#BangonLeyte

I recently went on a trip to Southern Leyte. It was my first time to go back to Leyte since Typhoon Yolanda (International Name: Typhoon Haiyan) ravaged it. From an outsider’s view, Tacloban seems to be recovering. A lot of businesses have built new buildings over those that have toppled. New roofs and windows are in place. But you can still see the effect of the typhoon’s strong winds all around the area.

A destroyed warehouse in Palo, Leyte.

A destroyed warehouse in Palo, Leyte.

In fact, when I visited the DENR Regional office and afterwards asked to use their toilet, the door was just a piece of plywood that you move sidewards to cover the cubicle. The DENR officer apologetically told me “Tiis, tiis na lang ma’am pagkatapos ng Yolanda.” And this is already 20 months after the typhoon hit the Philippines. Tacloban, however, was not my destination. I went with a team from UP Diliman to Barangay Catmon in the Municipality of Silago, Southern Leyte. We went to a place where the forest was still intact, a place that Yolanda spared. We went to the Mt. Nacolod Forest Reserve. Honestly, I was shocked at what I saw. I saw a primary forest. Disturbed? Yes, but primary! I was amazed because my expectations were low: I knew that the forest cover in Leyte was fast disappearing, I knew that there was hunting and I knew that they were doing kaingin (slash-and-burn) farming.

Barangay Catmon, with Mt. Nacolod as backdrop

Barangay Catmon, with Mt. Nacolod as backdrop

I was pleasantly shocked at what I saw. I saw hope and I saw an opportunity. Hope for the native biodiversity, hope for the Philippine eagle and hope for Leyte. It is perhaps appropriate to thank the Visayas State University (VSU) in this post because they have been vital in taking care of Mt. Nacolod and Barangay Catmon. They are giving us an opportunity to showcase a success story, an opportunity to restore an area based on this preserved forest patch, and an opportunity to learn from their practices. A Mt. Nacolod forest guard told me that it was precisely the intactness of the forest that prevented the winds of Yolanda from penetrating it. Can we bounce back from Typhoon Yolanda? I think yes. Pinoy humor is so ironic as you see establishments in Tacloban named “Haiyan Café” and “YoLand Eatery”. It shows our stubbornness to be beaten. However, we should not let it happen again. The resilience that we have as a people should be reflected in the resilience of our ecosystems. We should preserve what is left of our environment. We should restore CORRECTLY the mangrove areas and the terrestrial forests. We should do it now. – – – If you have ideas and contacts that can help us achieve this goal, please feel free to comment below! Thank you in advance! a+ -> diwata sa balete

Mabuhay! Welcome!

I am a fig biologist at heart and in practice. I study the big balete trees and the tiny wasps that they are in close association with. It is in the great outdoors that my job and my hobby meet! This allows me to travel to a lot of places, especially in the Philippines, that are not mainstream tourist-y areas. Thus, this blog will be a tribute to the beauty of the world as seen through the eyes of a young ecologist. An ode to the marvels of nature, one of our greatest blessings as a species.

Nonetheless, being a fig biologist is not easy in the Philippines. When they learn I work on figs, the first question is always: “May figs ba tayo sa Pilipinas?” (“Do we have figs in the Philippines?). My answer is always: “Marami po! Nakakita na po kayo nun, hindi niyo lang napansin.” (“We have plenty and I’m a hundred percent sure you’ve seen one at least once in your life.”) And so we come to one of the main reasons that I wanted to start a blog, to popularize science. We think it’s high-time that our society trust science and use it for its betterment.

I hope you enjoy reading through this blog and that you learn some new stuff. Ultimately, as my late mentor Dr. Dan Lagunzad put it, I also hope to cure you of your fig (plant) blindness 😉

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– diwata sa balete

I fell in love with Munich

I first met her September of last year. There was no denying it, football was what brought us together. It was a passion that we shared with each other willingly and happily. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was falling for her, and little did I know, she for me. And that was how our love story began.

The Allianz Arena at night, home of FC Bayern München

The Allianz Arena at night, home of FC Bayern München

There was no hint of superficial nonsense within her, unlike what we see in most big cities the world over. The smiles were genuine, kindness was always extended to a stranger and the much-practiced frankness was disarming but endearing nonetheless. The more I saw of her, the more I fell in love with her.

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Bicycles parked (unlocked!!!) along the sides of the streets

We never saw each other frequently. Because each time I have had to travel miles and miles to get to see her. But she always waited patiently for me. I think the fact that we did not have much time together was what made each moment with her special. When I am with her, it doesn’t matter if I just stay in my room, reading a book or doing absolutely nothing. I was always at peace and that was the most important part. Most people will never understand why I went through with this. Sleeping in the airport, 9-hour train rides, 5°C rainy weather, cultural and language barriers. But those closest to me do. They know this is what makes my heart happy and I know that is what they want for me.

Autumn is so vibrant in the suburbs of the city (Sabëner straße)

Autumn is so vibrant in the suburbs of the city (Sabëner straße)

But like most love stories, ours must also come to an end. And I am afraid it has. A couple of days ago, I left her. It is probably the last time I will ever get to see her. This is me saying goodbye.

Goodbyes are never easy but I have plenty of beautiful memories. And we will always have football.

I am she, she is me. I am Munich.

Breaking boundaries

Breaking boundaries. This is what I will remember the past year for.

Having lived in a foreign land, I was again pushed out of my comfort zone. But one positive thing about this is that you can also forget all the boundaries that (Philippine) society has forced on you. Like avoiding strangers. Little by little, I opened up to strangers. I will never forget the smile of the German girl when I offered her a tissue when it ran out in the bathroom. Nor the surprise of the man begging in the Boutonnet station, the gratitude of the woman holding a “J’ai faim” sign in the Paris métro, the happiness in the face of the man playing a violin in Leipzig. And the man in Munich who approached me and who, I later on discovered, loved the Philippines! I have these memories now because I chose to open up and trust the goodness in others. Happy that I did so!

I realized that other boundaries, like culture, religion, social status, are all self-imposed. And if they are self-imposed, then they can be “self-removed”. My life has been irreversibly changed by this realization and I am hoping it is for the better.

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I read this somewhere in Facebook 🙂

2016 is going to be an EPIC year for me, most of you know why. It is still hazy, but I will not be anxious. Again, I will choose to trust, as I did last year, knowing that what’s better always lies ahead of us, not behind us.

I wish you all a blessed and peace-filled year!! / Mapagpala at Manigong Bagong Taon!! / Bonne Année à tous!!

– diwata sa balete

Destination: Mount Makiling Forest Reserve, Los Baños, Laguna

Last Tuesday was the first-time ever that I went climbing solo. I had to go back to the Mount Makiling Forest Reserve (MMFR) to collect some fruits that we needed for our experiment. It was just a 1 ½ hour walk to the forest – quick but gratifying. When you are alone, you tend to hear and see more, the constant background noise of the cicadas and the several bubuli (skinks) along the trail scurrying away from you.

A huge balete tree 10 minutes from the Jump-off point

A huge balete tree 10 minutes from the Jump-off point (click to enlarge)

The MMFR is actually one of the last remaining good forest patches that are accessible from Metro Manila. Peak 2 of Mt. Makiling is a little over 1000 m asl but it transitions from a lowland forest to something that resembles a montane/mossy forest with dwarfed trees. It is a Protected Area and this became really obvious to me just last month when I encountered two wild pigs crossing the trail! We heard shuffling in front of us and then, suddenly, two wild pigs were running to cross the trail 10 meters ahead of us. I’ve seen wild pigs in Cordillera before but they were already domesticated, so this was the first time that I actually saw a wild pig in the wild. The MMFR also has astounding fig diversity! Within its boundaries, you can encounter 27 species of the plant genus Ficus, five of which are found only in the Philippines. This represents a quarter of all the fig species that we have in the Philippines! Imagine, walking for less than five hours and already being able to see one-fourth of the Philippine fig species. Cool, huh? :p

Ficus variegata, tangisang bayawak in Filipino
Ficus variegata, tangisang bayawak in Filipino (click to enlarge)

One of the interesting species found here is Ficus variegata. It is locally-known as tangisang bayawak. Tangis means to cry and the bayawak is a monitor lizard. The bayawak cannot climb these trees because of the extremely smooth bark, straight trunk and absence of low branches. This prevents them from reaching the clusters of ripe figs on the top branches and, because of this, it is said that they cry under the tree. I’ve never actually seen a bayawak do this though!

Map of the Makiling Trail, showing the 30 stations

Map of the Makiling Trail, showing the 30 stations (click to enlarge)

If you have never been inside a forest, I highly recommend that you visit Mt. Makiling. It is an easy climb from the Los Baños side, even for kids. Also, you need not aim for the peak since MMFR has other attractions, such as the Flat Rocks, Mud Springs and Rainforest Park. From the Jump-off point, it takes about an hour to reach Station 7 (Rainforest Park, where you can hold pique-niques). From there to Station 10, it takes another 30 minutes. The trail then narrows down and you will start seeing the natural vegetation of the mountain. Up to Station 14 (Malaboo campsite) is another 1 ½ hour-walk. The trail from Malaboo to Peak 2 is more technical (steep ascent, climbing on rocks) and will take another 2 hours. This totals to about 5 hours of walk from the Jump-off point to Peak 2. However, you have an option to ride a habal-habal from Station 1 to Station 10, which takes only about 30 minutes. Please give me the liberty to suggest that you ride a habal-habal every now and then. I know that it contributes to carbon emissions, but the locals actually benefit from it. As a compromise, I usually walk going up the mountain, and ride a habal-habal going down (less gas used because they usually turn off the engine in parts of steep descent).

The trail is very wide from Station 1 to Station 10

The trail is very wide from Station 1 to Station 10.(click to enlarge)

Mt. Makiling was badly affected by Typhoon Glenda last year. Many tree s were felled by the strong winds of the typhoon.

Mt. Makiling was badly affected by Typhoon Glenda last year. Many trees were felled by the strong winds of the typhoon. (click to enlarge)

Resumé (Summary): Mt. Makiling is a natural gem that we absolutely need to conserve and protect. That it is so near Manila is a huge bonus. I hope that you do consider visiting Mt. Makiling, if you haven’t been there yet! And if you do, say hi to Maria Makiling for me 😉 a+ -> diwata sa balete — The MMFR is managed by the Makiling Center for Mountain Ecosystems (MCME) of CFNR-UPLB (mountmakiling.cfnruplb@yahoo.com). If you want to do research inside this area or if you plan to collect specimens, you need to submit a written letter and a proposal to MCME for their evaluation and, hopefully, approval. Please remember that without an approved permit, it is absolutely prohibited to collect any life form from the MMFR. — Necessary expenses: Bus (DLTB Cubao to College, Los Baños) – 99 Bus (Olivares to Cubao) – 107 Jeep to Forestry – 8 Jeep to Olivares – 8 MMFR Entrance Fee – 10 (waived if trip is for research) TOTAL – Php 232 Optional Expenses: Guide Fee – 700 per day Habal-habal (one-way) – 70