Ways to use a lovely bunch of coconuts

A huge pile of coconuts in Marinduque, Philippines.

I was impressed with the number of ways people in the Philippines, Cambodia and Thailand used coconuts. I didn’t know that you could use the whole coconut in a variety of ways from the outer skin to the meat. Here are a few ways you can put coconuts to good use aside from drinking the juice:

Our Filipina granny showing us that coconuts can be used as hats, bras and knee pads.

A yummy coconut jelly drink made with the coconut meat in Marinduque, Philippines.

Coconuts can be burned and covered overnight to make charcoal. The family we stayed with in Marinduque used the charcoal every day to cook.

Coconuts can be shaved on the outside and be used as coconut bowls. Our wonderful friends in the Philippines were so nice and used their machetes to cut a bunch of bowls for our friend. 

Coconuts are great for machete practice. Though the local Filipina women were laughing at my horrendous ability to cut coconuts with a machete. It took me 10 minutes to cut one successfully. I would be so fired if I ever tried to sell coconuts.

Coconut meat shavings can be used to make a variety of desserts.

Coconut shavings can be used as kindling to start fires.

These coconut meat shavings were used in a salad at Mindful Farm in northern Thailand. The travelers who were staying on the farm cook every night together.

At Tacomepai farm in northern Thailand, the rougher parts of a coconut was smartly used as a sponge to clean dishes. On this farm, plastic is forbidden and residents and guests reuse as much material as they can.





My 16-year-old Filipino jungle master

I worked with a wonderful colleague in Vancouver, Canada and she is one of my sweet, generous and hardworking Filipina friends at the organization. Before I left a year ago, she told me, “If you want to visit our family’s farm in the Philippines and do outreach to children in the mountains, you can visit my brother.” At the beginning of this year, I took her up on her invite. I always warn people to be careful if they invite me somewhere because I most definitely will go.

Marinduque is said to be at the “heart of the Philippines” because it is an island right in the middle of the country. Of all the places I’ve been in Asia, this island has the biggest concentration of coconut trees I have ever seen. I will write another detailed post about our time in Marinduque, but I wanted to focus this post on an incredibly smart, kind and hardworking young boy I met named Ian. He is 16 years old and working on the farm of the people were visiting.
When my friend and I first met him, he was very quiet. He doesn’t speak much English except for a few sentences and we don’t speak much Tagalog, one of the languages spoken in Marinduque. But over time, we all felt very comfortable to just be with each other, learn how to do our jungle tasks with him, dance with him and laugh with him. After being in Asia for awhile, you find ways of spending time with people and being comfortable around them even if you don’t share a language. People can share drawings, laughter, dance and use gestures to communicate.

During the first two days, Ian was quieter with us because he was just getting to know us. The first time we spent a longer amount of time together was during a short walk around the village. It was sweet the first time he called my friend and I, “Ate (pronounced “atay”) Meesa” and “Ate Zu,” meaning “big sister Meesa” and “big sister Zu.”

Every day Ian surprised me with a skill that I didn’t know he had. Not only can he use a machete a million ways in the jungle, climb coconut trees and make charcoal from coconuts, he can also do origami and feed babies. He’s constantly doing something productive, whether it’s working in the field or making a kite for himself with the materials he has around him. I’m amazed at how infrequently he takes water after a full day of work. If you drop a group of PhDs in the jungle, I can guarantee you they wouldn’t be able to do a fraction of all the jungle tasks he does. School smarts vs. farm smarts.

He always tells my friend and I, “I will help you,” even when we don’t ask for help. Every time we need some thing or he can sense that we need something, he’s right here without hesitation. Every time I go in the field, my pants are covered with some pines that stick on that have to be removed manually. Ian kept trying to take it off for me after the day was done and I said, “No no, please don’t I can do it myself. Take a rest, you’ve been working all day.”

Possibly the best son ever. How many boys do you know who would paint their auntie’s toes?

Then when I went to sleep and was planning to clean my pants the next day, I woke up at 7:00 a.m. and went to say good morning to Ian and the first thing he did was hold up my pants and said, “Athe Meesa, finished.”

As we spent more time with him, we grew more attached to him and he was so much a part of our daily life. We enjoyed his company as we worked in the field in the day, even in silence. He would on occasion say short sentences like, “So very tired” or “So very hungry” when he would refer to himself, other the people or the water buffalo.

The first few days he was with us I could see he liked dancing but every time he caught me looking at him dancing, he would just stop. But after he warmed up to us, we would have a great time dancing together.

He’s going to be an amazing father one day if he’s already this great with kids at 16.

One day when I was visiting his cousin and the baby, the family was busy and just assumed I knew how to hold the bottle to feed the crying baby. So they handed me the baby, the bottle and left me alone. I didn’t know how to hold the bottle and thankfully Ian showed me how. On top of all of his jungle skills, he is so comfortable taking care of the baby at anytime.

On one of our last days with Ian, I told him I will miss him and he said, “I’ll miss you too. Rebecca (the water buffalo) will miss you.” He encouraged me to ride on Rebecca while he guided me and said, “Sit, it is your last time.” I told him he is a good boy and to keep being the way he is. I joked to his relatives that I want to adopt him.

Ian is called a lot by different relatives to help with different tasks. He helped me to start burning the coal so we could cook and I told him if relatives called him, he can go and help them first. He said directly, “I help you, this is your last night.” I was so impressed at his level of consideration.

On our last night we watched the movie Limitless and I wrote him a note that told him how good a person he was and to keep studying hard in school. When I asked him to pass a note to his cousin and asked if there was an envelope, he said, “No need” and used his origami skills to fold the note.


Hanging out with Rebecca, the two-year-old water buffalo.

On the last night he drew me his dream house with his future family, which was really sweet. I told him he will be a great father. We had to leave around 4:00 a.m. to catch the ferry the next day. Ian told us, “Please wake me up at 3:00 a.m.” And I said of course I would.

When I went outside at 3:00 a.m. to wake him up, he was still exhausted of course. I told him to just sleep and I will just stay with him until we had to leave. I lied down beside him and we just sat in silence with our eyes open. My friend and I gave him a few hugs before we left.

When I talked to his cousin Ida a week after we left, she told us that Ian told her, “I miss them. I keep imagining Meesa and Zu are with me.”

Ian with his cousin’s baby named Rachel.

Learning yet another skill.

“Do I really need to be the jungle master for this idiot?”

Ian made a wonderful kite with string, plastic and a machete.

Flying his homemade kite.

Making charcoal from coconuts.

Grabbing a batch of bananas.

Would you like a coconut?

Ian can lift two heavy bags like this at once.

How to make charchoal with coconuts

Sorry for my delay in posting, I’ve been busy catching up with old friends and have a lot more to share in the coming weeks. My friend and I spent 8 days in Marinduque, an island that is at the “heart of the Philippines.” I will write more on our dubbed Jungle Master Ian, a very intelligent 16-year-old boy who can do everything from climbing coconut trees, making kites, and of course making charcoal out of coconuts. I had no idea coconuts could be turned into charcoal that is great for cooking and can save families a lot of money if they know how to do it themselves.

Customer service comparison between countries

After living in Vancouver, Canada for most of my life, being in Cambodia for 8 months and seeing Laos for two weeks, it’s interesting to compare how many of the services treat customers or visitors depending on the culture of the people or the organization itself.

Customer service is so highly valued in many Western countries and it often fuels a sense of entitlement when we travel to other places. When I arrived in Cambodia I wasn’t sure what to expect from services but I kept an open mind. There are simply some cultures where the concept of customer service is not existent. And that’s fine, it’s just different.

When I went to Budapest, Hungary for a few days, there was little to no customer service and you just have to find your way around. While this can be frustrating for many travelers, I found the honesty somewhat refreshing than having underpaid retail staff in Canada asking how you’re doing in the name of “customer service.”

Non-existent service in parts of Laos

I went to Luang Prabang and Huay Xai (Northern Laos) and after coming from Cambodia, it took sometime to get used to needing to wave or find people to ask a question about their guesthouse, transportation or food. I’m sure people have this experience in Cambodia depending who they’ve interacted with, especially the tourist areas. The experience in very different when you stay in one place for a long time.

I don’t want this to sound like a rant, it’s just a different culture of interaction and the differences between countries is apparent. Keep in mind, I was only in Laos for 2.5 weeks and only saw the tourist towns. The friends that I met, one of them is Laos, was an exceptional host and showed our friends around town.

This was a common conversation with people running services in Laos:

Me: Hi, I was wondering what time your bus goes to Huay Xai

Staff: We have one tomorrow at 8:00 a.m.

(A few seconds of pause)

Me: Do I have to come here at a certain time?

Staff: No, you go to the bus station

Me: How far is the bus station?

Staff: 5 km from here

Me: How much is the tuk tuk and what time would I have to be there

Staff: It will be 30,000 kip for a tuk tuk and be there 7:30 a.m.

When I signed up for The Gibbon Experience ziplining in Huay Xai, I was as their office door with my big backpack and instead of taking off my shoes just to put my bag eight meters in their storage, I asked, “Do you mind taking my bag to storage so I don’t have to take off my shoes?” He replied by pointing to the storage and said, “It’s over there.”

After I got used to these interactions, one slightly frustrating conversation was when I wanted to rent a bike for the night and return it the next morning. This was the conversation after I leave them my passport to rent the bike:

Me: Can I rent the bike for the night and return it tomorrow at 7:30 a.m.? I have a tour to go to

Company: We don’t open until 8 a.m.

Me: Ok, my guesthouse is just less than a block away right there, can I leave the bike by the guesthouse and one of your staff and return it. I don’t need my passport for two days when I get back from the tour.

Company: We don’ have staff available to do that. (Every time I’ve passed that office, the office is empty and the have two to three staff doing very little)

Me: It is literally a 10-second walk, one staff member can stay here and another can just get the bike.

Company: Ok I will ask my friend next door if you can drop off the bike at her shop

**Bangs head on wall**

Service in Thailand

I was only in Thailand for a few days. The first day was just taking the bus from the north of the country to Bangkok. But there was a difference in service the minute I leave Laos and come to the immigration checkpoint in Thailand by the river.

After two weeks of passive attitudes at businesses, it was refreshing to have the guide and driver at the immigration checkpoint take my bag and give me clear directions for where I needed to go. For the few days, I was able to get around with very few problems.

Back to Cambodia

It’s been so good to return to my Asian home in Siem Reap after being away. I really enjoyed the people I met along the way and seeing beautiful scenery. But deep down I felt pulled to spend two weeks with good friends before I go off for a few months again.

As soon as I come to Siem Reap, I felt right at home. I went to my friends’ restaurant Phai San BBQ for my quick comfort food and chat with good friends. I know the food comes fresh and fast. Afterwards, it was so great to have top-notch service when I went to check my email for a few minutes, my friend at the hotel, as usual, asked if I wanted a coffee. I was asked if I wanted some tea and peanuts while I checked my email. I haven’t had this level of consideration for a few weeks except for my friends in Laos and Thailand.

Finally, I was most excited to surprise my adopted Khmer family since they thought I wasn’t coming back until April 2014, which was my original plan. But when I came back, they were very happy to see me and instantly offered their apartment for me to stay at for the two weeks  I was in town.

It’s good to be home.