Summer in ‘Kanata’ (Canada)

Sometime in July of 2012, my husband and I decided to take a summer holiday in Canada. It was quite a complicated travel for me because as a Filipino, I have yet to get the required Visas (tourist and transits) before making our summer leisure a reality. The truth is, filling up forms is one of things I dislike the most. When I see so many blanks to fill up in a form and so many detailed information to share, I always think that I am being interrogated for two reasons: one, why am I ‘Changing my Citizenship’ and second, ‘Explaining a Criminal Record,’ to which neither I am accomplishing. This kind of feeling really riles me up, but on the positive side, I look at it as behavioral activity to practice the virtue of patience.

Canada. The word ‘Kanata’ which means ‘village’ was used by St. Lawrence Iroquoians, the First Nations (one of three aboriginals who lived in Canada) people who lived in the 14th century. In 1535, French explorer Jacques Cartier (as directed by the indigenous inhabitants) used the word Canada referring not only to a particular village but the entire area of Stadacona (Chief Donnacona was the then chief of Stadacona located in Quebec City). In 1545, the name Canada as a region has been used in maps and books (Soucre: www.wikipedia.com).

Canada is the second largest country in the world (by total area), next to Russia. It has the world’s largest lake within a lake (Manitou Lake). It has the longest coastline in any country. A home to Hockey sports, Cheese (major producer), large animals like moose and grizzly bears, just to name a few interesting facts about Canada.

Arrival. It was the longest flight in my life so far. From Port Vila, Vanuatu, we flew to Auckland via AirVanuatu airlines, then flew via New Zealand Airlines from Auckland to Vancouver, Canada and flew to two domestic flights from Vancouver to Toronto then Toronto to Moncton via Air Canada, and two and half hours of land trip to reach my husband’s hometown, Petite Rocher, located in New Brunswick, East of Canada. It was a two day flight including lay overs! I am proud to say, I made it through sans airsickness attacks.

The complicated part was, before reaching our destination, we have to transit in another country as there was no direct flight from Port Vila, Vanuatu to Canada, meaning I needed a transit visa. Our first option was to transit in Los Angeles, U.S., to avail of a cheap fare. Upon inquiry by my husband with the US Embassy through email, he was told that since I am a Filipino, I have to go back to Manila to apply for a transit visa because I have to be personally interviewed! Personal interview for a transit visa? Oh yes! with US Embassy! This was not feasible for me considering the expenses it entails flying from Vanuatu to Philippines, not to mention other expenses I will be incurring while in Manila.

Our next option was to transit in Auckland, New Zealand. For Filipinos residing in Vanuatu, applying for a visa with New Zealand Embassy is free although you have to pay a minimal fee for the ‘processing’ as it is course through an agency. However, the flight fare via Auckland may considerably be higher than transiting via L.A. Considering that it was the next best option we had, I applied for my transit visa with NZ Embassy. The period of waiting (10 working days!) for the visa to be released was a worry despite the follow ups I made. I was told by the agency in Vanuatu that the application has to go through Suva in Fiji. The thing was, we already had our approved itinerary on the cheapest fare we had secured (changing flight dates might mean paying higher fare) with the travel agency who was patiently waiting for my visa before allowing us to purchase our tickets. I was running a workshop for UN Women then when I got a call from the agency informing me to check my email regarding my transit visa. It turned out, the officer from NZ Embassy sent her apologies for the late response as she failed to send the transit visa to me the soonest. I have noticed from the dates of the scanned document that the visa has already been approved within five days from my application, and in fact, I was given not a transit visa but a multiple tourist visa instead.

Accommodation. In Moncton, we had to sleep overnight at Chateu de Moncton hotel to get the rest that we needed, mostly mine. This is a three star hotel with good choices for breakfast. My husband’s parents came to pick us up and we went to Costco (membership super marche) first before heading to Petite Rocher where we stayed (hubby’s parents house) for the rest of our summer vacation. I was on jet lagged for almost a week! The other second thing I dislike when traveling. The summer weather in Canada has turned into winter for me due to the sunny but windy during the day and the cold freezing temperature during the nights which I am not accustomed to. But the summer activities which we had ended up to be the most memorable ones for me! We visited the following places, and tourist spots:

Moncton City. This city is located at Southeastern part of New Brunswick. We walked around this small charming city on a cold windy night looking for a place to have our late dinner (I got up late blaming my jet lag). We found this small restaurant, called Alexandria, and ordered Ceasar’s salad and Poutine for dinner. Poutine is a Canadian-French classic food made of French fries and topped with gravy sauce and cheese. It was a delight! In Moncton, I had the chance to visit University of Moncton, one of the largest Canadian-French university outside of Quebec. And shopping in Moncton (on our way back to Vanuatu) with my mother in law was fun especially going from one shop to another at the mall and the depot.

Petite Rocher. A town located in Gloucester county where my hubby and his family resides. The residents of this small town are approximately 92% Francophone. During my stay, I had the opportunity to meet my hubby’s family and his old friends. Petite Rocher town offers a small Japanese Resto where we often go to eat sushi. On weekends we visit the Market Place to enjoy our weekend breakfast and basically to support the local community. I met a few (three families) Filipinos who were selling their produce at this place. During our summer vacay, we attended the painting exhibit of Jeanine Morris; and had the chance to buy one of her paintings. My mother in law and I together with her friends had fun time playing Bingo. It was my first time to play and as a beginner’s luck, I won in the amount of 3,700 CAD to which I only paid 1 CAD (Bingo card) for the jackpot!

Papineau Waterfalls. This is owned and managed by Papineau First Nation. The area boasts of lush green pine trees, wild berries, and wild orchids. It is surrounded by big rock formations where I watched the strong current of waters on an open view. It was the most beautiful waterfall scene I have ever witnessed! We walked along the passable area with my hubby, his brother in law and his god daughter, picking and munching on wild berries. On our way back, we had lunch in a small Indian restaurant where we enjoyed Atlantic Salmon sandwich and Poutine.

Seau Waterfalls. A small waterfalls located in Petite Rocher where my husband used to swim during his childhood days. This is another beautiful waterfall in Petite Rocher. We went down the rocky area and was watching a few people swimming, diving, and listening to the slapping of the waterfalls. The place was magical!

Pokeshaw Park, Gande Anse. This is a communal park which has a beach, and a Pokeshaw Island, a big rock island which is also known as the Bird Island. In here, you can see many birds on top of the rock. The view was spectacular!We walked around the beach and watch the Island from atop.

Shippagan. A town located in Northeastern part of the Acadien Peninsula where approximately 99% of the residents are Francophone. We stopped here to visit a gift shop which sells so many crafts, and beautiful gift items. We also stopped at Passerelle de Shippagan which has a long tranquil river bay.

Phare de Gande Anse. This is a very interesting Lighthouse. The structure and the colors give the lighthouse a very unique character.

Village Historique Acadien. This is located in Riveiere du Nord near Caraquet. This is a huge village which showcase the life of the acadiens from 1770 to 1939, the end of the deportation to the mid century. Inside the village, you can see different dwellings which represent their everyday life. There was a costume dressed interpreter who was bilingual explaining each of the dwelling to visitors, including us.

Caraquet. Another charming town in New Brunswick. We had lunch at L’Oriental Restaurant and enjoyed the lunch buffet.

Festival de Acadien Caraquet. One of the largest tourist attractions in the Atlantic provinces. I was there to witness the 50th anniversary of one of the top Acadien cutural events of the year where the largest crowd meet to celebrate the vibrant Acadien culture. There was so much fun as you see Acadien flags in blue, white and red with a yellow star being waved at the doorstep of each house. In the afternoon, we headed back to Petite Rocher and join the celebrations with residents! There was a live band, many food stands, and stalls selling give aways while both children and adults were dancing and singing! It was indeed a grand celebration!

P.S.

Getting Visa. This was done on line by my husband in my behalf under category V-1, visitor visa, single entry. All the required original documents were scanned and also submitted on line. Since I was based in Vanuatu then, my husband applied for my visa with the Canadian Embassy in Sydney, the embassy close to Vanuatu. My visa was approved within three days upon application after which the Canadian Embassy requested for my original passport to be sent to their office through paid courier so I can have my stamped visa. My issued visa was good for the duration of five months stay. The visa cost us 80 CAD while surprisingly, the paid courier cost us 120 USD! Only when you are living in Vanuatu, I suppose.

 

Solomon: Of Islands, Lagoon, and Cat Bite

My Solomon Island trip was one of the most memorable and unforgettable holiday trips I ever had in South Pacific. It was a holiday spent in an island within a lagoon that made it memorable, and it was also a holiday where, for the first time in my life, I was bitten by a big tomcat in an island the day following my arrival, so yes, that made it unforgettable. The tomcat  belonged to the owners of the resort where we stayed, and who I was told was the King of the resort – being fed three times a day with fresh catch fish, how could he not be? How did I survive a cat bite (insert fear of rabies) in an island with no medical clinic and miles away from the main land? But who is to be blamed for what had happened? My hubby said, it was my fault. Well, I will let you decide later till you get to the part of the story of this King (eyes rolling).

Solomon Island.  An archipelago located in the South Pacific consisting of six major islands and more than 900 smaller mountainous islands. Solomon Island (Islas Salomon) was named by the Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendena, the first European to visit the island (Source: www.wikipedia.com). Accordingly, people have lived in the Solomon Islands since at least 2000 B.C. The island were not visited again for about 200 years. In 1886, Great Britain and Germany divided the Solomon islands between them. During World war II, the Japanese invaded the islands that gave rise to the famous battle of Guadalcanal, one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific.  In 1945, the British gained control of the island.  Solomon Island became self governing island in 1976 and in 1978 gained their independence (Source: www.factmonster.com).

Honiara Arrival. I arrived together with my hubby at Honiara Airport via Air Pacific from Port Vila, Vanuatu on a direct flight with an approximate flying time of 1 hour and 55 minutes.  Honiara international Airport is located in Guadalcanal island. From Honiara which is the capital of Solomon Islands, my hubby and I flew to Munda province on a domestic flight via Solomon Airlines. In 55 minutes, we arrived at Munda airport.

Munda Province Arrival. Munda is the largest community on the island of New Georgia in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands consisting of a number of villages. It is located at Munda Point, at the southwestern tip of the western end of New Georgia Island, with the large Roviana Lagoon just offshore (www.flysolomons.com).  From Munda Airport, we headed towards Noro wharf and took a 20 minute boat ride going to Lola Island.

Accommodation. We stayed at Zipolo Habu Resort located in Lola Island. This island is situated within the crystal blue water of Vona Vona Lagoon.  Zipolo Habu Resort is known for its fishing activities but there are many exciting and adventurous activities that the resort offers from diving to boat tours (www.zipolohabu.com.sb).

During our stay in Lola Island, we got the chance to visit Bikiki Island and did the rainforest tour.

Bikiki Island. Our resort provided us a free transport to visit this small uninhabited island. It was a short five minute boat ride from the resort. We spent half day in this island after which, they came to pick us up before lunch time. We spent our morning snorkeling, swimming on a white sand beach and walking, exploring around the island and relaxing by the beach just watching the blue ocean.

Rainforest Tour. We did a boat ride lagoon tour around Vona Vona. We explored the lowland rainforest watching birds and we were expecting (not really) to see saltwater crocodiles, although there were no crocodiles on sight when we were there. The lagoon water was so calm and some parts were nestled with stilt houses, and mangroves. In the other parts of the island we noticed plenty of  betel nut trees. This did not surprise me, since in Solomon, both men and women loved to chew on betel nut (writing about Honiara trip soon). If you check the Rainforest Tour on the website of Zipolo Habu Resort,  the back view photo of a couple on the boat, that was me and my hubby when we explored the area.

The Cat King Story. I was not able to take a photo of this cat, unfortunately.  The story: I was up early morning and headed towards the resort’s wharf with my hubby. While waiting for the restaurant to open so we can have breakfast,  I decided to sit by the platform of the wharf to catch the sunrise, and watch some small sharks swimming on the blue ocean and to listen to the slapping of the waves. My husband was sitting on a bench reading his book. This big orange tomcat approached me and was bunting my right arm. I petted him because he really seemed to be a sweet big cat. I then started  teasing him by pushing him to the water but with no intention of really doing so. I stopped and still he bunted me before he decided to walk away and leave.

I was just there sitting and staring at the water. Little did I know that he came back (God knows why I did not even notice), and the next thing I felt was a sudden pang of hard painful bite on my right arm. The cat bit me! I thought we were good before he left since he bunted me before leaving. Obviously, he could not take the teasing. And decided to come back for his revenge. So I was just sitting still by the wharf, crying of pain while pressing the wound bite on my arm in the hope to remove whatever rabies there was or was not while watching the cat slowly walking away like nothing happened.

I swear, the cat never showed his face to me again until we left the island! My hubby said, ‘if you were in England, and you would poke a gun at the Queen, what do you think will happen to you? You were told that that cat is the king of this resort, untouchable, and yet, you wanted to throw him into the water, what do you expect?’…  Fortunately, there is no rabies case in the Pacific. I am not sure if I can say ‘lucky me,’ nonetheless, I learned my lesson, the hard way though.

P.S.

Getting Visa. For Filipinos traveling to Solomon Island, travel visa is required. Since there was no existing embassy or consular office in Vanuatu (where I was staying back then), my visa application was sent to Solomon’s consulate office via fax.

Part I. Solo Travel in Nadi, Fiji

Malolo Island Resort, Fiji (2009).

In 2008, I was based in Vanuatu doing international development work as volunteer (see Vanuatu Travel) on a two year placement. After my one year of stay in Vanuatu island doing voluntary work, I applied for a holiday grant. This grant was one of the privileges given to volunteers who were qualified to apply once they have rendered the one year placement. When my application for the grant was approved, I decided to spend my holidays in Fiji. This was my second time to travel alone (apart from going to Vanuatu) outside of my home country. Or I should say more like, my first time solo holiday travel.

Fiji. Also known as the Republic of Fiji is a Melanesian island country located in the South Pacific Ocean. Fiji was under the British colony for almost a century and was granted independence in 1970.

Fiji Island has a tropical climate; an archipelago with more than 330 islands and 500 islets with pristine seawater and white sand beaches (www.wikipedia.com).

Arrival. Flying for almost two hours from Vanuatu via Vanuatu Airlines, I arrived on a morning direct flight at Nadi international airport in Fiji.  Nadi Airport is Fiji’s international main airport located in Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island.

When I arrived in Nadi, I had no idea where I was going to stay because I did not book for my hotel. My thinking was that, I would be able to manage it.  I did a lot of reading though from Lonely Planet handbook about Fiji and how to get around the island and I was confident that finding a good accommodation should not be problem once I get to Fiji. So I was standing outside of the arrival area of Nadi International airport searching for the tours and travel agencies which were posted outside of the arrival lounge, in the hope of getting an assistance for my accommodation.

One woman approached me and asked where I was heading and if I already had an accommodation. To this, I said none yet, and that I was looking for a budget hotel. She then started to assist me and recommended a place for me to stay, helped hailed a cab for me and off I went. It was that easy for me, and everything went well. It could be the other way around too, me being too trusting: alone in another country, female at that, you may say. To be honest, it was a bit risky and unwise, but I trusted my instinct.

I am trying to remember the name of this budget hotel which I missed out from my memory. I was going through every photo that I have of Fiji, but I could not remember the name.  However, I do remember the name of the owner, Rachel. She was a Fijian woman, nice, generous and kind hearted. In fact, she toured me around Port Denarau for free together with her staff and even paid for our bills. The world is so small because two years thereafter, her son who was a pilot, happens to be our neighbor in Vanuatu – this I discovered when we invited him and his family for lunch at our rented house in Nambatu area, and while we were talking about our families. Too bad though I did not get to see Rachel when she visited Vanuatu.

This story is Part 1 of 2 because I happened to also visit Suva (Part 2 soon). In Nadi, also called Nandi, I visited and explored the following places:

Nadi Downtown. I was so excited to try Fijian food and headed towards downtown for lunch. Finding a place to eat was not a problem in Nadi as there were plenty of restaurants to choose from that served affordable Fijian food in downtown area.

As I was walking and wandering alone,  there were two Fijian young men following me behind and saying something (not sure what they were saying really) to which I turned around, faced them and firmly said No and I continued walking. I was cautious as I was alone and I realised that they just stopped following me.

Entrance at Nadi Handicraft Market.

Nadi Handicraft Market. After lunch, I headed towards the handicraft market. I did not purchase anything in here because I was not sure whether their stamps were real. What were these stamps? These were stamps that they sticked to any wooden products that you buy to certify that the products were treated, as wooden items were usually inspected by customs for any fungal or insect attacks that might possibly get into the country. In my case, when I go back to Vanuatu. It was fun just to look around and appreciate the beauty of these wood carvings, and to check some souvenir items displayed in the stalls.  Tip: I bought wooden masks at Jack’s Handicraft, a one stop shop for local products.  In here, the wooden crafts were already stamped.

Right facade, Sri Siva Subramaniya Temple.

Sri Siva Subramaniya Temple. This is located at the downtown end area. A religious Hindu temple where proper attire is required to get inside. There were no photos allowed to be taken inside the temple, so I managed to take photos of the facade from the outside. The temple was colorful and the architecture was stunning!

Ramkrishna Asram.  I am not a member of the Ramakrishna Order, however, I visited this center out of curiosity because I wanted to check the books they have in their library.  I had a good conversation with one of the members about their spiritual and humanitarian activities. When I left the center, I ended up buying many karmic yoga books which were a good read (just me saying).

Garden of the sleeping Giant. A 20 hectare garden set at the foothills of Nausori highlands. This garden housed more than 2,000 different kinds of orchids.

When I arrived at this garden, they gave me a free welcome fruit drink.  The trip to this garden was not just about orchids, although that was the highlight of the trip, it was also walking  along the boardwalk covered with canopy, wandering through the dense tropical forest, enjoying the beauty of the native tropical plants and flowers, the enchanted lily ponds and the beautiful manicured lawns. The garden landscaped took my breath away! A must visit if you are in Nadi.

Kula Eco Park. This is a small national park where you get to see endangered species. I enjoyed walking through the bird sanctuary for both endangered and non endangered species while reading information posted outside of the bird cages.

When I entered the park, I was allowed to hold and touch two Iguanas. I also got the chance to hold a Phyton snake. Looking at my photo, I had no idea why I even dared to hold it considering that I am skittish and I am scared of snakes! That was the last snake I got to hold.

In here, I learned that Kula Eco Park has a feeding program for birds. True, it was a fun park for children because they get to feed the turtles and play. This eco park was also educational and informative, not to mention the staff who were friendly and welcoming. But then, the birds were still caged, and turtles were not free swimming in their natural habitat.  Personally, I no longer support this kind of activity.

Sabeto Hot Spring. This is just a few meters away from the Garden of the sleeping giant. This is also known as the Sabeto mud Pool. For a fee, you can immerse yourself in the mud which accordingly has therapeutic properties. The hot spring is a geothermal water that comes from a volcanic source.

Marina Yacht Club. I did a quick stop at the Vuda Marina Yacht Club, a marina complex which operates as a hub for boatsmen traveling to South Pacific. I was amazed by the large number of boats docked in this marina.

Port Denarau. This is an entertainment center where you can enjoy watching cultural dances such as fire dancing, and participate in a mix of both the Polynesian and Melanesian dances. Apart from being an entertainment hub, this is also a place to dine and shop with wide commercial shopping complex.

The owner of the budget hotel where I stayed took me here twice; once, we had coffee and talked about Fiji and just chit chatting and going around the center shopping, and the second time, we came together with her staff and was just listening to a band and watching Fire Dancing at Sheraton hotel.

Cruising on board the South Sea Boat.

Fiji Cruise. I booked with South Sea Cruise for a full day tour to Mamanuca Island with lunch at Malolo Island Resort (www.ssc.com.fj).  It was a smooth cruise and the boat crew were friendly and welcoming. While we were en route to Malolo Island Resort, I got the chance to see some islands in Mamanuca Islands, including Monuriki  island where the famous movie Castaway starred by Tom Hanks was filmed.

The cruise I booked came with free welcome drink and full lunch at Malolo Island Resort.  The resort is owned by a local Fijian family. The island resort has a charm of its own with a relaxing atmosphere and view. When I arrived at the resort, I was given a free lei made of small seashells (wearing it, as you see in the photo) and there was a group of locals singing and playing the guitar to welcome all guests.  Alone, I  had a great time lunching by the pool served with Fijian dish.  And of course, the free lunch came with a dessert. After my lunch, I walked around the resort and lazed by the sand and just ‘people watching’ until it was time to leave and go back to the main land.

Sigatoka Valley. This is also known as the ‘Salad Bowl of Fiji’ because of its rich fertile soil.  I enjoyed a half day tour in Sigatoka learning the Fijian way of life and culture by visiting the village and talking to the locals. I also got the chance to roam around the Sigatoka town for small shopping.

Village Tour, Sigatoka Valley (2009).
Sigatoka Downtown Area.

P.S. 

Getting Visa. For Filipinos traveling to Fiji,  only Visa on Arrival (VOA) is required which is free of charge.

 

Hongkong: The ‘Fragrant Harbour.’

In 2012, while having our holiday in Macau, China, my husband and I decided to make a side trip to Kowloon, Hongkong.

Kowloon, Hongkong (2012).

Hongkong. Hongkong, officially known as Hongkong Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China is described as ‘East meets West’ due to the mix culture of Chinese roots and with the influences of British when Hongkong was colonized in 1841. It consist of three territorial areas: the Hongkong Island, Kowloon Peninsula, and the New Territories. Kowloon Peninsula is an urban area and is a popular tourist destination in Hongkong.

Departure. From Macau, we took the first early morning ferry (7 A.M.) to Kowloon Peninsula of Hongkong via Turbo Jet arriving Kowloon at approximately one hour sailing time. Turbo Jet sails daily at 30 minutes interval from Macau to Kowloon and vice versa which departure starts at 7 A.M. and ends at 5.30 P.M. departure time and at night, departure time starts at 6 P.M. and ends at 11.30 P.M. making the last sailing schedule (5.30 P.M and 11.30 P.M.) an optional sailing time for them. The fare rate depends whether you are sailing on a weekday, weekend, or holiday and also depending on which class you prefer to take. We paid 153 HK$ (per person) from Macau to Kowloon, and coming back, we paid 164 HK$ (per person) both on economy class which is inclusive of Hongkong departure tax. The turbo jet was clean and spacious with tidy toilets. We had a fast, smooth and comfortable trip. The Turbo Jet disembarked at Canton Road in Tsim Sha Tsui (www.turbojet.com).

Arrival. I would like to think that it was a placid trip until we got to the immigration area. When we arrived in Kowloon, the immigration desks were clumped by hundreds of people anxiously wanting their stamped-visa to allow entry to Hongkong. The crowd was talking and murmuring in Chinese language which I have no hint what the discourse was all about. My husband and I were among the first one to take the queue but were the few last ones to get our visa stamped as we were trying to avoid the push. One Chinese woman was talking to me in a very fast Cantonese language (I am assuming) thinking I am a Chinese. I was nodding my head out of politeness and never got the chance to say that I do not speak her language. When she was done, it was already her queue  as the next one in line. During this hoo-haa, I have witnessed the immigration officer raising his voice at another tourist! God knows what they were arguing about. I have not seen that many people rushing to get their visas, that and without a good visa processing system in place. It was a commotion!

After getting out of the chaotic immigration area, we proceeded to the information section hoping we can get a copy of a tourist map or get some information that we needed for our day trip. Unfortunately, no information was provided. When we asked why they do not provide, the woman over the counter simply waved her hand, a motion saying none, and shaking her head, meaning there is no map and none whatsoever information about Kowloon! I was left in total confusion and comforted myself thinking maybe she did not understand English or maybe we were not clear enough (but sure, we were). So we left in disappointment, went downstairs using the escalator then hailed a cab, hopped in and went straight to Jade Street.

Jade Market (2012).

Jade Market. Shopping for precious stones, Jade being one of them, is one of my fancies. When we decided to go to Kowloon, the top list on my itinerary is shopping at Jade Market. Why Jade? Jade, more than just a beauty of its own is associated with long life, meaning good health. A must lucky charm to bring home.

Jade Market at Jade Street is the biggest Jade market in Kowloon. It is situated at the junction of Kansu and Battery streets. It took us a while to find the place. When we found it, we were amazed by how massive the place was! There were hundreds of stalls selling authentic (maybe or maybe not) jade accessories such as rings, necklaces, pendants as well as other good finds for home decor. In here, we found variety of Jade from expensive to cheap adornments, all of various shades and quality.

When faced with all these various items, the question is, how do I know if the Jade is genuine or not? I did a few research and I have learned that only Jadeite Jade and Nephrite Jade are authentic Jade. The expensive Jadeite Jade usually comes from Burma, and 75% of the world’s Nephrite Jade is mined from British Columbia, Taiwan, U.S. and small amount in Australia. There are also other Jade materials which are considered Jade but neither Jadeite or Nephrite (www.wikipedia.org).

We asked around the market how to determine an authentic Jade before we decided to purchase. We were told: Jade varies in color, the top quality is pure green and the best one is translucent, and it feels cold and smooth when you touch it with your hands. One woman showed us by holding the Jade into the bright light and for us to see small granules intertwine inside as one of the signs of its authenticity. It was quite tricky to do these tests unless you are buying it in stores (Grade A) which provides certificate of authenticity. I have also learned that there are different categories of Jade: Type A- unnatural; B- chemically bleached to remove impurities; and Type C – chemically bleached to enhance color. But whatever the Jade category is, it is nonetheless real Jade.

We ended our Jade Market visit with me buying few good pieces of pendants, and loose Jades – ready to be made as earrings, and bought Green and Orangy colors (Burma Jade). We also bought for other members of our family as gifts. It was indeed a fancy Jade shopping day!

Shopping Districts. There are three main shopping areas in Kowloon: Tsim Sha Tsui, Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok. After our Jade Market advent, we started walking around Tsim Sha Tsui areas (Harbour City, Canton Road, Nathan Road) to Yu Ma Tei. The Harbour City is located on the western part of Tsim Sha Tsui which consists of hundreds of shops while Canton Road starts from the southern part of Kowloon and goes to the north part (Harbour City, Kowloon Park till Jade Street). The streets along these areas are filled with shops selling designer clothes (Dior, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, etc.), fashion accessories, jewelry and watches (Rolex, Omega, etc.), and precious stones while Nathan road (main thoroughfare and oldest road) which starts from Salisbury Road to the south part are filled with shops selling mostly Chinese goods. Nothing fancies me (budget wise) while strolling along these streets. There was an Indian guy following us and asking if we want to have our suit done which we politely dismissed. By the end of our strolling day, I ended up buying a few lace lingerie at Marks and Spencers which were on sale. It was shopping filled day full of fun and adventures!

P.S.

How to Reach Hongkong via Macau. See Departure topic on top.

Visa. For Filipino citizens, there is no visa requirement to enter Hongkong, only Visa On Arrival (VOA). This too works for my husband as a Canadian citizen. The visa individually issued for both of us was free of charge. I was given a 14 day visit while my husband was given 90 days.

 

 

 

 

 

Kiribati Island: The Sinking Paradise

On a UN Mission, I visited Kiribati Island in 2012. Back then, I was doing consultancy work for UN Women as Convention On the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Reporting Adviser for Pacific countries of Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Kiribati.  My mission was to provide training on Kiribati’s CEDAW reporting obligations and Human Rights Treaties common core document. I was there to provide assistance (including ad-hoc) in the preparation and implementation of a work plan for CEDAW report completion and submission for the country of Kiribati. I was working with the Ministry of Women, Youth and Social Affairs, and both the national and the multi-sectoral CEDAW committees.

Kiribati Island (pronounced as Ki-ri-bas).  Also known as the Gilbert Island when it was under the British colonial rule. In 1979, it was granted full independence by UK.  Kiribati  is located in central Pacific as part of the island group of Micronesia. It is divided into three islands: Gilbert Islands, Phoenix, and Line Islands.  An island composed of 33 atolls with 21 islands inhabited.  The capital of Kiribati is Tarawa located in Gilbert Islands.       

Arrival. I flew via AirPacific from Nadi, Fiji Islands, on an early morning flight with a total flying time of 3 hours and 12 minutes arriving at Bonriki Airport in Tarawa. There are two international airports in Kiribati: Bonriki and Cassidy Airport located in North Banana, Kirimati Island.

It was raining and windy when I arrived in Kiribati. On my way to the motel (the motel van transport came to pick me up), I noticed the many number of fishponds that cultured milkfish. There were signages along the road.  I also observed that the road leading to the motel was just one straight road, a few holes on the way but over all, it was in good condition.  My concerned was not so much about the road condition, it was more of the strong wind and the rain. You see, Kiribati is a ‘sinking island,’ a long term threat they are facing because of climate change. And the usual paranoid and ignorant me was thinking that it might be the day that the island was going to sink and that was the end of me!

Accommodation. There are only two hotels in Kiribati: Ontitaai Hotel (motel accommodation) and Mary’s Motel. During my mission, I stayed at Mary’s Motel because it was walking distance to the Ministry of Women which I was working with. During my stay, Mary’s motel was expanding and it was under construction. It has a small restaurant but it has limited choices of food. Due to scarcity of fresh water because salt water intrudes into the deep well, bottled water in Kiribati is expensive. And by the way, Kiribati Island uses Australian dollars.

The room I was accommodated was nice and small, just enough space to move around but with a private toilet and bathroom.  I had this funny experience while I was taking a shower. I was surprised (I was staying on the second floor) that there was sufficient water flowing through the shower (after having been through many islands and water has always been one of the issues). So I thought, I was lucky enjoying plenty of water in an island for my shower.  But I knew there was something off, so I started tasting the water – on my second day, and I found out that it was actually salt water; part (hope so) of it was due to salt-water intrusion in the well. So my ‘funny’ experience turned into an expensive one because I had to buy bottled water to take my shower. And yes, paid in Australian dollars.

I-Kiribati, one of the motel’s staff and me (2012).

Farewell Kiribati. Since I went to Kiribati to work, I really did not get the chance to visit other islands. My route had been limited to going to and fro to Ministry’s office and motel. I met a few expatriates who were working in the island and a couple of tourists who were enjoying their island vacation.  I had a good experience during my four days of stay. I am still looking forward to visit this island again but then, will I still get to enjoy its beauty?

At present, Kiribati is facing climate change, and is slowly sinking. In other words, there is a rising of sea water level of 2.9mm per year as shown by studies. Accordingly, it will become uninhabitable in the next 30 to 60 years. A beautiful paradise but will soon be part of the underwater world. When I left Kiribati back to Vanuatu, I was also left with two questions: who is to be blamed for climate change (Kiribati by the way, has done little to cause this), and what is next for the people of Kiribati (migration, and finding resources)? I am not sure whether I will still be around when this island will sink, not because I am waiting for it happen. But I am sure that when it happens (maybe I will still be alive by then), my heart will also sink with Kiribati. As an international development worker, I do not work only to deliver what are on my Terms of Reference. When I work, I put my heart and soul into it. There is always that part of me that stays with the place and the people I worked with. Kiribati is definitely one of them.

View from my Mary’s Motel balcony (2012).

P.S.

How to reach Kiribati Island. I flew from Fiji Islands to Tarrawa, capital of Kiribati, via AirPacific.

Visa.  For Filipinos, a visa is required to enter Kiribati Island. I was based in Vanuatu then, so that the next available Kiribati consulate office for me was in Suva, Fiji Islands. I went there personally, and the visa processing and approval took only half a day.

Accommodation. I stayed in Mary’s Motel.  Ontitaai Hotel is also a choice. There are also other lodging houses to choose from if you are interested.

Vietnam: The Meeting Place

I left Vanuatu in 2013 and came back to Philippines ahead of my husband because my residence visa was about to expire. I did not find it practical to renew my residence visa for another year as we already planned to leave Vanuatu for good. However, my husband stayed in Vanuatu for a few weeks but only to finish his contract. From Vanuatu, he flew to Canada to renew his passport and to visit his family on a winter time. The year following, instead of him coming directly to Philippines, we decided to meet in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to spend a short holiday together.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Vietnam. France began to conquer Vietnam in 1858. In 1884, Vietnam was fully occupied by France. Three years thereafter (1887) Vietnam became part of French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos). After World War II, Vietnam declared independence, however, France continued to rule until 1954, defeated by the communist forces under the rule of Ho Chi Minh who took control the north of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh also invaded the US supported South Vietnam which marks the ‘Vietnam War’ (1954-1975) where Vietnam was reunited as a communist country. Since the 70’s Vietnam has been slowly recovering from decades of war and is economically improving.

Vietnam has five central cities: Can Tho, Da nang, Hai Phong, Hanoi – the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) formerly called Saigon- the largest city and the economic center. 

Arrival. I left Manila via Philippine Airlines (PAL) at approximately 2 hours and 11 minutes flying time, direct flight. I arrived at Tan So Nhat Airport in the afternoon where the hotel transport met me at the airport. Tan So Nhat airport is the largest airport in Vietnam. There was a bit of a traffic on my way to the hotel. One thing that caught my attention was the tons of motorbikes on the road. The last time I checked, HCM has more than 7 million registered motorbikes and is still counting! 

I arrived at the hotel and waited for my hubby, who was also to be picked up by the hotel transport at the airport. He took the flight from Canada to Vietnam via Japan. While waiting in my hotel room, I received a call from the receptionist who informed me that my husband was not at the arrival area. I had a panic attacked and I had to come down to the front desk and inquired what had happened. Did he miss his flight?  Was there a plane crashed that I did not know of?! Fortunately, there was a tourist who was at the lobby and overheard my conversation with the receptionist and assured me that it does take a while to process tourist visa and suggested that I should just wait. I had to request the hotel to inform their driver to patiently wait. True enough, my hubby arrived at the hotel but was already at night! 

Accommodation. We were booked at Hai Long 5 Hotel, a three star hotel located in Hai Ba Trung Street, District 1, the central urban district.  It is situated next to the popular street Dong Khoi. Additionally, the hotel location was walking distance to most tourist attractions in the city such as the Opera Theater and the Ben Thanh Market. We booked for a Deluxe accommodation but was later upgraded to a Suite room with free breakfast. The breakfast at this hotel was superb with plenty of food choices from American, Continental, and Vietnamese.  

Inside the Vegetarian Hum Resto.

On our first night,  we walked around the vicinity of our hotel looking for a place to dine. We were so excited to taste the Vietnamese food! The location of this hotel did not disappoint us, there were many restaurants situated in this District. We tried one restaurant near our hotel until we discovered the Vegetarian Hum Resto. This became our favorite dining place, and we had most of our dinners in this restaurant. The food served were worth our money – from the food presentation and the flavorful authentic Vietnamese cuisine. Also, the service was fast and the staff were really nice. 

City Walk.  The day following, we decided to walk around the city instead of paying for the city tour. We love to walk. Walking around HCM city was safe, but crossing the streets posed a problem to us at first.  It was scary to cross the road as there were hundreds of motorcycles swamping the lanes. Even crossing the pedestrian lane petrified me. We had to wait for a few expats and locals to cross and followed them behind until we eventually managed to cross the road ourselves. The trick was just to start walking and the motorcycles slowed down when they actually see you.

We walked around  District 1 to spend our morning visiting the following places: 

Inside the Museum of Vietnamese History.

Museum of Vietnamese History. This museum displays artifacts, photos, models showcasing Vietnam History starting from the Prehistoric period to the Nguyen Dynasty. The admission fee per person is 15,000 VND or Dong, the Vietnam currency.  There is a small coffee and tea shop facing the entrance if you want to just relax for a while, which we did, before we continued exploring the area. 

Botanical Garden.

Botanical Garden and Zoo. This is adjacent to the museum of Vietnamese History. This is considered to be Vietnam’s largest zoo and botanical garden which was divided into animal and plant conservation area, an orchid garden and an amusement park. I have to say, this was the last zoo I visited. I no longer support zoos neither animal shows nor participate in any amusements using animals since I started my journey from being a vegetarian to vegan (subject of  my future blog soon). The admission fee to enter the Botanical Garden was 15,000 VND while the entrance fee to visit the zoo was 8,000VND.

Notre Dame Cathedral or Notre Dame Basilica. From the Botanical Garden, we continued our walk and headed to Notre Dame Basilica, a cathedral located in the heart of the city. This was built by the French colonists in the late nineteenth century. This cathedral is  known for its neo-Romanesque style of architecture, indeed a beautiful religious site!

Independence Palace. This is also called the Reunification Palace which was the Presidential Palace of President Ngo Dinh Diem, former President of South Vietnam who was assassinated in 1962. This is considered to be an important political and cultural site built by the French to mark their colonization of Indochina. The main gate of this palace was crashed by the North Vietnam Army which indicates the end of Saigon and the South.

In the afternoon, we went off to meet one of our dear friends, Pedro, who happened to be in Saigon. We came to know him in Vanuatu while he was doing research to finish his doctorate degree. We spent sometime catching up while enjoying Vietnamese coffee with him. Speaking of coffee: You do not leave Vietnam without tasting Vietnamese coffee.  

Accordingly, Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world. What makes Vietnam coffee so special is its strong taste and how it is specially prepared. They actually used a percolator or what they call their traditional coffee maker or Phin (in French it means press). The ground coffee is steeped longer and drips slowly, giving an intense flavor. And, they used condensed milk for the coffee.   

 War Remnants Museum. This is the most popular museum in HCMC. This museum depicts the horrors of the American War, also called the Vietnam War or the second Indochina War through displays of military tanks, weapons, exhibits of various photographs, films, documents that had ravaged Vietnam for decades. The war images were informative and educational, basically relating to the atrocities of war.  Looking at the photographs and reading the documentaries made my heart bled for the fate of the victims of war, most especially the victims of the Orange Agent. The images have touched me and informed me but one thing: the legacy of war brings nothing but eternal sorrow and pain. The admission fee to visit the museum is 15,000 VND.

Ben Thanh Market. This market is situated in the popular Dong Khai street.  It is the city’s central market and tourists shopping place. In here, you will find souvenir items from clothes, accessories, footwear, paintings, food items from variety of nuts and spices, flowers, name it, and you have it.  We enjoyed our ‘part 1 shopping’ as I always say, because we went back there again to continue the last parts of my shopping. There were many food stalls and eateries just across the market where you can enjoy Vietnamese food. So we ended up tasting some street food in this area. 

Pho Bac Noodle soup.

Day 1. Saigon Tour. We decided to book for a Two-Day Group Tour. We booked our tour at An Travel, situated just across our hotel. It was a breeze to book with them. We decided to have a two day tour considering the distance of the places that we wanted to visit: First day was visiting Mekong Delta River, Unicorn Island, Bee Farm, and temple visits; and our second day tour was visiting the Cu Chi Channel and the Lacquer Painting Factory. The tour included pick-up and drop-off at certain point area. The tour came with free bottled water, lunch and entrance fees.

While we were inside the tour bus on our way to Mekong Delta, we were surprised that the tour guide started to collect some Dongs from the passengers. He said he needed to raise a certain amount to pay the toll fee. We were thinking that everything was included in the tour package, and was already paid for. We learned, however, that we have to pass on the other side of the lane to avoid traffic but we have to pay the toll fee. We obliged because I the traffic was really bad! Did I mention the motorcycles? I think I did.

Upon reaching the port, we had to take a boat ride to cruise the Mekong Delta River. This river is situated in the Southern part of Vietnam.  The river was large but  it was murky and brownish. First thing that came to my mind was the level of water pollution. But what makes this place a tourist attraction? Mekong Delta River is the 12th largest river in the world. This is the major trade route between western China and Southeast Asia. The rivers flows through six countries: China-Yunnan province, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. The mode of transportation in this area is by boat, and they used boats to sell and display their produce or what they call ‘floating markets’. 

After we arrived at Unicorn Island, we were taken to the Bee Farm on horse carriage ride.  At the Bee Farm, we had a free taste of honey with lemon and was shown a big beehives with live bees swarming on it. We also visited the coconut candy making factory in the island. The assembly line was manually done by the locals showing us the process of making coconut candies.  

We had lunch at My Tho restaurant which was jam packed with tourists. The food served which was part of the tour package was not that good so we ended up ordering our own food.  The highlights of our tour was when we paddled our way to another island among the Palm trees and stilt houses. Our boat was manned by a woman who was skillful in maneuvering the boats as there were many small boats in the area. During the boat ride, I was a bit scared because I kept thinking of a big crocodile that would come out of the murky water and will eat us alive!    

When we arrived at the other side of the island, we were entertained by a group of young village people who were singing Vietnamese songs while we were served hot beverage. 

We cruised back to the main port where our bus was waiting and headed towards Tien Gang Province to visit the famous Vin Thrang Temple and the Pagoda . The Vin Thrang Temple is a Buddhist temple with three big buddhas – smiling Buddha, standing and sleeping Buddha.  It was peaceful inside this temple. Our only wish was that we had the luxury of time to go around.

The Pagoda was built in 1849 by Hue Dang, a Buddhist monk. The architectural style of this Pagoda was a mixed of Vietnamese, Chinese and Cambodian structures. The Pagoda was magnificent!

Day 2. Saigon Tour. In the morning of our two day Saigon Tour, we visited the Cu Chi Channel. This is an underground tunnel created, mostly dug by hand, by the Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War. The tunnel served not only as a shelter but also as a based for the communist attacks nearby Saigon. 

My hubby trying his way in the tunnel.

Before we started our tour, we were asked to watch a short documentary film showing the inside pathways  of this guerilla’s tunnel.  After which, our tour guide showed us the actual place and size of the dug holes, man traps, weapons and the remains of bomb craters. We were also given the chance to enter the tunnel. However, entering the tunnel is not advisable if you are claustrophobic because the tunnel is so small. In fact, I did not manage to really get inside. 

If you are interested to shoot real guns such as AK47 or M30, you can try one for a fee at the shooting range located within the area of the Cu Chi complex.  

 

In the afternoon, we headed to visit the Lacquer Factory where persons with disability were themselves making the Lacquer painting. We witnessed the process of making the lacquer which was handcrafted and meticulously done. We then proceeded to visit the Lacquer Painting shop where many Vietnamese souvenir items and gifts were displayed.

AO Saigon Show at Saigon Opera House.  After we ended the last day of our two day tour, we had dinner at Vegetarian Hum Resto; and we headed to watch the AO Show. AO stands for Aaaa and Ohhh which was an excellent live musical show with fascinating performance of bamboo dancing staged at Saigon Opera House, also known as the Ho Chi Minh Municipal Theatre. This is not to be missed when you are in HCMC. The show was spectacular! It was indeed an Aaaa and Ohhh show as we watched young performers doing acrobat dancing and gliding on various performing feats reflecting the Vietnamese culture and heritage. 

The day following, we continued walking around the city but started off with a good Vietnamese coffee: Mother Land coffee for my hubby and L’amour coffee for me – this one was mixed with Cinnamon, which my hubby also had a taste of it, so that explains the three cups in the photo below. But really, why not, when you are in Vietnam. We also bought Trung Nguyen coffee to bring home.

As a continuation of my part 1 shopping, we went back to Ben Thanh Market to do more shopping. The Top Five Things we bought for our  home were: 1) Lacquer Paintings: We bought a few at Ben Thanh Market and also bought one at the Lacquer Factory. The price that we paid was 200USD but we think it was reasonable considering that half of that amount was for charity to support the Persons with Disability who were victims of the Orange Agents during the Vietnam War;

2) Silk Painting; 3) Set of Tea Pot; 4) Wooden Curving: Buddha; and 5) Wooden Chopstick Box and some chopsticks with holder.

If you fancy buying high quality precious stones, Vietnam has it. I purchased a few aquamarine gemstones on our way to Mekong Delta Tour when our bus stopped at this one-shop-place – cannot exactly remember the name. At any rate, when in Vietnam, buying a bling is recommended! 

P.S.

How to reach Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. There is a direct flight via Philippine Airlines from manila or via Cebu Pacific Airlines.

Visa. Only Visa on Arrival (VOA) is required for Filipinos traveling to Vietnam which is free of charge. This is not the case for my Canadian husband. He applied on line to get his visa approval letter and when he arrived in HCMC, he has to take the queue at the immigration to process his tourist visa and paid in the amount of 80USD.

Where to stay. We stayed at Hai Long 5 Hotel, located at District 1. District 1 is an urban district where most major tourists spots and sightseeings, shopping malls, including restaurants and bars are located.

Bali: The Island of Love

The year 2014 was perhaps the most expensive, exhausting and the most stressful year that my hubby and I have had ever experienced so far as a couple. This was our transition period, the year when we decided to move to Philippines after living together in Vanuatu for five years. In December of the same year,  we took  a small holiday in Bali, Indonesia to relax, unwind, and plan for the following year.

Waiting for sunrise in Sanur Beach, Bali.

Indonesia. The largest archipelago in the world with over 17,000 islands. Bali is a province of Indonesia which consists of other neighboring islets including the isle of Bali. It is a sleepy coastal village located in Sanur. Bali is rich in culture and tradition. Its cultural heritage is mostly related to the Hindu religion, vibrant arts, forms of dance and music, and food. It is one of the top tourist destinations in the world boasting of natural landscapes of beautiful volcanoes, plantations, sandy beaches (Sanur area has black sand), and many other attractive sceneries.

Arrival. From Manila, Philippines, we flew via Philippine Airlines (PAL) to Denpasar, Indonesia. The flying time was 3 hours and 47 minutes. It was a bit drizzling and the weather was gloomy when we arrived at Ngurai International Airport (NIA) in Denpasar City at around 2 A.M. NIA also known as Denpasar airport is one of the third largest busiest airports in Indonesia with a facade of a beautifully sculptured Hindu curving. We were met at the airport by the hotel driver, Wayan, a tall, lanky Indonesian man who was very patient and nice. It cost us 200,000. Rupiah for the hotel transport fee. From the airport, it took us about 30 minutes to arrive at our hotel resort. While on our way to our hotel, I cannot help but notice the many temples and statutes in almost every corner of the traffic light. I had never seen these many temples (Bali has 22,000 temples-maybe even more) in my life!

Palm Garden Resort, pool area, Sanur.

Accommodation.  We were booked at Palm Garden, a small, isolated three star hotel resort which is three-minute walk to the beach. It not as fancy as other hotels but it has a comfortable bed, good hot shower, and nice balcony and a swimming pool. The food (mix of Indo and American breakfast) were not that great but it was all right. We had the same breakfast all the four days we were at the hotel. Fortunately, there were many great choices of restaurants nearby. There were also many restaurants along the main road and best choices of food served by restaurants along the beach area.

Denpasar City. This is the largest city and the capital of Bali Province. We hired Wayan to drive us around Denpasar which cost us 250,000 Rupiah including payment for his waiting time. Our first stop was to look for an ATM machine to withdraw money. I had learned that local banks do not dispense money even if they have the cirrus, maestro or visa signs unless it is also an international bank. Wayan, the driver, was really of good help in trying to find a credible bank for us. 

Considering that we already hired a car for the day, we then proceeded to shop for souvenir items such as key chains, essential oils and also bought Bubuk Kopi (Indonesian terms which mean ground coffee), green tea, and nuts. We purchased our food stuff at Robinson Mall Denpasar supermarket and also at Krisna Bali – two best places to shop, in my opinion.  Although there were other malls to shop around Denpasar. The top three souvenir items we bought for our home were the following: Two Mosaic glass candle holders (90,000 Rupiah for both) bought at Krisna Bali; Paintings (80,000 Rupiah each) bought at Sta. Ana’s Wood Craft; and Jewelry Wooden Box with curving of Ramayana and Mahabharata (100,000 Rupiah) also bought at Sta. Ana shop.

Our Bali Tour. Inside the tour van; my hubby showing the tour map provided by the tour company.

Bali Tour.  The day following, we had our Bali Tour. We could have toured Bali on our own but considering the limited days of our stay, and the distance of the tourist spots we wanted to visit, we decided to book for a private tour instead. We booked for one full day tour at www.bali-indonesia.com which cost us 60 USD per person inclusive of buffet lunch, bottled water, entrance fees, and free pick up to and fro our hotel. Our tour guide was a friendly Indonesian man with a good command of the English language. The driver of the van who was also an Indonesian was a careful driver; we enjoyed a smooth drive during our trip. We visited the following attractions:

Our tour guide explaining the cases held at Kerta Gosa Royal Court House.

1. Kerta Gosa Royal Court House. This is called ‘Hall of Justice’ and was built in the 18th Century. The intricate architecture and ‘Klungkung’ style of painting can be seen in their ceiling murals. The complexity in itself is beautiful. Beside Kerta Gosa is the Taman Gili building which was fully decorated with traditional paintings. It is located adjacent to Bale Kembang (Floating Bale) surrounded by water with lotus flowers floating on the fish pond. If you notice, we were wearing ‘sarong’ wrapped around our waist. This was provided for free by our tour guide. When visiting temples in Indonesia, the wearing of ‘sarong’ or ‘sash’ is required. 

My hubby and our tour guide explaining the artifacts kept inside the glass cabinet, Semarajaya Museum.

2. Semarajaya Museum. The structure of this museum is blended with ancient Dutch style and Balinese traditional architectures. Inside are pre historic displayed objects and photographs documenting the Klungklung King descendant and the history of Klungklung.

My hubby and I at the entrance of Besakih Temple.

3. Besakih Temple. This is Bali’s unique and largest temple complex which consists of other 86 Temples. This is also known as Bali’s ‘Mother Temple’ which is said to be 1,000 years old. It is seated in the slopes of Mt. Agung which is the highest mountain in Bali. There were some places inside this temple that were off limits to tourists. When traveling, we always  adhere to the local rules and respect their local culture, and so we did not insist on entering. On top of this temple, you will find a small shop that sells souvenir items and postcards.

4. View of Mount Basur.  Mount Basur or referred to as Kintamani volcano. Kintamani is one of the earliest known kingdoms in Bali. Mt. Basur is considered sacred by the Hindus. It is situated 1,000 meters above sea level. We did not get the chance to trek the area but we stopped at Kintamani to have buffet lunch while enjoying the beautiful panoramic view of Mount Basur. The buffet lunch at Madu Sari, Kintamani was a winner! We had a feast of authentic Indonesian food with wide array of dish to choose from while enjoying the mountain view.

Buffet Lunch (partial area), Madu Sari Restaurant, Kintamani.
Free 13 kinds of herbals drinks.

5. Satria Agowista Coffee Plantation. This was our next stop after we had lunch. The plantation has variety of fruit trees, vegetables, herbs and other plant species apart from coffee. We witnessed the Luwak or Civet coffee making. Civet coffee is the seeds of coffee berries which had been eaten by Civet cats. These cats, however, not just eat any ordinary coffee berries but chooses the most sweet and ripest ones which passed through its digestive tract and excreted. Coffee makers collect the poo (intact coffee beans) of the Civet cats and wash and process the coffee making. the result is a smooth, aromatic, and less acidic coffee beans. Civet Coffee is considered to be the most expensive coffee in the world.  This coffee is produced mainly in Indonesia (Sumatra, Java, Bali, and Sulawesi) and in the Philippines. In this plantation, we enjoyed our coffee and herbal drink samplers of various kinds (Rosella, Turmeric, etc.) for free while a small cup of Luwak coffee cost 5 USD.

Poo of a Civet cat collected to be processed into Civet Coffee.
The flowing spring water from the holy mountain in Pura Tirta Empul Temple.

6. Pura Tirta Empul Temple. This is located in Manukaya village in central Bali. It is considered as a national cultural heritage site. The place was jam packed with people taking a sacred bathing ritual. Accordingly, the water that flows to this temple comes from the holy mountain spring. Since this is considered as one of their temples, it was again a requirement to wear the sarong and the sash to be wrapped around the waist; another beautiful design of sarong for us. It was drizzling when we went to visit the place, hence, the umbrella which was also provided by our tour guide.

7. Painting Shop. We had the opportunity to tour around this shop which comprises of beautiful paintings with various objects and designs. Taking of photos was not allowed (we were not informed before hand, so this was taken prior to the notice) in this place although we managed to take some photos before we were allowed to finally  stop.

8. Jewelry Shop. This was the last stop of our tour before we headed back to our hotel. We visited this shop which displays authentic silver and gold jewelry with Indonesian designs. Unfortunately, no taking of photos was allowed inside this shop.

Sanur Beach area.

Sanur. Beach day tour at Sanur Area. Sanur is one of the established resort areas, in fact, considered as the oldest upscale resorts in Bali. The beach offers a mild temperature with calm water making it the best place to swim, sunbath, especially for families. Sanur is well known for beautiful sunrise. So, we were up early and headed to the beach area to watch the sunrise while also people watching: couple walking their dog, few people doing their early morning jog, and shop owners starting to open their restaurants and diving shops.

The long array of restaurants to choose from, Sanur beach area.

Sanur indeed offers an endless beach activities while relaxing in a coastal ambiance. We were able to capture a few moments of sunrise (sun did not fully come out for us) and so we went back to our hotel to have breakfast. After breakfast, we started a morning walk along the main road and went back to Sanur beach area for lunch. We had the best Indo food in Sanur for reasonable price in a beachfront ambiance. I recommend these two restaurants:

Izakaya. It is open for lunch and dinner. Izakaya is a beach front restaurant in Sanur beach area. So far, we had the best authentic Indonesian food served in this restaurant – those mouth watering spices of lemongrass, chili, garlic, and other spices. I can’t helped but asked the waitress how they actually prepare the food. She informed me that they pound the spices for the recipe using mortar and pestle, no food processor but by hand. The taste of the Indonesian spices on our food were so flavorful. We came to this place twice to have the same kind of food.

Bandjar. This restaurant is located a few meters from our hotel. It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The staff were very friendly and the service was also great. The prices were reasonable and the food was also sumptous. A must visit and try!

In the afternoon, we continued our walk along the main road of Sanur. We stopped for yogurt and healthy drinks just to chill, and yes, people watching – the road was full of tourists and their kids going to and fro the main road either with their shopping bags, or just walking heading to some places.

Frittaya Yogurt Shop. I had Promegnate Yogurt topped with dragon fruits and almonds! It was a treat for me because I have to admit that it was my first time to taste both Promegnate and Dragon fruits in a yogurt. There were many flavors to choose from such as fruits, chocolates, nuts. This is a place to indulge in healthy flavors of yogurt.

Manik Organic. This is more than just a small coffee shop. It serves organic dishes, healthy beverages, drinks, and vegetarian food. There is an organic shop on the ground floor while the second floor serves as a yoga center. In here, we enjoyed our lemon, basil juice drink. We also bought organic food stuff to bring home such as Sunflower seeds, Pumpkin seeds, dried Rosella, Goji berries, all at reasonable prices  (www.manikorganikbali.com).

Manik Organik.
Canang Sari, a basket full of flowers and rice found in temples that Balinese offer three times a day to their gods for prosperity and good health.

Farewell Bali. It was raining when we headed to the airport late at night to check in for our early morning flight. But before we headed to the airport, we did a lot of thinking whether we should depart back to Manila on that day or change our departure date considering that there was an anticipated strong typhoon heading towards Philippines. The typhoon had already entered the Philippine area of responsibility but was expected to make its land fall early morning (our departure time). Honestly, I never like flying but my love for travel always makes me convince myself that flying is fun! However, during that time, persuading myself was kind of difficult.

Lesson Learned. After checking in, we proceeded to the pre departure area. However, I was surprised (in my many travel experiences in Asia) that when you depart Bali, you must a pay a departure tax of 21 USD per person! Good thing was that, we had the remaining 42 USD cash (meant to buy chocolates) to pay for me and my hubby, the change I had after having a small shopping at the duty free shop. So there were no chocolates but only disappointments.

However, my feeling of disappointment was over powered by my feeling of worry because of the typhoon. When we finally departed Bali, I could not sleep in the plane and was uneasy thinking of the many what ifs during our plane ride! Only then when we landed in Manila (actual deplaned), that I felt safe and secured. We then learned that the typhoon was expected to make its landfall on the day following our arrival. What a relief!

But the drama did not end because on the same morning, we were heading to Davao City. During our flight, I can feel the strong wake turbulence. Only then did I feel safe again when we deplaned at Davao international airport. What a price to pay for a holiday! But it was all worth it because Bali was a beautiful island where you feel the love and peace, a moment worth all the risks.

P.S.

How to reach Bali. From Manila, Philippines, we flew via Philippine Airlines (PAL) to Denpansar City, Indonesia. Cebu Pacific Airlines also has a route to the same city.

Visa. For Filipino citizens, there is no need to apply for visa to enter Indonesia, only Visa On Arrival (VOA) which if free of charge. For Canadian citizen (my hubby), only VOA (and Landing Permission) is also required but with the required payment of 35 USD. We were individually given  a 30 day visit.

Where to stay. We stayed at Palm Garden Resort which is walking distance to Sanur beach area. It is close to Sanur main road where you can stroll to visit many souvenir shops, dine in restaurants, or to enjoy Balinese coffee in coffee shops located along the road.

Vanuatu Island: Where Love Begins

‘She knew she loved him when ‘home’ went from being a place to being a person.’ ~ E. Levanthal

The Journey. Sometime in July 2008, I left the Philippines to serve as volunteer in Vanuatu Island.  I headed to Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminal 3 and queued for almost six hours – long line to get inside the terminal, airline check-in, customs, immigration, until Qantas Airlines finally departed at 8:40 P.M. to Sydney, Australia, my transit route. The approximate flying time from Manila to Sydney was 7 hours and 55 minutes, 4 hours lay over, 3 hours delay, and the 3.5 hours flying time from Sydney to Port Vila: a total of almost 25 hours waiting and flying time in order to reach my destination.

My hubby and me, Matevulu Blue Hole, Sanma Province, Vanuatu Island (2009).

What brought me to Vanuatu Island was a volunteering opportunity with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) (www.vso.international.org).  VSO is an international development organization based in UK which offers voluntary services abroad to help fight poverty. In the Philippines, VSO Bahaginan back then, was the base management which sends Filipino volunteers abroad. My volunteer placement in Vanuatu was for two years but I ended up staying for a total of six years because  I found work consultancy opportunities with UN Women and UNICEF in the pacific, and most of all, I found love.

Vanuatu Island. This is an archipelago located in the South Pacific Ocean. An island divided into six provinces: Efate, Malampa, Sanma, Penama, Tafea, Torba. Its capital town is Port Vila, Efate Island, and the other large town is Luganville, Espiritu Santo. Vanuatu’s climate is tropical and sub tropical. Most of the islands are  mountainous and of volcanic origin.

Sand Painting (2012).

Vanuatu is part of the ‘ring of fire,’ hence,  subject to frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. An island rich in  culture, and arts as manifested by various dance festivals, ceremonies, sand painting, string bands, and water music with ‘kastom’ or custom that varies from one island to another.

Arrival.  At the arrival lounge in Port Vila airport, I noticed a string band dressed in in their island costumes while playing local music to welcome the arriving passengers. The airport was jam packed with tourists.  Not surprisingly, considering that Vanuatu is a tourist destination. I was booked at Hotel Vanuatu Holiday, formerly called Hotel Formule, located in downtown area. It is a small, cozy, and clean hotel.

VSO Vanuatu held a welcome dinner at El Houstelet, a French restaurant, for incoming volunteers like me, joined by the Programme Office staff and other volunteers based in Port Vila. During my first three months, I underwent In-Country Training (ICT) which includes staying with the local community to integrate with the locals, and learning their national language which is Bislama. Vanuatu has three official languages: English, Bislama, and French.

In Country Training, immersing with the local community. Me, wearing an island dress and Mano-the son of my foster family, Pele Island (2008).

It was my first time to live in another country outside of the Philippines. I was a complete stranger in Vanuatu. The locals used to call me ‘hemia wan white man (the term ‘man,’ referring both to the male and female sex) ia,’ meaning, ‘she is a white woman’ – anyone not of their skin color is considered a ‘white person.’ However, as days passed, I quickly integrated with the locals, and in fact, I have learned to speak and write their language in a span of three months. I have also adapted to eating the local food such as Tuluk and Laplap which are made of either grated yam, potato, banana or cassava drizzled with coconut milk and cooked in a traditional way by wrapping it with laplap leaves and burying it in a grater on the ground and with fire on top (caution for non meat eaters:  sometimes cooked with pork lard or topped with ground beef).

Laplap, a local food (2009).

My work and places I visited. I was based in the provincial government of Sanma located in Luganville town as the Area Council Development Adviser of the province. This placement post gave me the opportunity to travel to almost all the island areas but only in the four provinces of Vanuatu. Let me share an overview of the four provinces (also subject of my future blogs soon): 1) Sanma. I lived in this province for two years. Sanma is composed of Santo and Malo islands, hence, the name Santo. It is known for its majestic blue holes, and white sand beaches.; 2) Shefa.  This province is composed of Efate and the Shepherd Islands. Most of the government offices are located in Port Vila, Efate. There are many island resorts to explore, hotels, casinos, restaurants to dine, coffee shops, and supermarkets (Au Bon Marche and Leader Price). There are also many small Chinese stores around town that sells grocery items and Vanuatu’s crafts and souvenirs.; 3) Tafea. These are the islands of Tanna, Aniwa, Futuna, Erromango and Anatom. This province is located in the southernmost part of Vanuatu. I visited Tanna when I conducted a provincial consultation as part of my consultancy work with UN Women; and 4) Torba. This is the acronym for Torres and the Banks. I spent my small personal holiday in the islands of Gaua and Sola. In Gaua, I trekked the jungle, crossed Lake Letas and had climbed Mt. Garet. Sola is gifted with beautiful white sand beaches and I had the chance to visit the twin waterfalls.

One of our wedding photos taken outside of our rented house in Pango, Vanuatu Island (2010).

Finding Love.  I met many volunteers from different international organizations, and other expatriates working in the island. After living for almost a year in Santo I met a Canadian expat who would be my husband. He was based in Port Vila but he was in Santo to provide support management work for his employer’s branch office. He was introduced to me by a Filipino friend who also happened to be one of his colleagues. I was 38 and he was 29. We were both single.  He would visit me in Santo almost every two weeks as we started our ‘long distance’ dating. Fast forward, after I finished my two year volunteer placement, I returned to the Philippines to report back to VSO office. But after two months in the Philippines, I decided to go back Vanuatu and be with him. We got married in a small ceremony in our house in Pango, and I stayed in Vanuatu for another four years. The rest was history.

Me and my hubby with our German Shepherd, Caili, Honeymoon Beach, Efate (2011).

Vanuatu Island has taught me to love myself even more as spent my time alone  for the first one year of my six years (but not lonely). It has widened my perspectives in life as I worked and immersed with the community of diverse culture and language, and as I traveled and explored other countries in the Pacific. Most importantly, Vanuatu has allowed me to again open up my heart to embrace love and be loved in return.

P.S.

How to reach Vanuatu. I took Qantas Airlines from Manila-Sydney (transit)-Port Vila. There is also a flight route from Manila-Papua New Guinea (PNG)-Port Vila.

Visa. Filipinos do not need visa to enter Vanuatu Island only Visa on Arrival (VOA) provided you have a returned ticket to show and a valid passport.

Where to stay. I stayed at Hotel Formule when I arrived in Port Vila then moved to my own house in Santo, Luganville.

 

A Naked Soul in Tawi-Tawi Island

I adore the coast.  The coastline is a constant trip down memory lane – a reminder of a childhood Sunday advent to the beach with my family. I say, ‘Sunday advent’ because we happened to live for many years in a coastal area in the island of Mindanao . An island complimented by nature’s scenic beaches. My invariable exposures to the shore, the sea water, the sand and the corals explain my persistent fondness of the beach.

My birthplace. The islands give me a sense of tranquility. The hours of strolling on the seashore – worshipping the sun, sensing my steps on the sand and feeling the sea water smacking my feet, swimming, snorkeling, or just simply lazing by the beach, feeling the sea wind breeze stroking my skin, listening to the slapping of the waves, watching the sunset, and embracing the sunrise never tire me. The endless activities of hopping from one island to another, crossing the sea and gazing at the crystal sea water, watching the horizon, or snorkeling to explore life under the sea never weaken me. I love the seawater. Why should I not? I was born with the water sign of Pisces. I was born in the island of Bongao, Tawi-Tawi.

Mat Weaving Learning Center, Tandubas, Tawi-Tawi (2004).

There is nothing like the breathtaking islands of Tawi-Tawi which are blessed with pristine white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, beautiful coral reefs, rich natural resources of unspoiled forests, mountains, exotic fauna (monkeys, wild hogs, birds), and the diverse cultures manifested by their work of arts and crafts (mat weaving and wood curving), and the attractiveness of the languages spoken in a different tones of Tausog (my late father’s dialect), Sama (I have learned to understand and speak), Malay, and Indo.

My family left Tawi-Tawi in the 70’s because my late father who was a Civil Engineer had a promising job waiting for him in the city. We had to say goodbye to close family and friends. I still remember the yellow dress that I worn the day we left Bongao as I boarded my first plane ride together with my mother while the rest of my family took the boat. My special privilege to board the plane was to avoid the attacks of seasickness. However, the airsickness did not escape me because the moment we deplaned at Zamboanga City airport, I threw up, staining my yellow dress with chocolate! This is my last memory of Bongao.

Bud Bongao (2004).

After 30 years, I went back to Tawi Tawi to do development work. There was so much excitement and joy in the thought that I was going back to the place that made me. I was nostalgic the moment I arrived at Bongao, Sanga Sanga airport; it brought back childhood days. While I was standing outside of the airport waiting for my ride, I noticed that the airport had improved a lot. Inside of me, there was longing! On my way to town heading to my hotel, I was staring at the sight of ‘Bud’ (means mountain) Bongao (I climbed it when I was 5 years old to do some religious ceremony) and the sight of it and the view of the surroundings made me yearned for the years that I had missed! My birthplace! My first home!

Bongao, Tawi-Tawi (Small white background on the center top is the Provincial Capitol, and on the upper right hand corner is Bud Bongao), 2005.

My place of work. Tawi Tawi is a province with 11 island municipalities and a total of 107 islands and islets. It is located in the southwestern part of Mindanao. I used to work as a Programme Coordinator/USAID contractor covering the eight provinces of western Mindanao for two years. That gave me the chance to travel Tawi-Tawi’s island municipalities except Mapun and Turtle Island and to visit outer islands and islets.

I have countless memorable happenings to narrate starting from my plane ride to inter island boat rides going to and fro the islands and islets of Tawi-Tawi.  Allow me to share with you my Tawi-Tawi trips.

In order to reach Tawi-Tawi, I took the small SEAIR plane which deplanes in Bongao, the main town capital via  Zamboanga city.

Sitangkai island (2005).

A tricycle (motorcycle with a side car) or a single motorcycle is the mode of public transportation around Bongao town. However, to reach the outer islands, I took a boat ride in a ‘lantsa’ (small vessel) which are docked at the Chinese Pier – the network of commerce among the traders of the inter islands in the province. It was very challenging to ride in a ‘lantsa’ because it is also used as a passenger and a cargo boat at the same time. I stopped counting the many seasick medicines that I took and the many bottles of ‘white flower’ (menthol oil to ease my seasickness) that I sniffed and dabbed in my forehead and stomach while I was en route to the islands. In the ‘lantsa’ I could hear the crumping sound of the cargoes being loaded, the murmuring noise of the passengers talking and babies crying, the indescribable boat smell of fuel mixed with other odors, the crimped space with only enough room to seat, the rough tides (in certain areas) were among the many challenges which I had managed to endure. In some occasions during my boat rides, I was sitting at the boat’s stern, paled face and profusely vomiting feeling my intestines were coming out. But I had learned how to contain myself because the very moment that I arrived at the island, work was waiting for me.

Sibutu Island (2005).

I had again to face another challenge when I took another chartered boat ride in a ‘banca’ (small open motorised pump boat ) or ‘kumpit’ (motorised speed boat) in order to reach the island ‘barangays’ (smallest administrative division or political entity in the Philippines). During my boat travel, I had to endure the long hours to cross the sea, exposing myself to the strong ultra violet rays of the sun while staring at the endless seawater in the horizon. I spent nights in the islands of Tawi Tawi immersing with the community – sleeping at our beneficiaries house, planning, discussing project proposals, and visiting project sites. While eating the local foods was something I loved, the lack of drinking water was a challenge in the island, not to mention the strong chlorinated rain water I used for bathing. But all these challenges were insignificant compared to the beauty that I witnessed in the islands and the immeasurable fulfillment it brought when I arrived at all my destinations!

Among the many islands I have travelled in Tawi-Tawi, I fell in love with the islands of Simunul, Sibutu, and amazed (as always) by the beauty of Sitangkai.

Simunul Island (2005).

In Simunul, the call to an early morning prayer from Sheik Karimul Makdum Mosque, the first mosque built in the Philippines in 1930 reminds me of the history of the place when Islam religion was first introduced in the country.

Sibutu Island (2005).

In Sibutu, the island which lies on the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia sea, sends a connection to my soul. There is something magical about the place being known as the island of boat curvers and makers.

Sun drying seaweeds, Sitangkai Island (2005).

In Sitangkai, located at the southernmost tip of Mindanao, known as the ‘seaweed capital of the Philippines,’ I was  awed by the beauty of the emerald seawater and the large seaweeds farming industry in the island. Sitangkai is dubbed as the ‘Venice of the South’ as boats are the primary means of transportation. I was amused by the setting of the footbridges which connect the stilt houses together, the interlocking of boats to sell their produce of all sorts, such as dried fish, various kinds of fish of all colors and sizes, delicacies, fruits, and vegetables. These three islands are and will always have a special place in my heart.

My fave and memorable regular activities (apart from island hopping) in Tawi-Tawi islands are: food tripping (back then when I was a semi-vegetarian) – ‘kamun’ (lobsters), turtle eggs, grilled dried sting ray; the stroll to ‘ukay-ukay’ (second hand) stalls and the public market; and the motocrossing in Bongao airport runway.

Tawi Tawi made me overcome my fears at sea. It made me realised my weaknesses and made me perceived where my courage lies. It made me appreciate more the beauty and life in the islands. Tawi Tawi indeed, made me.

I have had many more island experiences to share, islands that made me who I am today, islands that left me wanting, and islands that have dearly touched my heart the most – islands that allowed me to lay down my naked soul.

P.S.

How to reach Tawi-Tawi. In 2005, I took the SEAIR plane. At present, there are available flights viaCebu Pacific Airlines: https://www.cebupacificair.com/  and the jump off point is Zamboanga city.

Where to stay. I stayed at Rachel’s Place Hotel and Restaurant which is located at downtown area.