The Camotes Islands: Quiet Waters, Deep Roots

Vegetable, Mineral, Natural

Tell someone that you’ve just been to the Camotes islands and the likely comeback is their asking you if you got to eat any camote. Ironically enough, on our “Suroy-Suroy” (Cebuano for “pasyal-pasyal” or touring) to the Camotes, the locals organized a grand fiesta celebrating their most important crop. No, not camote, but cassava. Who’d have thunk?

The Camotes may be tiny and unassuming, sleepy satellites dwarfed by the economic, political, and cultural might of neighboring Cebu, the mother planet. But to the islands’ 70,000-plus residents, there just isn’t a more blessed spot on earth than what they’ve got. The Camoteños are fiercely proud of every little scrap of history, progress, and natural beauty that they can show off, and one just can’t argue with that kind of enthusiasm.

Their pride is well-deserved. It’s easy to lapse into gemstone-inspired metaphors when describing the archipelago. Imagine a string of four emerald islands, ringed with sparkling crystal beaches, strewn across a bed of aquamarine. Then right in the middle of one emerald isle rests the deep dark opal of Lake Danao, one of the country’s largest, cleanest, and most beautiful lakes. Legend has it that an entire town lies submerged beneath its depths. That’s just one of the many tall tales that blows through the islands, which include a ghost ship laden with cacao, a river that runs upstream, a giant lapu-lapu fish living in a sunken bell, and an enchanted palace lost among the rainforest. The Camotes has been the site of many a priceless archaeological find, and it has been posited that the momentous battle between Magellan and Lapu-lapu may have been fought in the waters off Poro and not in Mactan. There are even rumors that a Japanese war veteran or two may still be toughing it out deep in the jungle. Mysterious caves, pools, and waterfalls dot the interior, further challenging the adventurous.

Four islands comprise the Camotes group: Pacijan island with San Francisco town connected by a causeway that runs dramatically through a mangrove forest to Poro island, which contains Poro and Tudela towns, across the Camotes Sea lies Ponson with Pilar town and tiny Tulang, an island barangay of San Francisco. The snorkeling around the islands may not attract much notice, but the dive outfits from the mega-resorts on Mactan and Cebu bring their clients all the way to the Camotes to check out the marine life. There is no dive shop on the islands as of yet, but like other signs of progress, it may be just around the corner. The cellphone service providers have begun blanketing the area with ads and towers, and satellite dishes are not an uncommon sight.

Past The Horizon

Yet there’s still a very strong sense of this being a pastoral community of farmers and fishermen, with everybody knowing everybody else and going about their lives as they have for generations: gathering shellfish, planting coconuts, corn, potatoes, and cassava (and yes, some camote). Although several resorts, big and small, have sprouted up around the Camotes over the past few years, tourism appears to have not yet made a major impact on the local consciousness. Visitors seem to be treated with keen fascination by the locals, and more as a source of amusement than of profits. When the local kids wave and smile at you, they’re not expecting a hand-out, but talk to them in English or Tagalog, and they’ll laugh at you in Cebuano.

What now makes these islands most charming for us visitors is also what may be easily ruined if too many come to visit. Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia assures us that the development and promotion of the Camotes islands as a tourist destination shall be carefully implemented according to the strict guidelines set in the tourism master plan for the entire province. But once discovered, it’s not hard to imagine the delicate ecosystem of the archipelago being swamped by traveling hordes. Via the Ocean Jet fast craft, it takes only around 300 pesos and an hour and 45 minute ride to cross the 30+ nautical miles from Pier 1 in Cebu City to the port on Poro town. So by sea it’s actually faster and cheaper getting to the beaches on Camotes than by land to the other beaches around Cebu. And the stretches of sand and palm that you’ll find around here, still practically free for all to enjoy, can easily top those at other islands that charge top dollar for the privilege of getting your feet wet. The story goes that a bigshot mega-resort on Mactan wanted to cart off some fine Camotes sand to fill their artificial beach with. The Camoteños said “hell, no” to whatever price, proof that their sense of protectiveness runs deep. In this case, insularity is a good thing.


detailed map of camotes islands

detailed map of camotes islands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hammock Hotspots

Santiago Bay Garden and Resort features 19 comfortable rooms tucked into 2.5 hectares of lush landscaping overlooking Santiago Bay’s wide, white sand beach and clear blue water.

Mangodlong Rock Resort rests on 2 hectares of extensive coconut-shaded gardens right beside a private white sand beachfront. Connected by a sand bar from the beach, separated from the resort by a few meters of sparkling sea, stands a coral islet with tropical huts.

-text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Men’s Health Philippines magazine, 2006.

Wi-Fi Bai! Cebu Gets Hot, Wirelessly.

Political map of Metro Cebu

Political map of Metro Cebu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dominion Wireless Broadband Access may be the best Philippine broadband provider that you have yet to hear about (if you live in Luzon that is). Based in Cebu, and as of the writing of this feature, still unaffiliated with any of the major manila-based telco or media conglomerates, this lean and spunky outfit may just be able to teach the big boys a thing or two, and if all goes to plan, have them heading for the hills. You can count on the Cebuanos to come up with the magical equation of better service + cheaper rates + seamless wireless = broadband domination.

Dominion’s ultimate goal is to make the entire Metro Cebu area a hot zone. Their venture will be the first in Southeast Asia in terms of metro-scale wireless broadband deployment.

Uptown Cebu City has been their starting point. Dominion launched Cebu’s first wireless-fidelity (wi-fi) zone or “hot zone” at the Mango Square Mall last year. To clarify, a hot zone is not the same as a hot spot. While a hot spot covers an area good for one household, office, or establishment, a hot zone can cover an entire neighborhood. Dominion has mounted only a single antenna on the roof of the Mango Square Mall. Powered by Wi-Max, this transmitter is enough to provide wireless internet access throughout the entire mall, even extending out onto adjacent streets and buildings. Dominion has currently set-up additional hot zones at Cebu’s Capitol Site, Fuente Osmeña, and Banilad Town Center. The rest of the metropolis is soon to follow. “We are now in the final stage of energizing our Network Operations Center (NOC). Once the NOC is up and running, the roll-out shall commence and the delivery of quality service we have committed will be maintained,” adds Dominion general manager Edwin Sanchez.

A member of the Nozomi Group of Companies, a subsidiary of ASA Enterprises, founded  by a group of Cebuano Filipino-Chinese businessmen, with the help of some Manila-based tech people from Protocol Century Inc and American hardware suppliers Tropos Networks and Aperto Networks Inc., Dominion aims to launch a surgical strike into the heart of the broadband market.

Wi-Fi Signal logo

Wi-Fi Signal logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And they’ve got big guns and deep pockets backing them up. Their partners include such household names as IBM, Lenovo, and Motorola. Add to that list Tropos Networks, the proven market leader in delivering metro-scale Wi-Fi mesh network products and services, and Aperto Networks, who develops and delivers the world’s most advanced WiMAX broadband wireless products for service providers. Already there are rumblings about even bigger names jumping onto the Dominion bandwagon.

Aside from gumption, the Dominion boys and girls have got enthusiasm to burn. For their demo spiel, they showed off video streaming from the powerful wireless cameras they had installed around Cebu. Able to rotate in any direction and zoom in on far-away details, we remotely checked in on their servers and technicians from across the street, and even snuck looks at sunbathers from a block away, all in real time! These cameras highlight just how versatile and effective (and fun even) a city-wide wireless network can be, if coupled with the right technology. As an example of this, to aid the Philippine National Police in rapidly responding to disturbances duringCebu’s famous Sinulog Grand Parade, Dominion Wireless deployed wireless security cameras along strategic areas of the Sinulog route. The policemen were so impressed by the technology, they almost didn’t want to return the equipment, and Cebu City Mayor Tommy Osmena has begun seriously considering installing a wireless surveillance system throughout the city. For another demonstration that would do the W?BIC! extreme techies at m-ph HQ proud, we had a picture taken of their wi-fi enabled PDAs displaying the wirelessly transmitted image of me taking a picture of them showing their wi-fi enabled PDAs displaying me taking a picture of them… and so on and so forth like a hall of wi-fi enabled mirrors.

As befits the young Cebuano Turks that they are, their marketing campaigns have been guerilla and unconventional. They distributed plastic streamers to all the establishments within their hot zones. Even sari-sari stores and carinderias have been very enthusiastic about hanging them up, and making their humble businesses look hi-tech without having to install a single gadget. Then they’ve been giving away free prepaid cards to anyone who’s interested. Although, as with other wi-fi providers, they still have a bit of a problem regarding properly educating the participating establishments as to how wi-fi really works and how to deal with customers who ask about it or encounter problems connecting. And of course they also have to deal with their fair share of nay-sayers and pessimists.

Aggressively competing on the two fields where some other broadband providers have thoroughly dropped the ball: price and speed, Dominion is taking no prisoners with their Cebu roll-out. They’re offering a 384 kpbs connection for only 889 pesos per month, 512 kbps for P1,499, and a blazing 768 kbps for P1,999, significantly cheaper and faster than their closest competition. That’s more than enough to get some people to seriously consider moving to Cebu! But hold your horses! Fortunately for us poor overcharged underserved denizens of Luzon, Dominion plans to eventually move up to Metro Manila and start showing the over-complacent broadband providers here how it should be done. For quite some time now, numerous corporations have been testing or soft-launching their products and services in Cebu first, then when they get it right there, that’s when they decide to make a splash in Manila. The success rate of products that do well in Cebu when transplanted to Manila is virtually 100%, and Dominion hopes to be no exception.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in m|ph magazine, 2006

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