Archive for March, 2007|Monthly archive page

A Puncher’s Chance

In Martial Arts on March 28, 2007 at 3:07 pm


On the Philippine

island of
Palawan, athletes like everyone else struggle to make a life for themselves and their families

By Antonio Graceffo


To understand a place, culture or a people you need to integrate yourself into the daily life of the country. You need to learn the language. But most importantly, you need to participate in activities, clubs, and associations with local people. For me, martial art is often my gateway to a foreign culture. As soon as I land in a new country, I join the martial arts school and immediately, I am surrounded by new friends, who give me an insight into their culture which few foreigners would ever experience.


You have to find your own gateway, based on your own interest. In most countries you will find running clubs, cycling, surfing, chess, cooking, and also international associations such as Lions, JCs, or Rotary. Wouldn’t it be cool to run in a marathon in China, or take a French cooking class in
Vietnam. Your genuine and shared interest will be a common ground which will breach even linguistic barrier, eventually leading to your love and appreciation of your host country.


I came to the
Philippines to learn Arnis, Philippine stick fighting. On the
Island of
Palawan, there is an undiscovered treaure,
City, which has repeated won the award as the cleanest and greenest island in the
Philippines. The city is also famous for having the lowest crime rate in the
Philippines. Prices are very low, and locals are the most friendly people I have ever met.


I checked into a pleasant guesthouse, with air-conditioning and private bath, for 700 Pesos a night. In restaurants a good meal cost around 80-130 Pesos, depending upon how much meat and scenery you need. Sidewalk places serve decent food for as little as 60 pesos. You can get just about anywhere by tricycle taxi for under 50 Pesos. The multicabs, big trucks which carry about twenty passengers, only charge 10 Pesos.


To keep up with my fighting training, mornings were spent in the gym, doing strength-work. My Tagolog met me at a café, every morning at 10:00 to give me private lessons for a fee of 150 Pesos per hour. Afternoons I was with my martial arts teacher, who I also paid 150 Pesos per hour. My evenings belonged to the Puerto Princesa Boxing team, which was free, paid for by the city Mayor Edward Hagedorn, a visionary who has created countless free educational and sport opportunities for Puerto’s young people.  


The gym was my first gateway to the Philippine culture. I made two new friends, 29 year-old Gener and 28 year-old Ronell, two competitive bodybuilders who dreamed of making it as professionals and eventually as movie stars.


“Dreaming is free.” Laughs Gener. “But if there is an opportunity to reach your dreams, why not?”


As excited as they were about their chosen career choice, both men admitted that it was extremely difficult for a bodybuilder from
Palawan to make it all the way to the big time.


“Even if we win we can’t go the big competitions because we don’t have sponsors.” Said Gener.


It costs money for training. Even a gym membership is expensive, relative to the earnings in the
Philippines. The monthly fee is 1,000 Pesos if you consider that a decent wage is 6,000 Pesos, this is more than 15% of the monthly income. In the
US, that would be like paying $600 a month for your gym membership.


“With sponsors we could take better supplements.” Said Ronell, who takes Creatin and amino acids. A bottle of supplements can run between $20 and $40 USD. Even the food required for a bodybuilder is expensive. They need a steady diet of protein, meat and huge numbers of calories per day.


“Meat is very expensive.” Said Gener. The family can’t support that type of eating. “The best athletes live in
Manila. In
Manila, it would be much easier to make it as a bodybuilder as well as a movie star.”


“If we are on TV or movies, we can make a lot of money.” Said Ronnel. “And, many women will want to marry us.”


When Ronnel won the first bodybuilding contest in
Palawan, just three years ago, people had no idea what the sport was about. “I first heard about bodybuilding from watching Arnold Schwarzeneger movies.”


“We used DVDs and magazines to learn how to train. But magazines are too expensive, about 400 Pesos. So, we rely on foreign friends to give us the old copies when they are done with them.”


In the
Philippines, every individual dream, no matter whether it be to study at university of go abroad to work, is secondary to the wished of the family. When you have little economic opportunity your family becomes very important to you. Both boys said they couldn’t train without their families’ blessing.


“Our families are behind us. If our family has money they give it to us, to support our training, but they don’t have a lot.” Said Gener. Both men said they had 5 siblings, which didn’t leave a lot for luxuries like bodybuilding. 


“Dreaming is free…”


The boxing team taught me a spiritual lesson, which was more like something you would expect to hear from a Shaolin monk: “The quality of a man is not what he has in his hand, but what he has in his heart.” The boxers had absolutely nothing in their hands, but their hearts were huge.


“Sometimes, having nothing gives you a cool hand.” Said Cool Hand Luke, explaining how he was able to keep his composure, fighting a bigger opponent, where the chips were stacked fully against him, and he had bet every dollar he had.


Like Cool Hand Luke, The Puerto Princesa Boxing Team has nothing, but they manage to stay cool, training in the intense, Philippine sun. They have no gym, no ring, no weights, and no ropes. They only have one heavy bag, no medium bags, no speed bag, and no floor to ceiling bag. Most fighters don’t have boxing shoes. The team owns some smelly, decrepit boxing gloves, which are coming apart. The two coaches have to share a single pair of coach’s gloves. The teams they fight from bigger cities will have all of that, and more. And yet, in spite of all of the things they are lacking, The Puerto Princesa Boxing Team is one of the hardest working teams I have ever trained with. More than anything, their energy and enthusiasm put a smile on my face every day when we turn out for training. Sometimes I lose my smile when we are running six laps or the coach is slapping me, to teach me defense, but for the most part, they are a happy bunch.


The team meets everyday at 5:00 PM at the Sports Complex. The training is free to all, sponsored by the City government. The boxers stand in formation, at the position of attention, before their two coaches, 42 year old Romeo Zligan and Lelord Bautista, age 21. Romeo is a retired professional fighter. Lelord, in addition to coaching and studying at

University, continues to fight as an amateur.


The lead boxer, 18 year-old Ryan, stands before the coaches, salutes, and announces “Coaches, all boxers are ready for training.” The coaches return the salute, and Coach Lelord explains the day’s training.


The workout always starts with a run, on the track. When running, Coach Romeo sings cadence, like in the
USA army. My favorite song is a Romeo-special. “I am just a lonesome boxer, far away from home. I climb the boxing ring, for I use to home. Darling if I die, you can marry again. Use my pension for your honeymoon.” And of course, because we are in the
Philippines, we have to mix Tagalog with English. “Pangkat naming maganda Puerto Princesa Boxing Team!”


The guys get a kick out of me trying to sing along with the Tagalog lyrics. Just like when I was a young, aspiring comedian, I hoped, someday, I won’t make them laugh anymore. The one thing I can do well is count the exercises. Counting is always done in either English or Spanish, both of which I have spoken my whole life.


“You speak Tagalog?” Asked Romeo, trying to understand how I often pick up on their threads of conversation.


“Only the Spanish parts.” I tell him. But this is often about 20%, which is about the same as what a lot of punched-out professional fighters understand in some of the gyms I trained at back home.


After the run, the boxers do several rounds of shadow boxing, an important part of any fighting regimen. Shadow boxing gives the fighter the opportunity to practice the combinations he has learned from his coaches, and to combine them with movement. Shadow boxing is done in rounds, just like a real fight, so it also reinforces the fighter’s ability to pace himself and to time a round in his head. Additionally, shadow boxing gives the coaches a chance to walk among the boxers and make on-the-spot corrections to their form.


Shadow boxing is followed by several rounds of exercises, such as jumping, skipping or hoping. Because of the lack f equipment, the coaches have to be creative, inventing training techniques that don’t require exercise equipment. For the most part, a boxer’s work out should concentrate on three areas: cardiovascular fitness, strength, and technique. To their credit the coaches have found a number of ways of building cardio, including running timed sprints and long distances on the track. They work on technique with the boys, teaching them to throw combinations in the air, but with a lack of bags and coach’s mitts, there is only so much they can do. As for strength, there is almost no strength training, because this would normally require expensive weights and machines.


The guys always ask me about my experiences, fighting in other countries. I tell them, that in
Thailand we don’t earn very much money for a fight. One boy told me. “We don’t get a lot here either. If we win we get 150 Pesos. Sometimes, in a big fight, we can get 300 Pesos.”


Ouch! That is a lot of training and punishment they go through for so little money. But economic problems seem to color every aspect of Philippine life.


All of the boxers are extremely good kids. They are polite, hard working, bright, and happy. I have never seen smiles and heard laughter like I have in Puerto Princesa. From the pleasant disposition of the people you would guess they didn’t have a care in the world. But the reality is, these kids are faced with challenges which most western kids would never know.


Several of the teammates are attending university, but many told me that they had to give up their education, after graduating high school, because their families had no money to pay tuition. Unable to find work, boxing is the only activity they have all day. Aside from the other problems that lack of money brings to families, one of the saddest for me is the waste of talented young people. In another country, or under other circumstances, these kids might be on their way to becoming, business executives, doctors, lawyers, astronauts, or freelance journalists living in


One of the brightest kids is studying electrical engineering at college, although he hasn’t yet reached his 17th birthday. He is planning to finish a two year program, by age 18.


“And when you finish you will go to work in
Abu Dhabi.” I joked.


“If God is willing, that is my dream.” He answered, seriously.


At least one other team member told me he already has a line on an engineering job in the UAE upon graduation.


From birth, Philippine young people seem to know that the best money making potential is to go to another country. If you drive through
Manila you see masses of people hanging around on the street. At first I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then, a Philippine friend explained, “They are waiting for a job.” There were placards over almost every storefront that said “Overseas Employment” with job flyers taped up in the windows. It turns out that nearly 20% of the Philippine population is working abroad. Aside from the damage done to families, because of long term separation during overseas contracts, the lure of overseas employment has a negative effect on the country’s development, as the best and brightest minds leave.


The coaches have the boys doing some light sparring. Since I outweigh the biggest fighter by about thirty-five kilos, I opt to work on the heavy bag, alone. Romeo takes me on the coach’s mitts for several rounds. He is a good trainer with a good eye to help me correct my mistakes. I can see from the expression on his face, however, that he isn’t used to having a clumsy 95 kg American swinging at him, with my notoriously sloppy fighting style. Calling out the combinations, he is more than a little nervous that I will zig when I should zag and someone, (Romeo), will get hit by accident. The fact that he holds the gloves differently from my coaches back in
Cambodia and
Thailand, and the fact that he uses different words, sometimes confuses me, and he has to leap out of the way, when the wrong punch, comes like a wrecking ball.


“This is good training for you too.” I tell him. “In case you ever want to fight again.”


The boys always ask me for pointers, particularly on how to throw the short powerful hooks and uppercuts, which are common for heavyweight pros, but almost non-existent for amateurs in the lower weight divisions. I am not sure if I should teach them anything, for fear of messing up the collegiate style taught to them by their coaches.


The best advice I can give them is, “If it is the final round, and you are behind on points, kick the opponent in the groin.”


I am not sure if that was really the advice they needed, but it will help them win.


The next evolution of training is abdominal exercises, which we train, laying on the dirty ground, because the fighters lack exercise mats. The final exercise is that each team member runs across the abs of all of the other fighters, when it came my turn to step on my teammates we all just started laughing hysterically. Once again, I felt big and clumsy.


We stand in formation, at attention again, and Ryan salutes the coaches. “Coaches, all boxers have finished training.”


“Congratulations boxers!” Yells, Romeo “Are all the boxers happy?”

“YES, COACH!” we yell back.

As we file out, we all run by the coaches and give them a high-5.


In the face of other teams with better equipment, the Puerto Princesa Boxing team has done extremely well in competition. Even the boys who lose a fight maintain that positive attitude that is unique to the


The athletes, like everyone else in the
Islands, are looking for a way to make a life for themselves and their families. Whether through boxing education, or overseas employment, they all have a puncher’s chance.


Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in
Asia. He is a professional fighter and the author of four books available on Contact him see his website




Modern Penal Colony A humane Alternative to Brick and Mortar Prisons

In Adventures in Asia on March 28, 2007 at 3:04 pm

Progressive Rehabilitation Program in Puerto Princesa, PhilippinesBy Antonio Graceffo 

When I heard the words penal colony, I was having visions of Papillon and Les Misrable, tortured images of the innocent Jean Valjean, hauling rocks and being beaten by sadistic guards. The Philippines wouldn’t be the first country I would think of in a discussion of prison reform and innovative rehabilitation programs. My opinion changed dramatically, however, after a tour of the penal colony, on Palawan Island. A philosopher once said, “If you want people to behave like animals, put them in cages.” In the penal colony, the prisoners are free to roam about the grounds. They work in the rice fields, growing their own food. They are given a weekly supplemental food allowance and must learn to budget and cook for themselves. They make and sell handicrafts, attend church and have social clubs.  

Back home in Brooklyn we often referred to the prisons, Rykers and Attica, as “gladiator academies,” places where dangerous men went and became more dangerous. But when prisoners leave the penal colony on Palawan Island, they are ready to live on their own in society and do an honest day’s work.  

Down a quiet country road, amid the tropical beauty of Puerto Princesa, the cleanest and greenest city in the Philippines, two kilometers from the prison, my guide, Yuks, pointed at some ordinary farm houses surrounded by rice paddies.  

“This is all part of the prison.” he said. 

There were no walls, no fences, barely even a sign, only a large statue of blind justice marked the entrance to the penal colony.  A single guard, one of only three who operate the facility, armed only with a pistol, greeted our vehicle and has us sign the guest register.  

Cruising the beautifully manicured, common area, I was shocked to see a prisoner, with a huge bolo knife tucked into his belt. 

“They need those for their farm work.” he explained.  

On the wall in administration building was sign which read, “Mission statement: The effective safe keeping and rehabilitation of prisoners. Vision statement: a self sustaining penal institution with fully developed agricultural sustainable rehabilitation.” 

Ten minutes into our visit, it seemed these noble goals had been achieved.  

According to the head inmate, the rate of recidivism is 1 in 500.Anthony, an inmate who had already served ten years for murder, told me that he had only finished the third year of high school when he was arrested near Manila. “At first, I had difficulty getting used to the schedule. I wasn’t used to doing heavy farm work.”Other new concepts Anthony had to adjust to were learning to cook for himself and budgeting his weekly allotment of food.  

Anthony did the first four years of his sentence in a maximum security prison in Manila, but he likes the penal colony much better. “Here we are free to walk around. In the prison in Manila, there was always trouble. There were gangs and violence. Here there are no problems.” 

A section boss, himself an inmate, also called a prison foreman, rode up on a bicycle, armed with a baton. “Sometimes I need this to maintain order.” He said.  The section boss explained that he lived with the men and made sure they turned-to for work and observed lights out. “The men work from 8 AM to 8 PM. New prisoners are assigned to brigades, where they eat, sleep, and work.” They are never required to wear chains, manacles, or leg irons. “New prisoners live in a barracks and eat on a schedule, in a cafeteria. Successful prisoners, (who have been here longer), live in bungalows. They get a food allotment and cook for themselves.” 

The section boss told us that he was convicted of murder. “If you commit a crime in Manila you have to go to maximum security prison for the first part of your sentence, before you would be eligible to come to the penal colony. If you commit a crime in province maybe you would come here first.” He had spent four years in maximum, in Manila, followed by six years in the penal colony. “In Manila jail there were riots. People got hurt or killed. We were always nervous, watching out. Here it is calm, tranquil.”  

At the colony there were no phones, no cell phones, and no internet. Prisoners could only keep in touch with their families by writing letters.  

“We can earn some money by making handcrafts and selling to tourists. We can’t go off the grounds at all.”  

The section boss explained that if prisoners left the grounds, there was an implied threat that they would have to go to the guard house for punishment followed by shipment back to maximum in Manila.  

The penal colony had two churches, one Catholic mission, run by nuns, and a Protestant church. Many of the inmates said that they had converted to Protestantism. “They were Catholic when they committed the crime, so they changed to Protestant now.”  

The approximately 2,000 prisoners are divided, according to how long they have been in the facility. New prisoners live in barrack. Long timers live in bungalows. At the top of the prison hierarchy were the prisoners of the release unit, all of whom were only a few months away from being released. These were the only prisoners allowed to have contact with tourists and have the opportunity to make money by selling souvenirs.  The section boss said the biggest lesson he learned in the prison was patience. “Before, I was less tolerant. Also, I was in a gang. We stay in our gangs here too, but it is not for trouble, only for social.” A prisoner named Marcos claimed to be a US citizen, born in Subic Bay, which was a US Territory till the late 1990s. “My father was a sergeant in the US Marines.” Said Marcos. “My father used to send me 1,000 Pesos every month. Then in 1999 the money just stopped, and I didn’t have anymore contact with my father.”  

Marcos claimed that his passport, birth certificate and other documents had been lost. “When I get out, I plan to go to the US Embassy and try to find my father.” 

If the story were true, it was sad. All around the world, US military personnel have left a number of single mothers and fatherless children with no support. Often, these deadbeat dads don’t even arrange a US passport for the child or register the birth. The fathers disappear into the massive military establishment and the Philippine taxpayers are left to support the mestiso children when they get in trouble.  

“I was 16 years old when I committed a murder in Manila. I did one year in maximum and eight years here. Life is better here.” Said Marcos. “It is calm. We get free food, and a free house, but we have to pay for soap.” 

Most of the prisoners were from poor families and admitted that life in the prison was better than being back on the streets in some slum in Manila. In Puerto Princesa they had a mountain view, fresh air, and nice weather. Most were probably better fed than back home. I really couldn’t see why anyone would want to leave. And yet, all of them said that upon release they would return to their home.  

Apparently, the nature of human beings is to seek freedom, even if their prison was like a holiday camp.  For the most part I give the prison high marks for being a humane alternative to keeping human beings in cells. Working in the fields combined with the cooking and budgeting food allotments are all skills which probably will benefit the men when they return to civilian life. The one negative observation would be that, according to the prisoners, there was no education and no training program. For the most part the men hadn’t learned how to earn a living and if their only plan was to return to their home then they would just find themselves in the same conditions that drove them to crime in the first place. The prison’s claim of 1 in 500 recidivism was also a bit vague. In talking to prisoners who worked in the personnel department this figure was based on the number of prisoners who were released and then later returned to the penal colony for a second sentence. But as I understood the program, the penal colony was a privileged for better prisoners. A second time offender probably wouldn’t be given an opportunity at the penal colony. There were no female prisoners, but prisoners were allowed to marry, so there were women and children living at the facility. 

A prisoner, working in the gift shop, Louis, told us that he was married at the penal colony and lived with his wife. His two sons were born there, and they attended the elementary school, along with the 47 other children, on the prison grounds. Louis had was now the major, the highest ranking prisoner, after having spent 22 years of his life in the colony. “The prison provides food allotment for prisoner only, not for the family. So, I have to support my family myself, by selling trinkets to tourists.” 

Like all of the others, Louis plans to go home after his sentence is finished. “Upon  release, the government will pay for my flight, but not for my family. So, I will have to pay for the family myself.” 

Before coming to the penal colony, Louis had served a sentence in the maximum security facility in Manila. “It was very violent.” he exclaimed. “I am in for murder. The reason my sentence was so long is because I killed two men in max in manila.”   

According to Louis, who also works in the prison office, there are five similar colonies in the Philippines. “But only this one is referred to as a prison without bars.” There are 16 families and 48 children in the facility.  

With free education for the children, food, lodging… I asked, once again, why the prisoners would even want to leave. “You can’t stay here when your sentence is finished.” Answered Louis, almost with remorse.  

Louis had spent more than half of his life behind bars. The final and obvious question was, what had he learned, and how would he adjust to the real world.  

“I learned a lot in here in release group. Living in prison I didn’t know how to communicate.  Now I have contact with people, including foreigners, so I learned to communicate with people again.” 

My driver said it was time to go. As I walked past the prison tennis courts, I wished Louis well. I also considered booking a room for a few nights.  

Antonio Graceffo is an adventure writer, living in Asia. His work appears in hundreds of magazines around the world. He is the author of four books, available on Contact Antonio at see his website 








Philippine Mayor Hagedorn Leads the World in Environmental Policy

In Adventures in Asia on March 28, 2007 at 2:57 pm


PuertoPrincesa Converting Motorcycle taxis to Run on LPG

By Antonio Graceffo


One of the most familiar sites in the
Philippines is the thousands of three wheeled motorcycles used as taxis. The colorful vehicles decorate the streets, adding a certain charm. Unfortunately the two cycle engines of the small, car-like cycles belch black exhaust fumes, which sting the eyes and clog the lungs. The environmental impact of so many horribly polluting vehicles is devastating.



Island lies Puerto Princesa a small, relatively unknown city where a visionary mayor, Edward Hagedorn is making international headlines for his unwavering stance on environmental issues. As a part of his clean and green campaign, the mayor has instituted a program, converting the old gasoline engines to run on environmentally friendly LPG (liquid petroleum gas).


Harry Uttman of Black Prince Communications, based out of
Manila, came down to Puerto Princesa to oversee the conversions.  “You see all that black smoke coming out?” He asked, indicating a recently converted vehicle. “That is carbon leftover from before. With LPG there is no carbon. The vehicle will smoke like that for about eight days. Once the old carbon burs out, the vehicle will run cleanly.”


The problem of harmful emissions is exacerbated by a lack of regular maintenance. The taxi drivers don’t earn a large amount of money. Since feeding their families is the number one priority, many don’t do routine maintenance on their motorcycles.


“One of the bikes we converted today,” said Harry, “the driver told us the entire exhaust system had never been changed since he bought it 19 years ago.”


Harry explained the economics of conversion.

“Right now, the average driver spends about 280 Pesos (approx. $7.50 US) per day on fuel. Gas costs 38 Pesos per liter. LPG costs 24 Pesos. So, right away, he can save 40% on fuel costs. In addition, one liter of LPG will power the bike for about 5% greater distance.”


The savings to the drivers added up to real money. In the
Philippines, 6,000 Pesos (less than 180 USD) is considered a decent wage. After conversion the drivers could be saving several thousand Pesos per month. That meant more food for their families and better education for their children. The social impact of the conversion is nearly as significant as the environmental one.

“The conversion costs 12,000 Pesos per bike, which many drivers couldn’t afford.” explained Harry. “Because this is his project, the Mayor is picking up half the tab.”


Mayor Hagedorn is subsidizing each conversion to the tune of 6,000 Pesos.


“After conversion, the motorcycles will need to refuel at a LPG station. Mayor Hagedorn is encouraging investors to build a refueling station.”


“My team is only here for a few days to teach the local mechanics at this gas station how to do the conversion. Once we leave, they will have a new line of business, converting bikes, which will mean more income for them. Since they are doing the conversion, the mayor is encouraging this station to become the refueling station.”


“One of the mechanics was a part time driver. Now that he will be doing conversions full time, he is renting out his bike to a new driver.”


The LPG program just created a new business owner.


PuertoPrincesa’s  approximately 4,000 motorcycle taxis are regulated by several taxi associations, who jointly run a tight ship. For example, all bikes must be either white or blue color. To give everyone a chance to make money, blue and white operate on alternating days. All of the association leaders have agreed to set an example by having their bikes converted. 


All bikes have to pass emissions standards testing before they can receive their approval from the associations. The obvious way to end the emissions problem would be to ban the registration of the polluting vehicles.


In Philippines Harry estimates there are 2.5 million of the older severely polluting bikes. “But we cant just ban them,” explains Harry. “The 2.5 million bikes are feeding 7.5 million people.”


LPG conversion is just a small part of Mayor Hagedorn’s Clean and Green campaign. Residents of Princesa accredit the mayor with having eliminated corruption, eradicated crime, lifted the standards of education and medical services, and improved sanitation.


“On my first day in Puerto Princesa  I was fined 200 Pesos for throwing a cigarette butt on the ground.” Laughs Harry.


In other pats of the country city mayors were reluctant to implement the conversion policy, thinking that they needed a special ruling or approval for a new law. Mayor Hagedorn, who is president of the Association of Mayors of the Philippines, argued that the conversion is covered under the Clean Air Act, which has already been passed in the
Philippines. As a result, other Philippine cities are following in Puerto Princesa’s footsteps.                     


If a small, previously unknown city in a poor nation can learn to preserve the environment, why can’t the rest of us?


Antonio Graceffo is an adventure travel and martial arts author living in
Asia. You can reach at See his website,


Contact Puerto Princesa Tourism office at