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Whale-less wandering at Donsol, Sorsogon

You may not see the famed butanding, but fret not – says Michael David C. Tan – as there’s more to Bicol than the gentle giants of the seas.

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An oft-repeated adage is the need not to lose sight of the forest for the trees (a different take at “Don’t lose sight of the big picture”) – that is, that if we focus too much on a single tree (or some trees), we may forget that the tree (or trees) we admire is (are) but one (or some) of the many in that forest. This is sound advice, definitely – after all, why over-emphasize on minute details when the big prize is yet to be achieved?

However, when traveling to Donsol in Sorsogon, in search of the famed butanding (whale sharks), I’d say: Forget the forest; it’s the trees that should define the experience. Because while swimming with the gentle giants of the seas is, definitely, a magical experience, if it is the end-all of a trip to the place, that trip could end up… not exactly happy.

As our whale-less wandering at Donsol, Sorsogon proved.

WHERE TO?

It was approximately a year after booking a flight to Legazpi City in Albay when my friend (Rye Mendoza) reminded me of our pending trip – that’s what happens with too-early bookings: either you’d forget about it (as I almost did this time around), or end up choosing to forget about it (as I repeatedly did in past reservations). It was, for him, something new, since he has never been to the place in the past; and while I have, repeatedly, visited the place, the enthusiasm was… contagious. And so we headed out sans any plans at all what to do when we get there.

Legazpi is, by itself, a place full of mini- and not-so-mini wonders – heck, the view of the MAJESTIC Mayon Volcano alone makes the trip worth it! From afar, the volcano looks like it was pasted (or painted, for the more poetic) against the blue sky, it makes one believe in the Divine – that only some intelligent hand could design something so artsy, so beauteous in our midst. And – should you be so lucky if you landed with clear skies – it’s a sight to behold as soon as you land, too.

And then there’s the Bicolano food. I have long been a fan of how Bicolanos whip up what they whip up – Bicol Express, ginataang balat ng santol (santol peeling with coconut milk), balat ng pili (pili peeling) turned into burger patties… The gustatory possibilities here are endless. Interestingly, they even use the same as toppings on… a pan pizza! That too spicy for you? Cleanse the palate with freshly-baked malunggay pan de sal – available from numerous bakeries off the main streets.

But back on track now… to Albay’s neighboring province to the south, Sorsogon, where Donsol is.

Donsol is approximately an hour away from Legazpi City, with the roads not offering much as far as scenery is concerned but, well, provincial living. We took a van (over P60, one-way) that was supposed to take us to Donsol, but – as luck had it – the van stalled, so we transferred to the only jeepney passing, which happened to be full; so we sat atop the jeepney. Take in views of the rice paddies, people chatting while sitting ON the highway, chickens crossing the road… For Manileños, you have to go as far as the outskirts of Cavite to see such scenes, so the experience was refreshing.

Donsol is, in one word, sleepy. Not much happens here, with just about everything revolving around the butanding. There are abundant accommodations to choose from – homestays are common in the town proper, while closer to the wharf where the boats that head out to spot the butanding are more expensive resorts. As is usual in small towns, though, everything’s accessible by motorcycle or tricycle.

WHAT FISH?

And so we gravitated towards the Donsol Tourism Office (DTO), where we registered (P100 is the fee for locals; P300 for visitors, irrespective of nationality) and then were made to attend a brief orientation session on how to deal with the butanding.

Worth remembering is this: per boat that leaves the wharf to view the butanding requires seven tourists; meaning, in our case, since there were just two of us, it’s time to be friendly with other tourists who may invite you to join them (or you can form groups with) so you cut the costs of the boat rental (approximately P3,500). This we did with a German, a Frenchman and a Swiss.

Another thing worth remembering is this: If at all you are planning to see the butanding, bring your own swimming/snorkeling equipment. Why? Because outside the DTO are stalls “requiring” tourists to rent masks, snorkels and fins for P300 (entire set). Nature-tripping was, for us at that point, getting expensive.

But as soon as you leave dry land (with a “butanding interaction officer”, spotters and the boat’s crew), you are just about ready to forgive the too-apparent monetizing of the entire experience.

Alas, once in the water, all the locals stress that there’s no guarantee of seeing any butanding. Various reasons are offered: “Hapon na kasi (It’s already late)”; “Hindi nila season ngayon (It’s off-season)”; “Ilang araw na walang nakita (It’s been days since any was spotted)”; and so on. And all the while, I was just thinking: “If not seeing was known before we boarded the boat, why were we still made to pay to look for what the locals acknowledge we will not be seeing?”. Big-time opportunism, in a gist.

Worse, there were too many boats roaming the waters, so that if a butanding is seen at all, it would have been swamped – completely contrary to the lessons supposed to be learned from DTO’s instructional video.

An hour passed. Then two. Then three… The sun was starting to turn orange. And so we headed back to the shore. The gentle giants remained elusive.

We were told to return earlier the next day,  for who knows what tomorrow is supposed to bring.

Flummoxed – not just annoyed – we toured the town, and once again encountered what these parts of the Philippines have to offer. Ginataang pating (shark with coconut milk – and, yes, we saw the irony in it being served in the turo-turo right outside the DTO). Ginataang dahon ng kamoteng kahoy  (Cassava leaves with coconut milk). And there’s this dish made of small fishes cooked with greenies and lots and lots of green and red chilis – somewhat sour, yet tantalizingly good as it makes the mouth water and crave for more. This is Bicol food as can only be imagined…

Nights are quiet. You can spend it stuck in your room (reading a book, Wi-Fi-ing, or whatever), drink with buddies (which we did with the German), or firefly-watching (by the river in a place between the town proper and the DTO, almost magical as you watch the fireflies seemingly dance in the night as they make low-hanging trees glow). But these are refreshing, for me a hark back to my rural days…

Armed with wishes/prayers/hope, the next day started with another demand for money – tourists need to pay the P3,500 boat fee again. The equipment you can “borrow” from whichever stall you rented them out, because – after all – they were not put to any use the day before.

Alas, the day ended (again) sans any butanding sighting…

WONDROUS EXPERIENCE

I have swum with the butanding (which can grow over 15 meters long) before – and, yes, I can say it’s a MAGICAL experience. I still remember being in the murky water, not knowing where to look – and then, seemingly from nowhere, you get a glimpse of this HUGE creature nearing you, and then gliding by you. Breathtaking? Yes. Dramatic? Yes. Exhilarating? Yes. It will, truly, make you feel like that proverbial “nothing but a speck of matter floating in space”. I hope that even Donsol’s (over)commercialization of the experience won’t ruin it (that much).

Back in Legazpi City, Bicol’s wonders were experienced again – a closer view of Mayon Volcano, discovering the antiquated churches, meeting the shy (tentatively friendly) locals, and yes, more Bicolano food. The latter – i.e. food – is, dare I say, something the really defines this place (they even have siling ice cream, or ice cream with chili!).

And these are the “trees” that you are bound to miss if the sole focus is to see the “forest” that is the butanding that may not always show itself (note: head there from February through April, the peak season). Because there are times when the details are more precious than the big picture.

M.D. dela Cruz Tan is the founder of Zest Magazine. And no, the initials (i.e. M.D.) do not make him a "medical doctor" (as many have erroneously thought in the past); he is actually a graduate of Bachelor of Arts (Communication Studies) of the University of Newcastle in New South Wales Australia (just don't ask when, he says). He can: photograph, do artworks with mixed media, write (of course), shoot flicks, community-organize, facilitate, lecture, research (with pioneering studies under his belt)... this one's a multi-tasker, who is even conversant in Filipino Sign Language. Cross his path is the dare (read: It won't be boring).

Destinations

Loggers become river tour guides in Samar

Revenge Tourism is a social phenomenon where people who have been stuck at home, often for months at a time, rush to tourist sites to appease their lockdown fatigue. With easing lockdown and flight restrictions, more and more tourist destinations are experiencing waves of visitors out to re-experience paradise – but what about the people who guide them? The people who themselves work in paradise?

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We’re shooting through a wild, wild washing machine: paddling, cursing, laughing and getting absolutely drenched inside a torpedo-shaped canoe.

We’re in the Ulot River, a 92-kilometer waterway which snakes east to west across Samar. The third largest island in the Philippines, Samar is rough country, hewn from limestone which over millennia formed some of the most dramatic rock formations and cave systems in the Philippines, such as the Langun-Gobingob Complex.

Revenge Tourism is a social phenomenon where people who have been stuck at home, often for months at a time, rush to tourist sites to appease their lockdown fatigue. With easing lockdown and flight restrictions, more and more tourist destinations are experiencing waves of visitors out to re-experience paradise – but what about the people who guide them? The people who themselves work in paradise? 

“I used to help cut and transport logs illegally,” reveals Epifanio ‘Panying’ Obidos, our boat guide. “For generations, we used traditional torpedo shaped canoes called balugo to transport timber. We would get orders to cut down hardwood trees like banuyonarra or kamagong. One balugo can transport over 100 board feet of wood.”

Samar is among the poorest provinces in the country. In 2015, the Philippine Statistics Authority revealed that 45% or nearly half of all families in Samar lived below the poverty line. “The hardest part was that even when we’d risk run-ins with the law by transporting illegally-cut timber, we’d still have barely enough cash to survive. Often we’d borrow money from financiers to buy gas and other provisions to transport the logs they ordered. Even after getting paid, we’d still be in debt,” recalls Panying. 

Things have steadily improved. Samar’s poverty incidence dropped to 30% by 2018, mostly because of small businesses, one of which is the Ulot River Torpedo Extreme Boat Adventure, where boats go bow-to-bow with raging rapids.

“In 2008, to veer away from illegal activities, we started using our torpedo-shaped balugo for tourism to showcase the natural beauty of Samar. We mostly employed locals who formerly worked as illegal loggers or log haulers,” explains Panying. “Back then we only had 12 people and a few old boats – but traversing rivers was a way of life for us, since we’ve been using it for transportation long before Samar’s road network was developed.” 

Each torpedo boat has a three-man crew, comprised of a boat operator, tour guide and a point man, who sits at the bow or front of a boat, deftly using a paddle or pole to keep rocks at bay.

“Now our once-small operation has over 20 boats and employs 70 local people,” beams Panying. In 2018, their group, Tour Guides and Boat Operators for River Protection and Environmental Development Organization (TORPEDO), was recognized by the Department of Tourism for its responsible, community-based operations.

The Ulot River is part of the Samar Island Natural Park (SINP), the country’s largest land-based Protected Area (PA). “The Philippines hosts 247 PAs and practically all of them give locals employment,” explains Department of Environment and Natural Resources Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB) director Natividad Bernardino. The stories of many of these PAs are similar to Panying’s – of loggers turned into tour guides, hunters turned into rangers, blast fishers transformed into dive guides.

“For all this to continue, there must be a steady stream of clients,” notes SINP superintendent Eires Mate. “The COVID-19 lockdowns hit the world’s PAs hard, generating all-time visitor revenue lows. Many people were laid off and operations were drastically scaled-down. With our parks again open for business, we invite adventurers to visit the Ulot River and our country’s other beautiful PAs.”

Launched in May of 2022, the Year of the Protected Areas or YOPA aims not just to educate people on the need to conserve PAs, but to encourage them to visit the sites themselves. YOPA hopes to generate funds from tourists to ensure continued management for areas hard-hit by COVID-19 budget cuts.

Declaring natural sites as PAs is among the best ways to protect natural capital. “The jobs generated by sustainable and ethical tourism activities act as economic and social safety nets for locals who might otherwise turn to illegal means to support their families,” says United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) resident representative Selva Ramachandran.

* * *

Back in the Ulot River, the going is wet and wild. Our balugo, which traveled easily downstream, is now battling against the current in what locals jokingly call the ‘Salmon Run’ – akin to the epic upriver journeys undertaken by salmon in colder climes. Chilly geysers of water splash into the boat as our engines go full-throttle.

Just as soon as we’re sopping wet, the river calms down, the ride turning tranquil. Like the turbulent COVID-19 era, raging waters and rough times too, shall pass.

I glance ahead and notice what’s written on one of the guides’ shirts: #MAYFORRIVER, a play on #MayForever, the hope that some things really can endure the test of time.

With illegal activities, nothing is certain – but with legal, safe and sustainable tourism, then there truly might be forever.

“You know, if not for ecotourism, I would most probably be dead,” reflects Panying as we quietly glide back to shore. “The authorities would have definitely caught me, like they caught others. I might have starved to death, been shot by the cops or been hauled off to jail.”

He looks up, just a bit teary-eyed.

“In a very real way, ecotourism saved my life.”

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Travel

5 Road ready tips to ride motorcycles safely and comfortably

As a rider, you are part of a global community and a steward of the open road. To keep your ride safe and comfortable, consider these additional tips.

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A warm day on the open road is a dream opportunity for riders, whether it’s a longer trip or a quick jaunt through town. Regardless of the adventure, and no matter what you ride, a thrilling ride is a safe ride.

Whether you’re new to the open road or a seasoned veteran, remember to follow best practices for safe riding like those outlined in the Responsible Rider program from BRP, makers of Can-Am 3-wheel vehicles. The program prioritizes being an attentive rider and always considering safety, the environment and riding etiquette from highways to city streets and everywhere in-between.

As a rider, you are part of a global community and a steward of the open road. To keep your ride safe and comfortable, consider these additional tips:

Wear the Right Gear

While your fashion statement is largely a matter of personal preference, there are some safety items designed to protect your health and well-being that should be worn. Protective riding gear helps keep you safe while enjoying the open road.

Full-hand gloves, riding boots that cover ankles, pants and jackets help protect against wind, sun, cold, heat and flying objects such as bugs or rocks. Drivers and passengers should also wear an approved helmet and eye protection to prevent injuries to the head, brain and eyes.

Choose a Proper Helmet

Every rider should wear a helmet, and the abundance of options available can make it tough to decide what’s best. Start by looking for a DOT Certification sticker, which means the helmet meets the strict safety standards of the Department of Transportation.

  • Full Face: This style of helmet provides protection for the head and neck with a fixed chin that helps absorb impact. Simply slip it on and adjust the visor.
  • Open Face: Helmets like the Can-Am N21 are usually worn with goggles or a small integrated shield. This option provides ultimate freedom on the road.
  • Crossover: These helmets are easy to personalize based on ride intensity and weather conditions. Crossover helmets can be configured in numerous ways by transforming from full face to jet, which keep it breezy with a full field of view.

Maintain Your Hairdo

Keep hair out of your face. If you have longer hair, choose a hairstyle that’s high and away from your eyes like a low bun, simple braid or ponytail. Secure hair at the nape of your neck and, when possible, wear a neck gaiter around the back of your head and across your nose to keep loose hairs secured. Bonus tip: Keep a compact brush on your ride so you can brush your hair upon arrival at your destination.

Prepare Appropriately for Riding Conditions

Weather is unpredictable, and you should be ready for whatever Mother Nature throws your way. Regardless of the forecast, always make a plan for unforeseen conditions like wind and rain. An easy way to stay prepared is to keep a small packable jacket on your ride so you’re never left without an extra layer.

Cooler conditions call for warm yet lightweight gear such as a base layer with additional light layers over the top like a jacket or thin vest. Hotter days require vented clothing that allows airflow to keep you cool and dry.

Consider Your Passenger’s Safety

The most important rule for packing a passenger is ensuring your bike has a specific seat intended for a second rider. Be aware of how the added weight can affect the handling and behavior of the vehicle.

Generally, riding with a passenger requires more gradual riding from acceleration and braking to steering. Instruct your passenger how you prefer him or her to ride with you to ensure the most enjoyment possible.

Find more responsible riding tips at can-am.brp.com.

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Destinations

5 Reasons to visit Mykonos this summer

Summer is here, and there’s no better place to stay than Kenshō Ornos on Greece’s iconic island of Mykonos.

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Photo by Jeet Dhanoa from Unsplash.com

Undoubtedly one of the most famous Greek islands, Mykonos is known for its stunning beaches, cosmopolitan vibe, and vibrant dining scene. Holidaymakers flock from all corners of the globe to soak up the Grecian sunshine and local gastronomy.

No trip to Mykonos is complete however, without a visit to Kenshō Ornos – the A-list favourite, award-winning boutique hotel, set on the beautiful Ornos Bay. Here are our five top reasons to visit the hotel:

1. Resident DJ and Weekly Music Events

Popular for its glamorous nightlife, superstar DJs and beautiful crowds, Mykonos is a true holiday destination. The fun starts at Kenshō Ornos, with a calendar of regular events sure to keep guests entertained. Throughout the season, different musicians and performances will be taking place at Kenshō Ornos, ranging from singers to DJ’s, dancers and more. Recent events include our resident DJ, DJ Angelosi playing Ethnic Electronic and Afro House music and Mediterranean ethnic music performances by Ghenwa Nemnom.

2. The Star-Lit Swimming Pool

One of the best places to take a dip in Mykonos, the Kenshō Ornos pool was designed to complement the hotel’s surrounding Ornos Bay. With majestic views of the Aegean Sea, lounging by the pool has never been more relaxing. The pool is the perfect Instagram spot, guaranteed to give everyone at home FOMO. At night, the turquoise swimming pool is illuminated with ‘starlights’ that light up the turquoise water for inviting evening swims. Guests can enjoy fresh towels, delicious cocktails and snackable lite bites whilst listening to chilled beats throughout the day.

3. Kenshō Ornos Restaurant, Home To Exquisite Fine Dining

Dining in Greece is an experience like no other. Think long leisurely meals with stunning views of the Aegean Sea and evenings filled with Greek mezze favourites and glasses of local wine. This summer, an exquisite dining experience awaits at Kenshō Ornos Restaurant. Award-winning Executive Chef Ippokratis Anagnostelis, has created a menu that takes traditional Cycladic cuisine and transforms it into modern gastronomy.

This season, the restaurant is launching the ‘Gastro Comfort Project,’ a special degustation menu of small individual plates with intense flavour. Highlights include Aegean red mullet, with bouillabaise espuma, Ossetra caviar and basil oil; Cycladic Cacio E Pepe, bavette cooked with lamb broth and dried anthotiro cheese and Orzo Langoustine, orzo with Aegean langoustines and lobster broth. The menu is available daily between 7-11PM, reservations can be made through the website here: here.

4. The One-of-a-Kind Cave Spa

This is the Mykonos for grown-ups. The ones who come to Mykonos to experience ultimate luxury and relaxation. This is the only Cave Spa on the island, transporting guests to a magical place to enjoy moments of rejuvenation.  The boutique hotel has won numerous awards for its spa, which includes two treatment rooms, a hammam bath, an indoor pool with hydromassage, a tropical rain bed, a hair salon, beauty centre and a gym. Visitors can choose between various treatments with packages on offer like The Sleep Therapy and The Lovers Spa Experience. Don’t forget to try the hi-tech sun beds with colour, sound and heat therapy!

5. The Unique Architecture and Design

Under the bright sun of Mykonos, Kenshō Ornos is a haven of beautiful design and architecture. The colour palette uses shades of white, natural wood and stone, respecting the values of Myconian architecture. Combining state-of-the-art technology and traditional design elements to create an impression of serenity and beauty. The hotel features iconic design pieces by well-known figures including Dedon, Mogg, Gessi and Kenneth Cobonpue. Guest rooms and suites are airy, light, individually styled and design with seclusion and privacy in mind.

6The Idyllic Location Above Ornos Bay

The hotel overlooks Ornos Bay, a beautiful part of the coast where the land curves inwards and traditional whitewashed Myconian architecture is dotted around the hillside. The Bay is paradise, with clear turquoise waters and white fine sands, yet only 2km drive away from the iconic town of Mykonos. Kenshō Ornos offers guests the best of both worlds; the accessibility to  popular cultural, nightlife and entertainment spots teamed with the serenity and tranquillity of the island’s quieter side of Ornos.

About Kenshō Mykonos

From the Zen tradition, Ken means “seeing” and Shō means “nature, essence”. Kenshō is often interpreted as “seeing one’s (true) nature”. Kenshō offers its guests a unique journey, creating memorable experiences of stay, relaxation, and rejuvenation. Inspired by the endless blue colours of the sky and the sea, Kenshō combines the high-quality services and goes beyond the standards, to provide a truly luxurious experience for each and every visitor. Kenshō Ornos is home to every luxury a guest could need including 35 individually styled rooms & suites, the only cave spa in Mykonos, the finest hospitality, state-of-the-art facilities and the ultimate Myconian experience.

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