Saturday, June 16, 2007

Sampling Palau’s underwater wonders

Island Color
Raquel C. Bagnol

Palau is a place teeming with abundant fish and marine life that you only have to wade in knee-length water and fish will be crawling all over your feet. Everyday hundreds of tourists flock here to sample the country’s numerous famed dive sites which made Palau one of the seven most beautiful dive spots in the world.
In fact, this is the only in this place that I have eaten various kinds of fish that I only see in aquariums and in menus of flashy seafood restaurants in the Philippines.
Last week, I sent a text message to Fish n’ Fins dive shop owner Tova Bornovsky if we could go with a group on a trip with a group of divers. She immediately agreed and so I found myself onboard a boat with Micmic Villaflor (of the other Palau newspaper) and seven divers from different countries.

An hour later, Malsol, the boat operator tied the anchor to a mooring bouy in the New Drop Off near Ngemelis Island (they are not allowed to drop it to protect the corrals).
“Are they going to dive here? It’s shallow!” I asked Malsol as I peered into the crystal clear water which looks like some four feet deep. Malsol’s answer was just a booming laugh.

I watched with envy as the divers donned on their complete gear flipped over into the water one by one, leaving me and Micmic with Malsol.
“Snorkel time”, Micmic announced. I slipped into a set of protective mask and snorkel and slowly descended through a side ladder, shuddering when I dipped my head and realized that the sea bed was way, way down below, some 15 feet deep. The current was swift and I held on to the ladder and the rope for life, even if I was wearing a life jacket. I know that if I let go, I would be in the Pacific Ocean in a few minutes.
However I forgot my fear as I marveled at the colorful garden of corrals and all kinds of fish imaginable swimming all around us. Micmic kicked me underwater and excitedly pointed to a huge napoleon fish which I estimated to be over 60 lbs. swimming directly below us. A few meters from where we were, the sea bed ended and a gaping, dark green hole of water which dipped down to more than a hundred meters deep.

We went to two more dive sites, the Big Drop Off where we snorkeled with damsel fishes all around us, giving us a feeling of being inside a huge aquarium, and Helmet Wreck where, even by listening to dive guide Ed Fuja during a briefing, would make a diver’s saliva drool. I just imagined the divers going into the deep exploring a sunken warship during the World War 11. Ed said there were still helmets and rifles and even an oil lamp in one of the small rooms.
An hour later the orange balloon popped out of the water, signaling that the divers will be resurfacing. The satisfied looks on their faces actually made me green with envy.
“I’ve been to several dive sites all over the world but it’s my first time to really see a wonderful wreck as this,” a Japanese diver gushed. The snorkeling experience (my second, actually) left me beat and dead-tired but satisfied. I’ve promised myself that I will not leave Palau without a diving experiencing. But first things first, I have yet to learn how to swim.
When in Palau, your stay will never be complete without sampling an underwater adventure.

Ukay-ukay craze

Island Color
Raquel C. Bagnol

SALE. The sign could be read several meters away- a huge banner bearing the magic words which is a sure-fire way to lure most individuals (majority of whom are women) who are economizing and making efforts to stretch their hard-earned pesos (or dollars).

Sunday mass has just finished and so many Filipinos were milling about Palau’s main (and only) street. Like me, the huge sign caught their attention and they went straight to the rummage sale held in front of a medical clinic and dove into the displays of clothes, shoes, and other rick-racks like a pack of hungry wolves.

Rummage or yard sales are common in Palau, usually done as a fundraising activity. Unlike the Philippines where ukay-ukay stalls occupy permanent places and displays, the organizers here would distribute fliers and put up announcements in stores and other public areas weeks before. On the scheduled day, they would erect a huge open tent and sell anything from clothes to shoes to kitchen utensils to toys to hair driers to everything imaginable at lower prices.
This particular one was sponsored by the Palau Swimming Association to help defray the group’s plane fare and expenses for a competition in Japan in November.

I parked across the street and fished the camera I always carry from my bag, feeling a wave of nostalgia sweep over me as I snapped photos of the mad throng. It was a glimpse of home, a very common sight anywhere in ukay-ukay stalls in the Philippines. Only a handful of Palauans joined the crowd.

Back home, I would have normally been one of those who crowd the stalls, picking and dropping one item after another while enviously eyeing what somebody else is holding onto.

Although I knew that wonderful “treasures” can be found in ukay-ukay heaps which you only need to use with your creativity to make them look classy, I had no intention of joining because this is Palau and even though everything was on sale, everything was still very expensive.
Shirts are priced at $5 each and that’s already considered the cheapest, not to mention the fact that they all come in 4XXX sizes reaching way below my knees with the sleeves almost reaching my wristwatch.
I crossed the street and went a little closer to get close-up photos when the camera lens focused on something- a stack of secondhand books, my weakness.

The next thing I knew, I was already squeezing in between bodies and picking up one book after another, until I spied a stack of bestsellers.
It was hard to decide which book to choose and I was afraid to ask the price, feeling sure it would be above $5 each.
Here in Davao, I could very rarely afford to buy Danielle Steel books on sale. They are priced P90 to P120 but I was wrong. I went home with six novels which I bought for only $3, or just $.50 each (that’s P25, the equivalent of a Mills & Boon pocketbook). For the first time in my eleven-and-a-half months stay here, I finally bought something which I consider cheap. I also discovered that no matter where I go, the ukay-ukay craze is still in my system.

Write it off!

Island Color
Raquel C. Bagnol

My long silence does not necessarily mean I’ve stopped writing altogether. I was just well, silent. I’m going through a phase many are familiar with, a sort of a stuck-in-a-rut feeling when I woke up one morning and found that for the past weeks, I had been writing stories to comply with the weekly quota and to fill my pages.
Call it a writer's block. An intellectual meltdown to incapacity or whatever generic alibi you can think of but the naked truth is that I have deceived myself for years now, promising that I would develop a daily writing habit but until now, I don’t have proof of sticking to that promise. My career is heading nowhere and I feel I’ve been stuck with something.(Oh cut the excuses and face it’s real name- sheer laziness).

To get into the daily writing habit, I browsed through the internet for tips and journaling prompts, found millions of them and had them printed and cut into strips. I found the perfect plastic box with an opening at the tip so I can just pull out one or two strips, depending on the mood and write whatever is there, at least everyday.

The internet again provided me with a downloadable journal software where I could jot down notes and entries conveniently. Armed with determination to do something I wrote diligently for the next couple of weeks, then temporarily stopped. Funny there’s always a reason to put off writing every midnight which is my ideal writing time ( that’s usually the time Tom and Jerry are chasing each other on Cartoon Network on the television and I can’t afford to miss even one episode).

I keep on promising myself to write for 10 minutes a day but when I turn on the computer, I am always tempted to indulge in a few minutes (a.k.a. hours) playing Zuma, a computer game where a frog spits out balls and explodes when three balls of the same color lines up…(Warning: don’t try this or you’ll be hooked. I have wasted hundreds of sleepless nights and learned to swear and exhausted my patience and I still haven’t gone beyond Stage 12.)
Developing a writing habit is easier said than done.
I haven’t opened the journal in the last 47 days and when I finally did so this morning with renewed determination, I can’t open it because the trial period of the software had expired and there goes all my two-week writing effort down the drain. So much for my writing career. I’m not yet giving up. I’m downloading another software for writers- and hope I will not be writing another article like this ever again.

They sure serve ‘em big, ‘em Palauans

Island Color
Raquel C. Bagnol

The luncheon meeting of a civic organization I was to cover for our newspaper at the Penthouse hotel in downtown Koror started late and my stomach was already growling, protesting why it was denied food since the night before. There just wasn’t time to grab something to eat. Deadline was beating down our necks. I just arrived in the island for a couple of weeks and was still in the adjustment stage.

When Maam Lei, my editor told me to order food from the hotel restaurant, I did not hesitate but sat immediately at one of the tables. The menu was written mostly in Chinese with a few translations in English and I didn’t understand most of it so I chose what was very familiar- fried chicken combo meal. One serving costs $7.50++. It’s always the ++ that scares me when ordering food from classy restaurants.

I usually only buy bento, a packed lunch or meal complete with rice and two viands priced from $1.75 and up and it is always enough to fill me. Anyway I was not paying so why the fuss.

When the waitress, a PI (Filipinos are called PI here, short for Philippine Islands) served the food, I gulped for there, set before me was a huge (and I mean HUGE) platter with rice enough to feed me for a couple of days, a mountain of raw cucumber, cabbage, lettuce and tomatoes, and five gigantic slices of crisply fried chicken. Half of one slice was enough for me I swear. The orange juice costing $2.50 came in a huge glass which looked like only a few inches shorter than a regular pitcher.

I looked around apprehensively, expecting to see sneers from other customers because with my 5-ft-98-lb frame, it would seem like I had been denied food for months but nobody was looking in my direction. I picked up my spoon and fork and began eating daintily. If the truth was to be told, I wished to eat with my hands. Food always tastes much better and satisfying that way. I just scraped the chicken skins and popped them to my mouth, (forget the calories, crispy fried chicken skin is just too tempting), one-fourth of the rice and half of the juice, completely ignoring the salad. I’ll never be a vegetarian. (Ever hear that eating too much veges may lure snakes to live in your stomach?)…I had the rest of the meal packed and consumed it for the next couple of days.

Housemate Celina and I ordered fried rice for dinner from a restaurant some distance away from Iyebukel, the poblacion (they call it hamlet) where we are living.
“Just one order for you both?” the Filipina waitress asked. We both said we were very hungry and ordered one serving each. Mine is java rice and hers is seafood. You guessed right, one serving was good for three persons. We were still eating fried rice until noon of the next day.

One time I passed by a couple of Palauans (they’re huge, each weighing not less than 200 lbs) grilling barbeque at a seaside resort where I went to take photos of the sunset. I cast an absent-minded glance at the spit but retraced my steps when I was five meters away to check if my eyes were playing tricks. The two men were grilling fish so big and chicken thighs resembling turkey’s thighs I wondered how they could consume it. One half of a chicken thigh would make me burst. They saw me eyeing the barbeque and urged me to eat.
“You eat, why, you’re soooo skinny!” One of them said, but I politely refused their offer, swallowing the urge to insist that I was not that small but it’s them who were just so big.

Everything in Palau is big. The first man I saw when we arrived in Palau three weeks ago was the Customs officer at the airport. He was not big, he was huge I would disappear behind his shadow!
More than half of the population are sized XXXL here.

It’s normal to see fish weighing 100 lbs or more, bread solid enough that one slice is equivalent to a full meal, garlic and onion as big as a giant’s fist, kindergarten pupils bigger than the normal elementary students in the Philippines, t-shirts (small size) that reached down to my knees when I tried it on, oh, name it, it’s big! (Oh, that may be an exaggeration because I haven’t seen everything yet!). Anyway, three weeks here in Palau has taught me a lesson. Palauans sure serve them big. I mean food. And drinks, too.


Island Color
Raquel C. Bagnol

The only permanent thing in the world is change, or so the saying goes. And so with this article comes many changes, first in the column name. For the past couple of years, I had been writing a column titled LoCaL CoLoR in the Philippines but less than five hour’s plane ride from Davao City three weeks ago brought me and officemates Aurea and Celina to this island in the pacific to work for another newspaper and to another set of changes in our lives.

This article is written in this place dubbed as the Rainbow’s End, and I couldn’t think of any other name much more fitting than Island Color. In this island where there seems to be more cars than people and you can rarely see anybody walking on the streets, the feeling of being “parang nasa Pinas pa rin” (feels like being still in the Philippines) prevails. Filipinos are everywhere and you see them in the stores, offices, clubs and bars, hotels and practically everywhere.

Comes now adjustment time-stage one.
Although the three of us worked in the same office and seen each other’s shadow for almost three years, we did not live in the same house so normally we all have to make a lot of adjustments. Ever tried keeping your cool when the bathroom we shared already resembled a bat cave? you know what I mean, with all those wet “bats” that were supposed to be dried at the driers in the Laundromat hanging from the shower hooks, falling hairs clogging the drainage, soap melting in the sink or stepping on empty shampoo sachets? We have.

I also learned a fast lesson in patience when Aurea practically takes forever in the bathroom while Celina and I wait for our turn to take a bath every morning. I was beginning to wonder if there’s a mass going on inside the bathroom that she only knew of and attends exclusively…

One thing that needs a 360-degree turn is my sleeping pattern. This is not easy and may take months or even years of trying because I, labeled as a “vampire” by friends because I stay up till dawn and is sleepy through the day have to make a complete turn-around. For the past nights I’ve stayed awake staring at the ceiling trying to count sheep and fall asleep or try to follow the rotation of the stand fan I bought for $23.25 a day after we arrived but to no avail. Bedtime for my body is still 2 a.m.

The hardest part is in getting up at 6:30 a.m. and wait for my turn to take a cold shower to wake up, (I usually go to the bathroom with eyes still closed and wake up only when the first squirt of water falls on my head), grab a quick breakfast which I very rarely do and rush with my housemates because I have no other means of getting to the office but hitch a ride in our housemate’s car. For the first time I saw what offices look like in the mornings but only digest half of what’s going on until late in the afternoon.

Another shock awaited us when we shopped for groceries for the first time. Everything is priced in dollars. I nearly collapsed when I picked up a bunch of string beans priced $1.25. Why, with the exchange rate of P56 to a dollar, that would cost P70! And to think that I would even snob that bunch of beans at the Bankerohan market in Davao and grumble (and sometimes curse the vendor) for overpricing it at P6 a bunch!

I bought a plate, spoon and a glass for $3, whew! I had hordes of plates and mugs and spoons which had accumulated through my brief journalistic stint in Davao, but here everything is exported from the Philippines. Our Pinoy officemates advised us never to convert all the prices to peso “dahil talagang maloloko at makakalbo kayo” (you’ll go bald and crazy) but they understood us because they too, went through the same phase.

I do miss my body pillow, the one I bought with my first salary at Davao but have to leave it behind. Buying a new one here would cost me $12. Converted, that would be P672! I could buy that in the PI (short for Philippine Islands) for less than P300 (There I go again…) but I’m going to buy one just the same when I get my first paycheck. It sure helps a lot to lure me to dreamland.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Chopsticks 101

Island Color
Raquel C. Bagnol

I never got the chance to learn how to use chopsticks before and I often wondered why people would waste their time trying to learn how to eat using them. I thought trying to eat using chopsticks is silly because the spoon and fork is a much more advanced eating tool and I don't see why I have to bother learning something so useless to me. Or so I thought, until I had to feature a Japanese restaurant for last week’s issue of our newspaper.

My editor Maam Lei has already made reservations for us at Sushi Bar, an authentic Japanese restaurant right along the main street of Koror, Palau’s capital state ahead of time so when we got there, everything was almost cooked (or uncooked) to perfection.

After taking several photos of the various dishes prepared for us, we settled down to start eating. I shook my head at the whole lot spread before us: food with complicated Japanese names which in reality were mostly raw fish sliced and served in different styles and comes with different dips and paste, fish rolled in sticky rice and topped with some leaves, sushi, sashimi and other foods designed to produce tears to my pure Bisaya palate.

And then I noticed something lacking. Placed beside my table napkin is a pair of chopsticks, those two long thin sticks made of bamboo which translates loosely into the English as "speedy ones" or "speedy fingers". Chop sticks, I learned later, used to mean "fast stick" but it doesn't apply to me because how could one eat fast by picking food with it is still a wonder to me.

“Miss, pahingi naman ng kutsara at tinidor please,” I asked a passing waitress but before she could give me what I want, Maam Lei stopped her. She must have understood what I said and told us to practice using chopsticks because “it’s a must in this Republic”. Oh gosh.

Maam Lei demonstrated to the four of us (I was with officemates Celina, Au and Maam Lei’s daughter Bella) where and how to hold the two sticks together to be able to pick up food. We were so clumsy at first but towards the end of the meal, we were able to pick something using the chopsticks. I ended up still hungry though.

I was attending a press conference during my SunStar days last year at the Marco Polo hotel when a small table was laid and dainty bowls of food I only see in Chinese restaurants were set before us for “media sampling”. I was hungry and getting hungrier by the pleasant aroma rising from the food. Then we were handed chopsticks.

It was not my first time to touch chopsticks, mind you but I never did learn (or acquired the interest to learn) using them.

"Why would I spend more time trying to spoon food into my mouth using two thin pieces of wood when the realiable spoon and fork are doing a fairly good job of it?" I've always argued to myself.
I guess I would never be comfortable using them.

Everybody was having an easy time. I did try though but I did not enjoy the food despite my hunger. The little bits of food I successfully spooned into my mouth were even too little for birds. I had a hard time spooning rice into my mouth because it took more manual dexterity than I currently possess.

As there were only very few of us, I was unable to escape and was forced the join the 'food sampling'. Admittedly, I missed breakfast and was getting considerably hungrier but I did not fancy Chinese food, plus the use of chopsticks.

I joined the other media practitioners and spooned food into our small dishes and we were handed the chopsticks. The appetizing aroma of Chinese fried rice tempted by tastebuds but the futile attempts to spoon rice into my mouth using those chopsticks were getting on my patience.

I’m having rice and fried wahoo fish for lunch today. I’m using chopsticks and I’m slowly learning how to use it but I still consider my hands the most realiable alternative in the absence of spoons. I always get a different satisfaction from eating with my hand.


Island Color
Raquel C. Bagnol

In an island where guns are strictly prohibited and policemen are not seen carrying them, hearing a gunshot is a remote possibility and a remarkable event. The law is very strict about it, and anyone caught under possession of even just a bullet or an empty shell could mean 15 years imprisonment.

Before coming to this island of Palau, I had visions of joining regular shooting practices and tournaments so that by the time I would come back to Davao I could compete with the other journalists here who are sharp shooters. I envisioned long stretches of empty spaces with world-class shooting ranges but one year of staying here I was yet to see a real gun. That was remedied when I bravely asked a policeman if they ever carry guns around, and if I may see one. He looked at me long and hard before finally saying yes. He went to the police car and fished out a shining .38 caliber from the compartment, then took it back as if he was afraid I would snatch it from him.

The nearest sound to a gunshot one hears here would be the explosion of a car tire but that too, is not common. Palauans tend to change tires without waiting for them to “retire”. It’s funny but if you hear a car tire explode, that car for sure belongs to a Filipino because if it’s possible to put scotch tape or glue, they’ll do it to save dollars (including me). Palauans also do not buy second hand tires and service station attendants are finding a lucrative business reselling tires to Filipinos at $15-20 each.

But back to guns, our target.
A couple of weeks ago, the Senate president of Palau who happened to be the brother of my boss died in a fishing accident. At the funeral, the late senator was honored by a 21-gun salute. Seven policemen carried M-16 and garand rifles, and that was the first time I saw long guns here. They looked shiny as though they are framed inside cabinets with no intention of using. It was a big event for the locals!
Growing up in a “gun-infested” area in North Cotabato, the sight of guns and the sound of gunshots is nothing new. As early as grade four I have learned to distinguish a shot that missed its target, or a shot at close range. (This would be followed by piercing screams from the family of the victim).

The seven police officers took their posts and prepared to fire. At the command, each police officer pulled the trigger. At the first batch of gun burst, people near the shooting area were visibly shocked. Glasses and other objects fell to the ground as the people clapped their hands to their ears and braced themselves for the second and the third batch of gunfire. I couldn’t help but wonder if these people knew how fortunate they are that their place is relatively peaceful. The kids here are fortunate because they never knew what it is to live in nervous anticipation when or where the next round of gunfire will come from, or master the art of automatically dropping to the ground during an explosion. Lucky islanders.