Under a Blue Sky
When my friend, Lory Paredes Tangonan, invited me to her beach house in El Nido, all I could think of were blue skies and the cool azure waters of Palawan.
I had been to El Nido in 2003 and stayed at the posh El Nido Resort which delivered nothing less than a comfortable and perfect holiday. But I had no inkling El Nido had limited electric power. On this visit, I got a glimpse of the real El Nido.
I arrived at the island after an hour-long plane ride from Manila, followed by a six-hour bus ride from Puerto Princesa to El Nido. Like a James Bond film, the caretaker’s son JR met me at the El Nido bus terminal and asked, “Kayo po si Ms. Maida?”
I nodded and joined him on the motorcycle. We rode to the beach and boarded a small banca to Lory’s place.
Upon arriving on the island, I immediately spotted Lory’s husband, Dr. Greg Tangonan, the founder of the Ateneo Innovation Center (AIC), and his students right at the beachfront. They were measuring wave action with the help of their mobile phones. A practical application of this technology is to detect if the seas are suitable for boat travel or not.
Tangonan’s AIC team was comprised of three students: Jesse Caparangca, a Filipino; Antonio Recio, from Spain; and Guillaume Girardot from France. Watching the innovative guru and his team at work, this non-scientist listened as he explains exactly what they are doing.
“We are demonstrating a new ’black box recorder’ for safe boating in tourist areas. We measure the acceleration of the boat caused by the waves,” he begins. In a country with a bad track record of ferry accidents, this black box can be extremely helpful in preventing boating mishaps in the future.
But what amazed me was how they used standard technology found in smartphones to do these tests.
Dr Tangonan points out another impressive feat, “These guys are doing these experiments in paradise.”
The next three days lend themselves to living green in Talikwas, the El Nido resthouse that the Tangonans shared with Lory’s cousin Shy.
The Tangonans, the three students, two of their friends, and I embarked on the joys and challenges of living in an island without electricity. But for Tangonan and his AIC gang, it was obvious that no electricity meant “no problem.” They were a multi-cultural gang of engineers and innovative problems solvers.
For me, it was like a four night, real-life “The Big Bang Theory”-meets-“Survivor” adventure. But geeks and non-geeks alike, we all worked as a team developing alternative green solutions, which resorts, rest houses and other Philippine tourism agencies can learn from:
1. Sun-kissed electric power
Talikwas is powered by 160 watts of power from three solar panels. Tangonan explains, “We charge three car batteries with the solar panels during the day. Each battery power is used for LED lights at night, a UV filter to clean drinking water, and charging of communication devices like iPhones, smart phones, and portable computing devices.”
The practical application of solar power has gone a long way. Tangonan points out, “The explosion of low cost components for USB charging iPhones and iPads in cars works well for solar applications. We can now do so many things because the car and solar systems are battery based.”
It does not end there. Trust this team to figure out how to have high speed WiFi in this island with no power. The wise professor explains, “The smartphone can also share the wireless connection. So we can be at the beach and have high speed WiFi connection at really low cost.”
2. Dance for rain
I learned the secret to great healthy, bouncy hair in El Nido—rainwater! Tangonan uses rain catchers to collect rainwater. Instead of importing water from town, rain is collected in three big tanks. Rainwater is used for quick showers, or baths using the age-old “tabo” system. Instead of flushing the toilet, we use a tabo to save water. During my stay, there was enough water for 12 people’s needs.
Our drinking water was also rainwater treated by the UV filter systems. There are 7,107 islands in the Philippines. There are numerous resorts without suitable water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. As a result, they import water to their island.
But collecting rainwater as they do in Talikwas is an easy and cheap solution many resorts can use. On the last day of my four-night stay in the island, the rain poured. It replenished all the water we had used during our stay. Best of all, the rainwater left me with shiny, bouncy, manageable hair! I later learned that rainwater is soft water. It does not have heavy chemicals found in hard water, allowing you to lather more and rinse off the shampoo better. It leaves your hair truly clean, shiny, and healthy. No wonder people have been washing their hair with rainwater for years.
3. UV-filtered drinking water
By using a UV filter, rainwater is treated, making it suitable for drinking. There is no need to haul in bottles of mineral water, just a one-time purchase of the UV filter to produce clean drinking water.
4. Portable power
Another challenge in living on an island without power is to making sure that boatmen can navigate their way at night. Mang Roni and his son JR are skilled in maneuvering the boat with ease, even on the darkest night. But the three students have made it much easier for them.
Tangonan taught Jesse, Guillaume and Antonio how to use a 12-volt motorcycle battery to power the spotlights. Using a simple Lock & Lock plastic case they managed to put the battery, the bulb and wires allowing Mang Roni to take this spotlight contraption wherever they go. The battery can be recharged using solar power or by bringing it to town to be recharged. The students also wired it in such a way that it functions as a portable smart phone charger. We tested it on our trip back from town on our last night in El Nido. Judging from the thrill in Mang Roni’s eyes and the undeniable pride he had in holding his portable power box, this innovative creation was definitely a huge success.
4. Consuming fresh and local produce
Not having electricity means everything must be consumed fresh in the islands. There was no refrigerator to store food and leftovers. For breakfast, Lory and the island caretaker Manang Flor served fresh buco juice in shell, instead of powdered or packaged orange juice. Not having a refrigerator meant buying fresh meat, fruits, and vegetables everyday to serve guests. The benefit for guests was consuming only fresh and natural food, so they can leave the island feeling healthier.
5. Eating Pinoy-style
With three international guests, Lory figured that eating kamayan style (with bare hands) would be a treat. While the boys were out at a nearby beach snorkeling and doing their experiments, Lory, Flor and I headed to the market. We created a festive spread of inihaw na baboy, ensaladang talong, kamatis at manggang hilaw, steamed shrimps, adobong pusit, fresh fish and rice. We laid out the spread on banana leaves. The boys arrived, initially confused at not finding any plate and utensils on the table. I instructed them to wash their hands. We laughed and ate with our hands.
Lory told the boys, “The palms of your hands should remain clean at the end of the meal. Only the fingertips will get dirty.” The otherwise passionate and chatty Spaniard was rather quiet, as he negotiated lunch using both hands. We managed to wipe out all the food. The best part was simply throwing away the banana leaves. It was biodegradable. Plus, there were no plates or utensils that needed to be washed. We also did not consume any of the precious rainwater provisions. In the end, this proved to be the most memorable and most enjoyable meal for the international guests.
Biodegradable items are retuned back to the land. Banana peels, leaves, and other biodegradable products are thrown back to the land. The garden at Talikwas is lush, green and in bloom. But it is not all manicured. It is a functional garden with flowers, fruits, and leaves useful for its residents and guests. It reminded me that this is how nature intended gardens to be.
7. Animal entertainment and cultural enrichment
At this day and age when entertainment usually comes from TV, the Internet and computers, what would happen to students in an island without electric power?
When they were not creating devices or measuring waves during the day, the boys were entertained by the clownfish, schools of fish, and corals. We explored the beauty of The Secret Lagoon, Big Lagoon and Small lagoon. We took naps. Jesse and Antonio took turns diving over and over into El Nido’s clear waters.
Mind you, the group of eight had not been close friends before this trip. But we spent much time laughing and swapping stories. Lory spent one afternoon exploring the forest behind the house. She reveled in the towering trees. But she also gushed in delight at seeing monkeys.
For me, it was a quiet thrill to sit in a hammock while butterflies fluttered about. For the Europeans, the encounter with a tuko (gecko) was a first. Prior to coming to Manila, they had not heard the distinct, “Tu-ko!” sound reverberating in the evening.
One night the three boys came face to face with the tuko. They had been warned that if a tuko latches on you, the only solution was showing it a mirror. The three boys armed themselves with a fork, a candle and much shrieking. No tuko or foreign students were harmed in this encounter. The tuko left them and walked away. The next night, Antonio felt inspired enough to try to get a recording of the tuko sound as his ring tone. But every time he jumped up to record it, the tuko instantly became silent. Jesse came to his rescue and captured the tuko sound on his first attempt.
Curious about the wooden sungka sitting in the house, the boys asked to learn to play this traditional Filipino game. Lazy afternoons were spent competing against each other, or even playing with Aling Flor’s 10-year-old daughter Baby, El Nido’s village champion on sungka.
On our last night, we gathered around the bonfire by the beach after dinner. We laughed and shared stories. But most of the time, we were in awe of the brightly sparkling stars on the heavens. None of us were experts in identifying stars, yet we continued to observe and marvel at their brilliance.
We noticed another light show happening on the water and the sand. “They are called Dyno Flagelites,” Lory tells the group. They appear to be blue glowing speckles. “When they are agitated, they become charged.” We noticed them glistening in the sand. Then, one by one we started moon walking on the sand, “oohing and aaaahing,” at the trace of blue it left on the sand. We glided on the sand as if we were ice-skating. We walked backwards. We instantly became children supercharged by this discovery. I did something different. I lay on the sand moving my arms and legs simultaneously to create supercharged blue sand angels. By the end of the evening, we were all giddy children.
9. Sleeping under the stars
While Talikwas had comfortable mattresses and beds for all to sleep on, we opted to sleep outdoors. We crawled under the covers of our sleeping bags. Our eyes were glued to the skies to gaze at the stars. We shrieked when we saw shooting stars for a split second, then quickly remembered to silently whisper a wish to the great universe. After counting three shooting stars, I feel into deep slumber. I awakened at the wee hours to the bright illumination from the moonshine shining on me. I acknowledged the beauty of the moon then fall back to sleep. It was morning when I woke, with the rays of the sun hitting my face. Antonio, Jesse, Lory and I greet each other, “Good morning.”
Indeed, it is a good morning. I am one happy camper. Antonio’s thick Spanish accent sums up a thought all four us were thinking, “Isn’t it amazing that my parents are looking at the same stars and sun?”
Yes, Antonio it is indeed a wonderful world and the least we can do is to be green travelers: to explore solar power, to use rainwater, to revel in nature, and to leave paradise as a better place. •
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