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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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.

Lady in red

Trees in bloom at the Yuan Dynasty City Wall Park.

Spring is a popular time for photo shoots at the Yuan Dynasty City Wall Park in Beijing. The trees are in full bloom, and when the wind blows, white and pink petals float down on the heads of passers-by. On blue sky days, engaged couples flock to the park in their suits and white gowns to have their pictures taken.

I passed this young woman on a recent afternoon, dressed in a traditionally inspired red gown for a photo shoot. Walking in that dress without any help has to be difficult.

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Postcards from Chengdu 

A statue of Chairman Mao Zedong looks over Tianfu Square, in the center of Chengdu.

A statue of Chairman Mao Zedong looks over Tianfu Square, in the center of Chengdu.

Chendgu is the provincial capital of Sichuan province, which is known for its spicy food.

Chendgu is the provincial capital of Sichuan province, which is known throughout the world for its spicy food.

Chengdu is well know for its street food. Here, a vendor sells snacks at a restaurant on Jinli Pedestrian Street, a popular tourist site.

A vendor sells snacks at a restaurant on Jinli Pedestrian Street, a popular tourist area.

The entrance to a temple fair, held to celebrate Chinese New Year.  2015 is the Year of the Sheep.

The entrance to a temple fair, held to celebrate Chinese New Year. 2015 is the Year of the Sheep.

Vendors from western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region sell lamb skewers at the temple fair.

Vendors from western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region sell lamb skewers at the temple fair.

The city at night. With 14 million people, Chengdu is the largest city in Sichuan province.

With 14 million people, Chengdu is the largest city in Sichuan province.

The panda is the national animal of China, and there’s no shortage of shops in Chengdu selling stuffed toys, T-shirts and coffee mugs featuring the animal.

Let’s (hopefully) get it on!

It’s a chilly weekday afternoon at the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Base, but a huge crowd is gathered around a large enclosure to get a closer look at China’s national animal. There are signs posted throughout the base asking visitors to be quiet around the creatures, yet the throngs of children perched atop their parents’ shoulders are repeatedly shouting “xiong mao,” the Chinese word for panda.

Pandaheads watching the real thing.

The animals seem to be playing to the crowd as they chomp on bamboo shoots. They crack the long sticks with their mouths, as if they were toothpicks, while onlookers record their every bite with camera phones. Visitors are packed so tightly around the enclosure that a security officer stands on a chair and yells for everyone to move along. It’s not exactly an intimate environment for an animal that has so much trouble getting, well, intimate.

Must … keep … eating … bamboo.

There are many factors that make it difficult for pandas to breed, not the least of which is that females are only fertile for 24 to 36 hours every year. For male pandas averse to responsibility, it’s a dream come true. But for advocates of the endangered animal who want to ensure its survival, it’s a major roadblock to growing their numbers. There are an estimated 1,600 pandas in the wild, all found in China. The Chengdu breeding base was established in 1987 to further the Chengdu Zoo’s conservation efforts. The base is a huge, beautiful facility; even the “quick” tour suggested on a sign near the entrance takes a couple of hours. I went in the afternoon, when most of the pandas were sleeping — they’re most active in the morning. There are images and symbols of the animal at every turn: panda paw prints guide you from one exhibition to the next; stuffed pandas hang from trees smiling down at you; even in the bathroom, there’s a picture at the urinal of a panda giving a thumbs up and asking guests to “Please Aim Carefully.”

Good advice, panda.

Here, there’s no such thing as overkill when it comes to promoting the endangered species. And, when it comes to motivating the animals to get busy, there’s no method that’s too bizarre. In 2006, officials at a zoo in Thailand prepared a DVD of pandas having intercourse to show Chuang Chuang and Lin Hu, a couple that was having difficulty mating, in hopes that it would get the animals in the mood. In another case, a male panda named “Strong Strong” was given a dose of the male enhancement drug Viagra. Sadly, the BBC reported, he “did not live up to his name.” In the animal kingdom, sometimes it’s “Survival of the Horniest” — not the fittest — that determines the fate of a species.

China’s block party

One day last year, during a bout of homesickness, I tried to log onto kentucky.com to catch up on news from my home state in the U.S. Kentucky.com is the website for one of the state’s flagship papers, the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The page wouldn’t load. I assumed it was a connection error, so I checked my modem and refreshed the page. Still, it wouldn’t load. I knew that websites like Facebook, Twitter and Google were blocked in China, but the Lexington Herald-Leader? What does the Chinese government have against bourbon and college basketball?

I emailed a friend who works at the Herald-Leader, which is owned by The McClatchy Company, and he said it was possible that all of the company’s newspaper websites were blocked. The Herald-Leader had also recently published a story on the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese government considers to be a violent separatist, after he visited the state, so that could be the reason, he added.

To access the newspaper’s website, I had to use a virtual private network, or VPN, which allows Internet users in China to get around the “Great Firewall.” VPNs are illegal in China but have largely been tolerated until recently, when government interference made them harder to use.

A senior official with China’s Ministry of Information and Technology told local media last week that the crackdown on VPNs was a move to foster the “healthy development” of the country’s Internet.

If the last few years are any judge, “healthy development” means more censorship. Among the major news sites that have been blocked are the New York Times and Wall Street Journal (both published stories on the wealth of Communist party members and their families before the plug was pulled).

Instagram joined the long listed of social media sites banned on the mainland after the protests  in Hong Kong last fall. Google, which has long been at odds with the Chinese government, is no longer accessible, and Internet users can’t log into its email service, Gmail, without a VPN.

The ramped up censorship comes at a time when nearly 700,000 Chinese are studying abroad. Most (30 percent) attend college in the U.S., where they inevitably use Facebook to build their social networks and Google to research for coursework. It’s conceivable that, in a few years, these internationally savvy students will return home and connect to a Chinese Internet that is more closed off to the world than the one they left.

Despite the uptick in online censorship, not every website that gets the ax goes dark forever. The popular movie site IMDB (Internet Movie Database), which was blocked in 2010 after its homepage featured a preview of a documentary about the Free Tibet movement, was unblocked in 2013.

Earlier this week, while using the Internet without a VPN, I discovered another site that had been unblocked: kentucky.com.

I guess the Chinese government likes bourbon and college basketball after all.

Postcards from Panglao Island

The resort I stayed at, Amorita, has a beautiful infinity pool overlooking Bohol Sea.

Bohol province is one of the Philippines’ top tourist destinations. The resort I stayed at during my visit, Amorita, is located on Panglao Island and has an infinity pool overlooking Bohol Sea.

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The peak tourism season in Bohol is from March to May.

Fishing is one of the top industries in Bohol province.

Fishing is one of the main industries in the province.

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Alona Beach has become very commercialized and is full of restaurants and bars.

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On a clear day, you can see Cebu province off in the horizon. Traveling by ferry from Bohol to Cebu takes about two hours.

Behold Bohol’s otherworldly Chocolate Hills

One of the more unique landscapes in the Philippines can be found in Bohol province, home of the Chocolate Hills.

The hills, which range in height from 40 to 120 meters, jut out of the ground like camel humps. Scientists say they were formed by the “uplifting of ancient coral-reef deposits, followed by erosion and weathering,” according to Lonely Planet.

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This phenomenon can only be found in two or three other places in the world (one of those places being the island of Java, in Indonesia). Continue reading

Roast Duck Dynasty

Beijingers love their roast duck. It’s a dish that’s synonymous with the capital and has been served since imperial times.

There’s even a museum dedicated to Peking roast duck (北京鸭子), which walks visitors through its origins and, more interestingly, shows step-by-step how the animal goes from the farm to your dinner plate. The museum is located on the seventh floor of Quanjude (全聚德), one of Beijing’s most popular roast duck restaurants.

First, we see the ducks sunning under radiant blue skies, enjoying their last moments of freedom.

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Now in captivity, the ducks are fed to fatten them up, so they can later return the favor and fatten you up.

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Stubborn ducks that skip meals will not be tolerated.

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Once they’re nice and plump, things get serious and out comes the knife. Continue reading

Balancing baby: cute or cruel?

My grandfather Ed liked to balance babies — usually one of his grandchildren — on one hand. He’d hoist them within inches of a deer head mounted in his living room and chuckle, while they either gazed in curiosity or turned and whimpered at the sight of the animal’s antlers.

The Chinese man in the video below takes the balancing baby act to a whole new level, twisting and twirling the boy (who I assume to be his son) over his head and through his legs, much to the child’s delight. Continue reading