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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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

Snakes and alcohol don’t mix

I recently wrote a review of the world’s first bar dedicated to baijiu, a traditional Chinese rice liquor. Capital Spirits opened in August in Beijing, and offers more than 40 different varieties of baijiu.

Baijiu, which literally translates into “white liquor,” has been made in China for more than 5,000 years. The drink is generally 40 to 60 percent alcohol by volume, and its taste has been compared to bathroom cleaner and cheap perfume. Continue reading

When in China, beware of man-eating manholes

A friend of mine who moved to Beijing a couple of years ago told me that his mom warned him to be wary when walking near manholes in the city. She had read a story about a man in China who fell into an uncovered manhole at night and was found dead a few days later.

A mom's worst nightmare.

A mom’s worst nightmare.

As a mom, she was, naturally, worried that this was part of a larger problem, and that road work sites in China were more dangerous than ones in the US.

As silly as it seemed, her concern stuck with me, and whenever I bike in Beijing I always glance at manholes before speeding over them. Today, I biked past a road work site and saw this …

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Apparently, the construction crew ran out of cones and had to get creative. It doesn’t look safe, but I guess it might keep you from falling in.

Cupping therapy: no pain and no noticeable gain

During the hottest part of summer, temperatures in Beijing regularly soar above 95 F (35 C). To cope with the heat, women shed pants and long-sleeved shirts for tank tops and skirts, while the less fashion-conscious men simply roll up their shirts, exposing their midriff, however rotund.

The Beijing summer look for men that never goes out of style.

The summer look for men in Beijing that never goes out of style.

A few summers ago, one of the these bare-bellied men walked past me on the street. As I turned to look at him, I noticed a series of purple and pink bruises on his back, each about the size of a baseball. At first glance, it looked like he had been the victim of a brutal assault. But each of the bruises was the same size, and perfectly circular.

I told one of my friends what I had seen, and she said the bruises were from cupping, a form of traditional Chinese medicine commonly used in Asia and the Middle East. In China, cupping is known as baguan, and is used to alleviate everything from headaches to back pain. Continue reading

Red duck district

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My favorite roast duck restaurant in Beijing, Liqun, is a bit tricky to find if you’re a first-time visitor. It’s located in a hutong, or alleyway, and the neighborhood isn’t particularly well-lit at night.

Fortunately, someone came up with the ingenious idea of drawing a series of ducks on the side of a building nearby. So once you get close, all you have do is — literally — “follow the ducks” … and then eat them, of course.

Worst translation ever?

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I’ve lived in China for almost four years, so I’m used to seeing bad translations, more commonly known as Chinglish. But this one, in downtown Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, stopped me in my tracks. It’s a store selling makeup products called, simply: Slavery.

(In Chinese, the store is called Xiao Xian Nu, or 小仙奴. I have no idea what they intended to mean.)

Miracle on Qinghai Street

I’m in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, for the Chinese Labor Day holiday, and all I wanted yesterday after trekking around the city on foot for eight-plus hours was a hot shower.

When I got back to my hostel, I set my cell phone on the bathroom sink, so I could charge it and listen to a podcast while I freshened up. A few minutes later, much to my horror, I heard a “plopping” sound. A smartphone owner’s worst nightmare had come true. Continue reading

As the ankle turns

I sprained my left ankle over the weekend. I wish I had a good story to go with it — that it happened as I pushed a child out of the path of a moving bus, or dove to catch a 500-year-old Ming Dynasty vase that was falling from a shelf.

The truth is I injured it while walking out of a video game-themed bar. It was dark. I had been drinking (a little). I was angry, after inexcusably losing a few games of Connect Four, and worst of all, not paying attention.

I missed a step and heard a crunching sound. Within a half hour, my ankle had swollen to the size of a baseball. Since then I’ve been on a steady diet of Advil, and tomorrow I’ll go to a hospital to have my foot X-rayed.

That I would injure myself while living in Beijing is not surprising. This city is full of broken-legs-waiting-to-happen for the inattentive. Pedestrians locked into their cellphones ignore bikers when crossing the street (I’ve dodged, and cursed at, more than a few). Motorists routinely drive within inches of bikers and pedestrians to get them to speed up (That might be OK in Grand Theft Auto, but not in real life).

Beijing's mean streets aren't for the timid.

Beijing’s bustling streets aren’t for the timid.

Many old homes in Beijing have an elevated doorstep, which — according to traditional belief — helps keeps the evil spirits out (Never really understood how this one worked, unless evil spirits are 6 inches tall).

Beijing subway, where pushing is never optional.

Beijing subway, where pushing is never optional.

Underground, cleaning crews at the subway station in my neighborhood have an odd habit of mopping the floors around rush hour, as if they have a sinister streak and are trying to invite disaster. Getting on and off the trains can be dicey during peak times, as pushing and shoving are the preferred means of getting through a crowd (Even old ladies can be vicious).

A couple of years ago, I hiked an unrestored section of the Great Wall. The stairs were crumbling in many areas, and it was easy to trip if you didn’t watch where you were going. How horrible would it be to turn an ankle out here and then have to hobble back to civilization, I thought.

At least it would have been a good story.

The Great Wall, where if you're not careful the next step could be your last.

The Great Wall, where if you’re not careful, the next step could be your last.