Welcome aboard Hello Kitty airlines

TAIWAN—Forgive me if I start this article by saying that growing up with so many cats in the household, I’ve had my fill of them and don’t want to do anything with them anymore, not even if they are cute kittens.

via Welcome aboard Hello Kitty airlines.

White House tour in the dark

?? `WE were late for our scheduled house tour by several hours, lost in time island hopping in Cantilan earlier and it was already past 7 p.m. when we stopped by the Century-old, Herrera Ancestral House in Lanuza. The house is one of the attractions that draw hundreds of tourists to Surigao del Sur province.

We were willing to go inside the house, except that there was power outage and the whole town was blanketed in darkness. The caretaker of the mansion was waiting for us but only two of our companions who felt the emergency need to use the restroom decided to brave the darkness.

The white old mansion looked forbidding in the darkness outside, and I was almost sure someone was going to open the French windows a bit a peek at us from the darkness above.

Then the caretaker issued the challenge for a night tour of the white house and most of us reluctantly agreed. I was more scared to be left outside so I joined the pack. The darkness swallowed us and all we stuck close to each other. Manang, the caretaker led the way with a small lamp and we mounted the two flights of stairs into the main hall

 

The gas lamp cast scary shadows on the old chandelier dominating the ceiling, making me renew my vow never to have any chandelier of my own. Still stuck to each other, we trooped to the kitchen and the rooms and were ready to go when the caretaker said we should check the ground floor where the library is. We were hesitant but we followed her down the dark wooden stairs and into a garage. She unlocked a door and we crowded into a room filled with shelves and dressers, mirrors and an assortment of old knick-knacks.

I discovered that they have relocated most of the relics to the ground floor including the century old iron, pitchers, stoves and other utensils, an antique typewriter, a whole row of religious statues, and I was shocked to find out I was leaning on a cabinet full of dolls. I never had a doll in my entire life, even as a kid. I was always scared of them and seeing them in the dark shadows.

I clicked the shutter randomly, not knowing if I got anything in focus or not. I kept aiming my camera at the open doors and flashed without even looking what was in there, too scared to peek. Aiming my camera at one of the dolls, I clicked, not aware that Roland had lowered his flashlight, giving the doll a more scary effect.

I visited this mansion for the first time in 2007 with photographers Rhonson Ng and Jojie Alcantara, in broad daylight and it was not scary at all, except for one of the rooms where I felt goose bumps but in the dark, it was different. An old rocking chair also fired my imagination, and I can feel it rocking by itself anytime like there was someone invisible sitting on it.

Situated just a block away from the Prospero B. Pichay Sr. Boulevard, the Herrera Ancestral House was built on May 28, 1898 for business purposes. The “White House” as it is popularly called is owned by the late Don Gabriel Uriarte Herrera, the first mayor of Cantilan. The White House is well-maintained and is now managed by his heirs.

Any visit to Surigao del Sur won’t be complete without a tour of this historical White House. Come on a regular day to view varied antiques and relics as it also serves as the museum of the municipality.

A few meters away from the White House is the Surf Camp and Boulevard Café, a favorite surfer rendezvous that offers reasonable rates for overnight to longer stays for tourists.

Getting there

By air: Lanuza is accessible by air through Bancasi Domestic Airport in Butuan City and Surigao Domestic Airport in Surigao City. Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific Airlines fly regularly to these routes.

By sea: Regular sea trips are available through various shipping lines like Cokaliong, Cebu Ferries, WG&A, etc. from Surigao City and Nasipit ports in Agusan del Norte.

By Land: Lanuza is accessible by land through buses, jeepneys, vans and other vehicles for hire from any point in the Caraga Region, Davao City and Cagayan de Oro City.

Hinatuan Enchanted River

?? `   I left my heart at the Enchanted River, and now I am dying to go back…

OR maybe not anymore?

SURIGAO DEL SUR, Philippines—Far away in the Northeastern coast of Mindanao is a 300-kilometer stretch of picturesque coastal roads, pristine beaches, quaint villages and historic towns; a place where time is of no essence and you move in your own sweet pace. The province is called Surigao Del Sur.

Dubbed by locals as the Shangri-La by the Pacific, the province is a land of enchantment, cloaked in fascinating history and rich in natural attractions still practically uncorrupted by the advent of commercialization and mass tourism.

A few years back, professional photographers Rhon Ng and travel writer Jojie Alcantara whisked me off on a three-day rough and bumpy road trip adventure in a pickup jam-packed with all their gear. Not serious about photography, I did not understand yet why they had so much baggage which Rhon guarded with his life.

I came with a backpack containing my change of clothes and personal belongings for three days, and my photography gear—a Sony point and shoot and my overworked laptop. Only later did I realize what photo opportunities I missed on that trip.

The adventure took us from one end of the province to the other, sampling the paradise it has to offer to locals and tourists, an experience that would beckon you to come again and again. One of the most unforgettable stops we had was at the famous Enchanted River of Hinatuan, and I was to know why it was named so.?? `

The Enchanted River of Hinatuan is about an hour’s ride from Bislig City in Surigao del Sur. We drove the rough and narrow trail, navigating a few twists and turns before stopping near a rocky mountain wall where the blue waters of the enchanted river flows in the crevice below. The place was deserted, and there was something about the eerie silence and that blue darkness that is quite hard to reckon with, something bigger and strange that I could not put a word to it.

The lagoon beckoned temptingly, issuing a silent but irresistible invitation as though challenging anyone to explore the secrets of its undiscovered depths.

The mystery and beauty of the Enchanted River of Hinatuan has been featured in TV programs, YouTube and stories and photos published in websites all over the world. Divers have gone on expeditions to uncover the mystery in its depths but no one succeeded. Strong currents no one has ever experienced before, sand or pebbles block the passages whenever somebody tries to dive, making people believe that enkantos are really guarding the river. Over the past years, expeditions ?? `have been made by divers to search for undiscovered tunnels and passages.

Our guide told us a group of divers once tried to reach the bottom but they were forced to surface after exhausting three oxygen tanks each, reaching only 150 feet down. He also told us that no one would dare swim in the river alone when it gets dark because sightings of enchanted beings had been reported to show up before locals or strangers.

Stories had it that three people were seen to have walked into the river and disappeared into waters, and at certain times, huge multi-colored fish surface but one has yet caught a single fish no matter what method they used. Whether or not they believe the river to be enchanted, they are unwilling to take chances.

Rhon was unable to resist the temptation and took a swim, jumping from a rocky ledge and into the blue waters.

Mystical no more?

A year or so?? ` ago, I learned the air of mystery in the river could be forever gone forever with the advent of commercialism. The place has become one of the top tourist destinations. There is already a 30 pesos entrance free per person, and restrooms have been installed where you can change if you want to swim. Life jackets are rented out, and fish feeding has become a popular activity. Recent online photos showed cottages and ramps erected near the river bank. Gone was the feeling of enchantment that engulfed me when I first stepped on the riverbank over five years ago.

Check one this expedition on YouTube to get an idea of how Enchanted Underwater Cave looks like. I’m not sure if the spirits and enkantos believed to be guarding the river still wants to stay with the everyday activities and the influx of tourists to the place.

Getting There

From Davao: From Davao Ecoland Terminal, take a bus bound for Mangagoy (Bislig) and transfer to a bus, jeep or habal-habal going to Hinatuan.

From Butuan : From Langihan Terminal, take a bus bound for Mangagoy (Bislig)

Buses ply the routes of Tandag-Butuan, Tandag-Davao and Tandag-Surigao City regularly. Vans for hire are also available.

A visit to Lourdes Shrine on Tinian

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TINIAN—Just a few meters down the road past the Northern Marianas College campus on Tinian and just beyond rows of pine trees is a turn with a sign pointing to one of the very special and considered holy places in the island—the Lourdes Shrine.

If you see the wooden signboard and a small altar made from a pile of stones, with two smaller statues on both sides of the altar, you have come to the right place.

Take the grassy right turn and the scenic short drive flanked by coconut trees on both sides leading to the Korean Memorial, and the Japanese Crematory a few meters away and going straight all the way to the end of the road will lead you to the Lourdes Shrine.

I had been to this place for a quick stop about four years ago but IMG_2597I never had the chance to go in and explore the area, until some weeks ago when friend Susan took me to another quick drive around the island.

The Shrine for Santa Lourdes is considered a holy place to many especially the devotees, Susan said. She said she often visits the place to pray and meditate.

The Shrine is located inside the huge gaping stone cave with vines hanging from the ceiling. If you go in, you will feel dwarfed like the whole cave is going to swallow you. I followed a small enclosure at the side of the huge cave thinking it was leading to an exit, but it was a dead end. The cave has lost its natural feel because of the electric bulbs installed in the ceiling around the statue of the Blessed Virgin, and the wide tarpaulin erected just outside the mouth of the cave to provide shelter for those who want to visit the place, but despite the modern touches, you can still feel the sacredness of the place.

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The Lourdes Shrine is just a few meters away from the main road and you don’t need to wear hiking shoes or anything. You can bring your car right up to the mouth of the cave which we did. Somewhere near the Lourdes Shrine and the Korean Memorial is the Japanese Crematory which was just pointed out to me to be behind tall bushes. I didn’t have a chance to go near it for the two times that I have been to the place, but there is always a next time.IMG_2602

If you divert away from the popular tourist attractions like beaches and historical sites, where every visitor usually goes to, you can discover that there is still so much more to see, discover and rediscover of this small island that has played a big role in one of the bloodiest wars of the Pacific during World War 11. For more adventures on Tinian and the CNMI please visit www.studiof6.com or https://wanderlustontheraks.wordpress.com/

Remains of a World War 11 jail

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TINIAN—I have passed by this particular spot on Tinian so many times in the past years thinking that it was just an ordinary abandoned structure left by the owners from years ago. I had always been intrigued by the grills and bars and the small rectangular slits for windows but never got to ask anyone about it, until a couple of weeks ago when I had an unplanned drive around the island with friend Susan Cruz from there.

She drove me to this site in San Jose village and asked if I had visited it before. I was surprised. The area was cleared of the thick brambles which covered the whole block and the remains of the structure, which I learned was a jail used during the World War 11 was revealed.

IMG_2409 Delighted, I ran out of the car and proceeded to the ruins. It was like seeing something you have always seen with new eyes. Some of the walls were still standing sturdy, and some of the grills, despite the rust eating at it, remained intact barring some of the doors.

I picked my way on the rocks and debris covered by newly trimmed bushes gingerly, scared I might step into some hole. I’ve heard stories that there used to be an underground somewhere where prisoners were kept and I tried looking for the entrance to no avail. It was kind spooky, even in broad daylight.

There was no one else around and it was not hard to imagine prisoners peeking from the small rectangular holes and through the grills. If the walls could talk, the stories they have to tell would surely fill volumes.

IMG_2395Unlike the old Japanese Jail on Saipan where it’s located right in a residential area, clean and well-maintained, this old jail on Tinian had been left covered in brambles and abandoned for so long.

Susan warned me to be extra careful and asked me thrice if I was really sure I wanted to explore the place. She said she has heard so many stories circulating that many of those who stepped on the old jail ruins have gotten sick or possessed by the spirits of the old occupants of the jail.

Although a part of me was hesitant, a bigger part was more curious to explore, and off I went, with Susan staying a safe distance away. I knew it was a chance I wouldn’t let slip by because if I did, I would regret it later.

IMG_2442The leaves crunched under my feet as I ventured further into the ruins, tentatively peeking through old broken doors and peepholes, snapping photos as I went.

When I almost stepped on something that looked like a hole covered with leaves, I hurried out of the ruins and ran back to the road, trying to shrug off the scary thought of stepping into the hole and falling into a tunnel.

If I was with someone equally daring, I guess I would have stayed longer and explored the nooks and crannies of this abandoned structure that has played a big role in the history of the island during the bloody World War 11 almost 70 years ago.

This old jail ruins is just one of the many relics and scars of the war that contribute to the significant pieces of history left lying all over Tinian. When on the island, take time to drive around especially with someone who is from the island and you will discover more of the rich historical treasures that not everyone knows.

For more adventures, please visit http://www.studiof6.com or https://wanderlustontheraks.wordpress.com.

First published at the Marianas Variety.

Close call on Tinian’s cliff side

IMG_2644  I thought I have already explored every nook and cranny in this tiny island and have already written about all that it has to offer, but a quick, unplanned drive into roads that are almost non-existent last week proved me wrong.

For the past years, I’ve been driving around Tinian from a tourists’ point of view. That means renting a car and driving to the most popular historical and scenic spots and taking photos of abandoned structures and sites that have been posted online thousands of times before, and you think you have seen everything and been everywhere. Just wait until you go out with someone who is from the island.IMG_2634

My friend Susan Cruz took me on an unplanned drive to sites not in the maps for a couple of hours on Thursday, taking the coastal road by the dumpsite instead of the usual road to the North Field. I have driven by the place before but never ventured on the rough side roads that were almost totally obscured by thick shrubbery. If you are not from there, you would not even know there is a road somewhere beneath the tall grasses but Susan’s car seemed to have a mind of its own, skillfully navigating through the jungles.

After a few minutes, Susan turned left to a small clearing where several white crosses were erected on the ground and on tombs. We were not on a cemetery but the crosses were erected in memory of those who perished from the seas, she said.

I walked some meters away from the tombstones and peeked through the thick bushes and trees and discovered a spectacular paradise view below.

Parting the thick shrubs, I tried to find a way to get a closer to take photos, not minding the sharp brambles that pricked me. The effort and scratches to get there was worth it. The view was worth it, postcard perfect and a photographer’s dream. It was clearly one of the sites on the island that only a few knows about.

Rocks detached from the cliff and forming small islets added to the attraction of the whole place. The water was crystal clear and you could see all the way to the bottom. It was a paradise, all your own.

I kept shooting as I edged closer to the cliff, my stomach churning as I looked below. It was just about 10 feet or so but it will be one agonizing dangerous drop if someone takes a wrong step. Sharp rocks jutted out from everywhere.IMG_2650

Suddenly, I heard a crack. The branch I was holding on to broke off and the next thing I knew, I was losing my balance and desperately grabbing everything with my left hand while hugging my camera with my right hand. Everything I stepped on collapsed or slid under my feet and all I thought at that moment was the safety of my camera, not mine.

Just when I thought it was the end, my foot landed on something solid hidden beneath fallen leaves—a flat rock that broke my fall and saved my life and my camera, and just a few inches away from the cliff. I released a giant breath of relief and heard Susan shouting from above checking if I was alright.

Too shocked at the close call, I did not tell her what happened but carefully crawled my way back up through the brambles, thankful that I was still intact except for a few scratches.

Oh the things that people would go through just to get a photo, but through these images those who are not so daring can still get a chance to see the hidden treasures that these islands have to offer. We would have visited a few more of those practically ‘unknown’ spots for most people, but my time was limited and I had to fly back to Saipan. Next time, she said, and we’re going to bring a pick-up truck next time. For more Tinian, Saipan and Rota adventures, visit http://www.studiof6.com and follow the links.

Panoramic Stopover in Sinapalo, Rota

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ROTA — A few miles past the Sunset Hotel in the village of Sinapalo, there is a spot by the roadside you must not miss. There is nothing spectacular about it — a couple of unused benches covered by leaves and twigs and a pile of stones bordering the edge of the cliff.
I’ve driven by this same spot alone a couple of times in the past but I didn’t pay attention to it or take the time to stop and check it out. But recently, I was again on Rota, this time with photographer buddy Pat. Our host Jackie from the Sunset Hotel recommended that we check the place out.IMG_9883

Driving on the paved road, we found the spot without any trouble at all. As expected, the place was deserted and a few birds were the only signs of life. With cameras ready, we picked our way through dead leaves and headed to the pile of stones that served as some kind of a fence. Thick vegetation protruded from below the edge of the cliff beyond the stone fence.

I was unprepared for the spectacular panoramic scenery that met my eyes when I emerged into the small clearing near the stone fence. Hundreds of feet below us, the blue ocean stretched forever, merging with the blue horizon. It was a bright sunny day and gentle waves lapped along the coast that snaked its way along beautiful rocky shores, forming a kind of a cove.IMG_9888

The different shades of blue in the water and the sky merged with the green foliage, which made the scene look like a work of art.

Down on the rocky shores, small formations created islets topped with vegetation, adding to the beauty of it all.

The view was postcard-perfect, and I then understood why Rota was known as the “untouched gem of a paradise” in the Pacific.

The world seemed to come to a standstill and, for a moment, I forgot I was there to take photos and video clips. I was mesmerized with the splendor of the scene before me.IMG_9887

Lost in another world, my finger connected with the shutter in an attempt to capture the beauty of nature on camera. A few yards away, Pat was as lost as I was taking video footage.

Climbing atop of a pile of stones, I got a much better view, but keeping my balance while trying to shoot photos was too much of a challenge. One wrong step and I could be history. We didn’t have much time to stay at the lookout. We still had so much to see. Watching the sunset from the lookout would be something else, something to look forward to. Another time.IMG_9909

First published at the Marianas Variety here

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/60305-panoramic-stopover-in-sinapalo

Long-exposure photography at Banzai Cliff

DSC_6581YOU should visit Banzai Cliff at night to see a totally different aspect of one of the most frequented places on island.

Recently, I was there with five other photographers. We wanted to learn time-lapse photography and we were told that Banzai Cliff was the best spot to do it. We arrived just before 8 p.m.Setting up our tripods and cameras, we studied the sky. Only a few stars were visible and I was beginning to get disappointed, but I followed what my companions were doing and set the timer on my camera and left it to do its work. We kept repeating the process and paid more attention to the food and drinks that we brought with us.IMG_2196

Banzai Cliff was so different at night. It had an eerie feel and the silhouettes of monuments seemed sinister. My imagination was running wild, as usual. I thought the statues would come to life at any time, and I could almost hear the screams of the people who died in that place during the war.

Half an hour and several gigabytes later, I scrolled back to have a glimpse of what my camera collected. I was in for a big surprise. I saw only a few stars but the camera showed more — in fact the sky was filled with glittering dots and I had to check if my camera was not playing tricks on me. I peered at the screens of my companions and discovered that yes indeed, there were more stars in the sky than we saw.DSC_9006

Fascinated, I repositioned my tripod to face the area above Suicide Cliff and turned it to the widest angle to capture the silhouettes of the monuments with the stars.

My images did not come out good as well as the time-lapse images of the other photographers. I need more practice, but the experience taught me a lot about the wonders of the sky.IMG_5663

First published at the Marianas Variety here

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/60119-time-lapse-photography-on-banzai-cliff

The glory that was the Palms beachfront

 
 
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  RECENTLY, I had the chance to spend a blissful hour taking photos of the sunset at the once-bustling beachside of the now closed Palms Resort in San Roque.
I and my photographer buddy Donna walked on the sand from Paupau Beach as we made our way to the lonely beachfront one late afternoon.Except for a couple of men in beach chairs casting their fishing lines in the water, the hotel beach was deserted.

I had a great time capturing the silhouettes of the row of coconut trees aIMG_7785gainst a splendid sunset, I was lost in what I was doing and forgot I had a companion.

When I looked behind me I realized that the once magnificent, well-lit, lively hotel was now a sad, lonely abandoned building. Thick grass had grown on the beachfront, somehow fencing the structure in and creating an image so forlorn that it would have moved to tears those who had seen the hotel, which once hosted Japan’s imperial couple, in its heyday.

In the gathering dusk, the hotel looked like a scene from a horror movie. It stood there, dark and menacing and my imagination started to play tricks on me. I trained my zoom lens on the rooms and almost expected a face to peer from one of the windows. I was getting scared and actually jumped when my companion tapped me on the shoulder.

We made our way slowly to one of my favorite wedding venues on island, St. Angelo Chapel, which was a few yards away.IMG_7806

Despite the fact the Palms Resort closed down three years ago, the chapel is still used for weddings. The lawn was still manicured, and the chapel did not show any signs of the desolation and abandonment that Palms Resort now exuded. The chapel was a separate world by itself.

We went around it, careful not to touch anything while taking photos. A few minutes later, I was startled again and this time by the silhouette of a man approaching us from across the bridge. He asked what we were doing. We learned that the men fishing on the shore were security guards who alerted another guard about our presence.

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We explained that we were just taking photos and were leaving, which we were only too glad to do. We made our way back to our car at Paopao Beach and left for home.

I was hesitant to download my photos from my memory cards, sad to see such a big hotel transformed into yet another abandoned structure.DSC_7812

But I saw no faces peeking out of the hotel windows in any of my photos. If you get the chance, visit the Palms Resort beachfront at twilight, you will see what I mean.DSC_7900

First published at the Marianas Variety here: http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/59396-the-glory-that-was-the-palms-beachfront

3 Christmas ‘giants’ in the islands

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30-foot Christmas tree at the Multipurpose Center in Susupe

CAN you imagine Christmas without Christmas trees?

Each year in December, Christmas trees with brilliant twinkling lights and other ornaments are installed in homes, parks, stores, schools and offices.

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30-foot Christmas tree at the Paseo de Marianas in Garapan, Saipan

On Saipan and Tinian, the three tallest Christmas trees can be found at the multi-purpose center in Susupe, at the Paseo De Marianas in Garapan and at the Tinian Dynasty.

At 41 feet, the Christmas tree at Tinian Dynasty should be the CNMI’s tallest. It is made of multi-colored blinking lights topped by a “star.”

Christmas tree at the Tinian Dynasty Hotel & Casino gate towering at 41 feet

The Christmas tree outsider the multi-purpose center is 30 feet high and was lit up a day after Thanksgiving. The tree comes with a nativity scene and is an annual project of the First Lady’s Vision Foundation.

At Paseo de Marianas, the 30-foot Christmas tree glitters with ornaments from recycled materials, and near it are the 9-foot trees decorated by elementary schools that competed in the recently held Christmas tree decoration contest.

In daytime, these Christmas trees look ordinary, but in the evening they turn into something magical — and festive.