, our relationship changed. I visited her everyday, spending as much time I can spare with her, often up to midnight, bringing her treats and toys, trying to enrich her life because I can never set her free.
Now, I found myself saying the same things I said to my tigress to this lonely old jaguar, halfway across the planet.
“I’m so sorry, Cubae,” I whispered to him. “I’m sorry you were taken from your family. I wish I can do something for you. Please be well. Please don’t give up.”
I’d like to think he understood because he didn’t gnaw at his cage again.
Still, he stayed near me. When he curled up to sleep, he oriented his body towards me, in the manner of domestic cats. Every once in a while, he’d peek to check if I’m still there. Once assured, he’ll not be abandoned, he’ll close his eyes again.
I yearned to volunteer in the zoo to keep him company, to do everything in my power to make his confinement more bearable in the short time he has left.
But it was my last day in La Paz.
So, I promised Cubae I’ll return.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to find him in his cramped cage when I do. He should occupy that big enclosure meant for him in Santa Cruz. Better yet, the Bolivian government should be compassionate enough to return him to the family who loved him best. With them he should stay to the end of his days.
Colca Canyon looks so much like Arizona’s Grand Canyon, which I trekked over ten years ago.
The difference? Colca’s more than twice as deep, at 11,000 feet.
And the Andean Condor – the national bird of Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador, lords over its powerful thermals.
These magnificent vultures, weighing 33 pounds with ten-foot wingspans, take advantage of the strong winds that run through the massive rock fins to lift their bodies, so they can fly for hours without flapping even once.
In the Andes, the condor is revered as the sun god who rules the upper world.They symbolize power and health. Hence, the Tomb of the Condor counts among Machu Picchu’s three sacred places. And the Incas summon the condor to escort the spirit of their dead to the nether regions.
Yet, condors have been hunted for their skins, bones and organs, believed to have medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. In some versions of Peruvian corridas, condors are tied to the back of bulls while matadors fight the animals – supposed to represent the power of the Andean people over the Spanish conqujistadores (the bull).
In one grisly ceremony in Southeastern Peru, the arranque del condor, a live Andean condor is suspended from a frame and punched to death by horsemen as they ride by.
Deforestation, poisoning of food and water sources as well as air pollution wreaked havoc on condor populations. Captive breeding helped but cultural beliefs still need to change.
Even here at Colca, a guide warned me condor sightings are not guaranteed. Some days you see a dozen, sometimes just a couple or none at all, especially in December and January, when the birds migrate to the Peruvian coast to feed on the afterbirth of sea lions.
When I reached the Colca Canyon viewing deck, a big crowd has gathered, waiting.
I don’t know why I positioned myself at the furthest edge but I just stood there and asked my angels for condors.
I used to ask them for eagles whenever I visit the wilderness, the mountains or the seas.
But now, buffeted by the freezing wind, I prayed hard to see the condors…
Please please, dearest angels of Peru, angels of Colca, please bring in the condors!
I came so far, halfway across the world, just to see them!
Voila! In a few seconds, a feathered shape, black and white, with the distinct white neck ruff, glided out of the abyss 4,000 below. (These mighty birds can fly up to 18,000 feet).
Then another and another, till I was gawking at half a dozen condors lazily riding the thermal winds. A couple were mottled brown – juveniles. The rest were adults. Some are mated pairs, nesting in the most inaccessible rock ledges.
And when I set out to trek down the canyon, the condors escorted me.
So far, that trek up and down the Andes was the hardest I’ve ever done yet.
From the trail head at Pampa De San Miguel, I downclimbed to San Juan de Chuccho Village. For the most part, I walked with the sun on my face. Instantly, the heat and the elevation wrought havoc on me. My heart raced like crazy and I gritted my teeth. I’m not having cardiac arrest on this trail! That’s not allowed.
But I had to rest ever so often, finding shade in the grottoes formed by rock overhangs or in the sparse shade of low bushes growing at the lip of the switchbacks without end.
Close to one rest stop, I asked another trekker to take my pic with the Colca valley as my backdrop.
The glaciated peak behind me, the over 18,00-foot Mismi, is the most distant source of the great Amazon River – the largest and longest on earth, running almost 7,000 kilometers through five countries before it empties in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Mismi’s meltwaters flow into the feeder streams of the Apurimac, a tributary of the Ucayali which later joins the Marañón to form the main body of the Amazon.
Midway, I encountered a local with a shovel dangling from in his multi-colored blanket which doubles as a backpack. His dusty dog took the cue and plopped down to rest as soon as his master stopped. Literally dog-tired!
Over the next two days’ trek, it’s never ending switchbacks for me, very steep, with very loose scree. Very exposed too. I can feel my skin burning up. But whenever I would look up the canyon, or down below, I would see the condors, gliding like black and white planes, sometimes close enough to look into their eyes. And there are the kestrels – gold and tangerine with the sun in their wings.
The whole canyon is in bloom. So, I’m treated to the spectacle of hundreds and hundreds of tiny butterflies flitting from tiny purple and fuscia flowers… locusts with whirring wings… ochre colored salamanders rustling among the cactus… And I plodded on.
In many places, I have to claw my way up the rocks to hoist myself over the high ledges or shimmy down on my behind. So unglamorous. But I thanked the mountains for each shade they offered.
Resting, I watched huge black ants farming aphids on the cactus leaves, spiders spinning webs over the thorns, their silk glistening in the sun. Butterflies duelled for nectar over the flower heads. A wild pigeon settled down on a doorstep of a house perched on the mountain flank, beside a neat veggie patch.
I wonder now if I can live like that… in the eternal silence, hearing only the river and the wind and the kestrels calling and the wings of locusts and bees buzzing.
Trekking up and down that canyon, I can’t help but admire the people who live there.
Everything in this sordidly angled place is brought in by mule – from the corrugated iron roof to wood, cement and heaven knows what else. Each household owns a mule but if they have a big project, or a big haul, they have to rent their neighbors’ mules as well. The river – shallow and full of boulders, can’t be navigated by boat. The road which can be accessed by cars is in another town, on the third mountain, where I’ll trek on my last day.
Second day, it’s up and down two mountains, a walk through a handful of towns and finally, an oasis…
Halfway, when I rested in front of a quaint white church, this huge black dog nosed at my pack. I stroked her between the eyes and apologized, I had no more food with me. But she plunked down on my very feet obstinately, so I can’t get away from her, soliciting caresses for as long as I can give them.
Afterwards…More zigzags. Lots of rockfalls covering the trail. I picked my way carefully over the loose scree, which can collapse any moment and carry me over the edge. Sometimes the the boulders have swallowed up the whole path.
Then the zigzag morphs to an overgrown path and alarm bells rang in my mind. Fresh mule dung was splattered on a path overgrown with cactus. Am I lost? No sign posts marked the way. The guide said I should climb up after the zigzag. So, I plodded ahead. Wrong directions, it turned out.
I came to the dead end, a gate barred with logs. I wormed through the opening, found a shovel leaning on a stone wall, beside a brook – a cactus farm. But there was no one there.
Looking up, on the face of the next slope, I made out more switchbacks. On a remote peak, glittered the corrugated roof of box like houses. It seems so far away. I turned around, out of the gate where two paths forked out.
Two girls lugging heavy packs materialized from the bushes. They confirmed it’s a cardiac arrest trail going up and that peak I’m seeing is two days’ walking. They just came from there. They consulted their topo maps, refilled my water bottle, fed me fruits from their stash and escorted me to the oasis – two more hours of rough trekking.
More tortuous narrow paths, down, up, down once more.
The landscape was spectacular but I have no more strength to take pics. My mouth dries up every few gasps and a bitter taste lingered,..Giant white chalk buttresses and fins, the wind and the water are sculpturing giant arches in progress,,.on the opposite bank , a cathedral gouged out of the sandstone. I limped into my lodge just before dusk.
It was still dark when I set out next morning. The final trek was on almost vertical up the face of the mountain and I knew that even on a mule, it will be a nightmare. But everyone who goes into the oasis will have to get up there to Cabanaconde. There’s no other way out.
The muleteer was in a hurry to beat the long train of pack animals clattering up the switchbacks. He gave me Roberto – one thoursand pounds of wild-eyed, glistening amber power. And I had no way to control him. No reins. No rope. Nothing.
I had misgivings about the ride from the start. I’ve seen mules lose their footing in the equally narrow and steep switchbacks of the Grand Canyon. But after hard solo-trekking for two days, I thought I had punished my body more than enough.
Now, in the muleteer’s haste to get ahead up the mountain, he failed to tighten my saddle straps after checking my stirrups.
I only realized the mistake after he ordered Roberto to gallop to catch up with the rest.
I wobbled on my seat and was almost thrown off the mule’s back as Roberto scrabbled up the very narrow switchback.
I grabbed the steel lip of his cantle binder with all my might and gripped his heaving flanks with my legs to stay on the saddle!
Worse, my mount constantly muscled his way ahead of the mule train, trying to push the animal ahead off the edge of the over five thousand foot vertical drop!
Of course, the other mule bared his teeth and pushed back!
View’s spectacular over the edge, one part of my brain said. The other part screamed: No way I’ll survive if I topple over!
So, don’t ask me why I had no picture of my two hour-climb. Not a single shot of the breathtaking scene from the top! Not even a single selfie of me or my mule. Nada! I can’t even get my camera out! All my appendages were busy. In survival mode!
I wanted to kill the muleteer but I knew murderous thoughts won’t get me off that precipice.
I talked to Roberto instead, stroking his sweaty neck to calm him down.
And I lived through the hairiest ride I ever had.
But go up another Andean mountain on a mule?
LA PAZ PART 2: THE WITCHES’ MARKET
You can find the soul of the beautiful city of La Paz in its bustling markets.
Locals love flowers and merchants bring in colorful blooms from hundreds of miles away – as far as Lake Titicaca.
The food is fantastic too – empanadas and cheeses of all sorts, veggies and potatoes – they have over 500 “patata” species, of which only about 20 are known!
Most intriguing for me was the “Witches’ Market” – “Meracado de la Brujo” – which occupies both sides of a street in the city center.
Here, they sell bunches of chopped up firewood (for the ritual burning), with giant aloe vera plants, wine and table offerings – round compositions stacked with protective amulets, wads of paper money – dollars, houses, figures (about 70-80 bolivianos each). Also on sale are dried llama babies and aborted llama fetuses. And they have plenty of buyers, especially for this month of August.
Conveniently, the Bolivians I’ve met have merged their reverence for the ancient Incas’ Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Spanish Virgen Maria. They hear mass in the Catholic churches built over the Inca temples all over the city, at the same time, they continue to revere the mountains around them, the skies, the earth.
And they faithfully observe the ritual offerings to Pachamama every August of each year.
First, they line up the firewood in their backyard, forming a square to encompass all corners to cleanse their homes and banish the Devil. Next, they lay the table offering in the middle and douse wine around it clockwise before burning. Then off they go to bed and sleep before the fire goes out.
In the morning, they check the color of the ash. White ash is a good omen. It means the evil spirit is gone. Black ash is bad. It means the devil is unexorcised and they have to do the ritual again.
One local I befriended confided his firstborn son was so sickly, his mom-in-law (who hails from Lake Titicaca) did the ritual on the boy’s first day on earth, on the first month and every month thereafter until he was one year old, at which time old folks believe he is strong enough to withstand evil spirits.
Same thing for his second boy. The grandma even burned gunpowder, swishing it around the yard while crying out: “Begone Devil!” And his boys were never sick thereafter.
LA PAZ PART 1: MY DEVIL’S DAY WALK
La Paz fascinates me so much!
I can’t help but ogle at the “cholas” all the time – the indigenous women donning voluminous “polleras” – tiered skirts with lots of petticoats underneath – both functional (to warm their legs) and symbols of status (the more petticoats you don, the more affluent you are!).
The complete apparel consists of bowler hat, shawl and sweater plus the pollera – (although some wore the much simpler “falda”) – along with the braided hair decorated with beads, fur, etc. at the ends.
It’s risky to take pics though, especially in the markets. (In Ecuador and Peru, indigenous people dress to the nines in their tribal best to be photographed for a small fee, with adult as well as baby llamas and alpacas in tow.) But Bolivian folks are surprisingly superstitious. They still believe that if you take their photos, you steal their souls!
Hence, hapless foreign fotogs can get a dousing of freezing – or worst, dirty water – from irate subjects!
I have to snap away discreetly with my phone, not with my DSLR, when they are not looking… or else…
I walked all over La Paz, all day yesterday – the Devil’s Day. (For locals, Tuesdays and Fridays are days that belong to the devil.) Anyway, I had to, because there are no buses, taxis or vans on the road (some unscrupulous strikers even charge outrageous fees if you pass through the blocked streets!).
The vendors’ strike paralyzed city transport – except the cable cars! (In Peru, it was the transport strike of teachers which got me in trouble! Here in Bolivia, it was the strike of indigenous vendors! Both posed the worst inconvenience for visitors!)
I’m used to walking, no question about that. But walking in La Paz means clambering up and down the steep incline of cobblestone streets in this mountain city, at one degree C (without the wind chill factor!), at an elevation of over 12,000 feet! Go, figure!
However, to get the best views of the city, you have to take the cable car up El Alto. It’s the highest cable car ride I’ve ever taken too, at 4,095 meters (for 1.50 bolivianos!) – and could be one of the highest, if not the highest in the world. They usually halt operations when the high winds blow in August (which happens to be now!). At one point, as the cable car creaked and shuddered up, up and away in the screaming wind, I realized I should actually be scared to death.
But the view was so breath taking, with all those jagged ice-capped mountains ringing the sprawling city of 3.5 million, I didn’t even have the time to be afraid!
Balabac, the Southernmost backdoor of Palawan, is a prisoner’s paradise, four hours sailing to Malaysia, four days journey from Manila – depending on the whims of its sapphire seas plied by poachers, pirates and Muslim rebels.
Few tourists ever see these scattering of 31 islands with their sugar and peach beaches, unexplored reefs, blood red earth, verdant mangroves and mountains full of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the planet, from tree shrews to bearded pigs who feel their way through dark, dense jungles by their whiskers.
A lone stone sentinel, the Melville lighthouse, has been guiding ships for over a century now as they steam for Sabah, Borneo across Balabac Strait, the half a hundred kilometer-wide corridor of coral shelves linking Sulu Sea and South China Sea.
The island group is also home to 30,000 people. The native Molbogs mix with Muslims who fled the conflict in Jolo, miners who lost their jobs in neighboring towns, ex-military men and city folks who married locals and descendants of revolutionaries whom the Spaniards jailed here and used as forced labor to build the lighthouse in 1892.
I felt like an inmate too. For the first time in my travels, two bodyguards shadowed every move I made. I should not wander before daybreak and after nightfall, they warned. Too bad because Balabac’s most famous wildlife, the endangered dwarf mouse deer or “pilandok”, only comes out to graze on flowers after dark.
These rabbit-sized ruminants are depicted as tricksters in folklore, burrowing under trees, cohabiting with pythons in a strange symbiosis. The constrictor beds down with the mouse deer who lures in meatier fare than itself for its housekeeper. Molbogs eat the “pilandok” and hunt him with their dogs. So, the mouse deer lures his pursuers to his burrow, straight into the python’s waiting jaws.
Just three kilometres out West, Balabac’s Great Reefs fringe 14 kilometers of the coast, going down ten fathoms deep. Giant clams and rare cone shells abound here. Mantas, hawksbill turtles, sharks, a newly discovered species – the dwarf spinner dolphin, plus an occasional whale shark cruise by.
The white coast of Candaraman is half an hour away. Roughton, another reef-encircled island, along with Nasubata, are less than an hour’s sailing. But nobody parades around the beaches in bikinis. This is Moslem country. And as spectacular as the diving maybe, no dive shops do business in these parts. You bring your own scuba gear and plunge in at your own risk. The island has a clinic but no doctor. The nearest hospital is in the capital, Puerto Princesa, 300 kilometers away.
Even the bugs that inhabit the islands are not to be messed around with. Malaria and disfiguring elephantiasis, both mosquito-borne, are rampant. I slept under a net, took anti-malaria pills, drank only bottled water and sprayed insect repellent. Yet I was covered with sand flea bites and had nightmares of parasites invading my spleen, liver and bone marrow.
Still, I ventured barefoot in the mangroves, sneaking up on sandpipers visiting from Russia, praying I don’t tread on stingrays, sea urchins or crocodiles. Pink-bellied Imperial pigeons, cockatoos, hornbills and blue-headed raquet tail parrots plucked strangler figs while a white-bellied sea eagle glided over the treetops lazily, until he spotted a fish and dropped like a bomb into the sea.
Everywhere, the earth is rich red from deposits of copper and nickel – a blessing and a curse. A defunct copper mine two kilometres from the “poblacion” has been poisoning the island’s groundwaters for decades now. On our last day, the denuded limestone mountains unleashed flashfloods through the heart of town.
Tragically, the islanders destroy their own land, poisoning the seas, devouring endangered wildlife, chopping down the mangroves, slashing-and–burning the forests while Taiwanese and Vietnamese poachers trawled the waters, stealing and killing what they can.
People here are poor though the land is rich. Land Without Hope, some locals call it, but even they refuse to leave, prisoners of Balabac’s raw beauty and promise unfulfilled.
Indeed, getting in and out is a challenge. No commercial flights serve Balabac. Without a floatplane, a round trip takes 4 days – good weather permitting.
I went the way locals go. After an hour and half flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa, I squeezed in a rickety van, jolting 8 hours over rough roads, dust and red mud to Rio Tuba, spent the night there, then took the boat for 6-hour’s sailing to Balabac in blinding rain.
When visibility turned zero, the captain killed the engine. We bobbed in the middle of the angry sea as he sought our bearings over sandbars and reefs that can eviscerate the ship. Our bodyguards tensed. Here, we are most vulnerable to raiders. After an eternity, the fog lifted and we raced for land, bucking and jolting over the waves.
Remnants of a Spanish stone fort stood in the heart of Balabac, cut by a single road lined with houses and stores. No jeeps or cars in sight, only locals on foot, motorcycles and tricycles charging half a hundred pesos per trip. There’s no bank, just a single pawnshop.
I was relieved that our lodge, J&D, was a real house, not a tent crawling with bugs. For P200 per night, I enjoyed a single room with a hard bed and ceiling fan. The sheets are freshly laundered. No towels or hot showers though. They turn off the generator at midnight and urge you to sleep under a mosquito net.
Surprisingly, the food was good. The restaurant in the corner fed us fresh-caught fried “samaral”, cuttlefish, native chicken “adobo”, “tulingan” in tamarind broth and tuna “kilawin”. The owner lists down everything you eat in her notebook. You settle your bill on the day you leave.
When the rains abated, we climbed the lighthouse on the hill above Biga-Biga beach and looked across the strait to the blue-hazed outline of Borneo less than 60 miles away. But going down, our bodyguards came face to face with the muzzle of a cocked rifle – police patrol. Another reconnoitred on the beach.
Just a few days ago, they caught Chinese poachers who killed critically endangered hawksbill turtles and lopped off their flippers. Incredulously, even the local police ate 3 turtles, one of them admitted.
It reminded me of soldiers in Aurora who shot down one of the province’s last Philippine eagles just to find out what it tasted like. It was sad. Only one in a thousand turtle hatchlings survive. They don’t reproduce till age 30 and are almost extinct. As I argued the hawksbill’s case, the young policeman shrugged lamely, looking out to sea.
Our bodyguards urged us to get out of Balabac as soon as possible but our boat captain jabbed his fingers at the dark clouds bloated with rain and refused to sail. It will be suicide to cross the open sea.
So, we took a small boat to Tambon, a satellite island across Balabac, though the waters churned ochre and the rain pursued us. I was soaked but overjoyed when a white-bellied sea eagle materialized in the mangroves and circled over us.
Tambon’s caretaker invited us to his nipa hut and quenched our thirst with fresh young coconuts. I perched on his window ledge, squinting in the smoke while he set a kettle to boil on his charcoal stove. Between the slatted bamboo floor, I made out scrawny chicks scratching for grubs below.
Island life is hard, he confided. He plants tomatoes and cucumbers among his coconut trees to earn extra. The mangrove yields fish and oysters but he still needs cash for rice and gas for his boat.
Behind the hut, a tethered water monitor lizard lashed his tail menacingly when we approached. Yesterday, he killed three chicks. So the caretaker snared the monitor, the third he caught so far, to sell to locals who eat lizard meat.
I felt sorry for the doomed reptile, remembering the huge monitors of Coron who begged for handouts in the kitchens everyday. Monitors are endangered, I told his captor, but they tame easily and tourists love them. But he didn’t seem to hear.
Near dusk, he saw us off with a bag of shellfish fattened from the mangroves plus a coil of “makabuhay” – a medicinal plant that deadens pain. “I don’t believe this land is without hope,” he called out in parting.
Back at Balabac’s port, run-off from the mines bloodied the coast. A dark water line marked the walls of stores and homes. We gawked at the refrigerator on top of the dining table in the store across our inn. The mountains unleashed a flash flood awhile ago, the owner explained.
Reluctantly, we left Balabac at dawn. As we passed by the mangroves, my sea eagle emerged from the canopy, spreading his wings in a last salute. And I found myself praying for hope – for him and his wild abode.
The ruins of Bantayan’s watchtowers rose like wraiths of stone from the white sands. Over four centuries ago, the Spaniards built lookouts to guard this Northern Cebu island from Moro marauders, calling it “Bantayan sa Hari” – Watchtower of the King.
In the plaza, St. Peter and St. Paul Church loomed, a fortress in itself, among the evergreen “agoho” trees. Ancient wooden houses with “capiz” shell windows stood incongruently between rows of boxlike modern dwellings. Even the theater survived pirate attacks and World War II bombings.
But I found out, soon enough, that getting to this former bastion was just as hard for today’s backpackers, just as it must have been for the Moors.
To romp for a single day in this retreat touted as the “Next Boracay”, I took a two-day journey beset with trouble from start to finish. The alternative was to pay USD$1,500 for a chartered half-hour flight from Mactan – equivalent to one round trip fare from Manila to the U.S. Mainland.
First, my noon flight from Manila to Cebu was delayed by over an hour. I arrived at Mactan Airport before 3PM. The overland trip by rented van to Hagnayan Port, San Remigio took four hours. From there, it was another two hours ferry ride to Bantayan.
It was a picturesque drive, nonetheless. In the gathering dusk, I watched women balancing coal sacks on their heads while men troop home with their carabaos from the fields. Peddlers of “pintos” – home-made ground corn mush rolled in their husks, ran alongside buses packed to the roof with goods and livestock. Trucks overloaded with raw sugar cane chugged past us, tipping dangerously to one side.
It was dark by the time we reached San Remigio, a coastal town named after the Spanish commander who saved it from a pirate attack. We checked in at San Remigio Beach Club in a P4,400 per night executive suite with a rock-hard bed and equally rock-hard pillows. The shower spurted water in trickles, so the marble bath had a plastic pail and a dented plastic ladle, the kind found in budget hostels. The TV tunes in to a single channel and there was no wi-fi access.
Anyway, we had the hotel’s Cafe Gloria to ourselves at dinner. Their American-sized servings were priced from P150-300 and their calamari was fabulous. But my beefsteak Tagalog was a let-down and the pork in tamarind broth tasted like boiled pork with tomatoes.
Still, the beach view was worth it. I rose at dawn to watch locals clutching plastic bags, combing the exposed sea floor for crabs and shellfish. Boisterous kids tramped in the muck startling flocks of gulls stabbing the sand with their beaks.
We drove to port early to discover that without notice, our ferry left ahead of schedule. With more than two hours to kill, we visited San Juan Nepomuceno Church where they just unearthed an Iron Age burial site complete with 1,000 year old bones and a large carinated clay pot incised with chevron zigzags.
In the shallow square pit behind the church, archaeologists brushed a handful of skeletons still imprisoned in the earth – two males with two burial jars beside their heads, two women with single jars each, plus a child. The adults were 40 to 45 years old when they died but surprisingly, bore no signs of violence. In those times, people often fight to the death over fishing rights.
At last, we reached Bantayan at high noon. I didn’t expect it was that crowded – about 200,000 people crammed in a 7-mile wide by 10-mile long island. Foreigners have set up hotels, bars and restaurants but most residents are fisherfolk. The market is full of all kinds of dried fish, from “dangguit tocino” marinated in spicy sugared sauce, fish skeletons fried like pig skin crisps to stick fish, which tastes like squid when steamed. After all, this is the “Dangguit Capital” and “Egg Basket” of Cebu.
It took just an hour to go from one end of the island to the other. Driving from Santa Fe port down the tree-lined road to Madridejos, we went through poultry farms producing a hundred tons of eggs daily. Little Alaska, they called it, once a rich fishing ground, the site of the country’s first canning factory until it was bombed to rubble in World War II.
On the way back, I paid my respects at the St. Peter and Paul church, one of the oldest in Mindanao and Visayas. Thrice rebuilt, it sheltered people during calamities and war. Moros burned and destroyed the first church in 1600 and the roof, formerly of “tisa” clay, was replaced by stainless steel.
Interestingly, the Pope granted a special dispensation to Bantayan’s parish in 1800, exempting locals from abstaining on holy week because fishermen do not set out to sea for seven days to repent. Henceforth, town folks feast on Good Fridays and serve “lechon”- roast suckling pig. Tourists flock here too for the Lenten procession of life-size icons depicting the Passion of Christ on elaborately-decorated “carrozas”.
When we reached Marlin’s Beach Resort, my best friend and I looked forward to relaxing in our P4,200 per night beachfront twin room. Problem was, it took us six hours to check in despite being pre-booked with a fully-paid deposit.
The staff booked us in an occupied room. Next, they tried to put us in a room with a single bed, made us wait some more while they booted out two guests, dumped them in the hotel next door, transferred another pair to the room they tried to give us earlier and took P1,000 off our rate for wasting our day.
While waiting, we ordered “pancit bihon” at Marlin’s Beach Bar. They served us “miki bihon guisado” instead, along with an anemic mango shake. When we finally moved in our room, it smelled dank and fishy. The bed was rock-hard. The frayed towels and sheets seemed to have been used a thousand times. When I opened the armoire, a foul scent assailed me. I noticed they never even bothered to dispose of the mildewy magazines on our night tables.
At least, they had ample water in the shower, Cable TV and access to the glorious beach. But by the time we managed to emerge from that room, the sun was down and the sea has receded. I can no longer snorkel or dive. Anyway, the best spots are on the other side of the island, 20 minutes away by pump boat, I was informed.
So, I amused myself in the tide pools. I chased crabs and fished out stranded, zebra-patterned starfishes the size of my hand. I flipped one belly up and gleefully watched him retract his mouth while he wiggled his hundreds of tiny feet, trying to go upright. One arm snaked around my fingers, tickling me, as I put him back.
The resorts strung along the coast began turning on their lights while we burrowed in the wet sand. My best friend shrieked and laughed when tiny pincers closed on her toes. Even under the fast-spreading darkness, people tarried on the beach. Children went on building their sand castles.
At dinner, we sauntered over to D’Jungle Mongolian Grill & BBQ, which received rave reviews from Lonely Planet for their P345 per head buffet with 60 dishes. Too bad it wasn’t available.
When we ordered grilled “liempo”, they gave us grilled porkchop instead and it took over an hour to be served. The food was good but the service was lousy, we told Robert, the gracious European owner, who apologized for his absent chef.
In the morning, our pre-ordered breakfast at Marlin’s wasn’t ready and the orders were mixed up, we thought we’ll never make it to our boat. After we settled our bills and checked out, their staff chased us to the port, demanding payment for bottled water we didn’t consume.
It was a hassle to the very last. We booked a RORO (Roll-On, Roll-Off) vessel to load the van we hired to return us to Mactan but they changed the vessel at the last minute, again without notice.
Despite everything, I’ll go back to Bantayan anytime. I haven’t seen all of its old houses yet nor explored its ancient caves. I’d love to hear mass at the coral stone church, join the processions at Lent and feast on roast suckling pig on Good Fridays.
Here, I can write and paint, play with starfishes or explore the reefs. I’d love to try building sandcastles. Maybe I’ll just pack a tent, hunt for ghosts in the watchtowers, or dream all day long, baking on that endless white beach.
Hue Hotels and Resorts, managed by Hospitality Innovators Inc. (HII), is the newest retreat in the country’s beach capital.
Set to open mid-June, this year, the “glocal” retreat – an all-in-one global destination which allows guests to experience local culture and offerings, is a boutique four-star hotel with premium amenities and world-class services, priced as a two to three star accommodation, from P8,000 per night for a deluxe room to P15,000 for a family room.
Hue Hotels and Resorts Boracay presents the two faces of the white sand island paradise – the fun and vibrant side alongside the relaxing beach destination. Instead of hopping from one place to another all over the island, guests can have a complete shopping, dining and relaxation experience in a single place. Even non-staying guests can visit and enjoy the shopping and dining facilities.
The hotel, which is close to White Beach and D’Mall, features a new retail complex, Station X, full of homegrown restaurants and local shops in a green open space where people can enjoy picnic-style dining.
Its signature bar, Prisma, was conceptualized by Pylon Partners Inc., the same company behind one of Asia’s best bars, ABV (Alcohol by Volume).
The property also houses an enormous pool with a jacuzzi and bar. The guest rooms are located along the fringes.
Hue’s Boracay operation will be its second in the Philippines, the first being Puerto Princesa.
Hue Puerto Princesa is nestled in the heart of Palawan’s capital city of limestone cliffs, secluded beaches and the Underground River, one of the 7 Wonders of the World, a UNESCO World Heritage attraction.
The hotel, designed with wide open spaces, offers a tranquil haven after long days of touring – packages that explore the best of the city are already integrated into guests’ room accommodation It’s also home to Matiz Restaurant and Tapas Bar, Chef Gabby Prats’ one-of-a-kind dining experience with a blend of Spanish, American, Vietnamese and Filipino dishes.
Burmese teacher-turned artist Wynn Wynn Ong, one of the world’s most copied designers, recently turned the Yuchengco Museum into a colossal cabinet of curiosities – treasures, rather, as she filled a couple of floors with bespoke jewels, accessories, furniture and clothing she created this past 15 years.
Her pieces – quirky, playful and breathtakingly beautiful – echoed the colors and textures of a globe-trotter’s life – family roots in Myanmar, a childhood in Vienna, coming of age in Manila, motherhood in Singapore, empty-nest syndrome in Boston.
Her nuclear physicist father brought the family to Austria when she was three. During her teens, her mom, who had master’s degrees in sociology and library science, took a job with the Asian Development Bank, relocated them in Manila.
Wynn Wynn took up business management, married Filipino investment banker Norby Ong and started a family in Singapore before she could finish her thesis. At the International School, she taught literature for almost a decade until her two kids flew the nest.
Suddenly, she found she had nothing to do in her family’s second home in Massachusetts.
Wanting to amuse herself, she became an “accidental artist”.
From her mom’s old necklaces, she wove Swarovski crystals and beads with gold and silver wire and taught herself how to make jewelry.
“When you work with your hands, it’s like therapy. And as long as I’m creating, I’m happy.”
Only later did she study the craft – goldsmithing, wood carving, wood staining, lost-wax casting, miniature painting, to “understand what can and can’t be done.”
Yet, she found, “There are no rules. There’s nothing to fear. You don’t question yourself. You just do it.”
I loved how she transformed everything, from monkeys and molluscs to geckos and peacocks into pendants, necklaces, minaudieres and cabinet handles – each of them little masterpieces of metals and gems.
My favorites on the first floor, her “Inspired Chaos” section, include chambered nautilus shells – symbol for perfection and beauty, which she fashioned into a clutch with labradorite eyes, 888 freshwater pearls (the number of prosperity in triplicates) and brown tourmalines embellishing its tentacles and insides.
She sculpted a neckpiece in the form of a coral branch, more like a bib, enmeshed with labradorite beads, repoussé leaves, frosted green glass, Swarovski crystals, button pearls and sculpted charms.
And there’s that peacock clasp, perched on a bark clutch made of recycled metal alloys – gold set with peridot and sapphire beads, a prasiolite crest, long fan tail feathers flowing.
A mother-of-pearl octopus pendant dangled a repoussé galleon from one tentacle and antique carved crystal quartz in another.
Wynn Wynn’s whimsical take on furniture showed on her cabinets – one had spiral ram’s horns for handles, others had jewel-studded geckos crawling on their faces, or miniature toucans grasping gems in their beaks. A jade-beaded frog perched on metal leaves on a tray’s edge.
On the third floor, she displayed her Couture: Sartorial Symbiosis.
She interwove jewelry into the fabric of the clothes she designed, creating stories through textiles, playing with pure silk, tribal hand weaves, tulle, French lace, organdy, neoprene, silk rope, twine and cords.
A huge gold leaf Burmese water serpent god (“naga”) gathered the folds of her black draped gown together at the back.
A quirky cape of black silk leaves had bespoke suspenders of gold chicken feet holding up a pair of tailored gray wool fish-tail pants.
One of her jackets, assembled and handstitched out of silk cords, pleated silk, silk braids and tassels, featured three jeweled monkey tailors clambering over its front.
Gold plated repoussé snakes crawled in and out of her “Modern Medusa” corded black fitted vest worn over a billowing black tulle ball skirt.
A gladiator-inspired ensemble featured a pure black silk tunic with outward extending butterfly sleeves paired with handmade repoussé gold arm and shin guards.
And they are all wearable.
If there’s one thing in common between designing jewelry and clothing, it’s “not just about form but function”, Wynn Wynn acknowledged.
“A fashion designer has to make sure whoever wears her clothes can move, sit and walk. Can it take a woman from the boardroom to the ballroom? Is it flexible enough to bring in her travels?”
Interestingly, she wants her retrospective to be a “learning tool, to open people’s minds”, to inspire students of design and art.
For this exhibit, she’s not even interested in selling at all.
“My collectors will always be there. I was never driven by money, or by how many pieces I could sell. You have many choices in life. You can call yourself a designer, a jeweler, or a businessperson. Some designers are very successful because they’re savvy in business. But there are those who endure because they nurture the work, not minding the trends, what sells, or what others are doing. In a world of mass production and robotics, originality is still sought after.”
When it comes to style, “I’ve been drawn to the ‘different,’ the unique, and the quirky, my entire life. I believe that jewelry should reflect a person’s individuality and that the pieces should form stories that tease the mind and taunt the senses. I have no interest in creating two pieces that are exactly alike. The gems I find drive the designs. The piece must resonate with the wearer and, in turn, they must be transformed.”
As is, “We live in a world of mass production where artisans are vanishing and skilled crafting by the human hand is rare… I believe in the tenet that the number of days, even weeks, put into designing and crafting a single piece makes the difference between a common commodity and a piece of art. Few understand the hours spent studying a gem so that ‘dialogue’ and understanding exists between it and myself.”
“We are only bound by the walls we create.”
And the future?
After her retrospective, Wynn Wynn intends to go back to writing and pursue other creative interests, from designing spaces to building things and cooking.
“Normally a retrospective is once in a lifetime, so maybe this will be my only one,” she smiled. “You never know. But I hope it will be subsumed by a different form of creativity.”
(Pictures of most exhibit items and their details were taken with a Vivo5 Plus.)