December 5, 2020
To: Balesin Members and Friends
Suddenly, it is September! The days during this pandemic seem to just fold one into the next, like a row of dominoes collapsing into each other. There is enough woe, sometimes despair, in the media and everywhere else, and I do not want to succumb and add to it.
In Balesin, we are fortunate to continue to be totally COVID-free. This is due to our strict enforcement of the anti-COVID protocols, both in terms of requiring members and guests who want to come to the island to take the COVID test, and also in terms of the strict enforcement of protocols among our operating staff on the island. We are determined to keep Balesin COVID-free!
As I go around the island every day, I am delighted to see so many happy and smiling faces. I guess everyone feels liberated when they come to Balesin, and they do not have to worry about the various pandemic problems in the city. Got cabin fever? Come to Balesin and live again!
We have had several members who have been on the island since we re-opened in June. I also notice that there are more people making extended reservations, sometimes for more than a month. Balesin is truly a COVID-free paradise.
We continue to keep our staff, at all levels, fully occupied with making improvements in Balesin. Many members have commented, since they first started coming in June, how many new and wonderful changes they have seen on the island. Since we were first locked down in mid-March, we have organized ourselves into teams to work on new projects, and this work continues even up to today.
The first thing that you will notice are, of course, the villas. We have caught up on most maintenance jobs but, of course, are still not completely there. Balesin, being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is a never-ending maintenance and landscaping job.
I am most heartened by the many hectares (I estimate 15) of new fruit orchards and organic vegetable farms we have cultivated. We have cleared cogon wastelands and put them to productive use. Every single Balesin employee on the island, including all village managers, have become expert gardeners. It keeps them healthy and they eagerly pitch in and weed the gardens and water the plants. It is heartwarming to see everybody pitching in.
Beginning in March, we started expanding our organic farms several-fold. As a result, we are now harvesting a bounty of vegetables. Balesin is actually more than self-sufficient now in vegetables.
Luisa Banta’s Balesin Bounty has been most welcomed by our members and guests. In addition to the fresh Balesin seafood, Luisa sells our pure Balesin sea salt, wonderful honey from our Honey Bee Farm, organic poultry products, including delicious guinea fowl eggs, and many more. Our chefs, during their off-hours, are now engaged in producing new delicacies: key lime pie, banana bread, calamansi marmalade, coco jam, and a host of other goodies for Balesin Bounty.
We have several thousand calamansi trees on the island, many planted years ago, and they now yield us a harvest of about 100 kilos of fruit every other week. So, our chefs have been enthusiastically developing new products, the calamansi marmalade being my favorite.
Peanuts seem to thrive on the island and from them we can make many products, including peanut butter and peanut jam. Our peanuts are harvestable after only three months and, henceforth, our peanut harvest will grow exponentially. Now, my daily 6:00 pm Scotch drink is accompanied by a little bowl of boiled peanuts!
Balesin Fruit Orchard
I am especially proud of our new fruit orchards. We have been combing the mainland for a good supply of fruit seedlings, and have now planted some 10,000 fruit trees, not to mention about 20,000 pineapple plants. We have also planted several varieties of lemons. Other fruits that we have planted include avocado, guyabano, rambutan, langka, sweet oranges, satsuma, dalandan, pomelo (including several varieties imported from Vietnam), atis, makopa, mabolo, lanzones, and many other varieties which I cannot recall off-hand. In a few years from now, they will be bearing fruit and we will be able to walk through the orchards and pick fruit from them.
We also grow delicious melons and watermelons, from seeds that my daughter Anna has sent from San Francisco, where she has been locked down since February (very happily so!).
There were about 40,000 coconut trees in Balesin when we acquired the island 10 years ago. Many of them were old and unproductive. Today, we have more than 60,000 coconut trees, many of them planted along the roads from seedlings that we cultivate in Patnanungan, the other island that we are developing. Thus, even if each Balesin member consumes 5 bukos a day, we will not run out!
We are also proud of our aquaculture farms, which we have expanded threefold. Our star performer is of course the vannamei shrimp, originally from Vietnam, which thrive in Balesin’s waters. We have just doubled our shrimp pond capacity and can now grow 5 tons of shrimp a month. Despite this, our shrimp has been so much in demand that we actually ran out two weeks ago; but I am happy to tell you that we resumed our harvest yesterday, and they are now available again.
Of course, we continue to farm our famous Balesin crabs. While we have had a continuing problem with the supply of crablets, Mike Asperin has just found a reliable source in Pangasinan, and I think we will be able to increase our crab production several-fold in the coming months. In our fish ponds today, we grow lapu-lapu, seabass, samaral, bangus, pompano, and danggit, plus fresh-water hito and dalag.
I think that the most noteworthy accomplishment during this lockdown period has been the expansion of our organic farms, our fruit orchards and our aquaculture production. I am truly proud of them!
Another significant project that we have been working on is the resurfacing of our major roads on the island. We have a 27-kilometer road network and we have now completed resurfacing more than half of it. In the past, due to sloppy construction, potholes would appear and proliferate on our roads whenever it rained.
We excavate about half a meter of the top of our roads and replace the sandy material with a mixture of “banday banda,” a sturdy base which, mixed with cement, puts the road back into shape after many passes with a steamroller. In the last few months, while we have not had that much rain, whenever it does rain, the roads hold up very well.
Employee Shuttle Vehicles
Because Balesin facilities are as dispersed as they are, we used to lose a lot of travel time from our employees going from one location to the other. No more! We have acquired two 28-passenger vehicles that continually shuttle employees and staff up and down the entire road from point to point. I think we have saved many man hours by investing in the employees’ shuttle buses.
New Golf Carts
One of the weak points of Balesin has always been the insufficiency of golf carts. At one time, we purchased over 100 golf carts. But over the years, they have deteriorated and now, only less than half are in operation. The good news is that recently, we made deals with several golf cart suppliers and agreed on a profit-sharing scheme covering 50 golf cart units. The first 15 have now arrived on the island, all brand-new carts. Hopefully, golf carts not being available will be a thing of the past.
My design soul mate Rico Sison and I have a new project—a bierstube, to be located at the present wine cave on the main level of the Clubhouse. We are transferring the wine cave to the ground floor and will utilize the vacated space for this “beer house” concept popular mostly in Bavaria, but also elsewhere in Germany and Austria.
I had been a great fan of many bierstube in my “previous incarnation” and enjoyed many a night with beer and eisbein, German sausages, and sauerkraut, amid a background of jolly German music. This is Rico’s and my newest project in Balesin and should be ready before the Christmas holidays for you to enjoy. It will be a great place to have a typical German dinner or to hang out and enjoy the ambiance after dinner.
Banyan Tree Park
You will also have noticed the Banyan Tree Park, which we have just refurbished. We have a magnificent 150-year old banyan tree, but we use it only during Easter time and Halloween. Now, we have created a driftwood seating arrangement all around it and we are thinking of installing a water fountain or a wishing well.
New General Warehouse
When we began building Balesin, we built a warehouse, which we have outgrown over the years. During the last several months, we built a new, larger warehouse, all of 1,250 square meters, which is now almost complete and will enable us to put all of our various construction materials and supplies, once again in good order.
The Azkals Development Team
Many of you are familiar with the Azkals Football Team that has recently elevated Philippine football into international matches. They were well-positioned to have a run at the Asian Cup, but that was postponed because of the coronavirus. The mentor and Head Coach of the Azkals team is a very dedicated Irish-Italian chap called Scott Cooper. Scott has been a friend for some time now, and he has convinced me of the wisdom of shifting some of our focus to football, a bit away from basketball. The advantage of football for Filipinos is that while we are not very tall, height does not matter in football. For example, the celebrated Lionel Messi is only 5’6″.
A few weeks back, Scott broached the idea of a Training Camp for the Azkals Development Team. This is not the Azkals Team, but a team of aspiring Azkals. They, of course, could not afford our normal rates, but I decided to give them a hefty discount so that they could train in COVID-free Balesin.
Eventually, I plan to improve the soccer field in Balesin by building a FIFA-approved artificial turf pitch, an expensive proposition. But with our existing villa facilities, this regulation football field would be a great attraction as a training camp for some of the world’s leading teams from Europe, especially during their winter months.
Lockdown in Paradise
I have been in Balesin for almost six months, with my daughter Michelle and her husband Frank, their daughter Lia (who is a bundle of joy and the light of my life!), and my son Julian. My granddaughter Lia tours the island in the morning and also in the late afternoon, and now knows every corner of the island. Sometimes, I think she believes that she owns the island!
A couple of months ago, Lia and family were exploring one of the remote beaches on the Pacific side of the island. They found an enormous driftwood tree trunk on the beach. When I looked at it, it was obvious that it had been drifting at sea for several years, but it was still solid and extremely heavy. It measured all of 20 feet long and was later identified as a Lauan tree, one of the most durable hardwoods in the country.
We brought it to our Ifugao carvers. They cleaned it up and today, it was transferred to the end of the Balesin Sala lawn, just before the beach. I have christened it “Lia’s Log.”
Alphaland Financial Health
It has been suggested to me that I say a word about the financial health of Alphaland Corporation, which as you know owns Balesin Island Club. Alphaland, unlike many companies in the Philippines, continues to be financially robust and healthy.
We were fortunate in that we made a decision to sell Alphaland Southgate Tower in March last year. Thus, we have no bank debt at all and have a comfortable cushion of cash. While our operations, including Balesin, have been unfavorably affected by the lockdown, the financial effect on us has been manageable. Thus, we can continue with all of our projects, without missing a beat, to make Balesin a better place for you.
I cannot end this update without wishing all of our members and friends good health and safety from the coronavirus. It is the most insidious and destructive disease we have seen in our lifetime and we all need to stay safe from it.
ROBERTO V. ONGPIN
Lia Ongpin – Callaghan, age 23 months, The “Supreme Commander” of Balesin Island, directing where the fruit seedlings should be planted.
Entrance to Tahik Farms
Luisa with Tuna catch
Village Managers tending to plants
Employees Shuttle Bus
3 of the New Golf Carts
Banyan Tree Park
The New, Second Warehouse
The Azkals Development Team