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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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.

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.

The Queen of Beers

If Budweiser is the King of Beers, then Hello Kitty is definitely the Queen of Beers.

Available in six tropical flavors — including passion fruit, lemon lime and banana – Hello Kitty Beer is sure to sap whatever manliness you possess with just one sip. The beer was introduced in Taiwan and is now available on the Chinese mainland.

According to ABC News, the beverage is marketed toward adult fans of the cartoon cat (wink, wink; take a look at the can and judge for yourself). Continue reading

Fragrance of fitness vs. KFC’s 11 herbs and spices

Over the weekend, I hiked to the top of a mountain at Fragrant Hills Park, an imperial garden in northwest Beijing. The park is well-known for its Smoke Tree leaves, which turn red in late autumn, attracting thousands of tourists.

I reached the peak – 557 meters above ground – in an hour and a half, and after I climbed the final set of stairs I turned around to take in a view of the city. Just as I pulled out my cellphone to take a picture, an old man using a walking stick passed me. He was hiking barefoot and shirtless, and moving at a brisk pace. He must have been at least 60 and was fit too, especially for his age.

The man who passed me at the top of the mountain.

I wouldn’t want to challenge this guy to a race.

While I stood in the shade to collect my breath and give my burning legs a rest, the man kept going, passing a large rock formation and an ancient temple, until I could no longer see him. Continue reading

Walk on the wild side

If you ever visit the Great Wall, go wild. As in wild, unrestored sections of the wall.

They’re a lot less likely to be crowded and reaching them can be an adventure in itself. Last May, a friend and I hired a driver to take us from downtown Beijing to Jiankou, a section of the wall on the outskirts of Beijing built in the 1300s.

Our driver didn’t speak much English, and my Chinese was pretty bad at the time. I knew we were going to be in for an adventure when our driver, who was already talking on one cell phone, took a call on a second and used his knees to steer the taxi through heavy traffic. Continue reading

White male seeking red roses

Finding a flower shop had never been so hard. Then again, this was the first time I’d tried to do it on an island in China.

It was Valentine’s Day, which unfortunately also happens to be my girlfriend’s birthday. I say unfortunate because the stakes are twice as high. Choose a lame gift or a less-than-spectacular restaurant and the consequences are exponentially bad.

We were visiting Gulangyu, a small island off the coast of Xiamen in the southeastern province of Fujian. Gulangyu became a treaty port after the First Opium War (1839-42), and 13 countries — including the US, Spain and Japan — established consulates, churches and businesses. Continue reading

Now I’m a non-Belieber

Dear Justin,

I really tried to be a “Belieber.” Not that I was ever into your music or dance moves (OK, I downloaded “Baby” – albeit, illegally – but only because it’s upbeat, and I’m running out of songs to jog to).

The reason I wanted to believe in you was that my 11-year-old niece is a big fan of yours. And in this day and age, kids need good role models, some more than others. Continue reading

The heart of Ox Street

Many of China’s temples and churches were wrecked during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when communist leaders encouraged young students and workers to destroy symbols of “old China.”

Fortunately for preservationists, Beijing’s Niujie Mosque survived. The mosque was built in 996, during the Liao Dynasty (907-1125), and is the oldest temple in the capital. It’s even older than the Forbidden City imperial palace, which began construction in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Continue reading

There’s no space like home

One of the things I miss most about living in a small town is the space: the ability to stretch out my arms without hitting another person or walk for miles without seeing anyone.

It’s a luxury you lose in a city like Beijing, where even the widest streets sometimes feel every bit as cramped as the smallest alleys. The crowds are difficult to avoid, whether you’re riding the subway in the middle of the day or going to the bank on a Saturday. The feeling of constantly cramming into lines and bumping elbows with strangers can become overwhelming.

When I need a break from the crowds, I often head into one of Beijing’s 300 parks. For a city hell-bent on growth and economic development, Beijing has a surprising amount of space committed to leisure and recreation.

The largest is Chaoyang Park. At 713 acres, it is is comparable in size to New York’s Central Park. It’s home to a very unsafe-looking roller coaster (the only thing holding the safety harness down was a seat belt that looked like it had been pulled from a junked car), volleyball courts that were used during the 2008 Olympic games and restrooms that resemble a giant ladybug.

It’s easy to get lost, as I managed to do last summer when I rented a tandem bike with my girlfriend and made the fatal error of letting her lead the way. When we came to the conclusion that neither of us had any idea where we were going, I picked a direction and peddled like a madman to get us back to the rental office before it closed. Despite giving it my all we arrived a few minutes late and had to forfeit the deposit for the bike. Continue reading