Thursday, August 26, 2010

Remembering Melody

Inquirer Southern Luzon
By Ephraim Aguilar and Juan Escandor Jr.
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:27:00 08/25/2010

THERE WAS no hint at all that her “small talk” with old friends in Legazpi City on Thursday night at the family-owned German restaurant Wilkommen would be the last.

She happily showed them her bridal photos for Hair Asia Magazine, which has her as cover girl. She talked about her newfound passion for makeup artistry, and the things that kept her busy.

By Friday night, the photos of the reunion were uploaded on Facebook. Melody left a comment to her friends, “I missed you all, too. Till we meet again!”

The next day, Aug. 21, her friends were stunned that Binibining Pilipinas-International 2009 Melody Gersbach, 24, died in a car-bus collision along Maharlika Highway in Bula, Camarines Sur, at around noontime.

Melody was on her way to the screening of Miss Bicolandia, where she sat as chair of the organizing committee. Others who died in the accident were her makeup artist and couturier Alden Orense and car driver Dodong Ramos.

Home buddy

Melody’s life had all been about photo shoots, runways and glossy magazines from the time she became a beauty queen. But away from the limelight, she was just really a simple home buddy, a good sister and a loving daughter.

Her younger sister, Magnolia, 20, remembers how she and her sister would fight over clothes. They were exact opposites—Magnolia is outgoing and the life of the party, while Melody was quite introverted and meek.

“We would often fight, especially about clothes, but those were the times we bonded and felt the love and the care, especially hers to me,” Magnolia said during the wake at the family’s hilltop residence in Barangay Cullat in Daraga town in Albay.

The younger Gersbach said it was only when she became a public figure that Melody was able to enjoy going out. “She was a late bloomer. So it’s funny, parang nabaliktad kami.”

“I was like more of the Ate (older sister). She’d come to me and ask what to wear, and which bar drink is strong like a [curious] teenager,” Magnolia said.

“We were exact opposites, but it’s good because we would complement each other. She was very meek. On the contrary, I’m the type who’d escape without asking permission,” she added.

Very simple

Their mother, Marina, said she would sometimes forget that Melody was a beauty queen. I’d ask her to drive for me and to pay the bills and she would meekly obey.

They would spend most of their time managing the family’s restaurant business together. One time, Marina said Melody told her that she wasn’t so much happy managing a restaurant.

“What she really dreamt of was to have her own clothing line and to be a makeup artist. She was full of dreams and talent. It’s a waste she would no longer be able to achieve them because of some reckless driver,” Marina said.

She said she would temporarily forget about the pain she’s going through when there were people around. “But when the visitors are gone and I’m all alone, I would break down and cry,” she said in Filipino.

“I want all of us to think that Melody just went to Germany and will be back someday,” Marina said.

Gov’t requirement

Marina believes that the government should set stricter requirements for the issuance of driver’s licenses and franchises for public utility vehicles.

She said the bus operators visited her on Monday morning asking her family to forgo with the filing of charges. “I told them that they should not be stingy with the victims and prioritize helping the driver’s family and the couturier’s because they are breadwinners and Ronald Lita, the survivor, with the hospital expenses and for his full recovery in the government hospital.”

She explained to the bus operators to choose from among three options—shouldering the funeral expenses of her daughter, the cost of burial place—a mausoleum—or to compensate the family based on the one-year earning her daughter could have made if she were alive.

Remembering Melody

Melody’s soft-spoken German father, Wolfgang, said he wanted other people to remember his daughter as someone who shared to them a happy life.

He said his daughter knew very well that life was not only about earning money, “For her what was more important was to make more friendships and to share with other people things that make her happy.”

“I want everyone to remember her the same way as how she remembered people whom she cared for, stayed for and worked with,” Wolfgang said.

He added that there was something about Melody that found good in people and effortlessly understood them.

Acceptance about Melody’s early demise will be a painstaking process for her bereaved family. Wolfgang copes by choosing to accept her fate and believing in God’s higher purpose.

“The things in life that we cannot change, we must accept. My daughter Melody died and I cannot get her back. That means I have to accept it and live with it. This is the Lord’s will, which we cannot change,” Wolfgang said.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bb. Pilipinas Int’l dies in car-bus collision

by Rey M. Nasol and Ephraim Aguilar
First posted 23:22:45 (Mla time) August 21, 2010

LEGAZPI CITY--Binibining Pilipinas International 2009 Melody Gersbach was dead on the spot Saturday morning after the van she was riding in figured in a head-on collision with a public bus, an Army officer here said.

Two other persons, the driver and couturier of the beauty titlist, also died in the accident which occurred at 11:45 a.m., according to Maj. Harold Cabunoc, public information officer of the 9th Infantry Division based in Pili, Camarines Sur, quoting an initial police report.

“The accident occurred in Barangay Pawili in Bula,” said Cabunoc in a text message.

Gersbach and her companions were in a Toyota Innova on their way to Naga City when their vehicle collided with a Guevarra Bus Line driven by Wilson Pontillas.

The bus driver surrendered to police, said Cabunoc.

The two others confirmed dead were Dodong Ramos, the driver, and Alden Orense, couturier of the beauty titlist.

A fourth victim, identified as Ronald Lita, survived and was rushed to the Bicol Medical Center.

Police said the bus was trying to avoid a tricycle when it hit the Innova.

A resident of Barangay Culliat in Daraga, Albay, Gersbach, 24, who was also Ms Bicolandia 2009, left her house at 9 a.m. to attend a pre-pageant event in connection with the coming celebration of the Peñafrancia Festival in Naga City next month.

Ricky Gonzales, brother of the owner of the Innova, said the van was a total wreck.

“The scene was really morbid. The red Innova Melody was aboard was totally wrecked that almost only the wheels were left,” added Ariel Guban, president of the Rotaract Club of Legazpi Central.

Gersbach was a member of Rotaract, a Rotary-sponsored service club for young men and women aged 18 to 30.

On Nov. 28 last year, Gersbach competed against more than 60 other contestants in the Miss International contest held in Beijing, China.

Gersbach had said then that “her bubbly character, positive attitude and passion for helping others” would help her clinch the title.

Gersbach placed in the top 15 but lost out to Miss Mexico Ana Gabriela Espinosa.

Beauty queen blogger Joyce Titular-Burton, in an online interview, had fond memories of Gersbach, who was born of a German father and Filipino mother.

“I remember last Christmas when Melody texted me that she had some special German Christmas cakes for sale at their German restaurant on Makati Avenue. I bought a few for my Christmas dinner and loved how they tasted. I even blogged about it,” said Titular-Burton, author of the “Adventures of a Beauty Queen” blog.

“Now, German Christmas cakes will be a bittersweet reminder to me of how we lost Melody. Let this be a call to our President Aquino to really crack down on our terrible bus system. Do we have to lose another beautiful person because of greedy companies and wayward bus drivers?”

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Spicy ice cream, anyone?

By Ephraim Aguilar
Inquirer Southern Luzon
First Posted 19:30:00 07/10/2010

LEGAZPI CITY – Consistent with Bicol’s spicy food culture, a restaurant in the city serves spicy ice cream. How cool or hot is that?

Flavored with “siling labuyo” (chili), every scoop of the ice cream has tamed spiciness that blends well with cold creamy sweetness. And that can only be found at the 1st Colonial Grill, a homegrown restaurant that has built a name of its own.

But sili ice cream is just their dessert along with other innovative flavors like pili, coffee, “tinutong na bagas” (toasted rice), malunggay, kalamansi, and melon.

The 1st Colonial Grill also serves native dishes that remind one of his grandmother’s cooking, say restaurant owners Elmer Boy and Rowena Aspe.

The thriving restaurant, which now has a branch in a mall in this city, a newly opened one in Daraga, Albay, and a food court outlet in a mall in Naga City, was built on April 25, 2004.

No competition

Since then, for a homegrown restaurant, it has been competing well with national industry players and fast food giants.

Or it has not actually been competing at all. The 1st Colonial Grill stands securely in line with fast foods and big-named restaurants.

Elmer Boy says they never intended to compete with what had been there.

He says the 1st Colonial Grill has its own niche – people who want healthy comfort food with a twist served in a homey ambiance.

“Whenever our family had visitors from other places, we realized there were few choice restaurants we could bring them to. So we decided to put up the 1st Colonial Grill,” recalls Elmer Boy.

The 1st Colonial Grill is an offshoot of the Aspe family’s 60-branch pawnshop business in the Bicol region.

It is named such because its first branch was located in an old building built in the 1930s during the American Colonial Period.

Elmer Boy says they found it wiser not to compete but to offer something new, “If you compete with the fast food chains, the quality and the price will be sacrificed.”


With their three children as their critics, the Aspe couple know that the food they serve is of supreme quality and delectable taste.

“Before adding a new dish in the menu, we first have our children taste it. If they like it, then we offer it to our customers,” says Rowena.

The restaurant uses local ingredients from local sources, she says. They have once been offered cheaper and processed imported meat but they refused. While it could have saved them money, it would be very unhealthy.

Rowena says they also use vegetable oil to significantly reduce cholesterol levels in their dishes.

“We put health on top priority, because we and our children eat the food ourselves,” she adds.

Good food

The 1st Colonial Grill caters to all A, B, and C markets. “Everyone wants good food,” Elmer says.

The 1st Colonial Grill’s best sellers are Bicol Express (chilies cooked in gata); the Colonial Fried Chicken served in whole or half, which is an original family recipe; and the five-spice grilled chicken, which is marinated in five special spices.

Another best seller is vegetable kare-kare. The vegetables are supplied locally while the sauce and shrimp paste (bagoong) are homemade.

One can also have a taste of deep-fried vegetarian spring rolls, which are stuffed with mushroom, cabbage, carrots, vermicelli, bean sprouts, peanuts, and coriander served with a special sauce.

The restaurant also offers chop suey with a twist, that is, chop suey cooked in coconut milk with buko meat.

If there is Bikol Express, there can never be without “Tin-nu-to” (laing). This is dried gabi (taro) leaves cooked in coconut cream.

One cannot just say no to the restaurant’s Baby Back Ribs, a primal cut of pork meat cooked to be relatively tender, rubbed with spices and grilled.

All these main course dishes perfectly match with the unique “tinapa” (smoked fish) fried rice served in a “kawali.”

Service with love

Rowena says the entire family knows the ins and outs of the business, “We know how to do everything, from washing the dishes to cleaning the restroom.”

This is important if they want to pass on a culture of quality service on to their staff, she adds.
“We train the staff members ourselves. All we look for as qualifications are dedication and trainability,” says Elmer.

He claims most of their employees have been with them for a long time and they have seen how the business has grown over the years. This loyalty has bred in them a sense of ownership.

And the secret to a thriving business?

“To give real service, you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity,” Elmer says.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Page one image 6/7/2010

Retiree sponsors PDI learning center

By Ephraim Aguilar, Inquirer Southern Luzon
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 04:35:00 06/07/2010

SORSOGON CITY—In a village named after its natural springs, her generosity gushes forth for poor children thirsty for learning.

Browsing through the pages of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Rosalia Laganzo-Enerio, a recently retired government worker, found a way to help some 300 pupils of cash-strapped Bucalbucalan Elementary School.

She set aside part of her retirement money to sponsor a daily supply of newspapers and to put up an Inquirer Learning Corner (ILC) on the campus west of this city.

Having grown up in the same coastal village, the 66-year-old donor said it had long pained her to see the school still lacking books and updated resource materials, particularly those which could improve the students’ communication skills in English.

“By putting up a learning corner here in Bucalbucalan, the students will be provided with updated news and information. It will develop in them the good habit of reading,” Enerio said during Wednesday’s signing of a memorandum of agreement among her, the school and the Inquirer on Wednesday.

She said the majority of students here grew up without enjoying reading materials at home, items considered a luxury for their parents who eked out a living mostly as fishermen.

Education is close to Enerio’s heart. Before working for the National Manpower and Youth Council in 1975 and the National Housing Authority main office in 1981, she taught at Bucalbucalan Elementary School from 1968 to 1975.

Sensing the deterioration of the country’s education system, Enerio left teaching and found employment elsewhere in the bureaucracy.

The search for better pay also drove her to switch jobs. Public school teachers at the time were paid a measly P212 a month, she recalled.

But even after quitting teaching, Enerio continued to support various projects on education. She volunteered, for example, for the Alitaptap Storytellers Philippines, a group that promotes literacy through the art of storytelling.

Every graduation season, Enerio would also donate medals to different schools in Sorsogon City.

But soon she realized that she had to give something that would leave a lasting impact on the students.

Enerio came across the Inquirer’s Learning section and read about the ILC program, wherein public schools can get free subscriptions to the Inquirer courtesy of reader-sponsors. The newspapers are to be kept in a school corner called “Inqspot” for easy access.

First non-politician donor

The ILC program is aimed at creating a place in public schools where teachers and students can read the paper and discuss the day’s news or issues.

Enerio said she had been an avid reader of the Inquirer since its founding during the martial law years, when the Marcos regime dismissed the fledgling but stinging newspaper as part of the so-called “mosquito press.”

Inquirer senior product manager Roselle Fortes-Leung said Enerio had the distinction of being the first ILC donor who is not a politician.

The ILC in Bucalbucalan is also the first to open in southern Luzon, Leung added.

Three ILCs have been set up earlier in Quezon City and Zambales province, all sponsored by politicians.

In honor of parents

“This is my way of giving back to the community and to this school in honor of my parents,” said Enerio, daughter of Feliza Aquende and Restituto Laganzo.

She said her parents, who were not able to finish their studies because of poverty, always reminded her and her siblings about the value of education, saying it’s the only priceless legacy they could give them.

School principal Antonio Jintalan gratefully acknowledged Enerio’s contribution: “We’re amazed that someone from this village is able to help this school.”

Jintalan said the ILC would go a long way in helping develop the children’s love for reading and their awareness of current events.

Mere P5,500 budget

Jintalan noted that the school, which operates on a measly budget of P5,500 for maintenance and other operational expenses, could only afford to set up a small library with books that were rarely updated.

A pity, Jintalan said, since “80 percent of our learning still comes from reading.”

With about 350 enrollees, the school has been relying heavily on private sponsors for its improvements, he said.

Enerio may no longer be able to go back to her first love—teaching—but she nevertheless vowed to continue her advocacy and community work for education.

The retiree called on other private citizens to do their share for the benefit of today’s youth and future generations.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

4 Side Trips from Mayon

(Sunday Inquirer Magazine)
by Ephraim Aguilar
Inquirer Southern Luzon

SUNLIGHT hits Leizel Peñaverde’s face as she awakens after a 10-hour bus ride from Manila. She immediately grabs the camera from her bag and captures the magnificent view of Mayon Volcano from her bus window.

She is seeing the world-famous volcano for the first time. Natives believe that when a visitor like Peñaverde sees it naked or free of clouds, it is a welcoming sign of blessing.

Peñaverde, 27, of Malate, Manila has joined her husband’s company outing. The tourists aboard chartered buses drop by the famous Cagsawa Ruins in Daraga, Albay for a closer view of Mt. Mayon.

Peñaverde says she is amazed by the volcano’s beauty, which she only used to see in textbooks. But tourists like her might ask, is there more to an Albay trip than viewing the 2,462-meter volcano?

Legazpi City, the capital city and regional center of Bicol, is strategically located in the province’s second district, from which tourists can easily jump off to other destinations in Albay and adjacent provinces.

Considered as the gateway to Bicolandia, Legazpi City can be reached via a 45-minute plane ride or a 10-hour land trip from Manila.

If you’re staying in any of the hotels in the city, there are many interesting places you can visit and new experiences to enjoy. Here’s a shortlist:

1. Ligñon Hill

Just a five-minute drive from any point in Legazpi City is Ligñon Hill, which offers a panoramic view of Mt. Mayon and a 360-degree view of the city and the neighboring Daraga town. It also has a 40-meter-long and 7-foot-deep tunnel which the Japanese forces used as an arsenal during World War II.

On top of the hill is a 320-meter zipline from which tourists can soar through the chilly air, with the scenic Mt. Mayon in the background. There are photographers to capture the picture-perfect moment.

Dianne Recomono, 16, of Pasig City tried the zipline and could not hide the excitement in her face as she plummeted through the hill’s lush green contour.

“This is a unique and worthwhile experience. It’s definitely something I would recommend to my friends,” says Recomono, who was with her family for a four-day summer vacation.

The hill also hosts other summer adventures and extreme sports, such as hiking, biking, rappelling, paintball, and airsoft – all managed by Globe Quest Adventure. Zipping and rappelling are at P200 per person while paintball costs P300 for 50 bullets, mask, vest, and a paintball gun.

Another adventure sport is biking on dried up gullies at the foot of Mayon. The gullies serve as pathways of loose sand and volcanic rocks swept away by heavy rains from the volcano’s slopes. Four-wheel All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) are available for rent at P1,500.

2. Forest adventure

The Mayon Volcano Natural Park is a favorite destination for nature lovers. Its main entry point is in Barangay (village) Lidong in Sto. Domingo town.

The 5,486-hectare park surrounding Mt. Mayon is a protected area that covers eight Albay towns. Aside from its rich flora and fauna, the park has 18 rivers and creeks. The scattered fertile plains, rough and narrow ridges and deep ravines add up to a great adventure.

Local mountain guides are ready to assist neophyte hikers and campers. Camp 1 is 1,650 meters above sea level, says Aldwin Orendain, 18, the park’s gatekeeper.

An alternative entrance to the forest nearer the city is in Barangay Buyuan in Legazpi City, where the Mayon Outdoor Group Association assists hikers and campers.

Other ecotourism destinations in Albay within a two-hour drive from the city are the boiling lake in Manito town, the 91-meter Busay Falls in Malilipot town, the ice-cold Vera Falls in Malinao town, and the black sand beaches of Sto. Domingo town.

There is also a butterfly garden and fruit bat sanctuary at the Bacman Geothermal Fields at the border of Manito, Albay and Bacon, Sorsogon.

Sorsogon province is home to the whale sharks of Donsol and the placid Bulusan Lake ideal for kayaking.

3. Native souvenirs

There are many souvenir shops at the Cagsawa Ruins in Daraga town which offer Bicol’s native products like cutlery, refined clay jars, pili nut candy varieties, abaca bags and crafts. There are also P300 shirts hand-painted with Mt. Mayon.

At Alne’s Crafts and Souvenirs, prices of abaca bags range from P100 to P650 depending on materials and design. Abaca slippers, P25 to P65 each, are also available.

The Mayon Artstone shop in Cagsawa sells sculptures made of hardened Mayon rocks. Its 50-year-old artist-owner Vicente Ajero, also known as “Enteng Bato,” uses only a hammer and a large nail as chisel to form different images. He also fashions bracelets and necklaces from volcanic stones.

Other souvenir shops can be found at the Legazpi City Grand Terminal. Bargain hunters are assured that the native bags here are half the price of those displayed at the Metro Manila malls.

For even greater bargains on local crafts, plus a learning experience, tourists can go directly to the abaca-weaving villages in Malilipot town, just a 30-minute drive from Legazpi.

For food pasalubong, the 74-year-old Albay Pilinut Candy in the Old Albay District is just a few minutes away from the Legazpi City Domestic Airport. Some of its bestsellers are the crispy pili, toffee rolls, yemas de pili, pili butternuts, and salted pili.

Pili is one of Bicol’s distinct produce. Pili nut is known as the Philippine almond, which is at par with the macadamia nut. A classic favorite delicacy is the sweet bar-shaped mazapan (pili nuts mixed with milk, egg, and sugar).

4. Bicol food

For a unique food experience, there are local restaurants that offer fusion cuisines.

The Small Talk Café offers Pasta Mayon, which is made from triangular ravioli pasta garnished to resemble Mayon’s nearly perfect cone. It is topped with sizzling red sauce, reminiscent of flowing lava.

Other Small Talk favorites are the laing (taro leaves in coconut milk) pasta and pizza, and the Bicol Express pasta.

Have you ever eaten spicy ice cream? It can be weird but truly delectable. You can try it at the First Colonial Grill, which has two branches in the city. It offers “native Bicol food with a twist.”

They have the homemade Bikol’s Pride Ice Cream with various local flavors such as sili (chili pepper), pili, tinutong (toasted rice), malunggay and lemon.

Other Colonial Grill favorites are tinapa fried rice, buko chopsuey, vegetable kare-kare, five-spice chicken, tinuto (a local variety of laing), kilawing tuna, and Bikol Express.

To visit all these sites, tourists can avail themselves of 24-hour taxi and car rental services. Local transport service provider Early Riser offers car rental services for as low as P250 per hour.

With a three-day stay in Legazpi, a tourist can already have an adventure-packed summer vacation. Indeed, in Bicol, there are places and experiences that can never be captured by photographs on crisp four-sided postcards.

10 Ways to Have a Whale of a Time

(Sunday Inquirer Magazine)
by: Ephraim Aguilar
Inquirer Southern Luzon

IS this the summer you’ve planned for what Time Magazine once hailed as the “best animal encounter in Asia”?

If so, you still have a few weeks left for what experts say is the best time for sighting the famous whale shark in the small fishing town of Donsol, Sorsogon.

Locally known as “butanding,” the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is the world’s largest fish, referred to as a “gentle giant” because of its calm and friendly ways in the water. The appearance of schools of whale shark along the coasts of Donsol have drawn eager tourists to the town each year, making it one of the country’s top three ecotourism sites.

There are two ways to get to Donsol from Manila. One is via Legazpi City in Albay Province, which can be reached in 45 minutes by plane or 10 hours by bus. From Legazpi City, it’s an hour ride by land to reach Donsol. Regular air fare from Manila is around P3,500 one way. But you can watch out for promo fares, available through early bookings and offered at great discounts by any of the budget airlines. Deluxe bus fare is around P950 one way.

The other way is via Sorsogon City in Sorsogon province, which is a 12-hour bus ride from Manila. From Sorsogon City, Donsol is also an hour’s travel by land.

Upon arrival in Donsol, tourists should first register at the Donsol Visitors’ Center at the coastal village of Dangcalan. The village, about a 10-minute ride from the town center, serves as the jump-off point to the whale shark interaction sites.

The registration fee is P100 for domestic tourists and P300 for foreign tourists.

If you’re planning a trip to Donsol soon, here are some tips that will help you have a whale of a time.

1. Six is the ideal number for group travel to Donsol. There’s nothing superstitious about the number six -- it’s just that the boats available for rent can accommodate only a maximum of six passengers. Boat rental is P3,500, so you’d be getting the best deal if you can round up a party of six family members or friends to share the experience with. Another option, of course, would be to share a boat with other tourists—and make new friends.

2. Pack light, a tried and tested travel tip that works out here as well as anywhere. You’re free to bring your own snorkeling gear—like mask, water vest, fins, and snorkel—but all these are also readily available for rent at the Donsol Visitors’ Center, manned by the local tourism office. Life vests are also available in the boats. You can bring your own food, but you may want to try the available fare from any of the tourism-accredited food establishments in the town. Or go real local and head for the town market—this way, you help boost the local economy as well.

3. Backpacking is more economical than packaged tours. Besides being more adventurous and exciting, backpacking gives you the freedom and privacy to spend your time the way you want it while on vacation with loved ones. There is enough information available online on how to get to Donsol. Resorts like the Vitton and Woodland can arrange your whale-watching activities with the tourism office, which is just adjacent to it. Annie Buenaagua, the resort’s booking officer, says many tourists, 70 percent of them foreigners, call her up directly to make arrangements. The resort also offers airport pickup and drop-off services.

4. Get the right accommodation that suits your style and budget. There’s a whole range available—from resorts to homestay services. There are four resorts along the Dangcalan coastline: Vitton and Woodland, Elysha, Amor, and Casabianca. Vitton and Woodland ( has 43 rooms and 5 duplex houses available at P1,500 to P3,500 per night. Amenities include air-conditioning, hot-and-cold showers, living rooms, kitchenettes, and bay-front verandas. The resorts are all located in Dangcalan, nearer the whale shark action site, unlike the homestay services found in downtown Donsol. Homestay is cheaper, however, at only P500 per night so an increasing number of tourists, especially budget travelers, opt for this type of accommodation.

Others do, however, not only because it’s cheaper but because they want to be immersed in the town’s culture, says Rogelyn Santiago-Dimaano, 39, who owns and manages the Santiago Home-Stay, the family’s ancestral house, whose entire upper floor with three rooms is available for rent. The old house has been there since 1933.

5. Bring cash not cards. There are no ATM machines in Donsol and there are, as yet, no establishments accepting credit cards.

6. Listen well to the briefing. All registered tourists are required to attend a briefing at the Donsol Visitors’ Center. Each boat has one designated Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO). Follow the rules faithfully. There are penalties if you break any of them—but more than that, the rules are there for your safety.

7. Try to avoid the holiday rush. Butanding interaction officer Alan Amense says the peak season for whale-watching is actually from December to May, but the holiday crush is traditionally around Holy Week. So it’s best to plan your whale shark sighting away from this week. Not only does it save the whale sharks from undue stress, it also spares you from long queues at the Visitors’ Center.

8. Respect local culture. Environment preservation is part of Donsol’s culture, adds Amanse. This culture has developed as the tourism industry boosted the poor town’s economy, making the local folk appreciate and cherish the natural wonders that put food on their table. The whale sharks contribute P50 million annually to national economy, says Bicol tourism director Nini Ravanilla. Amanse advises tourists not to litter and to minimize their impact on the environment. Touching the whale shark is also strictly prohibited.

9. Best diving time is from 7 to 10 a.m. It is best to be at Donsol the night before your dive. This way, you’ll be able to get enough rest and prepare for a delightful whale-watching experience. Amanse says that during the peak season, there are around four to 15 whale shark sightings a day. This season alone, the World Wildlife Fund, which has a research center in Donsol, identified 160 whale sharks in the area.

10. Visit other tourist attractions in and around Donsol. Make the most of your trip to this part of the Bicol Region by seeing other sights. Try the night river cruise through the Sogod and Donsol rivers, where thousands of fireflies light up the night sky. Boats are available for rent at P1,250. Other interesting sidetrips are the Tangculan Mangrove Park near Dangcalan village and carabao-riding at Rawan Village.

And, if you’re still ready for more adventure, schedule a manta ray watching trip to nearby Ticao Island. •

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Dethroned beauty gets passport, finally

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 06:46:00 05/22/2010

LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines—After her long fight to get her crown back, dethroned Binibining Pilipinas Maria Venus Raj finally got her passport Friday morning, which means she will now be allowed to compete in this year’s Miss Universe pageant to be held in Las Vegas.

Securing a passport was the condition of Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc. (BPCI) for Raj to be reinstated after she was stripped of her title last month due to inconsistencies in her birth records and her verbal account of birth.

The BPCI Inc. claimed “misrepresentation” as its ground for unseating Raj, a cum laude journalism graduate and native of Bato, Camarines Sur.

The dethronement sparked public uproar in online forums.

The Bicolana beauty being a “poor countryside farm girl yet determined to reach her dreams” got much support and sympathy from the people.

Last week, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) declared that Raj is a Filipino citizen by virtue of the “jus saguinis” principle in the Philippine Constitution.

The jus sanguinis (Latin for “right of blood”) principle means that a person acquires the nationality of his natural parents regardless of his place of birth.

Eduardo Malaya, DFA spokesperson, said that after evaluating the beauty queen’s birth certificate, documents, and passport application, the committee formed to look into Raj’s case recommended the issuance of a passport.

Raj was born to a Filipino mother and an Indian father in Doha, Qatar, but they were not married. She was brought to the country a month after birth and was registered three years after.

Raj, in a phone interview, said she is happy and relieved that all her efforts and those of her supporters finally paid off.

She said that when she woke up hearing the news about the release of her passport, she got up and rushed to the DFA to claim it.

Raj said it had been a roller coaster ride for her. In as much as many people were there for her, there were also those who criticized her after the controversy.

“But I also thank those people because they have made me stronger and motivated me to push the fight,” Raj said.

She said they would still be waiting for the official statement of the BPCI reinstating her, after which she expects that her name will finally be cleared.

Raj has been training for the Miss Universe along with other Binibining Pilipinas winners since April.

In Barangay San Vicente in Bato town, Raj’s 59-year-old mother Ester Bayonito cried when she heard of the news.

“I cried out of joy and gratitude. I cannot thank those who helped my daughter enough. Thank God!” a jubilant Ester told the Inquirer in a phone interview. Ephraim Aguilar, Inquirer Southern Luzon

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Catanduanes voter preserves ‘paipit’ or ‘gracia’

By Ephraim Aguilar
Inquirer Southern Luzon

LEGAZPI CITY—LIKE IT WAS New Year’s Eve, people stayed up late on the streets a night before Monday’s elections in many villages in the rural town of Pandan in the neighboring island-province of Catanduanes.

They were waiting for what is locally called “paipit (insertion)” or “gracia (blessing)” from politicians running for public office.

When Gerry Rubio found P2,120—two P1,000 bills, one P100 bill, and one P20 bill—on his doorstep at Our Lady’s Village in Virac town early Monday, he knew what to do. The money came from certain candidates for governor, congressman and a party-list group.

“The P2,120 I unwillingly received today will be millions worth of lesson in history. I will preserve this,” said Rubio, who vowed not to spend the money in exchange for his sacred vote.

He said he would put the bills under the glass cover of his office table. “This will be my contribution to history.”

Cigarette boxes

Inasmuch as it is shameful that massive vote-buying happens in his home province, it has to be exposed, he said.

Rubio, the public relations officer of Catanduanes State Colleges, is a volunteer of Pagbabago! (People’s Movement for Change), a multisectoral group that advocates clean and honest elections.

In Catanduanes, distribution of vote-buying money started at around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday till early Monday before the voting precincts open.

“Packs of money are sleekly delivered to homes. They are stapled with the candidates’ sample ballots,” Rubio said.

Others are brought to the houses of local leaders where people line up until dawn.

“Bundles of cash here are loaded in cigarette boxes. Politicians form a task force that segregates the money for stapling,” Rubio said.

He noted some enraged voters who will not pick a candidate if they do not receive anything. “These are the voters without backbone. But I believe there are still well-meaning people in our island who value values.”

In Masbate, a perennial election hot spot, every voter is paid at least P1,000, said Pagbabago-Bicol spokesperson Fr. Remar Soliza.

On Ticao Island in the same province, Soliza said voters would receive as much as P3,000 each from local mayoral candidates.

The group reported that supposed supporters of an incumbent congressman gave out P300 per voter.

In Milaor town in Camarines Sur, the same amount was distributed by the camp of another congressional candidate.

“By all indications this is also happening in all provinces in the region, where patronage and traditional politics is the norm,” Soliza said.

“We encourage voters to report such acts as well as other activities that undermine their votes. When [vote-buying] candidates come to power, they will definitely ransack the people’s coffers to defray their campaign expenses,” he said.

Busy banks

Banks this week had a barrage of transaction requests to convert millions of pesos into smaller bills, a bank teller in Bicol, who refused to be named for security reason, told the Inquirer.

The teller said that since last week, even nonclients or those without accounts had visited the bank to encash a P500,000-check for P100 bills.

“I would have up to five clients asking us to break down big amounts. It is unusual for an ordinary work day,” the teller said.

Rubio said vote-buying is an indication of flawed governance in the Philippines. “Something is acutely wrong with our political system. Why do they have to resort to cheating in all forms, buy votes, to win a public servant’s seat?” he said in a phone interview.

“And the electorates who patronize this dirty scheme are part of the rotten system.”

Rubio said vote-buying is endemic in a culture that regards electoral posts as “moneymaking machines.”

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Catanduanes learns to conquer waves

By Ephraim Aguilar
Baras, Catanduanes

MORE THAN A REMINDER OF THE ISLAND’S sheer submission to the world’s largest ocean, the strong waves that smash Puraran in Baras town in Catanduanes are every surfer’s dream.

Tagged as the “The Majestic,” the turbid waters of the coastal village are no longer whipped-up props of strong typhoons that frequent the province.

Most surfers say Puraran has the most powerful and challenging waves and deem it the “last stop” or the country’s ultimate surfing destination.

In the 1980s, a group of Australians discovered the surfing potential of Puraran, according to Allan Tanael, 28, one of the local surfers. By word-of-mouth, more visitors came, riding the waves by day and sleeping in the village’s public school at night in the absence of resorts.

Tanael says those who kept coming back decided to build a beach-front cottage on his grandparents’ land. His family’s Majestic Puraran Beach Resort now stands there.

Tanael learned surfing when he was 12 years old, simply by watching foreigners handle the furious waves. His only problem: he did not have any surfboard.

One day, to his delight, one of the foreign tourists gave him a surfboard while serving as their guide.

“If they like you, they would give you one. Sometimes, we would mend broken surfboards and reuse them because we could not afford one,” Tanael said.

An original Australian or Hawaiian short board costs P10,000 to P25,000, and a long board, P30,000 to P35,000.

Surfing may be a rich man’s sport for a rural Filipino, but it has gained popularity in this fifth-class municipality.

In 1997, emerging surfers from Baras and other towns formed the Catanduanes Surfing Association. (Tanael is now president of the group.)

The provincial government also held the island’s first surfing competition that year. This month, the Baras government held its first surfing and wall-climbing clinic. A hundred locals, mostly youths, signed up for free lessons.

During the event, the Department of Tourism in Bicol donated 20 fiberglass surfboards.

Joey Cuerdo, president of Power Play Events Management, which organized the four-day clinic, says the participants had been very receptive and enthusiastic. The clinic introduced not just surfing but other beach sports, like Frisbee and wall climbing.

“When rural folk come to the beach, all they usually want to do is sit down, chat or drink,” Cuerdo says. “They are not used to people inviting them to a game. Unless you approach them, they would simply gaze from a corner.”

“But you can see their interest because they would watch the game,” he adds.

Cuerdo says the clinic made the people aware of “sports in their backyard.”

“I would tell them they should be proud to be from Catanduanes, because they have the waves that only few places in the country have,” he says.

What sets “The Majestic” apart from others is the shape, Tanael says.

“During peak season, the waves would form a perfect tube. The waves are smooth and would break gently,” he says.

The Puraran wave is a “reef break,” the kind that breaks over a coral reef or a rocky seabed. It can be the most dangerous yet most rewarding for surfers seeking adventure.

The waves are as high as six feet in October, when the winds are strongest. It is also the annual schedule for the professional surfing competition in Baras.

Tanael says Puraran welcomes neophyte surfers who can try certain areas where the waves are not as high. During typhoons, the waves reach 10-15 feet, forcing residents to flee their homes for safe ground.

Cuerdo believes the challenging waves of Puraran can produce competitive surfers.

Surfing draws people of any race who feel being “cool,” Cuerdo says. “Surfer and cool ... there seems to be a parallelism. That would also explain why surfing brands are really popular. Surfing is cool.”

But Tanael says it has not yet reached a point when surfing is a career alternative. He teaches in a public elementary school.

Provincial tourism officer Carmel Garcia sees a brighter prospect for tourism, although, she said, more manpower, ample promotion, better facilities and private sector partnership are needed.

In Puraran, Majestic Beach Resort and Puting Baybay (White Sand) Beach Resort offer accommodations.

“At least the road network is far better now. Only few roads are left to be cemented,” Garcia said. Baras is a 90-minute drive from the capital town of Virac.

Virac can be reached directly by plane from Manila or a four-hour ferry ride from Tabaco City in Albay. Its airport hosts two airlines—Cebu Pacific and Zest Air. It has at least 11 hotels and inns.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dethroned beauty rejects condition for reinstatement

By Ephraim Aguilar
Inquirer Southern Luzon

LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines—Lawyers of dethroned beauty queen Maria Venus Raj have asked the Binibining Pilipinas pageant organizers on Wednesday to reinstate Raj without any conditions and to clear her name of any wrongdoing.

Also, the reinstatement should not be done for humanitarian reasons, they added in a letter to Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc. (BPCI) on Tuesday.

The BPCI announced on Sunday it was giving Raj a chance to reclaim the Binibining Pilipinas title provided that she obtained a valid passport. The pageant organizer also said it had reassessed Raj’s situation and was giving her the chance “for humanitarian reasons.”

The Bicolana beauty was dethroned on March 29 due to inconsistencies in her birth records. She explained that she was too poor to go to court to correct the inconsistencies—which were not of her doing in the first place.

No requirement

“A passport was never a requirement for joining, and even winning, the Bb. Pilipinas title … Accordingly, it should not be made a condition for her reinstatement,” lawyers Gigi Berberabe, Dickson Berberabe and Teodoro Pastrana said.

Raj found another ally in fellow Bicolano, Sen. Francis Escudero, who said the BPCI should reinstate her solely on the basis of her rightful claim to the crown.

Raj, in a statement sent to the Inquirer Wednesday morning, said she was grateful for the BPCI for the reconsideration but again asked the BPCI to clear her reputation.

“Galing man po ako sa isang mahirap na pamilya lamang, itinuro po sa akin ng aking ina na ang integridad at kredibilidad ng isang tao ay napakahalaga (Though I come from a poor family, my mother taught me the value of integrity and credibility),” Raj told the Inquirer.

She said the accusation of misrepresentation, which the BPCI had pointed to as the ground for her dethronement, tarnished her reputation and cast doubts on her right to the Bb. Pilipinas title.

Internet angels

Raj has attracted an increasing number of online supporters.

A published report (not in the Inquirer) which quoted an unnamed representative of the Araneta Group as saying Raj was “snubbing” pageant training sessions, drew immediate Internet flames.

On the Facebook fan page “Petition for Venus Raj to remain as Bb. Pilipinas Universe 2010,” netizens rushed to Raj’s defense: “Spare Venus from that black propaganda. Make peace, BPCI. Venus may have nothing in life but we are the angels helping her. She has her family and us. Take note of that,” said one post.

Raj, in her own response, said she was ready to join the training session as soon as she was reinstated. She also said she had spent time in her hometown Bato, Camarines Sur, to gather the documents needed for her passport application.

Online survey

Raj’s raging supporters have also put her on top of an online survey of Miss Universe candidates on the Spanish website

In a span of just one day, Raj, 21, a part-time model, jumped from number 26 to the top of the survey as of Wednesday noon with over 2,000 votes—overtaking 36 other Miss Universe candidates.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Dethroned beauty to regain crown if she gets passport

By Armin Adina, Ephraim Aguilar
Philippine Daily Inquirer

DETHRONED BEAUTY QUEEN MARIA Venus Raj can keep her title that was taken from her less than a month after her coronation as the country’s official representative to the Miss Universe beauty pageant.

In a statement sent Saturday to the Inquirer, Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc. (BPCI) said: “… After due deliberation, we have reassessed the situation pertaining to [Raj] and have decided, for humanitarian reasons, that if she is able to obtain a valid Philippine passport, we will reinstate her as Binibining Pilipinas-Universe.”

Albay Governor Joey Salceda, who had sought an explanation for Raj’s dethronement, was very happy and thankful to the BPCI for reconsidering their decision.

Genny Marcial, corporate affairs and PR manager of Araneta Group, the parent organization of BPCI, said Raj would have until June to present a valid Philippine passport “because the Miss Universe pageant may be held in August.”

Word of Raj’s reinstatement spread quickly on the Internet. Online fans who had rushed to her defense were overjoyed and started blogging and uploading the good news on various social networking sites.

Joyce Burton-Titular, whose blogsite has been following Raj’s story since Day 1, said: “I honestly think it’s the grace of God working through all the bloggers, forums, Facebook community, and TV and newspaper coverage.”

Burton-Titular, herself a former beauty titlist, told the Inquirer that Rafa Delfin, director of the website for pageant aficionados,, had sent an appeal to the Miss Universe Organization (MUO) on Raj’s predicament.

On his Facebook fan page supporting Raj, Delfin said he forwarded the newspaper article about Venus’ humble roots to MUO president Paula Shugart, to which she replied: “After reading this article, this young woman definitely deserves her crown back.”

“They were all moved because they felt the humility and honesty of Venus. Her story of being raised on a farm, in a hut with no electricity, graduating cum laude and winning pageants is powerful. And she still goes home to that same hut today,” Burton-Titular said.

Prayers answered

On the Facebook fan page, “Petition for Venus Raj to remain as Bb. Pilipinas-Universe,” there were mixed reactions about the reinstatement. The page has nearly 4,000 fans.

“God sees the truth and hears our prayers. Cheer up Venus, smile and show the world how beautiful you are inside and out,” one of Raj’s supporters posted.

“Petitions were heard, our prayers were answered,” another fan wrote.

However, a number of bloggers and Facebook users continued to criticize the BPCI, the local franchise-holder of the Miss Universe pageant.

“I’m overjoyed that BPCI is giving Venus a chance … [But] why is obtaining a passport posed as a challenge to her? Shouldn’t they help her with it?” one fan posted.

One commented on Raj’s problem regarding her birth certificate.

“It’s the same story for many poor Filipinos applying for overseas work. When they apply for a passport, they discover discrepancies in their birth certificate,” another fan wrote.

This is usually what happens in rural areas where birth registration is entrusted to midwives, who could give the wrong information to the civil registrar.

“Such are the travails of the rural poor. But did these people commit misrepresentation? No. Were they persecuted by law? No. Their records were simply corrected,” another fan said.


The 21-year-old Raj won the Binibining-Pilipinas-Universe title last March 6. She romped away with the special awards Best in Long Gown and Best in Terno, and was voted by her fellow candidates as Miss Friendship.

But on March 29, BPCI stripped her of her title for inconsistencies in her birth records. The organization also proclaimed second runner-up Helen Nicolette Henson as her replacement.

BPCI told the Inquirer that Raj’s birth certificate stated that she was born in Bato, Camarines Sur, her father is a Catholic Filipino, and her parents are married.

However, it was learned that she was born in Doha, Qatar, her father is Indian and she was born out of wedlock.

BPCI said misrepresentation was the sole basis for stripping Raj of her title, and not citizenship or residency as in previous dethronement cases.

Raj disputed BPCI’s claims of misrepresentation. In television interviews, she said she never hid the truth. As early as November, during the screening for the pageant, she already told BPCI that she was born in Doha, Qatar, to an Indian father and a Filipino mother.

Raj said she did not have a hand in the filing of her birth certificate with the erroneous information. The inconsistency was a result of the delayed filing of her birth certificate.

Her aunt, Josephine Ramos, filed the document three years after she was born. Raj said her aunt did what she did to protect her family from embarrassment.

Raj said she only learned of the inconsistency when she was in high school and was applying for a scholarship. She added that it was poverty that prevented her from correcting her official birth records.

Prominent personalities expressed dismay—even outrage-when they learned of BPCI’s earlier decision. Among them were senator and vice presidential candidate Loren Legarda, Gabriela party-list representative and senatorial candidate Liza Maza, Commission on Human Rights Chair Leila de Lima and Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption Chair Dante Jimenez.

Raj, who graduated cum laude with a degree in Communication at Bicol University, will attempt to become the country’s third Miss Universe winner, after Gloria Diaz (1969) and Margie Moran (1973).

The last time the country placed in the pageant was in 1999 when Miriam Quiambao was proclaimed first runner-up to Botswana’s Mpule Kwelagobe. With a report from Rey Nasol, Inquirer Southern Luzon

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Farm girl to get Bb. Pilipinas crown back if…

By Ephraim Aguilar
Inquirer Southern Luzon
First Posted 19:03:00 04/10/2010

LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines—After the public outrage on the dethronement of Maria Venus Raj as a Binibining Pilipinas titleholder and the country's representative to this year's Miss Universe, local pageant organizers announced her reinstatement on Saturday.

It came on the condition that Raj will first have to obtain a valid Philippine passport.

“The Executive Committee of Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc. (BPCI) announces today that after due deliberation, it has reassessed the situation pertaining to Ms. Maria Venus Raj and has decided, for humanitarian reasons, that if she is able to obtain a valid Philippine passport, they will reinstate her as the reigning Bb. Pilipinas-Universe,” said the statement, which was published in the Multiply account of Araneta Center.

No direct announcement had been made yet as of late Saturday but Bb. Pilipinas Universe 1985 Joyce Burton-Titular confirmed the BPCI statement in her blog

Burton-Titular said she was able to get confirmation of Raj’s reinstatement from BPCI’s public relations manager Genny Marcial.

The Adventures of a Beauty Queen blog has been persistently following Raj’s story from day one.

The BPCI committee members also said that though they were “sensitive of (Raj’s) situation, they are aware, too, of their responsibilities as an entity existing under Philippine law.”

“The BPCI, being an organization concerned not just with the quest for true Filipina Beauty, but more so, dedicated to the empowerment of women and the uplifting of the lives of marginalized Filipinos, has always considered the welfare of our candidates paramount,” the BPCI statement added.

Raj’s online supporters also expressed joy over BPCI’s decision.

On the Facebook fan page “Petition for Venus Raj to remain as Bb. Pilipinas-Universe,” there are mixed reactions to the reinstatement. The page has nearly 4,000 fans.

“God sees the truth and hears our prayers, cheer up Venus, smile and show the world how beautiful you are inside out,” read one message posted by a supporter.

“Petitions were heard, our prayers were answered, doors may have closed but reopening is not impossible. Our Lady of Peñafrancia, our Ina, is really good to her child, Venus. Urusad kami sadi Rinconada sa pagsuporta saimo (We are one here in the Rinconada district in our support for you)!” said another fan, apparently Raj’s kababayan.

Raj, 22, a cum laude journalism graduate of Bicol University, is from Barangay San Vicente in Bato, Camarines Sur.

Some people were not satisfied, however, particularly with respect to the passport condition.

“For some reason, I am not satisfied with this development. Why is BPCI passing the ball to Venus’ court? Could it be a delaying tactic, perhaps to pacify fans and sympathizers? Something smells fishy, but let us see. Please remain vigilant!” a fan said.

“I’m overjoyed by the news that BPCI is giving Venus a chance. Although they remain (expletive deleted) for me! Why is obtaining a passport posed as a challenge to her? Shouldn’t they help her with it?” one fan said.

Another said Raj’s dilemma with her birth certificate is the same story for many poor Filipinos applying for overseas work.

“Just when they are about to apply for a visa they discover discrepancies in their birth certificates,” the fan said.

He added that this was not surprising, especially in the rural areas where birth registration is usually being entrusted to the midwives, who may feed the wrong information.

“Such is just one of the travails of the rural poor. But did these people commit misrepresentation? No. Were they persecuted by law? No. Their records are simply corrected,” the fan added.

Albayanos are jubilant over Raj's reinstatement as winner of the title.

A retired government employee who is fond of praising Bicolana beauties was very happy to hear the development.

“She must have had a very good lawyer and she herself knows to defend her title,” Carmen Vicuña told the Inquirer over the phone. She added she was convinced that Raj was a very intelligent person because of the way the beauty queen answered media interviews.

The social network Facebook was flooded with supportive comments to Raj since she surfaced on the page and she told the Inquirer that she was thankful for the overwhelming support from her fellow Bicolanos.

Albay Governor Joey Salceda, who sought an explanation for the dethronement of Raj, was very happy and thankful to the organizers for reconsidering the issue.

“Over the past three years, Albay has had a bountiful harvest of beauty trophies. Last year, Ms Melody Gersbach first won as Ms Magayon 2009 before becoming Binibining Pilipinas-International and was a semifinalist in China. Ms Necio was a runner up to Ms Gerbasch in Magayon,” Salceda said.

Another Albay beauty, Ms Jane Bañares, won as Mutya ng Pilipinas 2009 even after losing in Magayon but winning Ms Polangui.

With a report from Rey Nasol, Inquirer Southern Luzon

Friday, April 09, 2010

Page One Image 4/9/2010

Dethroned Bicol beauty queen fights for dream

By Ephraim Aguilar
Inquirer Southern Luzon
First Posted 02:35:00 04/09/2010

BATO, CAMARINES SUR—Streamers of congratulations still hang in Barangay San Vicente here for its instant celebrity-daughter, Maria Venus Raj, who would have represented the country in the Miss Universe pageant in August after winning the most coveted Binibining Pilipinas title.

But her reign had been cut short by organizers less than a month ago.

“My fight is now more than just chasing a dream. It is about clearing my soiled reputation. It is about standing up for people who are poor and born out of wedlock. It is a fight for acceptance,” Raj said in an interview at her house made of wood, bamboo and “anahaw” leaves.

She has been living in the house without electricity for 21 years.

Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc. (BPCI) took back her crown when it discovered false information in her birth certificate—that she was born in San Vicente, Bato, Camarines Sur, when she and her mother said she was actually born in Doha, Qatar; that her father is a Catholic Filipino when, in fact, he is an Indian; and that her parents were married when they were actually not.

Mother is OFW

During the pre-pageant’s panel and individual interviews in November last year, Raj had said she was born in Qatar, where her mother, Ester Bayonito, had worked as a domestic helper from 1986 to 1988, and was brought to the Philippines a month later.

Raj has professed her innocence, saying she had nothing to do with the information her aunt put in the document when her birth was registered three years after. She discovered the inconsistency when she applied for a college scholarship at the Francis Papica Foundation, which had not been corrected until she was dethroned.

Raj said she and her mother had no idea that she would someday be joining a national beauty pageant and that they were not able to correct the errors in her birth certificate because this would entail extra expenses.

Local contests

The youngest in a brood of five children, Raj started joining local beauty pageants when she was 17 years old, as well as oratorical contests at San Vicente High School.

“Whenever I won, I would give the prize money to my mother, who saved it up to buy seeds for the planting season,” she said. Her mother, now 59, is a tenant farmer, dressmaker and “hilot” in their village.

“My dream, more than to be a beauty queen or a model, is to just really give my family a comfortable life,” said Raj, who graduated, cum laude, with a journalism degree at Bicol University.

Raj was Miss Bicolandia in 2007 and Miss Philippines-Ecotourism in the Miss Philippines Earth pageant in 2008. With her winnings, she started buying land on installment basis for her mother.

“We moved from one place to another … about four times. It was hard not to have your own place. When there were conflicts we were always forced to leave,” Raj said in Bicol.

Ma. Lourdes Pili, Raj’s English teacher at San Vicente High School, said she used to coach Raj for oratorical contests.

“What always amazed me about Venus was her determination to succeed. Whenever she joined contests, we would borrow uniform and shoes because hers were old and faded. But she was never discouraged,” Pili said.

Resign or be dethroned

In a press conference in Naga City on Wednesday, Raj recalled how hard she cried when she was told about the decision of BPCI officials to strip her of her title.

Her predicament, she said, started a day after she was crowned on March 6 when Stella Marquez de Araneta, pageant head, supposedly expressed shock when she learned that she was born in Doha.

Raj said she was given two options—resign or be dethroned.

She said she was coaxed to sign a letter of resignation and was advised not to talk about the reason for it to protect her and her family from “judgmental people who would belittle them because of her past.”

When she told the organizers that she could not just sign a document without the presence of a lawyer, they met again for several hours only to tell her that she would be dethroned, she said.

Raj’s replacement will be the contest’s second runner-up, Helen Nicolette Henson, as the first runner-up, Dianne Necio was only 17 years old then.

According to Miss Universe pageant rules, the winner of the title must be 18 years old.

Poor girls’ dreams

Anjo Santos, Raj’s talent manager and mentor, said he was shocked at the sudden decision of BPCI. “It killed the dreams of poor beautiful girls like her who came from poor families to pursue their ambitions to succeed.”

She was never given due process, he added.

Because of embarrassment over her dethronement less than a month after she was crowned and the fear of being the talk of the town, Raj and her mother would not go out of their house.

Raj’s name is now all over the blogosphere. Fan pages on the social networking site Facebook were created to petition her reinstatement as the “country’s rightful candidate in the Miss Universe pageant.”

Free legal support

Lawyer Francis Padua Papica, who sponsored Raj’s college education, and another counsel volunteered to defend her for free.

A netizen, who requested to be identified only as King and a student of Bicol University, said his fan page would average around 300 interactions a day and had more than a thousand members.

One of Raj’s friends, Christian Jay Millena, 21, of Daraga town in Albay, believes BPCI has not dealt with Raj’s case with tact and decency.

“Take note that the BPCI even failed to properly inform the public and even the persons concerned of the real issue why Venus was dethroned,” he said.

Even Dante Jimenez, chair of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption and also a Bicolano, pledged his group’s full legal support during the press conference held at Avenue Plaza Hotel in Naga.

‘Handiwork of losers’

“I think this is the handiwork of losers who wanted to dethrone a legitimate winner,” Jimenez said.

Some 50 children from poor communities welcomed Raj with flowers to dramatize her roots and support from fellow Bicolanos. Before leaving, she told them not to give up on their dreams even though how poor they were.

“She is an inspiration to ordinary girls with beauty and brains who are just daughters of poor farmers or fisherfolk. She is a perfect inspiration to ordinary Filipinos who can tell the whole world that economic status is not a hindrance to fulfill a career using their God-given talent,” said Santos, Raj’s talent manager. With a report from Juan Escandor Jr., Inquirer Southern Luzon

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Friends support dethroned beauty queen

LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines—Maria Venus Raj was excited about her homecoming as a beauty queen that was planned for after the Holy Week, but before she could even set foot on her hometown in Bato, Camarines Sur, she was stripped of her Binibining Pilipinas title.

Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc. broke the news of the dethronement in a text message to media organizations this way: “Today March 29, 2010, Bb. Pilipinas Charities, Inc. decided, with a heavy heart, to let Bb. Pilipinas-Universe 2010 Maria Venus Raj go, after the organization discovered inconsistencies contained in her birth records, in contrast to her personal account of her birth.”

Thus, the Indian-Filipino Raj will no longer represent the country in the 59th Miss Universe pageant in August.

“Yesterday (Monday), I cried when I learned that I would no longer be Bb. Pilipinas-Universe. I felt I was left with no other options but to wake up the next day without a crown,” the 21-year-old Raj told the Inquirer in a calm and gloomy voice.

She intentionally did not answer phone calls and text messages that day but she said the support she has been getting was overwhelming.

“Realizing there were countless people who believed in me, it gave me strength and hope,” Raj said in a mobile phone interview.

She said she could not thank her supporters and fans enough.

“I could only be so grateful that people are there to stand by me. My family has been praying for me,” Raj said.

She said two of her sisters cried with her. While her mom appeared to be tough, she knew she was hurting, too.

The Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc. (BPCI) has yet to issue an official document about the dethronement. Raj said she has not yet received anything.

“I am leaving this in the hands of the lawyers. For the meantime I could only thank those who have supported me from the beginning,” Raj said.

“Kahit naman mahirap ka lang, pero may pinag-aralan, alam mo pa rin ang tama at mali. Alam mo ang mga karapatan mong dapat ipaglaban (Even if you’re poor, but if you’re educated, you would know what is right and wrong. You know what rights you have to fight for),” Raj said.

Raj lives in a nipa hut in the middle of a sprawling rice field in Bato town. Her mother is a farmer and a dressmaker.

Raj said that walking on rice paddy dikes was early training for walking on fashion runways.

On the social networking site Facebook, hundreds of her friends and fans expressed frustration and anger at the pageant organizer’s decision to take back the crown from Raj.

“The Bb. Pilipinas Foundation should have made the decision when it was till screening the candidates,” said one Facebook “friend” of Raj.

An online petition to return the crown to Raj has already been created.

The Facebook page was meant to send a message to the Bb. Pilipinas Foundation that its decision to dethrone Raj was a mistake.

“These are not fair. She has all the potential to win the crown in Miss Universe 2010. So what if she is half Indian? Obviously, the second runner-up is favored by the charity,” said a post on the newly created site.

“To Stella Araneta of BPCI, God forgive you for the injustice that you brought not only to Venus but [to] the whole nation. By dethroning [her], you gave up the only chance of taking back the Ms. Universe crown to the Philippines,” said another post.

Still another post said Raj should seek assistance from the government to settle the issue. “Ask for a certified memo that will state her citizenship. According to the Philippine Constitution, if one of the child's parent is a Filipino, then he or she is a Filipino citizen. Her mom is a Filipina. [It] just happened that Venus was born in Doha, Qatar.”

Several of the newly created page’s 286 members also called for flooding the BPCI with e-mails asking the reinstallment of Raj as BB Pilipinas-Universe.

In Naga City, the executive committee of Ms Bicolandia passed a resolution expressing support for Raj and disapproval of BPCI’s decision.

Nene De Asis, chair of Ms Bicolandia executive committee, said they would extend legal and financial assistance to Raj.

“We are giving her financial assistance because we know that she was also stripped of her prize. We believe in Venus’ integrity and qualification. We are supporting her all the way,” said De Asis.

Raj was Ms Bicolandia 2007.

De Asis hinted that the decision of the BPCI was also an invalidation of the rules of Ms Bicolandia, which also do not admit non-Bicol natives as candidates.

Meanwhile, Albay Governor Joey Salceda expressed dismay at the ouster of Raj and her replacement by her second runner-up.

Salceda said he would ask the organizers why Ms Diane Samar Necio, the first runner-up, did not automatically take the place of Raj.

“I know, this is very parochial, even trivial to some, but I am asking the organizers why the first runner-up, Ms Diane Samar Necio, my townmate, did not automatically take the place of Ms Binibining Pilipinas-Universe, Ms. Venus Raj, who was ousted,” Salceda said.

“Typically, we send a morena to Ms Universe, and Ms Necio was a morena beauty and she was proclaimed the first runner-up,” he said.

Over the past three years, Albay has had a bountiful harvest of beauty trophies. Last year, Melody Gersbach first won as Ms Magayon 2009 before becoming Binibining Pilipinas-International and a semi-finalist in China.

Necio, the Bb. Pilipinas Universe first runner-up, was a runner-up to Gerbasch in the Mutya ng Magayon Pageant.

Another Albay beauty, Ms Jane Bañares, won as Mutya ng Pilipinas 2009 even after losing in Mutya ng Magayon but winning Ms Polangui.

Salceda said these titles are a source of local pride and, to a certain extent, a uniting force for Bicolanos.

“We provided assistance to three candidates in this year's Binibining Pilipinas (Raj, Necio and Santos from Daraga who was actually the winner of Ms Magayon 2009). We sent a delegation to China to support Ms Melody Gersbach,” Salceda pointed out.

Raj won the title from last year’s winner, Pamela Bianca Manalo, in a glittering four-hour pageant at the Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City on March 7.

She was voted Miss Friendship by fellow candidates and also won the Best in Long Gown and Best in Terno awards.

She graduated cum laude with a degree in Communication Arts from Bicol University last year.

GMA 7 contract artist Krista Kleiner was proclaimed Binibining Pilipinas-International and named Best in Talent and Best in Swimsuit.

Czarina Catherine Gatbonton from Malolos, Bulacan, was the winner of the Binibining Pilipinas-World title.

The three titleholders bagged a prize package that included a P250,000-contract with Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc., accident insurance worth P2 million, wardrobe and accessories from Cumbia worth P150,000, as well as cash and products from Natasha worth P50,000.

Raj’s fellow Bicolana, 17-year-old Dianne Necio, was first runner-up, while Pampanga’s Helen Nicolette Henson was second runner-up. Henson was also named Miss Photogenic, Miss Fit n’ Right and Miss Philippine Airlines.

Broadcaster Mike Enriquez, boxing champ Nonito Donaire and 1970 Miss International Aurora Pijuan were among the judges of the competition televised on GMA 7. Reports from Ephraim Aguilar, Jonas Cabiles Soltes and Mar Arguelles, Inquirer Southern Luzon

Saturday, March 06, 2010

'Jueteng' whistle-blower laid to rest

By Ephraim Aguilar, Mar S. Arguelles
Inquirer Southern Luzon
First Posted 18:50:00 03/06/2010

DARAGA, Albay, Philippines—Illegal gambling scam whistle-blower Wilfredo “Boy” Mayor, 54, who was shot dead last Sunday, was laid to rest in a simple interment rites here Saturday afternoon.

More than 500 people, mostly family members, friends and supporters, brought him to his grave at the Pristine Memorial Gardens in nearby Legazpi City.

Speaking for the bereaved family, Mayor's daughter Maybell said they were leaving his father's murderers on the hands of God for justice.

“Bahala na saindo an Dios. Maabot man an panahon nindo (May God deal with you. Your time will come),” she said with trembling hands in her eulogy at the Tagas Chapel.

“I know that my father has already forgiven you. But you have given the Lord no choice but to deal with you just as your conscience is dealing with you now,” she added.

Maybelle added that his father was not perfect but she asked the people who had nothing good to say about him to respect his memory.

No politicians were seen in the burial, except for the writhes they had sent.

One of the bouquets came from Senator Panfilo Lacson, the one who brought Mayor to the Senate to reveal the alleged involvement of the First Family in “jueteng” payoffs.

Lacson is currently hiding, shunning his pending arrest in relation to the Dacer-Corbito murder case.

Not even Mayor's friend and fellow whistle-blower Sandra Cam was present in the event.

Mayor's supporters from Barangay (Village) Tagas, where he lived and once served as barangay chairman, wore black shirts with Mayor's face printed on them.

“Tagas” literally means tough in the local dialect, and they used it to describe their former leader.

“Talagang matagas ka (You are really tough),” the T-shirts bore.

Words written on a ribbon on Mayor's silver-grey coffin read, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept my faith.”

A task force that was formed by the Philippine National Police arrived here Tuesday to gather leads about the murder.

Chief Supt. Cecilio Calleja, Bicol police director, said the task force had been interviewing people related to Mayor and had also been verifying statements released by Cam to the media.

Cam, who visited the wake of Mayor at his residence in Daraga, Albay, on Thursday, said she believed that Mayor’s planned exposé on public works projects triggered the plot to kill him, but she did not rule out the jueteng and casino debt angles.

She added that she was not accusing businessman Zaldy Co and his brother of masterminding the killing of Mayor. In a previous radio interview, Cam said Mayor mentioned Co as the biggest contractor in Bicol, cornering most of the public works projects in the region.

A successful businessman and a philanthropist, Co incidentally owns the Pristine Memorial Gardens.

Cam said that in her conversation with Mayor, he told her about a P40-million public works project he was pursuing at the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and that a public works official told him to shell out a 20-percent SOP (standard operating procedure), a euphemism for commission in order to get the project.

Cam, however, did not name the DPWH official.

Running a local construction firm, Mayor has shifted to the construction business after the “jueteng” scam controversy.

Archbishop Oscar Cruz supported Cam's claims in a statement made through the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) website.

Cruz, who spoke to Mayor four days before his death, said Mayor was about to identify eight or nine lawmakers involved in the public works scam had he not been liquidated.