Sensational Gift

The following story is fiction. It is an excerpt from my novel Tides Ebb as Islands Dream. If you enjoy it, please consider buying the novel! (Featured photo: “Binz on Rugen” by Wassily Kandinski. (Photo: WikimediaCommons Public Domain))

Inside the store, Gerri’s oldest daughter turned on the radio and started switching the stations.  She stopped when the dial landed on “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”  The younger daughter stood on a chair, imaginary microphone in hand singing away.  “She likes this song very much.  It was the favorite song of her cousin.  Her cousin used to play this song on a CD and sing it with my daughter.”  Although Gerri smiled as her daughter played pop star, it was obvious that a deep sadness had come over her.    

     “What’s wrong, Gerri.”

     “Like I say before, sometimes people have a different feeling sense about something.  For my daughter, this one is a happy song and she dance when she hear it.  But my feeling is different because my experience different.  This was Carmelita’s favorite song but now Carmelita is gone so it make me sad.  My daughter not understand that Carmelita is gone.  She’s too young to understand still.”

     “What happened to Carmelita?”

     “Carmelita was the niece of my husband.  She lived with her family on Olango.  She was a very beautiful and special girl.  When she was born, God gave her a special gift.  It was the same gift of the aunt of my husband and also of some other relatives.  You see, Sean, when Carmelita hear the music she also see beautiful colors.  You and me, we can only hear the sound, but for Carmelita, she could see the sound.  She was always so happy and she would tell us about the sounds and colors she see.  This song she love so much because when she hear it she always see lots of gold and blue—the colors of love she would say…and pink and purple the colors of passion.  For Carmelita, colors were like a person’s emotion.  Different sounds were different colors.  Each bird’s call was a different color and the waves crashing on the beach showed her many colors because their sound always change depending on the tide and the wind.  The world of Carmelita was very different from the world of you or the world of me.  Have you ever heard of such a thing Sean?”

     “Maybe I have.  I remember reading something similar in a psychology book when I was at university.  It was something about how the brain mixes senses for some people.  Like they taste shapes or feel sounds.  I think there is a name for that.”

     “Yes, there is.  A doctor told us the name.  A psychiatrist from Cebu Doctors Hospital heard of Carmelita and he go to Olango to meet her.  After that, he wanted to study her.  It was okay until he took her to the city.  There was so much noise she almost went crazy with all the colors that explode in her head.  She cry for two days in Cebu so the doctor, he just come to Olango to visit with her.  He gave her family a CD player and he gave Carmelita many different kinds of music.  She was so happy.  That song about the jet plane was one of the songs on a CD he give her.  She learn so much about music.  She learn the guitar.  Her dream was to be a music teacher.  One time she tell me she hope someday to listen to her students play a concert and she can see all the beautiful colors and maybe she could paint a picture of that.  It was a beautiful dream that she had. 

     “But not all the sounds were beautiful colors for her.  Some sounds showed her colors that scared her or made her want to cover her ears.  Rain was nice for her, but the wind and rain together sent her hiding in the closet.  She have to close her eyes and cover her ears.  During a typhoon, she cry for days and would not eat.  She would talk like a crazy person about what she saw.  Sometimes she would scare the other people with what the sound show her.  Many people think she was crazy.  But her family understand and we know she have a gift.”

     “Synesthesia!”  Sean’s exclamation startled Gerri, “Oh, sorry.  I mean the name for her condition…ah, her gift.  The name for her gift is synesthesia.  I just remembered.  Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.” 

     “Yes, maybe that is what the doctor say.  Synanetisia?”

     “Synesthesia.  But please continue.  What happened to Carmelita?”

     “There was one sound that scare Carmelita too much.  She say the sound show her colors that are more ugly than thunder.  The dynamite fishing.  Every time there is blast, Carmelita run in her house and pull her sleeping mat over her head.  She tell me that when there a blast, it is not just the color that scare her but she say the color grab at her and try to choke her like an evil demon.  She say the color she see was not black, but it was just darkness.  Cold darkness….like a death.  Carmelita say that the color of thunder and of the typhoon was scary but not ugly.  That colors still nature…still part of life.  The colors of the dynamite blast is like all colors dying…like no color at all.  Carmelita say that colors are life, the colors are a gift.  But the sound of the dynamite kill the gift of color.       

     “There was a while, maybe five years ago when the fishermen were making lot of dynamite for the fishing near Olango where her family live.  Carmelita was maybe fifteen years old.  She could not go to school, she only stay in her house and cry.  Nobody know what to do.  The father of her try to stop the fishermen, but they only argue and say they need to feed their families.  The father of Carmelita beg them and tell that the noise is killing his daughter.  The fishermen only laugh and say that Carmelita is just a crazy girl.  My husband then try to help the husband of his sister, and talk to the fishermen he know.  Even they don’t listen to my husband. 

     “After one month, the bombs stop.  The reef on that side of the island gone and all the fish too gone.  The fishermen go to another place.  Maybe Palawan to do muro ami fishing with the sticks and net.  The relatives of my husband not care where the fishermen go.  Everybody just happy there is no noise of blast fishing for a long time.  Especially Carmelita.

     “A few months after, some more dynamite fishermen come again.  One day Carmelita is riding her bicycle on the path and she hear the blast noise and see the cold ugly darkness.  She screamed and have accident on her bicycle.  Her head smash on a rock and she is like sleeping for a long time.  Her family take her to the hospital on Mactan.  The doctor from Cebu, he go to Mactan also.  For two days she sleep and then when she wake up her gift was gone.  Not gone, just different.  Before she see colors when she hear sounds.  When she wake up she hear sounds when she see colors.”

     Sean was fascinated as he listened to Gerri’s account of what happened to Carmelita.  Had he not heard of synesthesia, he may have thought the whole story was fabricated.  Gerri paused as she poured another cup of goat-dirt tea.  She looked at Sean’s empty cup of coffee, poured him some hot water and gave him a packet of instant coffee.  After a few sips of her goat-dirt tea she continued, “Everybody laugh at first because Carmelita’s gift change.  Her parents happy because they think that the blast fishing noise not hurt her again.  But then Carmelita start to cry.  She say her dream can never come true.  If she always hear different music when she see color then she can never be a music teacher and she can never see the music her students play.  Her whole life dream is gone and she cry a lot.”

     Gerri paused for a minute and looked at her two daughters playing inside the store.  Sean mumbled to himself, “Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind.”


     “Oh, nothing.  What you said about Carmelita’s lifelong dream being gone…well, it reminded me of words to a song that my mother used to sing when she was feeling melancholy.  Something about, ‘Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind.’  And then a line about life being unkind.”

     “Maybe I hear that song before.  Maybe it is like what happened to Carmelita.  Life was unkind to take her gift and to take her dream away.  At her home, she have many troubles because of sounds in her head.  When the sun too bright she hear a very high noise and when the sky too cloudy she hear deep thumping noise.  They have to make the inside of her house black so she not hear so many noises or she start to go crazy.  When she talk to people, she could not look at the clothes they wear.  When the clothes of the people have many colors Carmelita hear many different sounds.  She say it like hearing too many radio station at the same time.  She say polka dots are terrible noise for her.  I see her once when she see polka dots.  She have to close her eyes and cover her ears.  She say it like someone put a pin inside her ear.  Her next birthday we have a small party, but nobody can wear polka dots.  And no bright colors.  Just plain clothes like black or dark blue or grey. 

     “Before the change, Carmelita like to swim with goggles in the sea and look at the coral and the fish.  After the change she cannot do that because there too many beautiful colors.  But for Carmelita the colors make too many noises and she not happy any more.  The beautiful flowers on the island fill her head with too many sound.  After the change, nothing can be beautiful for her.  The doctor from Cebu try to help, but he don’t know how to help.  He take Carmelita to Cebu and do something in the hospital.  He try to give her medicine but she only sleep from the medicine.  Nothing help her and she become sad and more sad.

     “Her dream gone forever and her life is every day too many noises.  Even she a young and beautiful girl she never smile…she never happy.  The noise from the colors make her more crazy and more sad.  Her life become very bad until one day she decide she not want to live more.  She wait for one night with no moon.  A dark night when she could see no color and when that night come, she walk out into the water. 

     “I think she find peace that night.  When they find her body the next day, she had a smile on her beautiful face.”

     Sean was speechless.  He looked around at all the beautiful colors of the tropical morning.  It was impossible to imagine life the way Carmelita had experienced it.  Her reality was beyond what Sean could imagine.  He immediately recalled what his college mentor had once told him, “Everybody has their own reality.”

Ecotourism and Community Development

Spirit of Ecotourism

Albert Einstein once said, “Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” His words characterize the spirit of environmental education through ecotourism. That spirit is the basis of a philosophy that promotes sustainable development through community cooperation and trans-generational communication. As a scientist, philosopher and teacher, Einstein was well aware of the need to pass on knowledge about the environment from the older generation to the younger generation in order to build an understanding of how to maintain a sustainable relationship with nature. In the last century, environmental education has grown to include more than just field studies in biology and geology. Today, the main objective of environmental education is to teach critical thinking skills that involve problem solving and decision-making for how communities can conserve, protect and promote stewardship of natural resources. Environmental education through eco-tourism is a tool to encourage thoughtfully planned community development based on a shared attitude toward stewardship of valuable natural resources. That shared attitude is a product of common environmental morals and ethics.

Vang Vieng, Laos

What is Ecotourism?

The International Ecotourism Society, defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (TIES, 2015). Since the late 20th Century, ecotourism has been one of the fastest-growing tourism sectors.

For ecotourism initiatives to be successful in both achieving their goals and being sustainable over time, the International Ecotourism Society recommends ecotourism projects be based on several guiding principles:

  • Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts.
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
  • Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
  • Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.
  • Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates.
  • Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities.
  • Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment. (TIES, 2015)
Kawasan Falls on Cebu Island, Philippines

Benefits of Ecotourism

Creates Jobs and Income for Local Communities

Since ecotourism projects are community-based initiatives planned and managed at a local level, local citizens participate at all stages of the process. This is a major step toward community empowerment. Ecotourism projects create jobs locally so young people do not have to leave their homes and families to look for work in urban areas. Local youths may work as guides, selling crafts, providing food and accommodation, or taking part in cultural performances. In the best-case scenario, ecotourism improves the standard of living through improved facilities, such as schools, clinics, potable water sources, new roads and electricity.

Environmental Conservation

Through dissemination of environmental knowledge and information, ecotourism contributes to a better appreciation of the world’s natural resources, such as forests, rivers, coastlines and wildlife. New knowledge helps to change attitudes and behavior about how to protect the natural environment through the creation of national parks, wildlife preserves and marine parks. The money tourists pay in sanctuary entrance fees, camping fees, tour fees and taxes help to fund conservation work and community development. Tourist dollars can also help to fight environmentally destructive behaviors such as dynamite fishing, illegal logging, destructive farming and overfishing.

Snorkeling and Diving in Sogod Bay, Southern Leyte, Philippines
Cultural Preservation

Ecotourism encourages tourists to interact with local citizens. This integrative approach to tourism differs from the segregation of the traditional tourists who barely venture out of their westernized hotels. Eco-tourists are likely to experience local lifestyles and customs first-hand. This can foster an interest that helps to preserve the region’s heritage, provide a market for local handicrafts, promote traditional festivals and increase awareness of native ceremonies and art forms.

Building Awareness of Human Rights

In addition to teaching environmental stewardship, ecotourism can raise awareness about political and social issues in developing countries.

Ecotourism is a Tool in Developing a Global Environmental Ethic

As the popularity of ecotourism grows the values and principles become contagious. Environmentally responsible practices among large tour operators and hotels is becoming the norm as more and more establishments globally are practicing recycling, use of renewable energy sources, water-conservation schemes and safe waste disposal

Ecotourism and Community Development

Human impact on the environment is motivating communities all over the world to rethink planning and development. For popular travel destinations, this means communities need to find a balance between capitalizing on the economic benefits of increased tourism and protecting their natural resources for future generations. Tourism-gone-wrong can ruin a community’s resources and create an environmental refugee situation in which locals need to leave a once pristine area due to the impact of too many tourists. Increased tourism creates a strain on potable water sources, waste management and arable land. Effective ecotourism projects should begin with educating local community members by raising awareness of detrimental practices and nurturing a new social consciousness that will result in symbiotic relationships with nature. For small island communities, mountain villages, animal sanctuaries and other common tourist destinations that advertise their closeness with nature, environmental education is fundamental to effecting change in attitudes and behavior. That change is an essential step toward planning sustainable ecotourism projects.

Unfortunately, poverty and myopia in development planning cause people to seek short-term gains without realizing the long-term detrimental effects. It is important that all levels of government take effective measures to ensure ecotourism initiatives maintain sustainable use of the natural resources and their associated ecosystems.

The Responsible Eco-Tourist

Although the eco-tourist may only spend minimal time visiting a particular destination, the tourist also has a responsibility of helping to ensure the success of an ecotourism project.

Tourists need to educate themselves so they can make informed choices before and during a trip. This is the first step in becoming a responsible traveler. Here are some tips for choosing destinations, accommodations, and tour operators for an eco-travel vacation:

1. Do the Due Diligence

Use available resources on the web or in guidebooks to learn as much as possible about destinations, places to stay and tour companies that organize trips. Some key terms for Internet searches are responsible travel, ecotourism, or sustainable tourism.

2. Check the Benefits to the Local Community

After deciding on a destination, try contacting some of the stakeholders in the ecotourism project to learn about their policies. You can ask questions about the percentage of locals among the employees or what percentage of profit stays in the local community. Look for comments either praising or criticizing ecotourism efforts on travel websites.

3. Look for Evidence of Accreditation

Are tour guides trained and certified? Do lodging business have eco-label ratings?

4. Be Pro-Active During the Trip

Communicate with the local citizens as much as possible to learn about the condition of the local environment and understand either the positive or negative impacts of the ecotourism project. If time and logistics permit, volunteer to participate in projects such as reef monitoring, resource assessments or development efforts. Get involved!

5. Be Pro-Active After the Trip

Spread the word via social media or traditional media about successful efforts and responsible ecotourism projects. Offer constructive criticism for projects that are not as environmentally responsible as they could be. Post comments about a destination or tour operator on travel websites.

6. Beware of Green-Washing

As ecotourism has gained much popularity in the last couple of decades, it becomes more difficult to understand what some tour operators mean when using the “eco” label. It is a label that sells, but it is not always a true label. Doing due diligence should help to uncover ecotours that are really just conventional package tours.

Ecotourism in the Philippines

The Passenger

This is an excerpt from Tides Ebb as Islands Dream. Obviously inspired by the Iggy Pop song of the same name.

The Passenger
By the time we hit the runway for Mactan the next day, the skies had cleared and the pilot had sobered from our night of drinking Tanduay rum and Coke-a-cola. It was just a short hop over the Bohol Straight. We caught a view of “my site” on the way over. I got to admit, a chill ran through me as we passed over the group of small islands that will forever remain in my mind as “my site”. More embarrassingly to admit; there was actually a flash in my mind that these islands could be one of those Sports Illustrated kind of swimsuit photo-shoot settings with tropical beauties sitting around drinking tropical cocktails. From the plane it looked like a perfect paradise. Parts of the reef were clearly visible from the plane. Then I saw obvious grayish areas that were tell-tale signs of damage to the reef; huge areas of white dead coral and coral rubble. As the plane turned toward Mactan to land, it was still mid morning. Gow and I would have the rest of the day to ready for the following long day of overland travel.

A taxi took Gow and I from the airport to the Mayflower Pension in Cebu. It seemed like an incredibly long ride through an endless urban jungle, stanking of sewage and waste. I couldn’t smell it because the cab was air conditioned, but I could feel the stank in the rippling heat waves rising from the burning ash fault streets and the septic, trash clogged sewers that paralleled the tenements we passed. The cabby’s radio muffled out a Beatles song. Young kids at every intersection trying to sell sunglasses, fruit, jasmine flower necklaces, and whatever else. The cabby actually described his sister to me and said she was looking for an American husband. Did he expect I might really say, “Sure I’ll marry her!” Gow was on his cell phone so he missed the exchange. I said nothing and just kept fumbling with my sunglasses and trying to cope with a morning-after-rum buzz. The Beatles song ended and Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” came on the radio.

“I am the passenger

I stay under glass

I look through my window so bright…”

Traffic had us at a stand-still. A group of children raced from car to car begging for money to buy food. I watched them as if I had been watching a movie. Not feeling any real emotion at first. Just watching as if everything outside the taxi were happening on a silver screen behind a cloud of desert dust. One child approached my car door window and peered through the tinted glass gesturing that he wanted food. When he caught my eye, my movie abruptly stopped. His deep brown eyes were penetrating real and his hair gray with road dirt. The lights in my imaginary theatre flashed me back to reality and the imaginary movie projector clicked off. I turned away trying to ignore the boy. A dozen reasons why not to give him money crossed my mind. Two more scraggily kids showed up with even more penetrating stares. I reached in my pocket for some coins and realized I only had bills. Stealthily pealing one bill away from the rest without taking my hand out of my pocket, I quickly cracked open the window and slide out the bill. The first boy ran off and the other two chased him. Just as two more boys approached, traffic started moving.

The driver shot me a strange look after I closed the window. He had noticed the bill I had given the boy was a 100 peso note. Really only equal to a couple of bucks on the exchange table, but enough to buy a few meals in Cebu. He commented that I shouldn’t give money to children beggars because they are lazy and don’t go to school. He added they worked for local gangsters who take a large percentage of what they make begging. He went on about how giving people money makes them lazy, but I became disinterested and faded back into the Iggy song.

“I see the bright and hollow sky

Over the city’s ripped backside

And everything looks good tonight

Singing lala lala…”

Things made sense for a second. It is so easy to be the passenger, safe behind the glass, watching reality like watching a movie. I reflected back on my hitchhiking days and asked myself why I love to travel. Freedom came to mind, and that day I felt very free and far away from any thoughts or problems I had left back in Ohio. Feeling free in that moment had its irony. First because a passenger is never really free. A passenger is stuck in someone else’s car while another person is doing the driving. Sometimes life is like that. The other reason my momentary elation, or possibly illusion, of freedom was ironic is because that day was not just another road trip to escape the humdrum life back in Cleveland. That day was not supposed to be a vacation. I had made a two-year commitment. And commitment is not freedom. Commitment is the lose of freedom. Apprehension and excitement peaked inside me momentarily when I realized the next day I would begin living with the community to which I had made that commitment.

The cab finally reached the Mayflower. The driver gave me a slight scowl because I only tipped him 50 pesos. It was actually a good tip since the fair was only 300, but I am sure he expected more after seeing me give the money to the begging children.

Gow sorted out our rooms at the check-in desk while I stood near the air conditioner trying hard not to sweat so much. I felt a bit at Gow’s mercy since he was my “community contact” and therefore responsible for making sure I made it to site and was comfortable with any living arrangements. Gow was in the driver’s seat and making the decisions about what we doing and where we were going. I was his passenger. More accurately, Gow was my babysitter and I was like a spoiled child that might need special attention. Although I resented that feeling, I knew Gow was doing his best to make me feel comfortable. After all, I was the fish out of the fishbowl; though I felt as if I were the fish in the fishbowl, behind the glass with everyone looking in at me. I guess sometimes, perception and reality don’t match.