Thursday, December 13, 2007

missing palawan

i wrote this for an inter-office magazine. methinks it won't get published, so i'll post it here. note that some of the places may not be around, or the prices may have gone up. for the past few days i find myself reminiscing about my NGO days in palawan. merry christmas to all!

(photo from travelphilippines website)

A visit to Palawan starts as a visual treat as the plane hovers aboard islands surrounded by crystal-clear blue water. It then becomes a cornucopia of sights, smells, tastes and feels of the island considered as the last frontier. It is wrapped in a mantel of rainforests, outstanding dive sites, majestic mountains, primeval caves, and pristine beaches. It is surrounded by a coral shelf that abounds with varied and colorful marine life. It is home to two of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)-declared World Heritage Sites.

This is how many tourist websites have been advertising the province, but as an NGO worker assigned there for months at a time, Palawan offered more than that. For this writer, Palawan is home to the best island-hopping sites, the best seafood and Vietnamese food this side of the country and the most culturally diverse province in the country.

There are many unexplored and undeveloped beaches, apart from the famous Honda Bay, Amanpulo Island and the infamous Dos Palmas in Puerto Princesa City, and those found in El Nido and Coron. Some beaches I liked were Debutuna’ay in Busuanga and the Coco Loco Beach Resort in Roxas municipality—white sands, blue-green waters and cheap rates. Palawan is actually chock-a-block with resorts and unspoiled beaches. If diving is your thing, there is the UNESCO World Heritage Site Tubbataha Reef in Cagayancillo, home to over a thousand species of corals, marine animals and plant life. Another good diving spot is Coron, where one can see sunken World War II ships along with the exotic flora and fauna. Diving fees range from around PhP5,000-10,000, depending on the area, the time and length of the dive. (photo at right from the Department of Tourism website)

For busy folks like this writer, there is island hopping. Rent a boat for around PhP800-1,200 and you can roam around Starfish, Snake, Luli (“lulubog, lilitaw”, since its appearance depends on the tide) and other islands at Honda Bay, as well as the Y Beach and Siete Picados in Coron. In Coron, too, would you get to visit Makinit Hot Springs, a nature marvel because it has salt water and considered to heal many bone and joint ailments. Another is UNESCO World Heritage Site, the St. Paul’s Subterranean National Park, or the Underground River.

On land, Palawan does not disappoint. For nature lovers, a visit to the Puerto Princesa’s Butterfly Garden, Crocodile Farm and Calauit Sanctuary in Busuanga allows you to see the island’s beautiful and unique plant and animal. Damage: around PhP100-800, depending on the area and how much you want to see.

After a tiring day of water and land adventures, food next comes to mind. Highly recommended seafood restaurants are Ka Lui and Balinsasayaw, both located in Puerto Princesa, where fresh seafood are served along with sumptuous fruits, good company and great ambience. Actually, seafood specialties can be found everywhere in the island, cooked fresh from the sea. Seafood restaurants charge around PhP200 for a meal, but trust me, it is well worth it.

Because Palawan became one of the destinations of the Vietnamese boat people who fled their country, it is not surprising that their culture were also integrated even in the food. Streets are teeming with chao long (noodle stew) places, serving great Vietnamese noodle stew and other dishes better tasting and way cheaper than Manila’s. A bowl of chao long (around PhP35) with garlic French bread (trivia: Vietnam was a French colony thus the transfer of cooking know-how), and coffee shake completes my Palawan visit. For a bit of culture along with good Vietnamese food, one should visit Viet Ville in Puerto Princesa. This village is home to several Vietnamese settlers who decided to stay in the country, purchased by the Catholic Church as a gift/aid to the Vietnamese settlers. After feasting on good Vietnamese noodles and other specialties, go visit homes making rice noodles and French bread (for sale), along with handicrafts and other items. My relatives usually compel me to bring a box of French bread (around PhP5/piece) and rice noodles (around PhP50-100/kilo) when I go home. Speaking of pasalubongs, they also have good cashew nuts, dried seafood, jewelry and handicrafts guaranteed to be appreciated by the receiver. (viet-ville pix from bambua-palawan website)

If seafood and Vietnamese food is not your thing, there is the chicken place in Palawan called Chicken Inato, which serves good chicken inasal, and Dang Maria’s, which serves a fusion of Filipino and Italian dishes. The pizza junkie in me totally adored their vegetarian pizza.

The island is also home to a diverse mix of people, from natives called Pala’wan, tribal people and settlers from around the country. All offer their unique brand of dialects and culture, but everyone can converse in Tagalog/Filipino (declared as their common language), as well as a dialect called Cuyunin (some words I got to understand and use working there) and smattering of their own dialects. I had a great time with these people and experiencing their culture, dreams and character in a land unique and exciting.

Palawan truly offers a diverse experience of sea, land and culture. Natives always talk of the so-called “come back curse”—once you were there, you have to come back once again. With an island like Palawan, who thought curses are always bad?

Monday, December 3, 2007

working hard for the moolah

one of the banes in a government employee's existence (apart from the not so good salaries and office politics) is being asked to attend budget hearings, where we serve as backstop or technical assistants to our head of agency, at the same time being a tiring and mind-numbing job we do while sitting.

this usually happens after july 30 of every year, where our chief executive passes the general appropriations act (or GAA) for the perusal and subsequent approval of both houses of the legislature--because they are mandated by the constitution to have the control over the country's budget.

formal meaning: your big boss comes in and defends the budget for your agency, justifying why you need to have this much money, what have you done with the money given to you the previous year, etc. informally, the head of agency gets to be subjected to questions not really related to the budget. since EO 464 mandates that heads of agencies have to seek the palace's clearance before appearing before the legislature, budget hearings become a venue for legislators to ask the questions they are dying to ask these big bosses. especially if your agency is "controversial". you know what i mean.

i should know, because for the past two years, i've been there.

in my agency's case, we do not just attend these hearings once, but twice. one for our own budget, and the other for the macroeconomic assumptions (or macro assumptions) with other agencies which makes up the government's economic team.

the macro assumptions is actually the start of the budget hearing season, as it gives legislators the overview of the budget--how much will be spent, how will it be financed, where will the bulk of the budget go, among others. it also features presentations on the country' economic situation-- like the overall economic growth, the state of the country's key sectors and other economic indicators, and the revenue situation--basically, how much the government getting as revenues and stuff. after these presentations, legislators take turns in asking the heads of agencies to clarify points and other concerns.

sometimes, these questions are not usually related to the budget. these are the questions i was referring to above related to the informal definitions.

whenever the house, the econ team and the agency goes to the panel twice--first, to the committee level (in our case, the committee on finance or appropriations) and then to the plenary of the said house (where the sponsoring congressman or senator ends up answering the questions posed to him by his/her fellow legislators). and whatever the committee or the plenary level, this means for any government employee a lot of wasted time waiting and waiting and more waiting.

to prepare for these hearings, i usually have a jacket to ward off the cold, a bottle of water, some snacks (usually candies/gum and cookies) and a stack of work-related stuff or gradschool readings to keep me awake (and sane). some of my officemates have a laptop to either serve as repository of needed information and (if the hall is wi-fi ready), check their office email to receive or send urgent outputs. a gradschool professor told me she has stacks of exams and papers to grade while these hearings go on. some of us have thick novels to read. anything to ensure that each of us are awake and ready to give the needed information to our bosses.

for this year, the macro assumptions hearings at the committee level of both the house and the senate took two days each (yep, you read that right--two days). the same number of days applied for the plenary level (including the sponsorship speech). for the agency, methinks it took us one day (i'm not that sure, because i was asked to do something else during the plenary hearing at the house).

at the house for the macro hearing, we start at 9am, and end at around 7pm, with a break for lunch. good thing the committee was nice enough to provide people with snacks and coffee (believe me, waiting+awfully cold committee halls=extreme sleepiness). because congressmen are more numerous than senators, these hearings can go on even during the plenary sessions (as long as the committee chair is present). those who would like to come in and ask questions are welcome to enter these hearings, ask their questions and leave. some of them come back if they want to ask more. usually, our prayers during these times range from sana wala nang dumating na congressman to Lord, sana hinaan yung aircon to please, Lord, sana matumbok na nya yung tanong nya.

and because these congressmen represent congressional districts, there are a lot of parochial questions (read: individual projects and programs in their area, district allocations, etc) in these hearings. since the agency is also in charge of approving government projects, our people at the public investment and project monitoring usually have a matrix of projects and the congressional district where they are located, just in case the congressmen ask for "his/her" project.

some of them use these parochial questions to call for additional funding for their district which usually end up in grandstanding--and at the end of the tirade, have no question at all. some also end up asking totally nonsensical questions--these usually end up as private jokes between spectators. and there are some who know what they are talking about (or their staff did a good job researching), ask sensible questions and help the agencies do their jobs better. lucky are their constituents, i say.

it is quite different at the senate at the macro hearing. we started at around 10am and end up around noon. this may be due to the fact that there are only 23 senators (22 if you don't count trillianes), and they are all needed during plenary sessions. at the same time, they don't have parochial concerns (except maybe, for their provinces or district of origin, or pet projects), the questions of that ilk are trimmed to a minimum. and (at least in this case), senators have read up (or their staff did their job well), it is not as mind-numbing, tiring or grandstanding-laden.

one particular sponsorship speech i liked during the plenary hearing at the senate was from a lady senator who said that she will only allow the minority floor leader to interpellate (ask questions) the agency she is defending. the others who dare to ask questions would earn her "undying enmity". the senators followed her advise--with the minority floor leaders, who happened to be her co-chair in the said committee, only commenting--and the budget was deemed submitted (or approved at that level). sana sya na lang and nag-defend ng budget namin.

however, the senator who defended our budget (and the budget of the other members of the economic team) was not lacking in skill, despite his age. imagine that he was at it for the last two days (he also delivered the sponsorship speech for the macro assumptions, plus interpellations). astig di ba?

after everything has been approved, the senate and congress comes together and resolves issues on their versions of the budget. when everything has been resolved, it now goes to the chief executive for signature (and by the way, s/he also has the right of line veto--she can strike out parts of the budget), and if s/he does sign it, we now have a budget.

we all work hard for the moolah. and it ain't that easy.

(photo credits: me. this is during one of the lull at the plenary hearing at congress last year. i even got the ire of the sargent-at-arms there, because picture-taking with flash is not allowed at the gallery. i should have turned off the flash.)