Friday, February 25, 2011

The beautiful birds of Corregidor

We recently had a visit from five Japanese, including our friends Yuka and Naoko. They were joined by Yumiko, Kotaro, and Shino. They are all focused on educating the Japanese people about what actually occurred during World War II. Their projects have included video interviews with hundreds of American and Filipino POWs and Japanese soldiers from the period, in hopes of helping to bridge the gap between the groups. They were grateful to Steve for serving as their tour guide, telling the story from the point of view of a son of an American POW.

Since there were only five in their group, and because they all speak and understand at least some English, they joined us on an English-speaking bus which, by happenstance turned out to have a very international group. Included on this particular bus were “Steve and Marcia on the Rock” readers Edna (Filipina),and her husband Boone (Indonesian), who live in Holland, as well as guests from Australia, the United States, Canada, India, and of course the Philippines, plus a man who splits his time each year between the Philippines and his wife’s homeland of Spain.

The Japanese guests spent the night at the hotel, treating us to “MacArthur chicken” and other fine dishes at the MacArthur Café. The following day we escorted them to the Japanese Memorial Garden on Tailside. They were able to provide us with translations of the information on all of the markers there, something that we’d wanted for quite some time. There were no great surprises, and we even learned how to recognize “Corregidor” in the Japanese phonetic character set, which is used when there is no Kanji equivalent.

A couple nights ago we decided to have dinner at Mac’s Café. Instead of eating by ourselves, we encountered overnight visitors Hakan, Jan, and Cora, an interesting trio to say the least. Hakan, a native of Sweden, lived for years in Lebanon, and currently splits his time between, of all places, Cambodia and Bulgaria. His close friend Jan, a Danish citizen, is married to Cora, a Filipina. Jan and Cora live in Metro Manila and are involved with an organization called “Manila Street Kids.” The beer and conversation were flowing, and we all had a great time. The party expanded with the addition of another Swedish overnight guest named Rolf (who coincidentally stayed overnight as Hakan, whom he had never met), Corregidor Inn manager Ed, island manager Ron, and Nilo who also works on Corregidor. More beer, more talk, some pancit, and a bit of videoke.

At one point, Hakan commented that Jan used to play an instrument in an orchestra which performed in Denmark and Sweden. Steve asked the obvious, “What instrument did you play?” figuring that it was a string, reed, or brass instrument. Before Jan could answer, Hakan started moving his fists alternately together and apart and going, “BOOM! . . . . . . . . . . BOOM! . . . . . . . . . . BOOM! . . . . . . . . . . BOOM!” Yes, Jan played bass drum in a symphony orchestra! And Hakan was not going to let his best friend forget it. Every time that a new song came on the videoke machine, Hakan would repeat the “BOOM! . . . . . . . . . . BOOM! . . . . . . . . . . BOOM! . . . . . . . . . . BOOM!” and Jan would roll his eyes, and say, “It’s a lot tougher than it looks!” (He actually played multiple instruments in the percussion section.) Maybe you had to be there, but every time Hakan repeated, “BOOM! BOOM!” we all cracked up.

On Tuesday we were delighted to finally meet Doris Magsaysay Ho, the owner of Sun Cruises, Inc., the company that brings most of the visitors to the island. They run the day tours and the Corregidor Inn. Doris invited us to join her group for lunch at the inn. She has lots of plans for updating services and making inn renovations, and was looking for input from her staff, a renovations consultant, and the two of us. We liked what we heard, and hope that she will be able to implement many of the suggestions that were discussed. We believe that Sun Cruises already does a good job but also appreciate Doris’s vision for improving the facilities, as well as offering a wider variety of activity choices, such as walking tours of the off-the-beaten-path areas of the island. She mentioned that she has a personal interest in seeing Corregidor developed as a bird sanctuary, something of interest to us as well, which would entail habitat evaluations, planting of specific food-source trees, and possibly establishing feeder stations for some bird species.

On that topic, we mentioned in a January newsletter that bird watchers had identified 33 species of birds on Corregidor in less than three hours, while walking only along the main roads. Here is the list sent to us by Alex T. after his partner Marites put it together for an article in their birders’ newsletter. We assume that the number following each name indicates how many were spotted, with “x” being ‘too many to count’ and “HO” indicating ‘Heard Only.’

1. Eastern Reef-Egret - 1 (dark)
2. Brahminy Kite - 25
3. Chinese Goshawk - 1 (perched)
4. Red Jungle Fowl - 5 (3m, 2f)
5. Pink-necked Green-Pigeon - 12
6. White-eared Brown-Dove - 2
7. Amethyst Brown-Dove - HO
8. Green-Pigeon sp. - 1
9. Zebra Dove - x
10. Common Emerald-Dove - 30+
11. Philippine Coucal - 1 (heard more)
12. Island Swiftlet - x
13. Glossy Swiftlet - x
14. Pygmy Swiftlet - x
15. Collared Kingfisher - 40+
16. Pacific Swallow - x
17. Barn Swallow - x
18. Pied Triller - 4
19. Yellow-vented Bulbul - x
20. Philippine Bulbul - 10+
21. Black-naped Oriole - 11
22. Blue Rock Thrush - 2 (male)
23. Golden-bellied Flyeater - 1
24. Arctic Warbler - 3
25. Tawny Grassbird - 2 (heard more)
26. Grey-streaked Flycatcher - 5
27. Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher - HO
28. Pied Fantail - 4
29. Black-naped Monarch – HO
30. Brown Shrike - 8
31. Asian Glossy Starling - x
32. Olive-backed Sunbird - 6
33. Lowland White-eye – 30

There are a few species we have seen which are not on the list: Tabon Scrubfowl; White-throated Kingfisher; and Large-billed Crow. We don’t know about you, but we were really impressed with what they spotted, and hope that this will inspire many more bird watchers to come to Corregidor for a day or two. Our little pocket guide was great to help us get started, but we have reached the point where we’re ready for the more comprehensive bird book that Alex T. recommended, “A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines” by Kennedy, Gonzales, Dickinson, Miranda, and Fisher.

Here are some links:

About a month ago, amateur bird photographer Ely Teehankee came to Corregidor with his giant Canon 800mm fixed telephoto lens. He stopped by to introduce himself, much to our delight. All attached bird photos were taken by him over a two-day period. More of Ely’s pictures can be viewed at

On February 24th we quietly and gratefully celebrated our 38th wedding anniversary. On that snowy day in 1973, who would have dreamed that the year 2011 would find us living on a tropical island in the Philippines, still very happy together?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Hugh Ambrose Tour

We recently spent some time with Hugh Ambrose, son of the late historian Stephen Ambrose. Stephen was instrumental in the very popular miniseries Band of Brothers, on which Hugh also worked. Hugh spent years as the historical consultant for the more recent miniseries, The Pacific, and also wrote a companion book of the same name, which covers the same subject matter and much more about the war in the Pacific, including battles on Bataan and Corregidor.

We were asked to represent Valor Tours by joining the final three days of their tour led by Hugh through several of the islands that saw heavy action in WWII. The group started in Guadalcanal, and visited other islands such as Tinian, Pelelu, and Palau. Several of the group members were instrumental in the founding and expansion of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana, including President and CEO Gordon “Nick” Mueller. The group also included Richard Greer, a WWII veteran who speaks at the beginning of many of The Pacific’s episodes. He was among the first troops to land at Guadalcanal, and after recovering from a leg wound, also fought at Cape Glouchester.

Another of the members was the son of the man who started McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, traveling with his wife – the only female in the group – whose father served in the Pacific theater. Yet another was a lawyer who had once represented such stars as Bing Crosby, Alan Ladd, William Holden, and Marlon Brando. The group also included Pete Wilson.

Pete’s name will no doubt ring a bell for many of you. After three years in the Marine Corp and then graduating from law school, Pete went into politics, first serving in the California Assembly, then as mayor of San Diego, a United States Senator, and finally as Governor of California. Even at 77 Pete stays active, consulting to help businesses comply with the growing number of federal and state regulations. Over the course of the three days we spent time talking to Pete about life in the public spotlight.

Our role in their tour started with meeting their private jet at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport early on Saturday afternoon. We proceeded to the American Cemetery in Manila, where the group presented a wreath in honor of the almost 17,000 American war dead buried there, and the over 36,000 names on the Walls of the Missing. We then went to the old walled city, Intramuros, the oldest part of Manila. We checked into the nearby Manila Hotel, touring the MacArthur suite on the top floor of the old section of the hotel. After Nick’s presentation on the status, goals, and planned expansion of the National WW II Museum, we had dinner and were off to sleep. The hotel has undergone massive rehabilitation. The rooms are spacious and comfortable, with the bathrooms having undergone the biggest changes. In addition, their breakfast buffet, which used to be very small for a top-rated hotel, has been expanded to include nine food stations and a much larger seating area. It is unrecognizable to anyone who may have eaten there before. They are doing their best to rise to the competition from the many newer five-star hotels in Metro Manila.

Sunday belonged to our home island of Corregidor. After the 80-minute trip on the Sun Cruises ferry, Steve led the group on a private five-hour tour of the island. This island was far different from the other islands that they had toured, since the other islands were only scenes of Americans taking them from the dug-in Japanese. There were few buildings, mostly “pill boxes,” and almost no guns to see. In contrast, Corregidor had been an established pre-war American fortress with massive guns and barracks, site of Japanese invasion and capture followed by the American retaking nearly three years later. There were a few similarities, most notably the tunnels in which the Japanese fought and sought shelter.

On Monday we boarded El Corregidor II, a large banca, and took the seven-mile ride to Mariveles, Bataan. We began at the KM0 (kilometer zero) memorial, the traditional start of the Bataan Death March. We proceeded to the top of Mount Samat, “the last line of defense,” then to the Balanga Elementary School, where General King surrendered about 76,000 American and Filipino troops in the biggest capitulation in American history. We went to Camp O’Donnell to visit the Capas National Shrine, with most of the guests walking the final kilometer of the Death March route. Finally we went to Subic Bay, making brief stops at the Hellships Memorial, Subic International Hotel for showers and fresh clothing, The Lighthouse Marina Resort for supper, and finally delivering Hugh and his group to Subic International Airport where their jet was waiting to take them to Honolulu and then home. Then we had a three hour bus ride to our hotel in Pasay, Manila. It was Valentine’s Day, so late-night traffic in Metro Manila was as bad as is typical at 6 P.M. due to the many couples celebrating the day. By the time we got to bed, we realized that we needed an additional day just to recover from the extremely long days and early mornings we’d had.

We returned to Corregidor on Wednesday morning. We had heard that the USS Blue Ridge, an American Navy command and control ship, was in Manila Harbor for a few days. As it turned out, 32 sailors and marines were on the Sun Cruises ferry with us, and Steve was assigned to provide their tour of the island. It is always a pleasure to guide for Americans, and a particularly special honor when it is for the men and women of our armed forces. It just so happened that it was February 16, the 66th anniversary of the parachute drop and barge landing that marked the beginning of the liberation of Corregidor from the Japanese. There was a short flag-raising ceremony at the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team marker at Topside, attended by well over 100 tour guests and island staff. Three of the USS Blue Ridge servicemen were selected to present a wreath, followed by brief remarks from Steve.

While Steve was talking with two of the sailors, he mentioned that it was his father Walter’s 31st birthday on the day that the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, effectively ending the war and saving his life. Steve was stunned when Petty Office Second Class Travis Ellis of Portland, Oregon, said, “Today is my 31st birthday.” Steve looked at him and said, “It’s hard to imagine my father being exactly your age on the day he could have been killed.” He then went on to explain that Walter was in a POW camp in the city of Kokura in northern Kyushu on that day, August 9, 1945. This city was the primary target for the second atomic bomb. The crew could not see the ground due to clouds and smoke and thus flew on to their secondary site of Nagasaki.

Interestingly, the crew is stationed 50 miles from Tokyo, and a few are married to Japanese women. It is truly a different and better world than it was 66 years ago.

P.S. Consider visiting the museum the next time you are in the New Orleans area. You can visit the National WWII Museum Website at

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Steve's trip to Balanga

6:00 A.M. Fill backpack with bottles of water, carrying bags for groceries, and rain jacket (just in case.) Marcia has decided to attack the heap of laundry this morning, rather than both of us going shopping.

6:55 Board banca with helper Roy and boatmen Menard and Freddie.

7:02 Get underway following several attempts by Menard to start the engine. Could have gone with Edmund but his engine seems to be more reliable, taking some of the suspense out the trip. Freddie gives me an umbrella to lay in front of my legs in an attempt to keep me from getting soaked with spray from the high waves.

7:10 Menard stops banca so Freddie can remove plastic bags that are wrapped around the propeller. Wind is from the north, right into our faces, and front of banca is cutting through. Grateful for umbrella.

7:35 Enjoying ride, seeing several speed fishing bancas heading the other way. They seem to have jet engines compared to the progress we are making.

7:56 Pull into Cabcaben after 54 minute ride.

8:00 Board tricycle for ride to bus stop.

8:05 Arrive at highway simultaneously with bus, quickly give tricycle driver extra money but no time to collect change, get aboard bus with Roy as it is pulling away. Go to back of the bus, the only seat where anyone over 5’6” can fit, me being 6’5”. My legs are in the center aisle. Bus is already fairly full, wonder how many more will board along the way. Also notice that more and more of the windows are being closed. This is the first time that I have ridden in one of these buses when all of the windows were not open. Then again, it is February, and the temperature is probably no more that 72 Fahrenheit right now.

8:08 First stop. Several students, probably college age (16-20 in the Philippines) board. Things are getting crowded. I am sitting in the back row, my legs between the two seats in front of me on either side. Two of the students crowd past my legs and sit to my left. The bus is designed so that three small people (typical Filipinos) can sit on the left and two on the right of the aisle. See that no one is getting off. Wonder again how many more will board along the way.

8:20 Have made several more quick stops, bus is now full. It appears that I am correct – these are college students who will not get off until the outskirts of Balanga. By now one more has squeezed to my left, and two to my right. I can’t feel the right half of my butt, but must still have some feeling in my right leg, as I can sense the leg of the student crammed next to me.

8:24 A few more get on, one gets off. The bus attendant has now inserted a bridge seat directly in front of me, and I must find another place to put my legs. Somehow I find some space, but now my entire butt’s numb.

8:37 More get on. More bridge seats are in place, blocking the whole aisle. Others are standing in the aisle, and the doorway in the middle of the bus is crammed with standing riders, at least one hanging partway out the bus. Wonder if it is possible to get any more riders on board without stacking people horizontally. Can’t take picture with camera phone because all I’d get is someone’s back.

8:52 Mercifully a few riders get off at a school called “Bataan Heroes Memorial College.” Some relief, at least the windows aren’t bulging anymore. Realize that I am the only passenger older than Roy’s 22, and that I am the only one without jet-black hair.

8:59 Don’t know what college we’re at now, but most of the passengers depart. Yeah!!

9:02 Get off at the Balanga bus terminal, get in line for one of the tricycles to take us into town. A cute, very young boy is sitting on the motorcycle driver’s lap. He looks over at me and I try several times to take his picture with my cell phone.

9:13 Arrive at Mercury Drug. Get a slightly better picture of the young boy. Pay the driver and give the boy a little extra money. Approach the drugstore window and say to the pharmacist, “I would like 50 pieces of Robitussin.” Pronounce it roe-bit-TUSS-en as we would in America. The pharmacist asks me to spell it. I try again, pronouncing it like I’ve heard Menard do when I’ve asked him to buy some for me. “Fifty pieces roe-BEET-uh-seen.” I can see the light go on, and he gets my order.

10:35 Checking out of Elizabeth’s Bodega after filling the shopping cart with everything on the shopping list. Probably bought more sweets than Marcia would approve, but it sure looked good on the shelves.

11:01 Back at the bus terminal and on board in my favorite (and only) seat. To my right I’ve placed the backpack and bags of groceries, and it looks like I will have plenty of room. Now a small cargo door opens on my right – I was completely unaware of it, as each bus is different – and I move my bags as a man plops in two 50-kilo bags of fertilizer. Still appears I will have enough room. A few minutes later we are underway.

11:14 Back by the college area, but only a few students board. I must look friendly because now the space left of me is taken by a man and his son and two women with their daughters. So the row now has six people, four shopping bags, and 100 kilos of fertilizer. Still no problem, my knees are in the aisle.

11:16 A rather heavy woman takes the open half of the seat in front of me. Temporarily her left butt is resting on my right knee. Might be okay for her, but I decide she’s going to have to find some other way to stay balanced on her seat, so I relocate my knee (where, I still can’t figure out). Lady almost falls into aisle, jams herself against passenger on her right.

11:30 Lady exits, is replaced by smaller (typical sized) passenger, I get a chance to restore feeling in my legs.

12:00 P.M. Roy and I depart the bus with our groceries and catch a tricycle to the pier. Always thought tricycles were crowded until today.

12:56 Back on Corregidor after a 36-minute return ride. Rode with the wind and waves, had two ocean freighters pass in front of us, adding to the thrill of the ride. Both times we hit their wakes, Menard yelled, “Ye-Haw!!!”

1:15 Groceries aboard our jeep and heading up the hill, run out of fuel on the steepest part. Have to coast backward about a quarter of a mile on the steep, winding road with the cliff on one side and drainage ditch on the other. And live to tell about it. “Ye-Haw!!!”

P.S. We received the following self-explanatory request. We encourage readers who qualify to participate if interested. S & M

Good day! We're students from UP Diliman and we're currently working on our thesis regarding the motivations of repeat visitors of Corregidor. We chose the island for our study because of its uniqueness. We're looking for people who have been to the island at least twice. Maybe, you could help us with this matter. We would really appreciate it.

You may contact us at this email address:

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Trip to Iloilo part 2

Continuing the account of our trip to Iloilo, you may recall that Gilbert came to visit Ron and us on Friday. On Saturday we accompanied Gilbert on his return trip to his home island of Guimaras. It began with a half-hour bus trip to Iloilo. The bus fare was only 20 pesos (a bit over 40 cents) apiece. From the bus terminal we took a taxi to the central Jaro district of Iloilo, cost p120, including tip. There we marveled at Jaro Cathedral, also known as Our Lady of Candles, one of the oldest and largest Spanish-Catholic churches in the country. Iloilo is known for many such historic structures, as well as considering itself the cockfighting capital of the world. Resisting the urge to go to the cockfights at 8:00 A.M., we ate breakfast, and then hopped a jeepney to the pier, cost p7 each.

Guimaras, known for growing the world’s best mangoes, is an island just a 15 minute banca ride across the straight. The bancas, which run as soon as 50 or so passengers are on board – as often as every five minutes – cost p13 each. Gilbert lives in a remote village, Morubuan, so we climbed into a tricycle, with Gilbert riding behind the driver. The driver agreed to provide round-trip service, including waiting while we visited, for p150 each way, and we were happy to get it. We still find ourselves surprised by the availability and affordability of public transportation in the Philippines. Total cost to get the three of us to the village including bus, taxi, jeepney, banca, and tricycle, was p390, less than $9.00, for three people traveling for over two hours.

Gilbert’s village is along the coast, and there is a daily 10 A.M. banca direct from Iloilo. However, transportation from his village to the main banca port is by motorcycle only. This is why we came via the high-traffic banca, and also why Gilbert arranged for the tricycle driver to wait for us. Also, Morubuan has no pier and its scenic white-sand beach is very gently sloped, meaning that banca passengers either walk to shore in a couple feet of water, or are carried by banceros if they wish to stay dry.

We took a tour of the village. It’s hard to say how many people live there – certainly hundreds at least – densely-packed into a few hectares. Somewhat to our surprise, the houses do not have running water. There are three water supply points, spring water piped fresh from the mountain. Houses have individual septic systems. Several of the houses contain sari sari stores. Gilbert and his wife operate one from the front room of their house. We met Gilbert’s wife and father, several uncles, aunts, and cousins and other relatives in the two-hour plus stay.

On our tour through the village we stopped at the school, where Gilbert’s son is the youngest first grader. We arrived during their one-and-a-half-hour English session, and the teachers were pleased to have us stop in and say hello in response to a chorus of, “Good morning, visitors.” School begins before eight and runs until five. Later we talked with the principle, who told us that there are many very poor children from outlying areas. They come to school hungry most days, and are fed government-supplied rice supplemented with vegetables from the school garden to fill their bellies, while children who live in the village go home for lunch. Considering its location and age, the school seems quite well run, and the children well-cared for.

Our return trip to Pototan was uneventful. That evening we went to Ron’s one last time for dinner. His parents seemed genuinely sad to see us leave, as you can see in the picture. Pastor, who up until now had always had a big smile on his face, said, “I’m so happy that you come” while crying at the same time. We could not have felt more included in the family for the past four days, and are very glad that we took the initiative to visit them.

When we first were discussing our trip to Iloilo, a few people encouraged us to fly down and “RORO” back. This involves taking a bus the entire distance. Since the Philippine islands are an archipelago, the bus has to be ferried from one island to the next, “Roll On, Roll Off.” We were told that it was a good way to see more of the country. So we purchased one-way plane tickets a couple of months ago in anticipation of returning by bus and ferry.

The RORO station is less than a kilometer from the hostel where we were staying in Pototan, so it was easy to purchase tickets ahead of time. We were told that the bus would arrive around 7:00 and depart by 7:30 A.M. and arrive in Manila around midnight. We got to the station way too early, as the bus was over an hour late arriving. The stationmaster had reserved the front right seats for us, so we had a wonderful view out the front of the bus.

Panay is a beautiful island. We passed through many small towns and villages. There were usually mountains off in the distance, rice fields in abundance, a few corn fields, and cattle pastured on terraced slopes. It took us about five hours to reach northern Panay, finally arriving at the port town of Caticlan. Passengers walk aboard the ferry while the buses, other vehicles, and cargo are loaded. We were on the ferry about six hours, although the first 90 minutes was spent waiting for all of the vehicles to be loaded. Near the end we watched a beautiful sunset over the island of Mindoro while a ferry passed in the other direction. We arrived in Roxas just after dark.

All we could see as we crossed Mindoro Island was the roads, which are undergoing major repair. We boarded our second ferry at Calapan, crossing to Batangas, which is on Luzon, the same island as Manila. The final bus leg was quicker since there are good expressways in Luzon. However, every once in a while we had to depart the major roads and head into a bus stop in a smaller town. When we finally reached our destination at Pasay it was 3:00 A.M. The roads in Manila are less deserted than you would think at that hour, but we still managed to reach our hostel in decent time. We were extremely exhausted, of course.

Looking back, RORO was an interesting experience but one that we aren’t likely to repeat. The bus stopped on several occasions for food and restrooms. The restrooms were inadequate and not well maintained, and the food was precooked and generally cold. Since we’d gotten our plane tickets on sale, it actually cost us more to take the bus, not to mention the much longer travel time. We enjoyed seeing Panay, and would have liked to see Mindoro but it was too dark by the time we drove through it.

Before we reached Luzon, all of the roads were two-lane and for the most part they had no shoulders. The roads are shared by cars, trucks, bicycles, and even pedestrians. We had the same bus driver for the entire trip. His shift started before we boarded and the bus was still not at its final destination, so he must have been on duty for close to 24 straight hours. Of course he got breaks on the ferries. Nonetheless, he did an outstanding job driving for so many hours in such challenging conditions.

Despite having lived on Corregidor for over two years, it was still an adventure for us to go to Iloilo on our own. We are not conversant in the language, are of a different culture, and were completely dependent upon the hospitality of our hosts and the kindness of complete strangers to get us through our return trip on RORO. At times we really didn’t know what the heck we were doing, where to eat, find a toilet, or whatever. But we made it just fine, met many interesting and friendly fellow-travelers, and will not hesitate to see other parts of the country when the opportunities arise. But we’ll certainly try to plan ahead and fly whenever possible.

One other thought: taking RORO gave us a much better understanding of the Philippines as a nation that is physically divided. In the continental United States you can drive to just about anywhere; even many of the outer islands are connected by bridges and roadways. Here, customs and languages vary from region to region and, in some cases, island to island. In many ways, two entirely different worlds.