Beyond thinking critically, we must begin thinking strategically

In my former life as a high school teacher, I began each school year by putting my foot down: “I am here not to teach you how to take a test. I am here to teach you how to think.”

It was a challenge for me as much as it was for my students. Whenever I prepared our lessons, designed exams, or gave feedback, I reminded myself of those tough words. It was a simple principle that encapsulated my goal as a teacher and, in hindsight, epitomized how I myself have been shaped by the forces of a more liberal mode of education.

Today, we utter buzzwords like ‘critical-thinking’ (often followed by its cousin ‘problem-solving’) as our way of delineating our teaching practice from what used to be the norm — rote memorization and hefty standardized exams. Traditional modes of teaching relied on actively filling-in and shaping the values and dispositions of students, while the hypothesis behind the liberal mode was to teach a student ‘to question’ in the hopes that her ‘authentic self’ emerges in the process. The latter approach is thus seen as more emancipating — ‘freeing’ — hence it is no surprise that teachers have hopped on the critical-thinking, inquiry-based, student-led bandwagon as the world turned more democratic and scientific. This spirit was captured succintly by Aristotle when he wrote, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

But my basic question now is: Is critical-thinking enough?

Definitely not, according to Tony Wagner who enumerates six other skills besides. But he misses what I think is a critical skill needed in the world today. And particular to the Philippine context, strategic-thinking is sorely needed to help our country move forward. Called by other names, the concept of it is what we allude to when we implore our people ‘to think long-term’.

Strategy finds its roots in warfare — it is the sum of a series of actions required to achieve a superior position, usually victory or at the least ‘not dead’ if the odds are really stacked against you. And today, strategic thinking is captured by the world of business: how companies achieve superior value relative to its competition. For schools, strategic thinking is what can spell the difference between producing graduates who will simply feed into the next level and be ultimately underemployed, and those who can differentiate themselves to become entrepreneurs, innovators, creatives, and change agents.

Strategy need not be a zero-sum affair. A more post-modern reading of strategy suggests that one can be in competition with oneself. If an organization that isn’t in apparent competition with anyone else feels the need to do things better than they did a year ago, then getting from then to tomorrow will require strategic-thinking, too.

So why strategic thinking, and how do we cultivate it?

Strategic-thinking thrives in a world of constraint. Textbook management will tell you that there are two key processes to recognize constraints — the internal and external analyses. Management consultants make a killing using a variety of tools in either sphere to help an entity ‘diagnose’ its position and arrive at a ‘strategic plan’. But the essence of the process is simply asking “Who am I?” and “Where am I?”

In looking at ourselves, it is imperative that we do not make excuses. Whatever strength or whatever weakness, we are what we are. The more honest the reflection, the more effective and powerful the analysis becomes. In looking beyond ourselves, we require incredible honesty, insight, and mindfulness towards the world around us. The fewer the blindspots — though there will always be blindspots — the more effective and useful the analysis becomes.

The Filipino tendency to blame, I think, stems largely from a lack of self-awareness. Others would even push and say that we’re insecure or that as a nation we lack self-esteem, but at the core I think we simply don’t do enough self-reflection. It would be moving to read a critique of our national situation that does not end with allusions to imperialism or foreign domination. At the least, what the war on corruption has done right is to force people to articulate their values, although it is still too easy for the indignation of many to slip into cynicism or apathy.

Strategic thinking turned inwardly means that we work on our weaknesses and acknowledge our strengths. A student poor in math may find the need to consult the teacher or do more exercises; a less sociable person may have to take the extra effort to make friends and build social networks. It is not this simple, of course. Various pre-conceived notions such as ideologies and mindsets are true barriers hence the accusation often hurled towards liberals — they want the world to change but they themselves don’t want to change.

The tough part about being strategic is to choose which battles to fight and what to give up. Achieving victory doesn’t mean fighting every battle, but will at times require pulling back, reorganizing, and living to fight another day.  Being able to think long-term spells the difference between merely thinking that resolving our problems will require voting wisely in the next election (despite the lack of good candidates), and safeguarding and improving our public institutions so we can have better alternatives in the next one.

Strategic thinking turned outwards requires a similar, deliberate approach. Sun Tzu has been very keen about the lay of the land — whether the battlefield is surrounded by mountains, or split by a river, or leaves the opposing army at the higher ground.

The Philippines has at least 10% of its people living and working abroad. Our connections with the world run very deep, though at times our attitude towards it can be very unsure. We celebrate local talents who succeed abroad, yet we can be very skeptical about the solutions other countries have adopted to land above us in rankings, whether in terms of quality education, transparency, or global competitiveness. Our sense of nationalism is schizophrenic: at its best patriotism, at its worst xenophobia.

The developing world — of which we are part — faces the real possibility of leapfrogging decades of development if the solutions and ideas already pioneered and perfected by the developed world can be properly scaled and adapted to our local contexts. We need another ‘Pensionado Moment’ — that last time a Filipino government made big moves to send the country’s best and brightest to other countries to learn and bring answers to the development challenges back home. And with the way the world is wired these days, such a massive public undertaking may not even be necessary as it is so easy for the young and enterprising to be strategic, curious, and take the best of what the world has to offer.

How then do we cultivate strategic thinking?

Just three quick thoughts off the top of my head –

1. Educators must allow for a conversation between the two questions — “Who am I?” and “Where am I?” — to happen. For instance, exercises in reflection must extend to particular contexts. In business school for instance, reflection papers are always framed as ‘what does this mean for you personally, and how does it relate to your work’ type questions. From younger grades, students can be asked to relate lessons to their experiences and vice-versa (a technique flatly called ‘experiential learning’).

2. More than integration, synergy between subjects is critical. The concept of integration has become rather watered down in Philippine education. Initially introduced to encourage the various subjects to work together in order to develop students more holistically, integration has become a weak exercise where teachers split the grading of a project or credit one project in several subjects. There is still the possibility where a lesson in hyrdrology, for example, can result in the development of a water pump for a rural poor community. Or even easier — a week long lesson on liberalism will reflect in the content of history, literature, arts, and ethics classes. Strategic thinking requires synthesis, an ability to form connections and create meaning out of those connections.

3. Schools and educators must be deliberately strategic, too. From how the curriculum is designed to how teachers instruct their classes, schools can promote strategic thinking by having a clarity of purpose in everything they do. In my own teaching practice, I’ve come to see that there is simple power in explaining the rationale of an activity. At the most basic level, it promotes engagement and much later, creativity — with a clarity of purpose, students can then become creative as they find their own way to accomplish the task given the parameters of the activity. Allowing this improvisation around constraints and rules as they move towards certain objectives lies at the heart of nurturing our students’ strategic minds.

These notes are by no means exhaustive, and I’ll definitely be building on these ideas. At this point, I’d be more interested at hearing what strategic thinking could mean for you, and what the challenges and opportunities are in teaching it in the Philippine context.

See also: systems thinking, strategic management

Why We Are Here

During my graduation from the Asian Institute of Management last December 8, I had the honor and privilege of speaking on behalf of my class. These are my remarks.

President Steven DeKrey, Chairman Nazareno, Dean of the Institute Ricardo Lim, Dean of the Center of Development Management Juan Miguel Luz, Mrs Winhoffer, Faculty and Staff of the Asian Institute of Management, fellow graduates, our dearest parents and friends, good morning.

It is my honor and privilege to speak on behalf of the Masters in Development Management class of 2013. Our class thanks the Institute, especially CDM, for bringing all of us together and guiding us throughout these past eleven months. To our professors and all the program staff, we convey our deepest gratitude and love. Moreover to Dean Luz and Dr Paragua, the class extends its congratulations, excitement, and fullest confidence as the school moves forward as the Stephen Zuellig Graduate School of Development. Let us all give the great people at CDM a round of applause.

The class appreciates that what we’ve had in the past eleven months is something that happens once in a lifetime. Coming in after having had years of experience in the field – whether as a soldier or a nurse, a teacher or a police officer, an NGO worker or a priest — we recognize that we may never find ourselves in an environment as safe and diverse as AIM again. Knowing the scale of the challenges ahead, we embrace this day with both a sense of fulfilment and a call for courage.

Of AIM’s many gifts to us, perhaps one of the most powerful is insight — the ability to see something that we did not see before. As we move forward, it feels apt to simply wish everyone well on their respective journeys. But now after eleven months, the word ‘journey’ seems to fall short; I feel that what we are about to begin can be better described as a quest.

A journey is solitary; a quest can be shared by a group as diverse as that between a man, an elf, a dwarf, and a halfling called a hobbit. In The Lord of the Rings, one of my favorite stories of all time, Tolkien masterfully brings together the elements of a quest, the concept of which I feel serves as a good metaphor for what it means to be in development work.

For starters: nobody does it alone. To rid the world of the accursed Ring of Power, Frodo needed a fellowship. After all, what is the competitive advantage of hobbits? They do not have the empires of man, the sorcery of elves, or the industry of dwarves; hobbits are instead seen as too small and insignificant, and hence perfect for bearing an artifact that would tempt so many others to evil.

But one third through the epic, the fellowship was broken and readers are made to follow two stories that run parallel to each other: on one hand we have the hobbits taking the ring to Mt. Doom, and on the other hand a coalition of man, elf, and dwarf bands together to restore a lost kingdom. What is noteworthy here is that despite their geographic separation, the two journeys maintained a profound impact on each other. The quest to destroy one ring has led our heroes to different trajectories and yet they maintained the same hopes and aspirations, believing in each other until the job was done.

I remember a conversation I had with a professor in economics about halfway through MDM. Class was already out and I was consulting on a paper my learning team had to finish off. Somehow he ended up interviewing me about the work I’ve done for nine years and soon we were talking about the state of education in the country and how it can be a catalyst for change and inclusive growth. He then talked about Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford — universities which began as college towns in the middle of nowhere but eventually served as nexuses of development. What if we took the same approach to the Mountain Provinces, Central Visayas, and the Bangsamoro region? Instead of concentrating schools in Manila, why not bring the best and the brightest to the middle of nowhere, spurring the rise of competitive centers throughout the country? After he concluded his pitch, I thought about how business and government will have to be mobilized, how access to markets will have to be established, how much the attitudes and mindsets of students and teachers will have to change. I simply replied “I think that’s too big, sir.”

And he said, “That’s the problem. I haven’t seen a big idea in this country in the past fifteen years.” What he said next made it worse. “That’s why you guys are here.”

I was overwhelmed then, as probably a hobbit would have been. But as the months wore on it became evident that the same conversations were happening in public health, climate change and disaster management, social enterprise, peace and order, national security, and the development of Mindanao. The challenge of development management is really about spurring, enabling, and leading collective action. Development is a quest and we risk failure when we attempt to go it alone.

I am honoured to be part of an Institute that knows this. CDM was born precisely as a business school’s response to the development challenges of the region. Our work continues for despite the rapid pace of growth we’re now witnessing across Asia, we are increasingly confronted with not just poverty but with the more deeply rooted problem of inequity in all its forms. Here in AIM, we speak about leadership as an act of bridging the divides. As the Institute pursues a strategy of ASEAN leadership, there will have to be a convergence between business and development to the point where one story cannot be told without the other. Beyond concerns of profitability and sustainability, there will have to be a mindfulness for humanity. As we scale ourselves up, the question becomes less about margins and more about whether we are making a difference in the world from where we are.

This is all big work. But this is why we are here today, together. The fellowship may be coming to an end, but today we also meet for the first time as graduates of AIM. Our stories will now run in parallel with one another no matter the sectors or industries we find ourselves in, whichever companies, organizations, or governments happen to take us in. Thus in each other’s work may we find the confidence and belief that the world can indeed be a better place. And in each other’s work may we find the inspiration to be our best selves and become the change we seek.

Let us not be daunted by this task. To end, I conclude with the words of Marianne Williamson as a reminder of our responsibilities to ourselves and to others. To wit:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. Our playing small does not serve the world. We are all meant to shine, as children do. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Thank you very much.

When Passion Meets Purpose

One thing that grad school has beaten out of me is the notion that passion is enough.

I subscribed to that thought for the whole of my working life thus far thinking that as long as you do something you love, you will find success and happiness. I still believe that, but the difference now is that I realize it’s only one half of an equation. On the other side is purpose, or that one thing that moves you to do what you do. Passion is what leaves you smiling at night before going to sleep; purpose is the force that wakes you up in the morning.

How do we differentiate the two? Consider the following semantic experiment:

It seems okay to say that your passion is playing the guitar, right? But how does it sound when you say that your passion is helping other people? It makes sense, sure, but it’s difficult to hear that statement off someone without thinking, “He’s such a martyr.”

On the other hand, it’s completely fine to say that your purpose is to help other people. But how does it sound when you say that your purpose is to play the guitar? In that case, one can come off as a little self-indulgent. “Is there nothing more to you?”

Though both passion and purpose are defined from within, the latter is more our personal response to the world in all its complexity. And as a response to the outside world, it ultimately has an impact on others, whether it be on our families, our communities, workplaces, or even our country. A well-thought-out purpose is an active response to a need; as such it is more than mere compliance or blind loyalty. Purpose is a duty that we have defined for ourselves.

Passion is an outward expression of our inner selves. In a way, it can exist in a vacuum. You can play the guitar your whole life without making an impact on other people. You can paint, write, take photos, teach. That one thing that can never be taken away from you — the activity that defines you, or the activity that without which you feel you have unrealized potential — that’s your passion.

The insight I’ve had over the past year is three-fold.

One, your passion and purpose can be different things. These days, there are increasingly more and more people who feel metaphysical anguish trying to find that one thing that defines their life. Don’t panic. Just because you want to play basketball at every waking moment doesn’t mean you have to make a career out of it. Becoming a homemaker can be fulfilling but it may not be also entirely who you are.

Thus secondly, people can find themselves dedicating their lives to either one. In either sphere they can find happiness and contentment, but also the opposite — sadness and resentment. After all, not everyone gets to live out their passions. In the busyness of this world, having time to do something you genuinely love is considered a luxury not may can afford. On the other hand, there are also those who move about life with not needing a sense of orienting their lives to something greater than themselves. My only word of caution is that an overabundance of dedication to one’s passion can lead to ambitiousness and self-absorption. Losing one’s self to extreme passions or purposes will be ultimately frustrating.

Hence we find ourselves working towards the middle. People now use the phrase work-life-balance to express this tendency to meet themselves halfway. But what do we find in the absolute middle? What do we find in that place where passion is completely one with purpose? Is there even such a place?

Chris Martin of Coldplay was once asked what his objective was as a musician. He boldly said that he wanted to write “the greatest song ever” — the next year they released “Fix You”. In live concerts, Martin is known for building extraordinary rapport with his audience, and that his love for songwriting and performing is clearly anchored on his appreciation for his fans for whom he writes his songs. The inventiveness and innovation of Coldplay continues to this day, true masters of their craft with careers geared towards a love of music and a respect for their audience.

I use Coldplay as an example to shake things up when I say that a vocation need not conjure up an image of a man in priestly robes, though the word is rooted in a religious tradition (voca meaning ‘voice’ so literally the work we are called to do). The modern vocation need not be entirely not for profit either. When one’s passion and purpose meet, it opens us up to the possibility of genuine expression and service whether it be through writing a multi-million dollar album or teaching in a public school.

Moreover, it is in this vocational sweetspot — doing what we want to do and have to do — that we make mastery of ourselves possible. And as Masters, we become a source for others and allow them to define their own passions and purposes as well.

Coda

As 2013 enters its final stretch, I realize that this has been the longest time that I’ve been away from something I’ve always been passionate about. The distinction between passion and purpose has become so clear in the past ten months that I haven’t taught a single class since 2004. Hence I often feel anxious to get back to work already, but I realize now that it’s largely because those days were, in a way, simpler and more enjoyable compared to these days.

What this year has done for me though is to blow the world wide open. My purpose is completely unhinged, the possibilities now seemingly endless. If purpose is our response to the world, I have yet to answer. I can always choose to respond as I have in the past. But for now as I wait for my passion and purpose to meet, I will relish the thought that the past year has not left me unchanged.

Doing good, doing well (is work that never ends)

As I write, I am taking a break from working on my Management Research Report. It is essentially our ‘thesis’ here at AIM where we are tasked to come up with an original management solution that responds to a real problem that is of value to the organization we’re writing for. I’m writing mine on Pisay, the school I’ve come to call home for the past eight years, and so far it’s been really interesting to encounter my school at an angle I’ve never really seen before.

But enough about my MRR. My girlfriend has basically chided me for not writing more here — or anywhere else as a matter of fact — so here’s an attempt. Anyway I’ve been feeling that I do need to write here, if only to help me process the twists and turns that my life has taken on so far.

After all, it has been a really long time.

A really long time.

That is what it feels. Though I’ve only been in grad school for five months, it feels that I’ve been gone from work for much, much longer. Something like two years. They say that a year in AIM is equivalent to ten years of managerial experience. With the pace of our classes and the degree to which my thinking has been challenged and raised in each of our classes, I can now see where that claim has come from.

I had a tough time at the beginning, to be honest. I’ve never really had any experience of graduate school so in my mind I was simply thinking college but more difficult. And I was never really the best student back then. Save for my last semester in college, I felt that I simply ‘powered through’ my classes. I never really studied or spent all-nighters, and relied solely on brainpower to get me through my exams. That’s why my grades were average at best and, looking back, I feel that I under-performed.

The last semester was different. I am not really the type who chases after grades but I registered my highest QPI in that semester. I still remember what made the difference: by that final semester in college, I was sure that I wanted to be a teacher.

That made the difference because admitting that to myself liberated me. It freed me from simply surviving college to actually feeling that I want to just do well. Prior to that realization, I was lost. Most of my batchmates in political science already got themselves into a law school and I was just in the mode of getting out of college so my life can begin and make it up as I go along. But much else remained meaningless and I felt contented at just passing my classes enough so I can graduate and get out. Teaching turned me around. I always had the desire and passion but I denied it for seven semesters.

When I finally embraced teaching, I went through that last semester thinking that my life is what I will make it to be. And I wanted to make it good, I wanted to do well. And as I thought of the students that I’d encounter when I started teaching, I felt a responsibility to personalize the values that I’d teach them eventually — passion for what you do, resilience, and hard work. I still had political science subjects that semester and just had one education elective, but it didn’t matter. What was more important was that my work reflected the values I sought to live my life by, and the rest is history.

Now I look back at the past eight years as the most formative years of my life, and as I carry on with student life at AIM I also grow in gratitude towards the school that I’ve served all these years. I took a lot out of my years there, too — basically the affirmation that passion, resilience, and hard work is all you need. (Or as Angela Lee Duckworth puts it, grit.)

So when I started having a hard time at AIM, I had to come around and realize that thinking that it would be just like college but more difficult was simply the wrong way to go. For one, I didn’t do well in college thinking it was just college. But life felt easier and less stressful when I viewed it more as the reality of my life — and a reflection of who I am. Grad school requires the same perspective.

I guess what makes the graduate level most unique from basic, secondary, and even tertiary education is that it relies on vulnerability.  When done well, graduate school should make one incredibly uneasy and maybe even a touch insecure. There will be a lot of un-learning and re-learning involved, but what all this does is to facilitate a gut check. By stripping you away of everything you thought you already knew, you’re stuck looking at what’s left when all is said and done. In the past few months I’ve been asked these questions again and again: What do you stand for and what are you willing to give?

Since that last semester in college, I kept myself to a pact — that I’ll always be true to what it is I want to do. I came around at AIM when I admitted to myself that my schooling is a continuation of my work as an educator, and that the time I spend reading cases and writing my MRR is an investment towards making an even bigger difference in our students, our teachers, our schools. What can I say? I’ve always been a dreamer, too.

This is not to say that I’m having it easy now. Definitely not. If anything, I feel that our work here at AIM has gotten even tougher. We’ve just started Module 2 (out of 3) and the subjects are now more practical and managerial in orientation. For instance right now we’re currently tackling human resources, project management, and even marketing — subjects where I have close to zero background. Hence, the need for grit. And the ability to think fast and remain on one’s toes. I’m being asked the hard questions again, but that’s really how the learning is done. “What do you stand for?” is really “How does this make sense to you and your experience?”“What are you willing to give?” is really “What are you willing to do to make the most of your learning?” The path to becoming leaders and managers runs through self-discovery.

So that’s how I’ve been in a nutshell. I’m doing good, doing well. But the work never ends.

For the meantime I hope this earns me brownie points. I already owe someone a date after I turn in my MRR’s first draft on June 3.

:)

Development and Survival: Quick notes from Caramoan

This isn’t a travel blog. Though if you’re up for a trip to Caramoan Islands, send me a PM and I’ll share the essential details my girlfriend and I picked up on for anyone who intends to go there. There will also be no shortage of travel blogs and sites that can do a much better job of getting you there.

This is more a reflection of sorts; a cobbling together of takeaways from my conversations with our host, Kuya Ramil, our tourguide and boatman, Kuya Sonny, and a whole cast of residents and small business owners we chatted with during our time in Barangay Paniman.

I just came from a more academic trip prior to Caramoan, so I’ll be the first to say that this won’t have the same rigor of a Rapid Area Assessment. Though I left the islands feeling that there is so much more to learn about the place. In terms of building a story, I’ve only spoken to one group of stakeholders and thus this account may be simply just theirs. But let’s see how far we can go with the words of the people we met those two and a half days.

Caramoan, even before the coming of the first Survivor production in 2007, has already been in the midst of change. The little town of Paniman, specifically, used to be a fishing village. The movement of the typhoon belt southwards towards Mindanao has also changed the ecological balance in the waters between Catanduanes and Camarines Sur, changing the water’s temperature and ultimately reducing the volume of fish catch the communities traditionally relied on. (And amusingly, former fishermen like Kuya Sonny note that the fish return in large quantities just before a storm hits.)

With a lower volume and lesser reliability of their catch, they sought alternative means of income and, as if on cue, the Survivor productions rushed to fill a void. Survivor gave jobs to the local community of Brgy Paniman in the form of laborers, crew workers, boat men, security personnel, and personal assistants. The productions have left clear marks on the community from the props that have been repurposed into housing fixtures and decorations, to the pride that one can hear from the little anecdotes they share about how their house, this island, or that farm was used in shooting. The productions provided the much-needed income generating activities to a town that was quickly losing its primary means of income. For the likes of our host, Kuya Ramil, he earned P1000/day for three months of working as a boat captain for the US production.

But perhaps the biggest mark of Survivor on Caramoan is an externality — tourism.

The islands steadily grew in popularity as Survivor productions streamed in from Serbia, Israel, France, Sweden, India, and eventually the United States. The most lucrative income-generating activities for the entire adult, working population of Brgy Paniman are in the tourism sector, whether it be hosting homestays for as cheap as P300/night to running hotels for up to P1,500/night or running package tours that are pegged throughout the entire municipality at P1,500 for the short trip island-hopping (only 10 minutes to the nearest island) or P2,500 for the long-trip (1 hour to the nearest island). Of course there are those who will earn through food and beverage services (a rough average of P100-150 per person per meal), and retail souvenir sales (knock-off Survivor Caramoan shirts at P120-150).

Comparing the P1000/day Kuya Ramil earned in working for Survivor US, he earned almost P7000 for two days of hosting our group of five — more than three times the income for less work (by this point he was also ‘subcontracting’ his tour activities to his friends like Kuya Sonny).

So it wasn’t a total surprise when folks like Ramil and Sonny actually feel bittersweet about Survivor this 2013, a good six years since the first production came in and their tourism industry was born to supplement and eventually replace fishing.

Because now, Survivor productions actually eat into their income from tourism. Case in point: when the productions start rolling, some islands and water ways become off-limits. Tourists are then given a shorter, abbreviated experience that have caused a lot of frustration and customer dissatisfaction. It also doesn’t help the local villagers who feel that they are earning less when the tourists are kept away and they only have the income from the productions to rely on. In the past years they’ve learned to juggle the two, however. But there remains a sense of dissatisfaction among the working class in Paniman that (a) the wages they are paid by the productions fail to completely compensate for their lost income, and (b) they feel a mix of powerlessness and anger at the thought that foreigners — visitors — have barred them from the islands that they’ve come to call home.

There is no association to coalesce these fishermen, tour operators, and guides. There is no formal organization present to help them settle and air these disputes. They find the mayor and governor to be incredibly distant entities. Something that may seem as trivial as P30 ‘environmental fee’ that all tourists pay once they arrive at Caramoan is being questioned. “It’s called an environmental fee,” these locals challenge, “but no money has come from the local government to help in cleaning up the islands of the tourists’ trash.” The barangay captain, a fisherman too, has at least shown the effort to conduct and lead island clean-up operations himself (which consists of the locals going to each island to pick up the trash like Jollibee boxes and diapers, by hand). Instead what people get for paying the environmental fee is a small stub with the mayor’s face on it.

If I had more time in Caramoan, and perhaps had the opportunity to engage other sectors such as the LGU of Caramoan and Camarines Sur, and the private entities that produce Survivor in the islands, I would be interested to know if there is a developmental plan in place for the tourism sector of Caramoan. I’d like to know what they perceive to be their competitive advantage in terms of tourism and what role the local communities of Paniman and Bikal (another jump-off point for the island hopping) have to play in determining their strategy moving forward.

I asked our tour guide, Kuya Sonny, if people like him ever received training on how to be a tour guide; he couldn’t say. And yet he had an instinctive sense of the history of each island and memorized the water ways that are safest and rock-free. Not everyone has the same instinctive knowledge, he’d say; some guides just leave their customers and don’t bother to entertain them at all (I observed this myself in the other groups that were with us).

I also detect a certain lack in terms of mere support for tourism; in the time we went around the little town of Paniman, I did not see a single map of the place or its islands. There wasn’t even one on the boat. The only map I had in Paniman was in the Google Map I had in my tablet; even the images there were received with awe and surprise by the locals — as if I had a piece of sorcery in my hands.

The development of tourism will entail a series of hard, deliberate choices on the part of CamSur’s leaders and the local community. I can imagine the broad strokes: people want to profit while at the same time protecting the natural assets that allowed them an industry in the first place. That’s always easier said than done.

On the way home, Frances and I mused that it would be great for CamSur to introduce something like Cebu’s SuperCat to supplement or even replace the ferry between Sabang port (the take-off point from Naga) to Guijalo port (the gateway to Caramoan). But the mere prospects of that divided us eventually: What will happen to those who operate the current ferries? Will the local communities of Paniman be able to accommodate what will surely be a massive influx of tourists? Or is the SuperCat a bad idea to begin with. Is keeping the place relatively challenging to get to a part of the strategy to preserve it? But if more tourists aren’t brought in, then the community’s incomes may not rise beyond its current levels, potentially stunting its long-term growth. And so on.

But I hope debates like these don’t scare away Caramoan’s leaders. And I hope that if such debates are had, they are done so in earnest. After all, I believe the Department of Tourism’s argument is that it’s more “fun in the Philippines.” I agree. Though you know what they said about playing hard? You work hard, too.

Flanking us are our fishermen-turned-tour-guides, Mang Escundo (left) and Kuya Sonny (right).

Flanking us are our fishermen-turned-tour-guides, Mang Escundo (left) and Kuya Sonny (right).