Friday, November 14, 2008

Cologne, Germany

Cologne is a big city, judging from the volume of tourists that visit the Cologne cathedral, as well as the size of the Cologne central train station ("Koln Hauptbahnhof").

The main tourist attraction here is the Cathedral, among the oldest in Germany, perhaps in Europe too. During the Allies' bombings of Germany, it was the only structure in the city that was spared, almost all other buildings around it were damaged if not flattened.

From outside the city, the Cathedral is prominent because it is tall. Well, there are very few skyscrapers in Cologne. The wide Rhine River softly flows under a long bridge at the heart of the city.

The structure is old yet designed very elaborately. Inside the church, the stained glass window designs are very colorful and elaborate, really beautiful.

Gummersbach, Germany

Gummersbach is a small and hilly city in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the richest among 16 states in Germany. It is 56 kms from Cologne.

Our seminar on "Local government and civil society is held at Theodor Heuss Akademie. It has complete facilities -- lecture rooms, meeting rooms, wide lobby, dining hall, internet corner, 8-storeys dormitory, etc. It is operated by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty.

The akademie is on top of a small hill. The city proper is below it, on its back. In front of the akademie is a forested and open grassland area, very serene and beautifully-landscaped.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Trip to Gummersbach

I arrived here in Gummersbach, Germany late last night. It was another long and tiring trip.

First, almost 13 hours flight (KLM air) from Manila to Amsterdam Schipol airport.
Second, a long walk at the airport, long but quick queu at the immigration, then 2 hours lay over for a connecting flight.
Third, nearly one hour flight from Amsterdam to Cologne, Germany.
Finally, about 45 minutes trip to Gummersbach, 56 kilometers from Cologne.

Audio and video entertainment at KLM air was good. While my seatmates were watching various movies, I contented myself with listening to rock music, then pop and later classical music, and rested and sleep. I lacked sleep before that flight.

Amsterdam´s Schipol airport is big and long. It was the 3rd time I set foot on this airport. The first was in 1987 when I attended a 3-months seminar in Amsterdam, the second when I went to London for a conference in June 2005. The airport´s tarmac and runway fields are very wide and well lighted.

From Schipol to Cologne is like a "show of lights" down below. I was seated on the right side of the plane, the city of Amsterdam could be in the left side as there was a very wide expanse of all lights below. The plane is small, only 4 seats per row, so it was flying low, and good for sightseeing at night. For the entire trip of nearly 1 hour, there were dozens of clusters of well-lighted areas and communities below, all the way from Amsterdam to Cologne. It's like a wide area of wild fires in California shown on tv. There was a portion that was dark, I suspected it could be a lake or a wide cloud that covered the view.

Cologne is another wide expanse of all lights city. The airport is not so big, but it is a steel and glass structure. After getting my luggage, a staff of the International Academy for Leadership (IAF), Martin, was waiting for me at the exit. He will bring me to the Theodor-Heuss Akademie in Gummersbach.

Germany's roads are smooth and excellent. I didn' see a single pothole on the roads. Martin was driving a van, but he was flooring the accelerator at 130, 145 kph. No speed limit in Germany, except in some busy intersections. This alone should give this country a good score in individual freedom.

Gummersbach is 56 kms from Cologne city proper, but we reached our destination in about 35 to 40 minutes. The akademie, operated by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty (FNFL), is on top of a small hill. The dormitory is an 8-storeys structure. My room is on the 5th floor, and there is a good view of the small city below the hill.

The seminar I am attending here is on "Local Govt and civil society", Oct 26 to Nov. 2.
We´ll be 23 foreign participants, from S. Africa, Latin America, Asia and middle east, Europe (Turkey, Kosovo, Lithuania, Ukraine). I´m the only Filipino in this seminar. The IAF is conducting about 12 different seminars every year. Initially there were about 63 of us participants from many countries, including 2 other Filipinos, in the online seminar phase. The IAF choose the "top 24" among participants in the initial online seminar, and that`s how I got invited here.

Today the weather is good. But yahoo weather says the temperature will fall starting tomorrow and the next few days. Breakfast at the akademie is plentiful, but typical European food -- bread, various cheese and meat slices, fruits, fruit juices, coffee or tea.

The internet corner is spacious, and its free.
Our seminar will start at 6pm today.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Back to Germany

Two days from now, and a day after my birthday, I will fly to Gummersbach, Germany. I will attend a week-long seminar on "Local Government and Civil Society" to be sponsored by the International Academy for Leadership (IAF) of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty. My route will be Manila-Amsterdam-Cologne (KLM air). From Cologne airport, a car will fetch me and bring me to the venue in Gummersbach, 56 kms. away.

This will be my 2nd visit to Germany. My first visit was 5 years ago, in October 2003. I came from Sweden for a 7-weeks international training on "Sustainable Agriculture". After the end of that seminar, I took Eurolines and travelled to visit a friend in The Hague, Netherlands, passing by Denmark and northern Germany. It was a tiring 17 hours road trip, but nonetheless lots of sight-seeing. After 2 days, I took Eurolines again and took a 13 hours trip from The Hague (left there close to midnight) to Munich, Germany, to visit another friend. We were very few passengers in that trip.

When the bus reached Stuttgart, there were only 4 of us. The bus driver made a phone call and several minutes later, we were transferred to a van and it will take us 4 remaining passengers to Munich. I sat at the back of the driver. I immediately noticed the speed of the van. While buses and trucks have speed limit of 100 kph maximum, cars don't have speed limit in many of Germany's "autobahn" or expressways, except in some congested intersections. The van was running at 125 kph on average, and I saw several cars whizzing by at probably 150 to 200 kph! I exclaimed to myself, "so this is the autobahn!"

My friend, Christian Beil, is a German lawyer. His wife, Astrid, is a Filipina. At Munich central station, the couple and their son were waiting for me. They immediately toured me around some interesting areas in Munich: the BMW plant, the Olympics stadium (about 1972 Munich Olympics), the city hall, other interesting places.

Christian lives in Miesbach, about an hour by car south of Munich. It's a tiny but cool city. It's near the ski resorts of Bavaria too. Christian brought me to a ski resort high up in the mountains. I enjoyed posing for pictures in the snow. It was good that there was a thick snowfall in late September or early October of that year in the mountains of Bavaria. From the mountains, we went to Tegernsee Lake, then another resort with sauna, a swimming pool, etc.

From below zero Celsius at the mountains, up to probably 70 or 80 celsius sauna in a matter of an hour or so, it was really weird! I was glad I didn't get sick then. In the evening, Christian would always have a few bottles of locally-brewed beer ready as we chat on many things.

At the end of our seminar in Gummersbach, I will visit again Christian and his family in early November. This time, they have 2 kids already. And this time, I will take the train, from Cologne to Munich. They will meet me again in Munich.

I am excited to see that city again, also Miesbach, the lakes and the ski resorts in the mountains!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Thailand trip, part 2

On our 2nd day, June 2 this year, we checked out of the hotel and Samran picked us from there. He rented a van, big and comfortable enough for us. His Filipino wife, Letty, joined us. Letty has lived in Thailand long enough, and she comes home after every few years, so she was happy to speak again in Filipino.

From our hotel, we went to the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT). We picked up Samran's other Filipina friend, Redia, who was visiting her daughter who is working and staying at AIT. Redia was a soil scientist, she used to work at PCARRD in Los Banos, Laguna. She is now working at the Senate Committee on Environment as Committee Secretary. Redia brought her grandson, about 5 years old. Our toddler was happy to have an older "kuya" as her playmate for the next few hours of our travel.

From AIT, our first stop was Bangsai. There's a beautiful resort and shopping center. A big concrete multi-headed dragon spewing water (not fire) in a lagoon is the main attraction. The lagoon is big and well-sculpted.

There's a big shopping area nearby, but most of the stalls were close if not abandoned, only a few stalls and food shops were open.

In a bigger structure, is a big, clean and air-conditioned shopping center and shops were selling various souvenir items. There's another concrete dragon and Buddha inside.

From Bangsai, we went to Bang Pa-in palace, the King's summer palace. It's not far from Bangkok city proper, maybe about 80 kilometers. Entrance fee I think was Baht 100. This place is wide and sprawling. A number of beautiful structures, wide and long lagoon, an observation tower about 6 or 7 storeys high. One can reach the top level by foot only, and shoes and slippers to be left outside. The view at the top level is beautiful -- well manicured lawns, the lagoon, the palace, the temple, etc.

(to be continued...)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Scenes from the air: Manila-Cebu

Three days ago, I went to Cebu to attend the wake of an uncle who died of cancer. I took the afternoon flight from Manila and I was seated window seat, right side.

Upon take off from Manila airport, the scenes in southern part of Metro Manila is basically those plenty of houses. There are very few sky scrapers to see. The ones at Filinvest corporate center in Alabang are noticeable, several tall buildings, but not plenty. Ayala Alabang village is noticeable with big houses detached from others, and there are plenty of trees, those green vegetation partly covering many roofs.

Laguna lake is brownish in color, representing muddy waters coming from the farms, and polluted waters coming thousands of households and firms surrounding the lake. There are plenty of wide fishpens (mainly for tilapia aquaculture) and these should be contributing to the muddy and brownish waters of the lake.

After crossing the lake, it’s Batangas province. Relatively populous by virtue of its proximity to Metro Manila. Going out to the sea, the first island-province to see is Marinduque. It’s a small province compared to most provinces in the country, both in terms of land area and population size. Relatively flat, with 2 open pit mines with lakes in the middle (this could be Marcopper mines), relatively in the middle of the island. To the province’s southern part, there’s a tall mountain that looks thickly forested because of its dense green view from the top.

After Marinduque, it’s Romblon province’s several scattered islands. The one nearest the plane’s path could be Sibuyan island because of the prominent presence of a big, tall and thickly forested mountain, it should be Mt. Guiting-guiting. It’s one of the memorable mountains to me because it was among the most difficult and most dangerous mountains I have climbed, about 12 or 14 years ago, along with a few friends. Anyway, beside Sibuyan island are 2 islands to its right, should be Romblon island (the smaller one) and Tablas island (bigger and wider). There are about 2 or 3 other smaller islands nearby.

The plane started descending a bit, and the western tip of Masbate island is more visible. Masbate is shaped like a seahorse with an elongated and extended nose pointing towards Panay island. This part of Masbate is flat, there seems to be no mountain or tall hills here. A few cluster of houses below. And there seems to be a few forested area, perhaps these are among Masbate’s famous cattle ranches where a ranch is several thousand hectares wide of mainly grassland. Panay island is not clear because it’s a bit far from the plane’s path.

Descending further, I saw a small flat island with plenty of houses. This could be Bantayan island on the northern side of Cebu island-province. A few minutes more, the plane was hovering above Cebu’s northern villages and towns. There’s a plateau and on top of it are hundreds of small hills, they look like the “green version” of Bohol’s “Chocolate hills”. After the plateau, the lower hills and farm lands, could be mostly coconut plantation, the plane crosses the western side of the island-province, seems sleepy towns up there.

Mactan island is not far behind, it’s a flat island adjacent to Cebu. The 2 long bridges connecting the 2 islands – the old Mactan bridge and the new Marcelo Fernan bridge – can be seen now. Mactan’s big hotels and resorts are mostly on the left side of the island, fronting the smaller Olango island. While on the right side of the island are its industrial (like Mactan Export Processing Zone) and commercial centers since they’re just facing Cebu city and its domestic and international seaport on the other side.

Among the prominent structures of Cebu City from the air are naturally its tall buildings like Marco Polo hotel up on a hill, those in Fuente Osmena circle, and those around the Ayala business center.

For a one hour trip from Manila, it’s worth foregoing sleep and rest during that period and watch the various islands and mountains below the plane.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Thailand trip, part 1

Upon the invitation of Dr. Samran Sombatpanit, Immediate past president of the World Association for Soil and Water Conservation (WASWC), I went to Thailand last June 1. My wife Ella and daughter Elle Marie came with me. Samran reserved us at Maruay Garden Hotel, a bit on the outskirts of central Bangkok, and just a few kilometers from his house.

We took the late night flight from Manila on May 31, and arrived at Thailand or Bangkok International Airport around 1am of June 1. The airport is so big and beautiful, both from a distance and inside it. The blue neon lights mix up well with the rest of the lights in the tent-type roofing of the terminal.

I have been to Thailand twice, the first in 2001 I think, when I joined a study tour of the PDE from the University of the Philippines, School of Economics (UPSE). The second in 2005 when I went to Phuket to attend a conference, although here, I did not go to the city. From Manila, I only changed plane from the Bkk airport to Phuket. The current airport was opened only 2 years ago, and it really looks grand. Although I have read in the past that when they first opened it, there were a number of technical glitches. Then there was some corruption issue in the construction of the new airport.

Anyway, the immigration section was neat and the queue was very short. The baggage claim area was big but orderly. After we got out baggages, Ella's 2 Filipina friends, Kareff and Kissy, both working at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), have been waiting for us at the exit area of the airport. It was very kind for these 2 ladies to stay late and waited for us even though it was past 1am when we got out of the airport. They arranged for a taxi and came along with us to our hotel.

The road infrastructure from the airport to Bangkok city was impressive. We passed by 2 tollgates, the roads were wide, smooth and well-lighted. A big portion of the road was elevated too.

In the morning, Kareff accompanied us again, and we took the MRT. The train system is more modern than the MRT/LRT in Manila. Bangkok's MRT coaches are wider, and the trains are longer, so there was no congestion inside the trains. But then it was a Sunday, so perhaps on weekdays, the trains are congested and packed with people.

We went to the National Stadium station, there's a big mall attached to it. I noticed there were many western tourists, buying different stuff. I'm no shopping or malling buff even in Manila, so I wouldn't know how cheaper or pricier the goods are compared to their counterparts in Manila's shops and malls, although my impression is that they are generally cheaper compared to those sold in Manila.

By late afternoon, our daughter was tired and sleepy, I have to go back to the hotel so she can sleep well, while Ella and Kareff resumed shopping. I saw a long line of traffic, mostly on the road from the outskirts to central Bangkok, even on a Sunday! So I would imagine the traffic congestion during regular days should be a lot worse.

Many buses in Bkk are government-owned; there are a few private buses but they need to get their business permit or franchise from the government. In a set-up where the government is a regulator and competitor at the same time, one cannot expect that the private buses will be able to compete well. Hence, the public bus system is a bit inefficient, so people have to rely on the MRT, taxi and their private cars. The taxis are all privately-operated and owned, and the service is generally good. Flag down was Baht 35, then Baht 2 for every succeeding few hundred meters.

In the evening, I was visited by my Thai friend, my batchmate during the "Sustainable Agriculture" seminar for 7 weeks in Sweden in late 2003, then in the "follow-up sustainable agriculture" seminar for a week in Hanoi, Vietnam in December 2006. Orasa brought her 18-year old daughter, who speaks good English as she has studied for 1 year in UK as sort of an exchange student.

Orasa treated me and my daughter to a buffet dinner at the hotel, with an entertainment by a local band that sang 70s and 80s era, western popular songs and ballad. It was a good dinner-entertainment at the hotel, I profusely thanked Orasa for the hospitality.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Passports and visa

Foreign travel is always an exciting experience for people who have not gone outside their country yet, or for those who are visiting another foreign country for the first time. The anticipation and the joy of seeing other places and people, other culture is itself a source of joy and excitement.

For people who travel a lot though, foreign travel is a drudgery, a stressful experience, except when attending an important meeting or conference.

Below are 2 rather emergency and weird cases that I have experienced.

(1) Has passport but no visa yet, and flying the following day!

This happened to me sometime in October 2006. I was going to Seoul, S. Korea to attend the 2nd Asia-Pacific Taxpayers Union (APTU) meeting. Although I have been to Seoul twice in the past, the meeting was something new to me. In addition, the organizers – the Korea Taxpayers Association – would pay for my hotel, plane fare and other expenses, so it was a very attractive opportunity and I didn’t want that opportunity to pass. But they gave that offer rather belatedly, only a few days before the meeting, so had to get a Korean visa very quick.

I had a valid passport, a plane reservation already but could not pay it yet because I still have to wait if the Korean embassy will give me a visa.

I got my visa around 3pm, immediately informed my travel agent, got my e-ticket 5pm, and flew the following morning!

(2) Has visa but no passport, and flying the following day!

This happened to me last April. I was going to Atlanta, Georgia, USA to attend the Liberty Forum sponsored by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation A week before my flight, my passport accidentally got wet. My two friends from 2 separate travel agencies have the same opinion: I need to get a new passport, otherwise, it’s possible that I may be denied departure at Manila airport, or be denied entry at the US immigration.

With a formal invite and a paid e-ticket, I looked for friends of friends who are working at the DFA. The regular issuance of a new machine-readable passport is 14 working days. An overtime issuance is 7 working days. I wanted my new passport to be issued preferably in 2 working days!

The DFA personnel that I talked to said it’s impossible. They narrated a father who has to leave quickly to attend to a son who will be beheaded somewhere in the Middle East, and the man still got his passport in 4-5 working days!

Have to cancel my scheduled flight on April 21 morning, and hoped that my new passport will be released on April 23, even though the scheduled release is April 24 (5 working days). My trip was getting hopeless as even though I can get my new passport soon, all Northwest flights were full. One option was to take the Philippine Airlines (PAL) for a Manila-SFO or LA flight, then connecting flight to Atlanta via Delta Air. But this will be an expensive flight, about $2,100+ including taxes for a return ticket, while my Northwest promo fare was only $1,560+ including taxes.

April 23, I went to the DFA to see – at a slim possibility – that my new passport will be issued that afternoon. I arrived at the Passport Director’s office around 2:30pm, and was so surprised to learn that my new passport is already available! Upon holding it, I immediately called up my travel agent for a possible slot in Northwest (in case one passenger will cancel) the following day, or with PAL that same night. An hour later, my travel agent texted me that indeed, one passenger, just one, cancelled his/her flight, so I will be able to get in!

So here’s how it went:April 23, I got my new passport at 2:30pm, 3:30pm got a lone slot in Northwest, received my new e-ticket at 6:30pm, and flew the April 24, 8am flight!

That trip though, was very long and tiring. I entered NAIA April 24, 5am (3 hours before scheduled departure), flew Manila-Narita-Detroit-Atlanta (3 plane transfers) and got out of Atlanta airport around 6:30am April 25 Manila time, or a total of 25 ½ hours!

Since it was my first time to see Atlanta, the tiredness was erased when I finally saw the Atlanta airport, got out and saw the city.

Yeah, the pain and gain of foreign travel!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tagaytay highlands and midlands

Last weekend, my PDE batch 33rd in UPSE were invited by our then batch adviser and our wedding sponsor, our Ninong Prof. Ruping Alonzo, to visit them and their house at Tagaytay Midlands. Two of my batchmates came, Cynmthia and Joey. I brought my wife Ella and our baby, Elle Marie. We hitched with Cynthia, she was driving a Ford Everest, wow!

From SLEX, we took the Calamba-Batino road. It's less scenic, the roads are narrow, lots of humps, but so near. Before you knew it, you are already in Midlands. There's another route going there, via Sta. Rosa exit, but you have to pass through Silang, then Tagaytay, then go up to Tagaytay Highlands, go down to Midlands. The Batino road is shorter by around 14 kms., quite a lot of savings in time and fuel.

Before we went to Sir Ruping's house, we toured the whole area, watching the beautiful vacation houses. The streets there are named after condiments like Basil, Mint, etc. There are more vacant lots than houses, though I think it won't take long and the place will be teeming with more new houses.

Ninong Ruping's house is cool -- fresh air, clean surroundings, neat interiors, 2-storey, the window glasses are wide. You don't need electric fan or air-con and you don't need lights, the glass windows allow ample sunlight. They have a butterfly house/net with lots of colorful flowers. Ninang Mel likes some gardening.

The couple brought us to Tagaytay Highlands for a tour. We visited the nipa cottages, some accommodations there are affordable. There are 2 swimming pools, one each for adults and children. Then we went to highlands country club. It's beautiful and spacious. In front of it is a wide and clean swimming pool, an arch footbridge over the pool, artificial waterfalls on the sides, a view of the log cabins/houses and golf course on the other side. We obviously took lots of pictures.

Then we went for an ice cream at a small pond where people can rent a fishing rod and catch tilapia. Whatever you catch, you can bring them home, no need to pay them. Problem is that the fishes are small, so people normally throw whatever they catch back to the pond.

Near the pond is the chapel, it's cool too -- circular, like the UP chapel, but this one's smaller; all wood structures, the roof is cogon, the benches are those solid wood. The Jesus on the cross is also made of wood.

A few meters away is the horse-back riding oval. The horses look healthier and taller than the horses in other resorts at Tagaytay proper.

Then we went to the tallest part of Highlands -- a restaurant perched atop a narrow but tall hill. From the top, you can see the high-rise condos and log cabins of Highlands, the bright-colored houses in the Midlands, on one side, and Taal lake on the other side. And here's the killer: the wind there is so strong and cold, those who did not bring a jacket have to stay away after sometime. My baby enjoyed the strong wind so much!

From there, we went for a brief train ride, steep downhill, from highlands to midlands, it's free! We sat in the front car or train, it's a bit scary looking down the steep downhill as the train move downwards. Three minutes later, we're at the midlands clubhouse.

We were supposed to ride the cable car too, but they did not operate it that day, the wind was strong for the cable cars, Sayang.

From there, we went back to Ninong Ruping's house. Other friends from PDE batch 37th who joined us brought lots of food, so we had a heavy afternoon snacks. Some just sat or played around in the open grass area in front of the house, others stayed inside. It's very comfy whether you're inside or outside the house. My baby enjoyed it outside.

The sun has already set when we bid goodbye and profusely thanked the couple for the invite. Prodded upon by the kinetic energy released by the 4 bottles of beer in my brain, I gave an extemporaneous brief speech, something like, "dahil sa kabayanihan ng mag-asawa, tayo ay sumaya!" Heh, corny. I didn't say that. I said,

"In the absence of the real and biological children of Sir/Mam Ruping-Mel (their 2 kids are now US-based, have their own families there), the social and academic children are here, coming from different points of the country to express great pleasure for the hospitality of the couple. We enjoyed the place, the tour, the food, the kindness. Bring in the band!" Hehehe.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Eden resort, Davao City

Second week of January this year, my wife has to attend a training seminar and hold some meetings with their partners in Davao City. Venue was the Eden Nature Park and Resort ( Though she has been to that city several times, it will be her first time to see that place, so she brought our baby and I tag along to watch our daughter. That was my second visit to Eden; my first visit was sometime in 2002, but it was only a day tour. This time, we will stay there for 3 days and 2 nights.

The place is at the foot of Mt. Apo, around 2,600 feet above sea level (roughly 1/4 the height of that mountain, which is the highest mountain in the Philippines). It should be a little less than 30 kms. from Davao city proper. The place is cold, well at least compared to those areas in the lowlands. In the evening, one can see Toril district of the city and its bright lights.

We stayed at Holiday lodges, just below the greenhouses and the hydroponics farm, and near the mangosteen grove, prayer garden, and mini-ampitheater. There's an open air training or conference area. So participants stay at the lodge, and walk just across the road towards the conference area.

The rooms are non-air-con for obvious reason. There's an electric fan though. The tv is small and no cable connection. No wi-fi network too, except in the business center and the main dining area. But I like the toilet and shower area. The toilet bowl is beside an open area with a few colorful flowers; sunlight, wind and rain can penetrate as it's covered only by fine nets to keep out the mosquitoes and other flying insects. Hence, no need for an electrical exhaust system.

The main dining area is big and wide. It should be able to accommodate 200 people. Just below the dining area is a small covered court with stage, for events with plenty of people. Toril district can be seen behind the stage. But what makes the place unique is the presence of free-roaming peafowls, mostly female. About 1 or 2 males (peacocks) accompany the females and if you're lucky, you should be able to see the males displaying their tails -- wide, tall and colorful -- to court or attract the females.

Outside the dining area is the mini-Indiana Jones ride. It's a short cable ride, maybe about 50 meters long only. Further down the Jones ride, are the campsite and a half-court basketball area....

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

zoobic safari

Last weekend, my wife and her friend from college days, Ireen, also a mother to a nearly 2-year old boy, went to Subic for a weekend stay. We brought our daughter Elle, 1 year and 4 months old.

We went to "zoobic safari", on the western side of Subic bay area and near the Morong, Bataan gate. The place is quite attractive to many tourists especially on weekends. Entrance fee is P400 per head, babies are free. The package includes a walking tour of a zoo -- different birds, animals and rodents. They have a good collection, definitely much plentier than one will find at the government-run Manila zoo.

There's a short entertainment in this part of the zoo. In the "Aeta trail", there are 3 or 4 male Aetas on G-strings. One plays the guitar, as one dances the graceful "butterfly dance"; another one dances the quick "monkey dance", complete with a very quick climb on a pole and quick descent; then 2 guys dance the belligerent "war dance".

There is also a covered place where different species of smaller alligators (iguana, monitor lizard, etc.) and snakes (from python to indian albino species).

But what makes the place unique compared to many other zoo in the country, both government- and privately-operated, is the close encounter with tigers on the loose. Well, they can walk and run around in a fenced area. Visitors ride a jeepney with steel bards to protect them from the tigers. Visitors buy dressed chicken for P200 a piece, a zoo staff joins in as "feeder". The tigers' area has double gates.

Upon entry of the jeepney on the 2nd gate, just a few meters you will see the tigers -- about 4 or more of them. The "feeder" shows the dressed chicken, and 1 or 2 tigers come close, well very close, you can see their face, claws and teeth as they eat the chicken little by little right across the steel bars! While one tiger is eating the chicken piecemeal, another tiger would roam around the other side of the jeepney, sniffing if there's another chicken available. Tigers that are full don't come close anymore, they just lie down on some corners but are still visible to the visitors inside the jeepney. This close encounter lasts for about 10-15 minutes.

After the tiger encounter, the jeepney goes back to the main building. Then visitors can choose whether to ride the train-truck (P50/head) or bring their own car. First destination is the tiger breeding area. Here, huge and mature tigers are kept for breeding. It's a good tiger farm. Next destination is the savannah -- a fenced area where many ostrich, wild (now tamed) pigs, ducks and turkey roam around freely. if you get off from your car briefly, you can have a quick picture taking with these birds and animals up close, although the tour guide does not allow this practice, i think. The ostrich can kick you perhaps.

Finally, the last destination is the crocodile farm. There are around 200 different species of crocs there. Visitors can buy a quarter- or half-sized dressed chicken tied to a long stick for P50, then use the chicken to attract the seldom-moving animals to move and attempt to eat the bait. I kidded our tour guide, "Luthy", that perhaps they should change the name of the croc farm to "House of Representatives", other visitors who heard my joke laughed too.

There are 2 souvenir shops -- one in the main building where briefings are made, and at the Crocs cafe.

The place is a good learning area for children and adults alike about various animals. The staff are articulate and friendly too.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Going to Boracay

November 2007

Boracay can be reached by boat from the municipalities of Caticlan and Malay, Aklan province. To reach Caticlan say from Manila, (a) by plane, there are 2 small airlines that serve Caticlan; (b) by bus via RORO (Manila-Batangas-Calapan-Roxas-Caticlan-Iloilo). By small planes, travel time is around 50 minutes; by bus, it’s around 20 hours.

Transpo expenses, Malay town (Panay mainland) to Boracay

1. Environmental fee, P50 per head
2. Terminal fee, P20 per head
3. Boat fare, P20 per head
4. Tricycle, port to beach resorts, P100 per trip

If your hotel is not accessible by tricycle, like the road going there is being repaired, and you have plenty of baggage and/or you’re carrying a baby, you may have to hire a ‘trisikad’ (bicycle with side car), fare depending on distance and/or number of baggage.

5. Trisikad, P20 to P50 per trip

When the winds are strong, the boats cannot dock at Jetty Port in Malay, so they dock at Tabon. But they can’t come close to the shallow waters, so passengers have to ride those small bancas and transfer to the bigger boats. In Boracay island, the same boats have to dock at the eastern side where there is no port, so passengers will have to ride again a banca from the boat to the shore.

3a. Banca ride, Malay to boat, P 5 per person
3b. Banca ride, boat to Boracay, P 5 per person

In situations like this, the ‘terminal fee’ should not be collected since there was no ‘terminal’ being used, and passengers have to pay extra for those banca rides. Anyway the banca operators pay a certain registration or accreditation fee to the municipal government.

* Going to Boracay can be inconveniently expensive. Or expensively inconvenient.