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.

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.    

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.

To Grandpa with love, in real time

When my Dad died in 1989, I didn’t find out about it until hours after the fact. It happened suddenly — he suffered an abdominal aneurysm and quickly bled to death internally — and I was out of town at the time.

My mom didn’t have a cell phone that she could call me from in the ambulance that took Dad to the hospital. They were still uncommon then and obnoxiously large and expensive. I was in a car with a friend and his father, less than 70 miles from home, but essentially unreachable.

Today, I live in Beijing, a world away from my family in the United States. Yet as my Grandpa, stricken with final stage Parkinson’s disease, enters the final days or hours of his life, I’m receiving texts and emails every few hours about his condition. My aunts are uploading on Facebook pictures of relatives by Grandpa’s bedside, kissing his face, holding his hand and playing guitar. 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

My heart will go on

After a lengthy attempt to lower the quality of my life, hypertension died last week. It was 1 and a half.

Hypertension was declared dead in an email I received from my doctor. “Great news. You don’t need medications now. This was a good ‘scare’, so you will have a healthy lifestyle now!” she wrote.

It is survived by the half empty boxes of blood pressure medication scattered around my apartment: 30 mg of Adalat, 12.5 mg of Carvedilol and 5 mg of a generic beta blocker.

I met with a doctor in Beijing for a follow-up checkup earlier this year.

I met with a doctor in Beijing for a follow-up checkup earlier this year.

Hypertension was born in my body in January 2012, after a doctor in the Philippines discovered my blood pressure was dangerously high following a severe bout of lightheadedness. Its interests included wrecking havoc on my body, including heart palpitations and anxiety attacks. Continue reading

A full-time brother

Growing up, my brother Billy and I shared a bedroom. We slept on a bed that folded into a futon. When we weren’t asleep or at school, he followed me everywhere. If I locked myself in a room, he’d try to pick the lock or figure out another way to get in.

I hated it at the time, being shadowed wherever I went. I was five and a half years older than Billy, and having your younger brother around was a liability. If I was with friends and we got into trouble and needed to run, he was usually the slowest in the pack. I felt like Billy was holding me back, sometimes literally.

But I also knew he needed me, and so when my friends weren’t watching I tried to teach Billy the difference between right and wrong, helped him with homework and showed him how to field a ground ball. I had to fill the void of our dad, who died when Billy was 4 and I was 10. Continue reading

North Korea’s Kim: Too sexy to be true?

The death of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il last December set off a period of mourning unlike anything I had ever seen.

The footage broadcast by the country’s state-run media showed tens of thousands of people in the capital Pyongyang, weeping and buckling over in grief. Women fainted, and even grown men sobbed uncontrollably. A New Year editorial published by the North’s leading newspapers called Kim’s death “the greatest loss our nation had suffered in its 5,000-year-long history and the bitterest grief our Party and people had experienced … The tears our service personnel and people shed with greatest sorrow were tears of the unity, unaffected and crystal-clear, and tears of their firm determination to follow the Party to the end of the earth.”

A few days after Kim’s death, I met with my Chinese teacher Cathy for our twice-a-week language lesson. Cathy is in her mid-40s and has lived in Beijing her entire life. Some days we choose a topic to discuss, and on this day we decided to talk about international news.

“What do you think about Kim Jong-il’s death?” I asked. Continue reading

This language is bleatable

Arriving in China for the first time without having ever studied the language is a bit like being shot out of the womb. You can’t speak or read signs, so you’re forced to point and use body language to interact with this strange, new world.

The first time I hailed a taxi in Beijing, I must have reeked of that fresh off the boat smell because the driver immediately began peppering me with questions. He didn’t speak English, and I only understood three Chinese expressions, ni hao (你好, hello) xie xie (谢谢, thank you) and dui (对, correct).

When we came to a red light, he drew the letters U-S-A on the steering wheel and raised his hand, extending his fingers horizontally so his palm was flat like a duck bill. He moved his hand toward me, making a “whiiissshhh” sound as it cut through the air. Continue reading