Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Surviving Sinulog 2008, part 4 (the search for the black Sto. Niño de Cebu)

continued from part 3

Last January 12, 2008, I and my very pregnant wife braved the heavy traffic and ridiculously scarce parkspace availability in the Cebu Parian district to attend a lecture entitled Sa Karaang Tawo Palangga: The search for the black Sto. Niño de Cebu (Beloved by Old Folks: The search for the black Sto. Niño de Cebu) at the Casa Gorordo Museum. The speaker was Mr. Ernesto (Bhen) Chua, a member of Hambin (Hamiling Bilin), a newly formed heritage advocacy composed of the first batch of graduates of the Certificate Course on Cebuano Heritage Studies initiated by the USC Department of History and the Cebuano Studies Center.

The blurb promoting the lecture was mouth-watering. Is the image in the Basilica del Sto Niño the original one given by Magellan in 1521? Is the image originally black?

the antiquity of Sto. Niño de Cebu

The lecture affirmed that the Sto Niño revered in the shrine in the Basilica today is the one chronicled by Pigafetta to have been given by Ferdinand Magellan to the native queen who was baptized “Juana” in 1521, presumed lost in history when the Spaniards left and then rediscovered by a Basque soldier named Juan de Camus of the expedition of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi on April 1565. Since then, written accounts pointed to the Sto Niño as having been venerated continuously, predating another equally famous Holy Child icon, the Infant Jesus of Prague.

In the Open Forum that followed, the authenticity of the icon was debated hotly. Although there is no record of the Sto. Niño ever leaving Cebu, local folklore narrates of stories of the statue being smuggled out in a galleon back to Spain but “miraculously” returning to its niche in the church thereafter. Could the “reappearance” be just a coverup replacement to assuage the native Indios for a lost icon?

Canon EOS 350D, 1/640s, f/5.0, 44mm, ISO 100
An image of the Sto. Niño, at the Sinulog 2006 Grand Parade, Cebu City, the Philippines

The heat of the discourse turned up a notch when the subject of scientific analysis was debated on the floor by several teachers from the University of San Carlos whom my wife and I personally know. (I used to teach MS Chemistry there and my wife, who holds a PhD in Chemistry, still is a professor there). We have to bite our tongue when a colleague of the university ardently claimed that even if the Church allowed it, carbon dating cannot be an accurate verification of age. Hey, the image is only about 500 years old and there are safeguards to ensure the validity of the test! But we kept our silence. The discussion was getting nowhere anyway and we would not expect the Augustinian priests to submit the image for authenticity tests anytime soon.

the color of Sto. Niño de Cebu

That said, why do prewar pictures of the Sto Niño de Cebu show an image of a black child? Several antique statues of the Sto Niño also are black or brown. Old folks who grew up before the war still maintain that Cebuanos have always been venerating a black image hence their question, why is the image now fair? Was there a switch?

I love the explanation which followed! Sometime in the early 1800s, an Augustinian friar, presumbably of high rank, got depressed. In the absence of lithium or prozac pills, the priest vented out his melancholia by having the Sto Niño painted black. I asked later on why were there no records noting the sudden change from fair to black? Well, understandably, first-hand literature are just hard to find. Probably too, in a time when faith literally had to be blind, questioning a priest was not an option lest you be deemed heretic.

What is known is this. In the later part of World War II, the image fell from its niche, chipping an eye and scratching a cheek. Augustinian priests Pablo Alava and Leandro Moran took the image to the Redemptorist monastery for safekeeping. When a Belgian nun of St Theresa’s College wiped the image, part of the black paint came off revealing what the complexion was all along, to be fairly “white”. First person testimonies attest that after the war, Fr. Pablo asked renowned artist and lexicographer Dr. Rosario Trosdal to restore the image to its original flesh color. Dr. Trosdal, who also happened to be one of the privileged camareras or religious ladies-in-waiting of the holy image, personally narrated the events to Bhen Chua in his research in 2005. As a constant reminder of its “color” history, traces of black paint were left on the image’s forehead.

Sto Niño de Cebu
Canon PowerShot S40, 2.5s, f/8, 7.1mm
an 18th/19th century antique Sto. Niño from Bohol, part of my personal collection of devotional antiques in Cebu, the Philippines

While it would have been romantic to claim that in Cebu came a tradition of a black Sto. Nino, the legend of the black child came to stop.

Today, the original image, still sits in a chapel in the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño, shielded by bullet-proof glass, but forever close in the heart of Cebuanos and the nation. Faith, after all, cannot be measured by the physical.

Next: Part 5

Here are more pictures of the Sinulog 2008 grand parade.

tribu Kalimudan
Canon EOS 350D, 1/400s, f/5.0, 160mm, ISO 100
the Tribu Kalimudan of Sultan Kudarat, at the Sinulog 2008 Grand Parade, Cebu City, the Philippines

tribu Kalimudan (2)
Canon EOS 350D, 1/160s, f/5.6, 52mm, ISO 100
the Tribu Kalimudan of Sultan Kudarat, at the Sinulog 2008 Grand Parade, Cebu City, the Philippines

Tribu Kalimudan (3)
Canon EOS 350D, 1/250s, f/5.6, 28mm, ISO 100
the Tribu Kalimudan of Sultan Kudarat, at the Sinulog 2008 Grand Parade, Cebu City, the Philippines

Le Dionaldo
phototip: I like how the dancers’ faces follow a directional clockwise curve that eventually leads up to the girl hjolding the Sto Nino.
Canon EOS 350D, 1/400s, f/10, 135mm, ISO 800
Le Dionaldo, lead dancer of the contingent of the Hambabalud Festival of Jimalalud, Negros Oriental, doing their presentation at the Sinulog grand parade, Cebu City, the Philippines

Pintaflores (3)
Canon EOS 350D, 1/30s, f/5.6, 35mm, ISO 100
the Tribu Pintaflores of San Carlos City, Negros Occidental, at the Sinulog 2008 Grand Parade, Cebu City, the Philippines

Pintaflores (2)
Canon EOS 350D, 1/30s, f/5.6, 37mm, ISO 100
the Tribu Pintaflores of San Carlos City, Negros Occidental, at the Sinulog 2008 Grand Parade, Cebu City, the Philippines

Gloriane Solina
Canon EOS 350D, 1/100s, f/5.6, 43mm, ISO 100
Gloriane Solina of the Kaogma Festival of Camarines Sur, at the Sinulog 2008 Grand Parade, Cebu City, the Philippines

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Surviving Sinulog 2008, part 3

continued from part 2

Amidst Cebu City government’s active propaganda focusing mostly on the commercial side of the Sinulog event (see!), the Basilica Minore del Sto Niño continues to dispense customary religious rites attendant to the feastday. On the second Thursday of the January, the religious festivities kick off with the novena dawn procession and daylong masses. With an endless stream of visitors trying to get inside the Basilica, the church gates even have to be regulated for safety reasons. And the queue to kiss the Sto Niño image at the shrine is next to impossible, snaking so long that it will probably take you 3 hours to reach the altar.

the Fluvial Parade
On the Friday of the Sinulog week, the image of Sto Niño is, by tradition, brought to St. Joseph Church in Mandaue City for an overnight vigil. The Holy Child is joined by the Virgin of Guadalupe icon of the Guadalupe Church in Cebu. Early in the morning of Saturday, the images are paraded in a religious procession from the Mandaue Church to the Ouano wharf for the celebrated fluvial parade. Luck would be on my side in this occasion as I work in a place that conveniently overlooks the wharf. Obviously, it would be something else too to get on one of the hundred boats or so that accompany the “Spanish galleon” bringing the Sto Niño back to Cebu City. A ceremonial reenactment of the baptism of Queen Juana in the Pilgrim Center of the Basilica awaits the cortege, followed by a mass service. Sinulog performances by select contingents cap the rites with a flourish.

the Solemn Procession
When it comes to religious fervor, nothing beats the grand solemn procession that Saturday afternoon though. The mass of people that traditionally trail the carrozas or line up along the streets are estimated to exceed two million in the last few years, rain or shine. Photo ops are practically a-begging. However, I have a different commitment and cannot play photographer. In the past 10 years or so, I join the solemn procession with family. Stopping and shooting along the way, or carrying the heavy camera gear in a crowded procession is not much of an option. It is also customary for our family to hold a mini reunion for light meals at the parking lot of the nearby Cathedral. We always try to squeeze ourselves in the front end of the procession so that we finish early and have an hour or so to rest and wait for the Sto Niño carroza to pass by (the Metropolitan Cebu Cathedral is two blocks away from the Basilica Minore del Sto Niño). Being part of the sea of people waving hands, releasing balloons, and praying your intentions as the Sto Niño passes is a moving highlight that never fails to touch even the most cynical of souls.

As expected, crowd control during the procession is a problem. Every year, the city tries to modify street entries and field more students and police authorities to man the cordons, often to mixed results. There are just too many people who would want to cram the vicinity around the Basilica to hear the holy mass and join in the frenzied Sinulog prayer dance afterwards. I think that would be one experience I really would like to try. And maybe, just maybe, I can squeeze in some photography too. Hope springs eternal.

Next: Part 4

Here are more pictures of the Sinulog 2008 grand parade.

phototip: Anticipate the action. Don’t get trampled by the contingent!
Canon EOS 350D, 1/50s, f/22, 55mm, ISO 400
the Tribu Sinanduloy of Tangub City, 1st Prize Streetdancing and 2nd Prize Sinulog-based Category, at the Sinulog grand parade, Cebu City, the Philippines
The Tribu Sinanduloy of Tangub City is a crowd pleaser. Mere walking does not do it for them when moving. They perform and dance even when there are no judges. No wonder they won 1st Prize in the Streetdancing.

Sultan Kudarat
phototip: Focus on dancers who are all out in their performance. Their smiles are worth the wait.
Canon EOS 350D, 1/250s, f/5.6, 49mm, ISO 100
the Tribu Kalimudan of Sultan Kudarat, at the Sinulog 2008 Grand Parade, Cebu City, the Philippines
The Tribu Kalimudan came from Sultan Kudarat, a predominantly Muslim province. The province probably felt that they can promote tourism much effectively by joining in the Sinulog. They acquitted themselves beautifully and captured the admiration of the crowd and the photographers.

phototip: Rain produces wet ground which is useful in reflecting light.
Canon EOS 350D, 1/400s, f/4.5, 90mm, ISO 800
the Tribu Iliganon from Iligan (4th Place, Free Interpretation Category), at the Sinulog 2008 grand parade, Cebu City, the Philippines
The Pintado-inspired body “tattoo” look was popularized in recent years by the multi-awarded Basakanon tribe whose choreographer cried foul that they have been imitated by at least 7 contingents this year. Well, imitation is flattery but each presentation was different in its own way. The Tribu Iliganon, for instance, gave a more belligerent scary feel, making people recall of 300 or to a lesser extent, Apocalypto.

Canon EOS 350D, 1/250s, f/5, 180mm, ISO 100
a dancer of Tribu Mandauehan of Mandaue City, at the Sinulog 2008 grand parade, Cebu City, the Philippines
She’s not the lead dancer but like many others, Sinulog is not a time to be shy. Most Filipinos do like to be photographed.

Canon EOS 350D, 1/100s, f/5.6, 55mm, ISO 100
the Tribu Kalimudan of Sultan Kudarat, at the Sinulog 2008 Grand Parade, Cebu City, the Philippines

phototip: Play with the focusing. DOF play can be interesting. Personally, I would have liked to focus the smiling girl behind the one in the center but I was slow in changing the focus.
Canon EOS 350D, 1/400s, f/5.6, 300mm, ISO 100
the Tribu Kalimudan of Sultan Kudarat, at the Sinulog 2008 Grand Parade, Cebu City, the Philippines

Balangay Basak Pardo
phototip: Fast shutter speed can freeze moments. I like how the beads of the dancer are caught midair.
Canon EOS 350D, 1/400s, f/5.0, 200mm, ISO 100
the Balangay Basak Pardo of Cebu City, at the Sinulog 2008 Grand Parade, Cebu City, the Philippines

Next: Part 4

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Surviving Sinulog 2008, part 2

continued from part 1

The Sinulog of Cebu, by most account, is already synonymous with the grand streetdancing scheduled every third Sunday of January. Originally, when the festival was first held in 1980, the parade was organized with the Church’s blessing, after all, the Senor Sto Nino is celebrating its feastday that day.

Eventually, the touristy and commercial nature of the street party overcame its faithful significance, and consequently, the Church distanced itself altogether. Rightfully so, the city government, through the Sinulog Foundation, took full control. Now, the city has already built several programs immediately after New Year, such that excitement is built up until the most awaited culminating Sunday parade.

Interestingly, despite my keen interest in photography, I still have not watched most of these festive highlights, including the traditional beauty pageant Ms Cebu, a pop-song contest, the firework displays and any of the nightly entertainment and cultural activities.

I also always skip the popular elimination contests done the on weekend before the Sinulog parade, the Sinulog sa Kabataan- Lalawigan for schools from the province and Sinulog sa Kabataan- Dakbayan for schools from Cebu City. Here you would be able to check out the many youth or school dance troupes who would like to join the Sunday grand parade, which the organizers would have to trim down to a more manageable number (I think they only accept the top 3).

I would very much to photograph any of these affairs but work or personal matters always seem to be my excuse. (I hate to admit that it could be indolence!)

Next: Part 3

Here are more pictures of the Sinulog 2008 grand parade.

Canon EOS 350D, 1/3200s, f/5.0, 230mm, ISO 800
the Tribu Sinanduloy of Tangub City, 1st Prize Streetdancing and 2nd Prize Sinulog-based Category, at the Sinulog grand parade, Cebu City, the Philippines
The Tribu Sinanduloy of Tangub City was gunning for its fourth consecutive grand prize crown under the Sinulog-based Category. The contingent fell short and only came in second to the Tribu Silog from Alcoy. Still not bad especially that Sinanduluy also grabbed 1st Prize in Streetdancing.

phototip: Fill the frame.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.008s, f/5.6, 55mm, ISO 100
the Tribu Kalimudan of Sultan Kudarat, at the Sinulog 2008 Grand Parade, Cebu City, the Philippines
I actually enjoyed the performance of the Tribu Kalimudan of Sultan Kudarat. The presentation was what we call performance-level. They did not place though which was strange but then competition was really tough.

Canon EOS 350D, 0.005s, f/5.6, 205mm, ISO 800
a dancer of the Tribu Iliganon from Iligan (4th Place, Free Interpretation Category), at the Sinulog 2008 grand parade, Cebu City, the Philippines
The Tribu Iliganon from Iligan turned heads. The male dancers sported piercings, face and body paint and even went bald, save for a ponytail on top of their heads. The contingent finished 4th Place in the Free Interpretation Category.

Canon EOS 350D, 0.017s, f/5.6, 120mm, ISO 100
the Kaogma Festival contingent from Camarines Sur, at the Sinulog 2008 grand parade, Cebu City, the Philippines
One of the most crowd-pleasing contingents was the troupe representing the Kaogma Festival of Camarines Sur. Wearing hot pants in flaming red, tamed only by a diaphanous overskirt open in the front, the girls were most flirtatious. I am sure some conservative people were squirming.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Surviving Sinulog 2008, part 1

The most grand and most popular of all festivals in the Philippines culminated yesterday, the Sinulog of Cebu. The day-long spectacle in the streets of Cebu City is long awaited by everyone, locals and visitors alike. Already in its 28th year, it has grown from being a mere homegrown affair to the single biggest annual tourist event in the country. I did not even attend the first Sinulog parade in 1980- I still was in grade school then. It was only in high school that I took the habit of watching the street celebration with friends. But one can only witness the spectacle too often and by the time I finished college and started working in the 90s, I got bored, lost yinterest and skipped watching the celebration altogether. I could always watch it on TV.

It wasn’t until I joined flickr in May 2005 that I began to value what Sinulog can offer. So in January 2006 – the Sinulog grand parade falls on every 3rd Sunday of January – I began rediscovering the fun.

The Sinulog is a photographer’s dream. Regardless of your camera, you will find the myriad of opportunities in the grand parade mind-boggling. The color, the action and the atmosphere are difficult to match.

phototip: Be alert in capturing subjects with intense facial expressions.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.005s, f/5.6, 31mm, ISO 100
the Sinirangan contingent of Eastern Samar during the Sinulog mardi gras, Cebu City, the Philippines

While it is admirable to aim high, winning in the contest, even placing in the top 10 of the 5 categories, is difficult. Every year, hundreds join the contest – this year about 500 photocontest IDs were sold – and you will be jostling in a crowded space of renowned local and national photojournalists and professional photographers. if you want to be discouraged some more, just look at the winning entries of the previous years. Intimidating is an appropriate description for that feeling, insidious and persistent. Check out for instance the pictures in the official website at or even in this flick account that is probably uploaded by the Sinulog Foundation.

It is funny though that of all the fabulous pictures that won in the Sinulog, the contributor or contributors in wikipedia chose one of my 2006 pics in the Sinulog page ( I don’t even consider this a knockout shot. I also did not get any attribution from Wiki, which somehow reminds me that maybe I should complain and ask for one. It is still stealing if it is without permission and credits right?

Canon EOS 350D, 0.002s, f/5.6, 18mm, ISO 100
the Sinirangan contingent of Eastern Samar during the Sinulog mardi gras, Cebu City, the Philippines

Next: Part 2

Here are some initial posts of this year’s Sinulog grand parade.

phototip: I like how the dancers’ faces follow a directional clockwise curve that eventually leads up to the girl holding the Sto Nino.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.002s, f/14, 130mm, ISO 800
the contingent of the Hambabalud Festival of Jimalalud, Negros Oriental, doing their presentation at the Sinulog grand parade, Cebu City, the Philippines

Darlene Mae
phototip: A relatively slow shutter speed, in this case 1/40s, can create interesting blurry lines of subjects that are in motion.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.025s, f/5.6, 35mm, ISO 100
the Sinulog Festival Queen - Ms. Darlene Mae Tambis, Tribu Pintaflores of San Carlos City, Negros Occidental, at the Sinulog 2008 Grand Parade, Cebu Cit, the Philippines

UP Sentenaryo
Canon EOS 350D, 0.013s, f/20, 55mm, ISO 200
the Tribu UP Sentenaryo of the UP Visayas Cebu HS during the Sinulog grand parade, Cebu City, the Philippines

Ana Andrada
phototip: A tight frame on a pretty face always works.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.001s, f/5.0, 140mm, ISO 100
the Sinulog Festival Queen 2nd Runnerup- Ms. Ana Andrada of Tribu Mandauehanon of Mandaue City, at the Sinulog 2008 grand parade, Cebu City, the Philippines

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Friday, January 18, 2008

48 hours in Diego Suarez, Madagascar (Day 2)

continued from Day 1

Montagne d’Ambre

We woke up early at The Nature Lodge, excited about our itinerary that morning, the Amber Mountain, or as they say it there, the Parc Montagne d’Ambre. I did my research and found out that it is the most visited destination in North Madagascar being one of the most biologically diverse places in the country. We knew we would be venturing inside a jungle so we dressed for it, in sneakers ready to trudge on muck, in jeans to fend off mosquitoes or whatever insect that might take a liking for human flesh and with caps on to keep us somewhat dry. Tropical forests are hot, humid and wet.

The road was unpaved, jagged and muddy but our experienced driver (Eric, cel +261 331292765, about $30-50/day in 2005) was adept in maneuvering his old Citroen over mud, boulders and gigantic tree roots. In 30 minutes, by about 8AM, we already found ourselves at a small building fronting the Park. Imagine our chagrin when the park secretary informed us that we could not visit the park without a guide and that all guides were already bookedZ. Apparently we should have made advance arrangements as there are only a few guides. We asked our driver to help us cajole and implore the staff in finding us a guide. For what seemed like an hour we waited – okay, it was just 15 minutes really but we were scared white – until the secretary came back with her brother Angeluc. He volunteered to be our guide. So off we went.

Fantastic luck. Razafimanantsoa Angeluc (family name comes first in Malagasy) had an encyclopedic knowledge of the place, born from someone who grew up in the area. He was loquacious and told us that after high school he went to Tana and worked as a research assistant in a biology lab in a university. I think he studied there too for awhile. He was now working as a Tana-based guide specializing on wildlife tours in any point in Madagascar. He mentioned gigs with international photographers and videographers. Maybe so. His English was fluent and most of all, he knew the scientific names of most plants, animals and insects in the forest reserve. Taking down notes of his commentaries was difficult because he had a lot to say!

The national park was created in 1958 and covers 18,200 hectares of prominent volcanic massif. The billboard at the entrance proclaims that it has 75 different species of birds, 25 species of mammals, and 59 species of reptiles. The latter group includes frogs, geckoes, chameleons and snakes. Of the seven lemur species in the park, the most notable are the crowned lemur and Sanford's brown lemur. I did not have any telephoto lens then so my lemur pictures were miserable.

Personally, I was dying to see the chameleons. Imagine a lizard which could change colors in response to light, heat, and other stimuli! The island is home to 54 or two-thirds of all the world's chameleon species.

Canon EOS 350D, 0.002s, f/5.6, 45mm, ISO 100
a chameleon in the Amber Mountain Park, Diego Suarez (Antsiranana), Madagascar, East Africa

Chameleons range in size from the giant Chamaeleo oustaleti which measures up to 68 cm (27 inches) long to the diminutive Brookesia minima which reaches only 3 cm (1.3 inches). Chameleons are Old World lizards that dwell in trees, except for the stump-tailed chameleon, Brookesia, which lives mainly on the forest floor. We only saw 4 but that's enough for me.

phototip: Be quick. Some creatures don’t hold their pose.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.05s, f/5.6, 52mm, ISO 100
a chameleon in the Amber Mountain Park, Diego Suarez (Antsiranana), Madagascar, East Africa

The park has several water falls and crater lakes and being a true rainforest, it is a botanist’s dream. It boasts of roughly 20km of maintained tracks allowing close contact with the lush wildlife.

Amber  _0057-1
phototip: Underexpose a sunrise shot to get silhouettes.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.013s, f/5.6, 27mm, ISO 100
Cascade Antamboka, the Amber Mountain Park, Diego Suarez (Antsiranana), Madagascar, East Africa

On our way out of the forest, there was one final treat. While the car was speeding, Angeluc suddenly asked the driver to stop and backtrack. He saw something on the track – the chameleon below. Now, those are eagle eyes he has. It was only 10cm long!

the king of camouflage
phototip: Underexpose a sunrise shot to get silhouettes.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.002s, f/5.6, 55mm, ISO 200
a Brookesia chameleon in the Amber Mountain Park, Diego Suarez (Antsiranana), Madagascar, East Africa

City Tour

Of course, what is a trip to Diego Suarez without having a city tour? We had the taxi drop us at Rue Colbert, the main thoroughfare. From the map, we could tell that the city center is small enough to be explored on foot.

Historically, Madagascar was a notorious pirate's lair in the age of colonialism, when merchant ships in the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf were easy prey. Legend says that in the late 1700s, a strange community named Libertalia settled in Diego Suarez, now Antsiranana.

Malagasy mosque
Canon EOS 350D, 0.005s, f/11, 41mm, ISO 100
a mosque the Cathedral, Diego Suarez (Antsiranana), Madagascar, East Africa

The name Diego Suarez harbor was derived from Diego Diaz, who came to Madagascar in 1500 and a sailor, Fernando Suarez who visited in 1506. The story and the legend say that:"Towards the end of the 17th century, a strange community settled in the Bay area and gave birth to the Libertalia Republic. Characters that were closely related to buccaneering: a French pirate named Misson, and a Roman priest, Angelo Caraccioli. They were both inspired by a utopian philosophy based on the freedom of men, religion and races. Libertalia thrived for a few years until the Malagasy, aroused by their chiefs that hardly understood this threat to their authority, attacked Libertalia by surprise and destroyed it".

Canon EOS 350D , 0.008s, f/8, 40mm, ISO 100
a wall mural in Diego Suarez (Antsiranana), Madagascar, East Africa

As a developing nation, Madagascar cannot spend much for infrastructure but surprisingly, Diego Suarez has roads that are well-paved, clean and free from potholes probably because there are not a lot of cars. It helps that the city does not get a lot of heavy truck traffic. To add to its picturesque look, almost all of the taxicabs and cars on the street were 1950-70s cars, either Renault or Citroen, that are still in surprisingly good running condition.

colonial past
Canon EOS 350D, 0.008s, f/8, 38mm, ISO 100
Rue d' Colbert, Diego Suarez (Antsiranana), Madagascar

Within just a 200 meter radius are two mosques, a Hindu temple and a Christian Cathedral. The latter was closed when we visited it early in the afternoon but it looks Catholic. It is a multicultural society.

Diego _0107-1
Canon EOS 350D, 0.002s, f/5.6, 18mm, ISO 100
a Cathedral in Diego Suarez (Antsiranana), Madagascar, East Africa

Diego Suarez retains the charm of an old French colonial city, having been under French rule from 1896 to 1960. A lot of colonial buildings still stand, replete with ionic columns and balustrades, mostly crumbling and flaking but no less elegant. Locals, expats and tourists alike seem to take lounging and promenading to a habit. Had we stayed in town any longer, we probably would have found ourselves watch time pass by in any of its Arabic tea parlors, French cafes or Italian bakeshops. But we needed to go to the airport and catch a flight.

Looking back, I want to think that little has changed today in Diego. Time has been kind to it for the longest time and maybe it still is.

Canon EOS 350D, 0.002s, f/5.6, 25mm, ISO 100
awning at La Rosticceria where we had lunch, Rue Colbert, Diego Suarez (Antsiranana), Madagascar, East Africa

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

48 hours in Diego Suarez, Madagascar (Day 1)

I have done more than a fair share of traveling, thanks to my day job. If you asked me, the most exotic country I have visited so far has to be Madagascar. It is that large island east of Africa renowned for a flora and fauna unique from the rest of the world. Think of lemurs, baobabs and chameleons. Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world but it is pretty much isolated from Africa. Its racial stock is not solely black and is mixed with Indonesian and Polynesian. No wonder too that it has a superstitious culture that could rival Haiti’s voodoo religion.

traveller's palm
phototip: Look for patterns that are visually pleasing.
Canon PowerShot S40, 0.067s, f/8, 21.3mm
Ravanala madagascariensis, a palm originally from Madagascar now distributed worldwide by horticulturists, shot in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia

getting there
I am based in the Philippines and back in November 2005, the time of my visit, it was difficult getting to Madagascar. There were no direct flights yet from Asia. I had to buy a Nairobi (Kenya) to Antananarivo ticket which I picked up at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, my first stop of my Africa trip. Nowadays, it is easier as Air Malagasy, in a code share agreement with Thai Airways, already flies between Bangkok and Tana, thanks I hear to the thriving gem trade between the two countries. There are also connections with Johannesburg, Mauritius and of course Paris as Madagascar was a former French colony. Once you are in the capital city of Antananarivo, you can easily get a plane ticket to any destination in the country.

Malagasy is the national language. Contrary to rumors, it has no semblance to Bahasa Indonesia. I would find out later that Malagasy is only specifically related to the Maanyan languange so the Indonesian I know gets me nowhere. French is still commonly spoken but English is not.

phototip: Before checking into your flight, check the direction of the plane against the map. If you could, get the window seat favorable to the area you want.
Camera: Canon EOS 350D Digital, 0.001s, f/9, 55mm, ISO 100
aerial view of Western Madagascar, East Africa

The official currency is the Malagasy ariary which was introduced in 2005 to replace the Malagasy franc. The euro is also accepted in most hotels and touristy joints but not the US dollar. Foreign exchange is strictly enforced and limited only in banks. There are some bank counters in the airport so err on the side of safety and change more than what you may need. You don’t want to lose time and queue inside a bank if you run out of ariary.

The capital Antananarivo, Tana for short, is smacked in the high plateau at the center of the island, about a thousand meter in elevation. It is a bit cold there. I was in the capital for only half a day. My business destination was the Northern regional center of Antsiranana, still popularly called Diego Suarez, which to my delight, offers a distilled rawness of unspoilt beauty that I cxpect from Madagascar.

Upon arriving in Diego Suarez, hire a taxicab. Mer D’Emeraude, or in English, the Emerald Bay, beckons and it is worthwhile first port of call. It is about 20km from the city. The roads may be rough at times but the bay vistas are spectacular.

Right at the roadside, you will be treated by baobabs. These are strange-looking trees that look upturned by a divine whim of some sort. Its branches look more like roots. Bizarre but beautiful. Looking rather dead, these trees are generally leafless most of the time. Baobabs make me think of trees in illustrated storybooks like The Little Prince. But that is just me. Of the 8 species of baobabs (genus Adansonia), six are found ONLY in Madagascar, with one species endemic to Africa (Adansonia digitata) and one to Australia (Adansonia gibbosa ex. Adansonia gregori). Diego Suarez is quite known to have clusters of these deciduous trees appropriately named “baobab forests”. So when you see any, ask your driver to pull over. The pictures will be worth the stop.

phototip: Black and white works in removing distracting elements and isolating dramatic visuals.
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 0.005s, f/10, 55mm, ISO 100
the Adansonia perrieri or Perrier's Baobab in the French Mountain, Antsiranana (Diego Suarez), Madagascar, East Africa

Emerald Bay
The Bay of Antsiranana is one of largest and most breathtakingly beautiful lagoons in the world. Shaped like a four-petalled flower with a narrow mouth at its eastern tip, it opens into the Indian Ocean. One of the component bays is the Emerald Sea which is famous for its colors of green and blue, thanks to the fine white sand and relatively shallow coast. This island hill called the Sugar Loaf is its fabulous landmark which one can easily photograph by the roadside when approaching the Emerald Sea.
Mer D'Emeraude
Canon EOS 350D, 0.003s, f/10, 55mm, ISO 100
the Sugar Loaf island taken from a hill by the road leading to Ramena Beach, Diego Suarez, Madagascar

Ramena Beach
There should be several beaches in Emerald Bay, all pristine, wide and most of all EMPTY! Recommended to us was Ramena Beach.

Emerald Bay is just one of 3 enclosed bays in Diego Suarez. It is round shaped, about 20 km in perimeter, shallow in the first few meters- hence the “emerald” appellation and just moderately deep at the center to change the color to turquoise and not blue black. The water all around you are in dazzling hues of greens and blues. No overdelopment. No spas. Just some bed and breakfast cottages and with a few expatriate-owned huts. There were several choices of beach resorts like Cinq Trop Pres and La Casa but a friend picked Hotel Palm Beach for us. It is small, spartan and doubles as a backpacker lodge- perfect place to dump our bags and be assured of a hearty lunch.

Canon EOS 350D, 0.005s, f/10, 39mm, ISO 100
at the Ramena beach at Mer D’Emeraude, Diego Suarez (Antsiranana), Northeast Madagascar, East Africa

I asked around and found out that public buses are scarce except during Sunday when trips become regular. The endless stretch of white sand is a dream. The scientist in me automatically calculated the fineness of the sand in the beach. Goodness, it must have been like 40 to 60 mesh. And it is white. In the morning that we were there, I chose to skip taking a dip and just practiced with my Rebel camera which was new at that time. Lighting was perfect and the people could not be any more generous with their smiles.

phototip: Smile and be friendly. Kids reciprocate always.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.005s, f/10, 52mm, ISO 100
at the Ramena beach at Mer D’Emeraude, Diego Suarez (Antsiranana), Northeast Madagascar, East Africa

About 45% of the Malagasy are Christians, evenly split into 50 Roman Catholics and Protestants. They constitute the majority of the people living in the capital, in the central highlands of Antananarivo. Asian features are most predominant there too and majority look like Indonesians. However, along the coastal, people are clearly of African origin and are dark-skinned with a mix of Arabic, Pakistani and Comorian blood. They are mostly Muslims. Regardless of faith, majority of them still follow the traditional beliefs of the cult of the dead. Life is regularly guided by various fady taboos.

Diego Suarez is largely Muslim and local mosques provide plenty of local color photo ops. There’s one quantly small mosque right by the beach of Ramena. Don’t miss it.

on the highland and coastal divide
phototip: Simplify the composition to isolate the bright colors amidst plain white walls.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.013s, f/10, 40mm, ISO 100
the Mosque Du Nord, Ramena Beach, Diego Suarez (Antsiranana), Madagascar

In the afternoon, headoff for the mountains. There is a popular national park 30 kilometers south of Diego Suarez- the Montagne d’Ambre or Amber Mountain which has a peak elevation of about 1400 meters. Climate there is cool, quite different from the heat in the parched terrain around the bay. During the French occupation, the town of Joffre was the holiday place of North Madagascar. when the French left, most of the hotels already closed shop. Recently, Joffreville is slowly rebuilding itself as a premier eco-destination.

Joffreville is small. Neglect has taken a toll on the buildings that dot around the town center. The village store appropriately named The Village Store has scant amenities and merchandise. Whatever produce grown and harvested in the village are otherwise displayed in unattended makeshift street stands. There must only be a few hundred people in the village as we did not see a lot of houses along the road. We also only met a few buses plying the route and most places must be traversed mostly by foot.

Canon EOS 350D, 0.006s , f/8, 18mm, ISO 100
town center of Joffreville, Diego Suarez (Antsiranana), Madagascar

It was nearing sundown but we still decided to locate the Monastere St Jean-Baptiste. We courteously befriended an old Belgian nun who unfortunately does not speak much English. As I remembered it, the monastery had about 5 nuns at that time, mostly of European descent, and one old priest. The sisters also happen to be Benedictine and I remembered this as I went to school run by OSB nuns (Order of St. Benedict). She mentioned too that the monastery is a haven for all people, even to local refugees during civil and military turmoil.

The grounds are well kept and bear a severe simplicity. The gardens do offer a jaw-dropping promontory that gives an almost 270 degree arc of the Emerald Bay, the Mozambique Channel in the west and the Indian Ocean at the east.
phototip: Late afternoon sun has directional light that results to long shadows.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.005s , f/8, 18mm, ISO 100
the St Jean Baptiste Monastery, Joffreville, Diego Suarez (Antsiranana), Madagascar

We stayed in a seemingly new place called The Nature Lodge (, email, tel (+261)320712306, fax (+261 20) 2262213, BP795 Diego Suarez). It has several duplex bungalows scattered around wide flower and vegetable gardens. Dinner and breakfast must be reserved ahead and there was only menu for everybody. Food was fresh, delectable and quite French. As Joffreville is about a thousand meters above sea level, air conditioning is not really required. There was no electricity except when the generator ran at 6PM to 10PM and 6:30AM to 9AM. Staying in the lodge requires you to commune with nature.

fire dance
Canon EOS 350D, 0.2s, f/4.5, 28mm, ISO 100
a filigree lamp in our room at the Nature Lodge, Joffreville, Diego Suarez (Antsarinana), NE Madagascar

Next on Day 2: Amber Mountain and the city of Diego Suarez

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

48 hours in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi (Day 2)

continued from Day 1

What’s a visit to Bongao without my prerequisite sunrise scenes? Think of the unique places that could not be found elsewhere like Muslim mosques or traditional Samal houses on stilts.As always, I checked out the map to scout for vantage points so I knew that staying at Beachside Inn which faces southeast the Simandagat beach would be convenient.

phototip: Underexpose a sunrise shot to get silhouettes.
Camera: Canon EOS 350D, 0.4s, f/10, 55mm, ISO 100
at Simandagat, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines

Everyday scenes offer a lot too. You may choose to photograph fishermen pulling out into the sea, subsistent fisherfolks gathering sea urchins or even school children walking to school. I even found one interesting “welcome” dome-shaped archway of a barangay.
phototip: Be patient. For the shot above, I waited for most of the clouds to clear as I wanted only just a few wisps. Negative space can be dramatic especially if the sky was this blue.
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 0.001s, f/5.6, 55mm, ISO100, +1/3 EV
Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines

Simunul Island
I strongly suggest getting to Simunul island, an island south of Bongao considered to be the birthplace of Islam in the Philippines. Catch a public boat or charter one if you could afford it. Simunul is less than an hour away.

phototip: Watch out for fleeting scenes. Always be ready for unrehearsed moments. This girl was playing with her home-made toy airplane solo, lost in her own world, while our boat slowly tried to dock.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.001s, f/5.6, 255mm, ISO 100
Tubig Indangan, Simunul Island, Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines

Largely laidback and quiet, Simunul is where the Arab missionary Karimul Sheikh Makhdum built the first mosque in the Philippines in 1380. For obvious reasons, this mosque is revered by Philippine Muslims and every Friday is a designated congregation day for imams and religious folks to come and pray. Already a national monument, visitors are welcome to come inside whether you are Muslim or not. People are accommodating and would gladly show you around. This mosque is sparse but it still proudly houses four 3-feet diameter ipil pillars of the original structure.

Camera: Canon EOS 350D, 0.001s, f/6.3, 34mm, ISO 100
mosque of Makhdum, Tubig Indangan, Simunul Island, Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines

Within the vicinity of the mosque is one of two reputed graveyards of the Sheikh Makhdum. It seems its actual site is in dispute as when I visited Sibutu Island in Sitangkai, there’s another monument there claiming that the Sheikh was buried in the area. Also check out several centuries-old sunduk gravemarkers that are often featured in magazines and books.

sunduk Simunul
Camera: Canon EOS 350D, 0.008s, f/6.3, 21mm, ISO 100
a centuries-old sunduk across the mosque of Makhdum, Tubig Indangan, Simunul Island, Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines

Tango Island
The visit to Simunul will only take you half a day. The afternoon should be spent in any of the sandy beaches and reef that Tawi-Tawi is blessed. My pick of heaven on earth is the islet of Tango with its exceptionally white sand, with nary a cover except for some greens of mangrove and coconut. Surrounded by generous sandbars and emerald waters, it is paradisical. I only saw this island from the plane but I wish I could come over and immerse in its shores.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.002s, f/6.3, 55mm, ISO 100
Tango Island, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, Philippines

One should not leave Tawi-Tawi without bringing home a banig or handwoven mat from the screwpine palm leaves (called pandan or romblon). The Philippines claims to produce the handsomest mat in Asia and arguably the most colorful and intricate fine-grained mats are handwoven by the Samal tribe of Tawi-Tawi. Preparation takes one week, with at least 2 cycles of boiling, stick-beating, drawing into strips, sun-bleaching and finally dying. Weaving consumes another two to five weeks. The bordered double-layer mats are the most expensive at about $20 each and is valued to 2-3x as much when brought to the big cities of Cebu or Manila. There is a cooperative of weavers which has a stall near the Notre Dame University in Bongao. Or check out the inventory at the Bongao Department of Tourism which also sells woven pandan salakot hats.

BANIG made for sleeping
Canon PowerShot S40, 0.001s, f/2.8, 7.1mm
Tango Island, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, Philippines

Saying goodbye to a place after 2 wonderful days can only be sweet if tempered with a promise to return back someday. I never am sure when but I bet there are more nooks to discover in faraway Bongao.

Canon EOS 350D, 0.002s, f/6.3, 25mm, ISO 100
Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, Philippines

Canon EOS 350D, 1/1000s, f/4, 21mm, ISO 100, -1/3EV
an uninhabited island of Tawi-Tawi, the Sulu Archipelago, Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, the Philippines

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