Palawan, Philippines. Wish You Were Here Wednesday.


On the way to the ferry, we stopped at a snorkel shop where we rented water shoes, fins, goggles, breathing tube thingy. Everything bright orange. At the shop, I still wasn’t sure if I actually would snorkel, but I figured, if I decided to do it, I’d need the equipment. And a bag of fresh pandesal, soft, semi-sweet bread rolls, to feed the fishies, too.

This is Pandan Island, Honda Bay, Palawan, Philippines. This is where I first tried to snorkel. That’s a big deal for me because I can’t swim. It’s sad to be a Filipino who can’t swim. But, snorkeling is different, right?  Continue reading


Firefly Watching on Palawan’s Iwahig River, Philippines

The road was intermittently paved, unlike most of the routes in Puerto Princesa we’d taken.

Five of us guests, a local guide and our driver headed out into darkest night. Most roads – that is to say, all of them except the two main thoroughfares that intersect in the middle of town – are unlit. No kidding, Puerto Princesa has no nightlife in the bar or club sense. Unlike what one might assume about a capital – although a provincial capital – most businesses shut down by dusk, if not earlier. Firefly watching was as close to nightlife as Puerto Princesa could offer.

On a glowing (pun intended) recommendation from a fellow Filipina blogger I’d met in Manila, we drove to the Iwahig River for firefly watching.

Iwahig, as the main tributary of Palawan, flows through the prison without walls, a crocodile preserve and out into the sea.

Fireflies, we learned, are a sign of a healthy eco-system and they like to gather in flowering mangroves. Mangroves are trees and shrubs that live in brackish or semi-brackish water, right on the coastlines of tropical areas usually, taking root right in the mud or sandy soil.

Mangroves, Palawan, Philippines

The reaction of several chemicals or enzymes in the fireflies cause it to emit bursts of light. Bioluminescence is the fancy word for this. Fireflies light up as a group when they sense danger, to communicate with one another, and in courtship or mating rituals. Even as eggs nested in or on the sandy soil fireflies glow, but the higher-ups in the forest food chain know not to eat these glowing insect balut because the chemicals that make them bioluminescent are toxic.

In a gravel parking lot, we set down from the van towards a few small buildings connected by flagstone trails and a small footbridge: a sari-sari store just off the lot, a cashier and check-in booth, a waiting area and safety instructional desk, a covered wooden stair down to the river launch.

The covered launch had curved v-shapes in opposite ends of the floor, for the hull and the sterns to fit into and help the passengers embark and disembark.

Each boat can accommodate three passengers plus one guide/bangkero. Two of our group, a father and daughter from Hawaii, set off in the first boat. After the requisite waivers signed and safety orange life vests lashed to our bodies, we boarded the vessel. My companions were Ernie, from the Department of Tourism, and Carlotta, a reporter from Honolulu. We’d gotten along famously since we’d stepped off from Manila but the second we got in this boat, things got quiet.

The moon, a matted sliver, slung low in the skies.

Thin clouds of mellifluous forms thin as piña diffused the moonlight unevenly, with spectacular results caught between rustling of the mangroves.

Thickly forested mountains darkly rose downstream, its peaks cutting the night.

I didn’t want to ask any questions, unlike other tours we went on during our days, when I jotted my notes in a craft paper Moleskin. I didn’t want to talk and I hoped no one else talked. And no one did very much. This was not the place for it.

The water gently lapped against our craft. It whorled ’round our guide’s oar as he softly pushed us at a measured pace. Iwahig’s waters were still. Whirl on one side, then the other. Cicadas sent out their signals.

And the stars. Stars have colors. Small and big, they clustered like clouds. It’s what the galaxy looks like in movies, but here it was in real life right above us. The well-lit evenings in urban spaces means I can see the world around me well, but I can’t see the other worlds above us much at all. I think that’s not a good tradeoff, now that I’ve seen what I’ve seen. The night skies, like many other things, are different here in Palawan.

The guide said it was too bad we were there on a moonlit night because the fireflies were harder to see. That may have been true, but I saw the little bugs shine just fine, especially as they clustered together only in the flowering mangroves. Our guide paddled us closer to the twinkling mangroves on either side of the river.

Apparently not all fireflies flock together, and not all firefly groups synchronize their lighting. Strangely, entire trees full of firefly groups lighted up together when the guide flashed a red light.


During the boat ride, one of the fireflies, inexplicably, landed on me. I picked it up gently with my left hand, placing it on my right index finger. The tiny light crawled towards my nail and then under it. I hardly felt its tiny body, its warmless heat, the smallest star glowing from near.

Note: This post is not sponsored by the Philippines’ Department of Tourism.  But I did write it about events on that trip, the 2013 Ambassadors’ Tour in July 2013, of which the Philippines’ DOT underwrote my participation.

Iwahig Firefly Watching in Puerto Princesa can be arranged via local tour operators or concierge. Price for three guests in one boat is PHP 600. Ride lasts 45 minutes. Firefly tours start after dusk (around 7 PM) and run generally until midnight or when there’s no more guests. Reservations can be made ahead of time. During the day, kayaking and other water sports can be done on the river.

Edit! My friend Cy, who works with the Puerto Princesa city government, tells me that there IS nightlife in the city: Kinabuch, Tiki Bar and Scenario (located in the Asturias Hotel). These are restaurants by day and bars by night, all of them located along Rizal Road. She also suggests Salo Bar in the Legends Hotel for karaoke. (You read my mind, Cy!) Thank you!

“Home is complicated”: Thoughts of returning from an undocumented Filipina

“We are talking about papers, here,” said activist and documentary filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas.

I heard this emphatic, simple statement when the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist formerly of the Washington Post spoke at the University of Chicago on May 9, 2012. The Filipino-born, California-raised Vargas entitled his June 2011, New York Times Magazine-published letter, My life as an Illegal Immigrant.


“Home is complicated. I don’t know what it means,” Stephanie said. “I don’t think it’s a geographic place.”

Rule one of traveling internationally: Get all your supporting papers in order: passport, visa and cash.

No papers, no go. In other cases, however, the opposite is also true: No papers, no stay.

The common verb that balikbayans, or Filipinos returning to their native country, use to describe this homecoming journey is uuwi, to return home.

In the days leading up to my trip, I thought about my fellow kababayans (countrymen) who do not have the choice to return home to the Philippines from America. This option does not exist because they cannot legally re-enter the United States. They are undocumented and do not have legal status here.


Stephanie studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. You may have seen her giving voice to her stories with artist-activist collective, Elephant Rebellion. Or staging a protest for immigrant rights with a “lock box” in front of the Congress Hotel while President Obama stayed there this past May.

As an organizer with the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL), she works toward “full recognition of the rights and contributions of all immigrants.” IYJL keeps immigrants from being deported through staging public protests, finding pro bono legal representation, raising awareness in the community and working with legislators like Illinois Senator Dick Durbin (D).

Stephanie educated me about how ICE, or the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, works differently in regions across the country. Immigration is different in the Midwest, in Chicago, than in other urban areas along the coasts. She told me of how, though Chicago has a long history of labor organizing, more often than not, undocumented workers are not as protected as workers with legal resident standing. IYJL works with a diversity of immigrants to strengthen community ties within.

“Current narratives and legislation are creating divisions and hierarchies – who can qualify for relief and who cannot – and I see this as an overt attack and attempt to divide our community and movement,” she said.

For the immensity of the task, “state, federal, local grants [make more] funding accessible to non-profits for advocacy, rather than [for] action,” she said – particularly for radical action.

It seems like endless work, the fight for immigrant rights to establish new homes peaceably. “We have this sense of urgency about our work,” Stephanie said.

She said she fights for other young people whose parents brought them over when they were children. Only when Stephanie began to apply for colleges did she learn of her undocumented status.

Her parents fled the Philippines with her and her sister to escape poverty, violence and political persecution, first to the Marshall Islands – a sovereign nation in free association with the United States – then to various places within the mainland US and finally to the suburbs of Chicago.


According to most public estimates, at any given time, there are 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. And about 525,000 of those “unauthorized” immigrants reside in Illinois – or roughly 4.1% of the state’s population in 2010, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report.

I know and have known them. They’re my family. They’re friends and neighbors.

In Filipino slang, they’re TNT, or tago nang tago, or ‘hiding and hiding.’ Some Americans regard them as illegal – the rationale being, “they come here illegally, so they are illegal.”

You probably already know someone in this situation, too. Students overstay study visas. Professionals overstay work visas. Tourists take extended ‘vacations.’ They are the so-called unskilled labor force who care for the elderly and disabled, who clean hotel rooms and wash the dishes long after dinner is done. They flee political or sectarian violence and seek asylum. They are men and women and children. (Yes, children, too.) They’re from every nation and territory and race on Earth.

Some of these immigrants call themselves and those like them ‘undocumented Americans.’ The push to change the language and terms of these individuals moves in counter to the fear, shame, stigma and divisiveness caused within and towards the immigrant community because of someone’s legal residency status.


Given her circumstances, I asked Stephanie if she wants to return to the Philippines someday, given the option.

“I feel this longing to go back. Though I wonder if this is a place where I will be othered. Will this feel like home?” Stephanie answered me.

“But it’s not even an option, and it makes me emotional,” she continued.


July 11, Manila.

We finally arrived and were seated in Rizal Hall at Malacañang Palace. Large portraits of the national hero lined one wall — Rizal writing, Rizal reading a book, Rizal checking the eyesight of a child. Large wooden and glass chandeliers hung above, illuminating the woven pattern of the ceiling, doubtless crafted from native hardwoods. The press corps closed in behind us with their lanyard credentials, tripods setups and high definition cameras. We were informed: The President of the Republic, Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III, was on his way.

Today was the most anticipated day of the Manila portion of the Ambassadors’ Tour for many of us. Rarely does one get to have an audience with, if briefly, a sitting head of state.

In our finest Filipinana – or however close to that we could get to traditional formal attire – our day started early with a wreath laying at Luneta. The tour guide earlier that morning informed us that the wreath laying at the Rizal Monument and twenty-one gun salute by members of the Philippine military branches is standard protocol for all visiting heads of state before a visit with the President. The Republic of the Philippines’ Ambassadors to the United States and Canada, Jose L. Cuisia, Jr. and Leslie A. Gatan respectively, led the ceremony with the Consul Generals of Chicago, Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Honolulu, Toronto, Ottawa, Agana (Guam) and our large contingent of nearly 500 tour participants. Each of sixteen coach buses was accompanied on board by members of the President’s security force that day. Police escorted the convoy.

Briskly walked the President into the hall. President Aquino spoke to us for about ten minutes, in English.

Early in his remarks, President Aquino said, “Welcoming you all today offers me a fulfilling break from my other duties—and it gives me a special happiness as I am receiving balikbayans here in Malacañang, the home of every Filipino.”

I want to believe this sentiment, but I question it. What is “home” if so many Filipinos – 9.4 million – leave its shores to earn enough to provide for their families, or permanently migrate to escape violence and poverty?



“Considering the work you do and all you’re fighting for,” I asked Stephanie, “do you consider the United States home, then?”

She replied, “Home is complicated. I don’t know what it means. I think home is a place where I can be myself and feel validated. It’s not static, it continually travels, it’s contextual. Home is not so much a physical space.”

Stephanie tells me about instances when, even among Filipinos and Filipino Americans, she feels alienated because they have middle-class, not working class backgrounds and sometimes, narrow worldviews. Her gender, her mixed race, her personal history, her undocumented status – the variety of facets that make up one’s identity -, because of one or a combination of these, has Stephanie felt othered, made not to feel at home, as an outsider.

“I live in the U.S. because if I go back to the Marshall Islands or the Philippines, I would have less access and visibility [to] impact change for the countries I have called home.”

Stephanie’s choices of where to make home lie between apathy and action.


Note: This post is not sponsored by the Philippines’ Department of Tourism.  But I did write it about events on that trip, the 2013 Ambassadors’ Tour in July 2013, of which the Philippines’ DOT underwrote my participation.

Notes and Related Stories

A Pasalubong of Sorsogon’s Pili Nut Panutsa (Panocha) or Conserva

Bundles of pili panutsa from Sorsogon, Bicol, Philippines

It’s Filipino custom to arrive at the home of a relative or friend with gifts – usually in the form of food specialties from your own town or province, especially the farther away you live. From my grandmother’s town, we would bring karyoka (if any skewers of the deep-fried, crunchy, sticky rice disks survived the ride from Manila!) or my aunt’s dragon fruit. From Iloilo, we would bring sweet mangoes. From Vigan, the famous longganisa. From Palawan, I brought dried danggit or rabbitfish back (of course, I claimed it on my customs form).

These gifts – they’re called pasalubong, loosely translated to ‘souvenir’: Something delicious to share from faraway with your welcoming hosts or with friends and family back home. As in other Asian cultures, gift giving in the Philippines can significantly strengthen or build new relationships between individuals, even if merely regarded as a kind and thoughtful gesture.

(What would a gal from Chicago bring as pasalubong? Hot dogs don’t travel well. Nor do tacos.)

Pictured below is one special pasalubong shared with me by a generous hostess, Dr. Ana Labrador, assistant director of the National Museum of the Philippinespili panutsa  – also spelled panocha from the Spanish – or conserva, brought from Sorsogon. (Faithful readers of this blog may remember the panutsa my Bicolana cousin used in her recipe for ginataan bilo-bilo.)

We had the good fortune to meet Dr. Labrador on a day when a private donor officially gave the National Museum a portrait of Marylis de Jesus Sevilla painted by the late Anita Magsaysay-Ho in 1958.


As we discussed the painting, we enjoyed a merienda of coffee and pili panutsa, gifted to Dr. Labrador from her friends who visited Sorsogon. This snack, though somewhat reminiscent of a brittle by a quick glance of the molasses surround, was much softer, almost velvety in texture. The young pili nut morsels easily gave way to the bite as the smoky brown sugar molasses melted in our mouths. The pili panutsa’s sublime richness found its counterpoint in the aromatic dried leaves of the nut used to artfully wrap the sweet gift inside.

Edit added, July 25: Dr. Labrador gently corrected that the leaves the conserva is wrapped in are not the leaves of the pili nut tree, but of a flowering tree known locally in Sorsogon as malubago. Like a true scientist, she informs me that the tree’s scientific name is Hibiscu tiliaceus Linn and, “The tree grows around seashores and tidal streams. It is even medicinal. Talk about sustainable pasalubong.” Thanks, Dr. Labrador!

(Click any photo below to view a full-screen slide show.)

Remember, kids: Sharing is caring, especially when it comes to food.

Note: This is NOT a post sponsored by the Philippines’ Department of Tourism.  But I did write it while I was on that trip, during some free time on the 2013 Ambassadors’ Tour and trip in July 2013, of which the Philippines’ DOT underwrote my participation.

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