Unplugging, setting sea turtles free at Arena Island

Within a year or two, the loan on my Toyota Camry will finally be paid off, and I’ll own the car. I hope to one day own a home, and — if all goes well — maybe even a boat.

Owning an island? That’s probably not in the cards for me, but businessman Fuji Rodriguez has done just that. Fuji is the owner of Arena Island, a 10-acre plot of land located off the eastern coast of the Philippine province of Palawan.

The island resort features four cottages that are purposely low-tech and not equipped with Wi-Fi or TVs. The point of visiting Arena Island, Fuji said over dinner, is to truly unplug and recharge your body.

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The sun rises over Arena Island.

Arena Island offers guests privacy

With only four cottages, the island is perfect for vacationers seeking privacy and exclusivity.

I spent two nights at the private island, and with few distractions it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of this (mostly) untouched tropical landscape.

In addition to renting out the cottages, Fuji is developing the island as a nature preserve. While Arena Island is home to a number of roosters, peacocks and other birds, the highlight are its sea turtles.

To help boost the endangered animal’s numbers, some of the turtles laid and hatched on the island are kept in ponds until they are 4 weeks old. At that point, they are set free.

Since 2003, more than 12,000 hatchlings of the green and hawksbill sea turtle species have been released from Arena Island.

On the last day of my stay, I participated in a mid-morning hatchling release. Our group carefully plucked a few turtles from the pond for 4-week-olds, and walked toward the edge of the sea.

The turtle I picked out easily fit into the palm of my hand and weighed no more than a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin.

Once we got the OK from island staff, we lowered the turtles to the sand and watched nature take its course. The turtles scooted into the water using their tiny flippers and began swimming away from the shore.

This baby sea turtle was around 4 weeks old when it was released into the sea.

Seen here are tracks from a sea turtle that came to shore to lay eggs.

These preservation efforts are necessary because of threats from illegal poaching and destruction of habitats. “The greatest cause of decline in green turtle populations is commercial harvest for eggs and meat,” reads a sign on the island.

Proceeds from cottage rentals are used to fund the sea turtle conservation program, making Arena Island an ideal getaway for those looking to help an endangered species and — at the same time — unplug from the modern world.

The island is home to a number of birds, including this peacock.

Casita Dos, one of the four cottages on Arena Island, at sunset.

A view of Arena Island from the sea. The resort is located off the eastern coast of the Philippine province of Palawan.

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Mike: I hope you saw my message

When I moved to Beijing in the summer of 2010, one of the first people to show me around my new home was a native Texan named Mike Peters.

Mike had helped me get a job at an English-language newspaper where he worked, and by the time I arrived it felt like we were already friends. We shared a small office on the second floor of the China Daily building, where we edited international news for the paper. It was my first editing job, and so I depended a lot on Mike for feedback on headlines and story selection.

Any other person probably would have grown impatient with me, but Mike was always willing to help … and honest when he didn’t agree with a choice I made.

Over the next few years, Mike and I would become good friends. After finishing a late shift at work, we’d often grab beers at a nearby restaurant and chat for hours about life and politics in one of the world’s biggest cities.

When my mother and brother visited Beijing, Mike helped organize a roast lamb dinner with other colleagues so they could meet some of the people we worked with. Anytime I had guests, Mike always met them and, after a cheap beer or two, treated them like old friends.

And, if Mike was reading this, he would probably say: “Jimmy, you’re burying the lede.”

Mike died Wednesday of pancreatic cancer. He was 62.

I found out about his illness in early July. A mutual friend sent me the news in a text: “Devastating news. Mikey Peters has terminal cancer.”

He said the doctor told him he had three to six months to live.

I hesitated to reach out to Mike. What do you say to a person who has terminal cancer?

(“How are you feeling?” Well, awful. Haven’t you heard. I’m dying.)

Everything I thought about saying just seemed disingenuous.

Then, on Aug. 2, Mike sent me a photo from his hospital bed. He was surrounded by smiling coworkers. He looked weak and pale, but still managed to crack a smile.

We exchanged a few messages, and he told me how everyone at the office was preparing food for him. “Only eating hospital food half of the time.”

You are a celebrity my man, I told him.

“Haha,” he responded.

The day before Mike died, I wrote him another message:

“Hey Mike. I just wanted to let you know that I will forever be grateful for the way you welcomed me to Beijing and taught me that Taiwan was indeed a part of China. I was pretty green when I showed up and you made that transition a lot easier. I love you man, and I know a lot of other people do, hence the outpouring of support. I hope you can feel that.”

A few hours after I sent the message, a friend texted me and said Mike had suffered some complications from the cancer and might not make it through the night. He died the next day.

Given the timing, I doubt Mike read the last message I wrote to him. But, judging by all of the people who reached out to him after the cancer diagnosis and donated money toward his medical expenses, I know he felt the support.

Winding between skyscrapers in the Windy City

After a whirlwind of a first day in Chicago, my wife and I were looking for a relaxing way to spend our second night in the Windy City.

By happenstance, we passed a Chicago Architecture Foundation store on Michigan Avenue and decided to pop in. The foundation offers various tours of the city, and after some back-and-forth we settled on the River Cruise.

As far as spontaneous decisions go, it was one of the best I've ever made. The cruise was worth every bit of the $46 price of admission.

The hour-and-a-half journey on the Chicago River takes you past many of the skyscrapers that shape the city's skyline. Our guide explained the history behind the buildings and the architects who designed them.

We went on a day when there wasn't a cloud in the sky, so at some points I struggled to make out the finer points of the buildings while not damaging my eyesight in the sun's rays.

All in all, though, it was a great journey, and one I highly recommend to anyone visiting Chicago.

Why I bought bear spray, and maybe you shouldn’t 

If you google “things you need to know before visiting Glacier National Park,” the first link that appears includes a reminder that you’re in grizzly bear country.  

Entering the park, the signs are everywhere: “Bear Country: All Wildlife Is Dangerous Do Not Approach Or Feed.” 

My wife and I were on the fence about buying bear spray, but talked ourselves into it after overhearing a conversation a forest ranger had with a local convenience store owner. 

Store owner: Busy lately? 

Ranger: Actually, yes. We’ve had quite a few bear sightings. I always tell people to carry bear spray. You pay for life insurance, and this is a form of insurance. 

Store owner: I’ve been hiking this area for 30 years and always carry it with me.     

So, we bought a can. I shopped around a bit and found one for $45, which seemed like a bargain given the prices of “higher-end” options. It came with a holster that I could fasten to my jeans, making the can, in theory, easily accessible at a moment’s notice. 

Signs all around Glacier National Park warn visitors that they are entering bear country.


 

A pun-laden manual that came with the spray — “Bear Safety Tips: Bear in Mind the Information — recommended testing it before hiking. 

“Test fire downward,” the manual states. “Outside pointed safely away. Contents may travel and/or linger longer than expected. Using a quick half-second burst will increase safety and confidence with this product.” 

A footnote in the manual explained that exposing your eyes to the spray could cause “irreversible damage.” 

Given that the odds of me accidentally spraying into the wind and subsequently blinding myself were much greater than getting attacked by an actual bear, I skipped the practice test. 

Instead, in an empty parking lot, I practiced pulling the can from the holster and firing at an imaginary beast until I got comfortable with the maneuver. 

I did some shopping around, but ultimately settled on this bear spray.

And so, spray can in tow, we went into the wilderness. We didn’t encounter any bears on that hike … or any other in the park. That’s the norm, of course, as sighting are rare and attacks even rarer.

I know it’s a “form of insurance,” as the ranger put it, but I couldn’t help but think I had wasted my money. If a bear charges you in the wild, the spray might not even help. The bear spray manual clearly states that more than once.

(“Although nothing is 100 percent guaranteed effective,” the manual says, “here are some tips that might prove to be useful in an encounter.)

Here’s a tip that might prove useful when considering whether to buy bear spray: if you’re not comfortable practicing because you’re afraid you might shoot yourself in the face, take your chances in bear country without it.    

The glory of Glacier National Park

Hiking through the wilderness wonderland that is Glacier National Park, I couldn’t help but think of the conservationists who had the foresight to preserve these lands. 

After President Teddy Roosevelt helped establish national parks in the Dakotas, Oregon, Colorado and California in the 1900s, an explorer named George Bird Grinnell pushed the federal government to add Glacier to the list. 

In 1910, Roosevelt’s successor, President William Howard Taft, signed a bill that did just that, making Glacier the country’s 10th national park. That action preserved over a million acres of forest, lakes, rivers and glaciers that visitors still enjoy today.

I didn’t come face-to-face with any glaciers; the roads and trails that led to them were still closed because of a late spring snowfall. 

But I did see a moose taking an afternoon dip in a lake; mountain goats holding up traffic as they scurried about a rural road; and, thousands of feet above me, streams of water racing down cliffs glistening in the sunlight. 

There are several lookout points along Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile route that spans the width of the park between the west and east entrances.

For the most part, I didn’t have a cellphone signal in these areas. My instant gratification consisted of new discoveries around each corner, whether it was bugs splatting onto my windshield, or a snow-capped mountain stretching into the sky. 

That was part of the thrill: Seeing unspoiled nature and animals in their environment, as Roosevelt and Grinnell would have witnessed it over a century ago.

Glacier National Park was established in 1910.

The park is home to more than 700 miles of hiking trails.

When I visited the park earlier this month, many of the roads were still closed because of snow and ice.

Glacier National Park has many options for lodging, from campsites to high-end hotels.

A man fishes in a river near the St. Mary Falls trail.


The park has more than 200 waterfalls.

Postcards from Custer State Park 

Buffalo graze at Custer State Park. The park is home to more than 1,300 buffalo.

The donkeys in the park often approach vehicles passing through Wildlife Loop Road. They seem to expect handouts, so have a snack ready if you roll down your window.

Before the arrival of European settlers, millions of buffalo migrated through the Great Plains. They were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1890s. Today, there are more than 200,000 in North America.

War Games on the Prairie 

From 1963 to 1993, soldiers went underground every day in remote locations around the U.S. not knowing whether this would be the day they would start a nuclear war. 

It was a peacekeeping mission, according to the military. Thousands of miles away, in the Soviet Union, missiles with the same capability of destruction were aimed at cities throughout the U.S.

In many ways, it was the 20th century’s most dangerous game of chess: a constant build-up of weaponry, with each side determined to keep up with the other. A miscalculation on either side could have started the next world war.

These tensions began in the years following World War II, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. My mother, who was just an elementary student at the time, recalls participating in drills at school in which students crouched under desks to increase their chances of survival during a nuclear attack.

Years later, in the 1980s, I went through similar drills at school, but it was to protect students against falling debris in the event of a tornado or earthquake.

To me, outside of a muscle-bound boxer that gave Rocky Balboa all he could handle, the Soviet Union didn’t seem like much of a threat. It was a just a place that got very, very cold in the winter.

In 1991, after negotiations between the two governments, the U.S. and Russia signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to reduce and limit their nuclear weapons.

Missile launch control facilities throughout the Great Plains closed, including one in Philip, S.D., about 70 miles east of Rapid City where I live. It was turned into a museum and is now owned by the National Parks Service. For $6, a park ranger will give you a tour of Launch Control Facility Delta-01 Compound.

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The entrance to Launch Control Facility Delta-01 Compound in Philip, S.D.


Our tour guide, a young man named Ted, met my wife and me at the entrance of the compound, which is still protected by a chain-link fence. Everything was just like the military left it in 1993 when the site closed, down to the typewriters and faded issues of Time Magazine.
We walked past the officer’s sleeping quarters and into a factory-like cage elevator. Ted bolted the door twice — multiple layers of security are commonplace throughout the facility — and we were lowered into a bunker, fortified by concrete thick enough to withstand a nuclear attack.

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The entrance to the bunker.

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Two officers stayed in this room 24 hours a day between 1963 and 1993.

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In the event of an attack, the red box would have been unlocked, allowing officers to fire missiles at the Soviet Union.

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The door to this silo would have blasted off, allowing the missile to fire.

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Until the 1990s, the silo contained a fully operational Minuteman Missile.

In the middle of the room, there’s a red box on the wall that reads: ENTRY RESTRICTED TO MCC DUTY. It’s secured by two Master Locks. In the event of an attack, Ted said, two Air Force officers would have opened it simultaneously to launch missiles at targets in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China. 

As the tour came to a close, Ted told us about the handful of times that a miscalculation almost led to war or, using his preferred term, “mutual destruction.” Both sides experienced radar failures during the Cold War that made it appear as if they were under attack, but chose not to fire because they couldn’t be certain.

It was only through extreme restraint, Ted says, that “mutual destruction” was avoided.

How Donald Trump made my vacation spot an international story

As the results came in on election night and it became increasingly likely that Donald Trump would become the next president of the United States, a few friends who knew I was out of the country jokingly asked whether I was coming back.

I was in Taiwan, a place that — unlike the Chinese mainland — had received little if any attention during the 2016 race. What a difference a few weeks make.

Last week Trump and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen spoke on the phone, breaking four decades of diplomatic protocol and setting off a firestorm with China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province. Washington broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, and since then no U.S. president has spoken directly to his Taiwanese counterpart.

Policy experts and China watchers are still debating whether Trump was unaware the call could cause a crisis or did it intentionally, as a way of sending a message to Beijing that the U.S. president can talk to any world leader, whenever he wants.

With U.S.-Taiwan relations in the spotlight, I thought I’d share something I picked up as a souvenir. The day after the election, I bought a couple of local newspapers in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to see how they covered the election.

The Apple Daily, the second-largest paper in Tawain, published a special section on the results, in addition to several more pages on Clinton, the protests that followed, and a racy image from Melania Trump’s modeling days.

Taipei 101: A skyscraper with style

Taipei 101. To those unfamiliar with Taiwan’s tallest skyscraper, it might sound like a stiff drink served at an Asian bar. But, for a five-year period from the time it opened in 2004 to the completion of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in 2009, it was the tallest building in the world.

With a design that pays homage to Chinese traditions, Taipei 101 is one of the more impressive skyscrapers I’ve seen. Its repeated segments are said to invoke a large stalk of bamboo, the plant of choice for China’s beloved Giant Pandas.

There are eight segments in the main tower, each with eight floors. This was, of course, by design as the number eight in Chinese culture is associated with good fortune and abundance.

This design is best observed from a few blocks away; or at night, when the skyscraper lights up the skies of Taiwan’s largest city.

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Taipei 101, as seen from street level.

When Taipei 101 opened in 2004, it was the tallest building in the world.

The view from an indoor observation deck on the 88th and 89th floors provides a different perspective: a 360-degree view of the city.

After paying a US$19 admission fee, I entered a crowded elevator on the fifth floor that takes visitors to the observation deck. My ears popped as we shot hundreds of feet up the tower, arriving at our destination in what seemed like only a few seconds.

The deck is enclosed, but that didn’t stop me from getting weak in the knees when I pressed my face up against the glass, the only thing separating me and the hordes of selfie-seeking tourists from imminent death.

The view from the observation deck on the 88th floor.


After snapping several photos and checking out the gift store for mementos to bring home, I got in line for the elevator that takes visitors back down to the fifth floor. It was several hundred people deep and — still jet lagged from the travel — I was in no mood to wait.

Forty-five minutes later, I was finally back at ground level, glad I had made the trip but in the mood for a different kind of Taipei 101 — the alcoholic version.

As Mount Rushmore turns 75, Crazy Horse memorial still far from complete

One of the world’s most recognizable stone monuments is practically in my backyard. Twenty-three miles southeast of Rapid City lies Mount Rushmore, a national memorial to four of the nation’s presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

They are arguably four of the country’s most important presidents. Washington led the successful war effort against the British that gave the United States independence and later served as the nation’s first president. Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and advocated for religious freedom and tolerance. Lincoln guided the Union through some of its darkest and bloodiest days during the Civil War, when the country’s north and south states were anything but united. Roosevelt’s greatest legacy may be the efforts he undertook to protect wildlife and public lands by establishing the United States Forest Service.

These men laid the foundation for the prosperity Americans enjoy today. But for the Native people of this land, that prosperity meant an end to their way of life. Their territory became smaller and smaller, until they were forced to live on reservations established by the government through treaties that were often unfair. The American bison, which many tribes depended on for food, tools and shelter, was nearly hunted to extinction.

There was resistance among Indian nations to U.S. military efforts to expand westward, but as the soldiers’ firearms became more accurate and lethal the battles became more one-sided.

One of those resistors was an Oglala Sioux Chief, Crazy Horse, who defeated George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry in June 1876 at the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana Territory. More than 250 members of the Seventh Calvary were killed in the battle, including Custer.

Following the battle, the military hunted down Crazy Horse, and less than a year later he surrended in Nebraska and was taken to Fort Robinson, where he died after being stabbed during a scuffle with soldiers.

Today, Crazy Horse is memorialized on a stone mountain, just 16 miles west of Mount Rushmore. While the memorial to the presidents was carved in just 14 years, the Crazy Horse memorial, started in 1947, remains a work in progress.

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Korczak Ziolkowski began working on the Crazy Horse Memorial in 1947.

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The head alone is 87-feet tall.

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Once it’s finished, the memorial will become the largest sculpture in the world.

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Signs near the memorial warn visitors to listen for blasting signals. 

His face is complete, but Crazy Horse’s arm (263 feet wide) and his horse’s head (219 feet tall) have yet to take shape. White paint on the mountainside outlines the spots where construction crews will blast away rock to carve the horse’s head.

Perhaps the main reason the project has taken so long is, unlike Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse memorial has received no federal funding and instead relies on donations and revenue from admissions.

I was able to get an up-close look at the memorial last weekend during the biannual Volksmarch, a spring/fall hike that takes visitors more than 6,000 feet above sea level to Crazy Horse’s 87-foot-tall head. It’s one of only two times a year that the public is allowed to hike up to the head.

When viewed from a few feet away, its size is staggering. The chin alone is the size of a basketball goal.

Once it’s finished, the memorial will become the largest sculpture in the world, taller than the presidents’ faces at Mount Rushmore.

But the timetable for completion remains unclear.

Korczak Ziolkowski, who started the sculpture, died in 1982. His wife, Ruth Carolyn Ziolkowski, took over management of construction efforts. Under her watch the memorial became one of the top tourist draws in South Dakota, attracting more than 1 million visitors a year.

Ruth died in 2014, and today her grandchildren and children continue the work that her husband started almost 70 years ago.

In a 2012 interview with the New York Times, Heidi Ziolkowski, one of the couple’s two dozen grandchildren, said she wonders whether she’ll live long enough to see the project finished.

The final work on the Mount Rushmore National Memorial was completed on Oct. 31, 1941, and throughout this year there have been several events to celerate its 75th anniversary.

If you believe Heidi Ziolkowski, who was 24 at the time she was interviewed, it could be half a century or more before the Crazy Horse Memorial celebrates its first.