El Nido and Lessons from “Hepe”

El Nido and Lessons from “Hepe”

Apr 09, 2014

The heat is on! And we are blessed with 7,107 islands to choose from when summer comes. (This is what bothers me when we move our school year calendar. The long break will no longer be called summer vacation, but that’s another story). Today I wish to talk about a great vacation that my husband and I had last week. We went to El Nido, Palawan, which, according to Richard our tour guide cum photographer, is composed of 45 islands and islets.

El Nido has been inhabited by humans for more than 22,000 years, as confirmed by the fossil and burial sites that date back to the late Neolithic Age. Chinese traders had been regularly visiting the place for its edible birds’ nests during the Sung Dynasty. These nests are made of solidified saliva of the swiftlet bird found in the crevices of limestone cliffs which are used to make the gourmet birds’ nest soup; thus, the name El Nido (nido means nest in Spanish). Edible birds’ nests sell for as much as US$2,000-3,000/kilo!

Despite being inhabited by humans for the longest time, the place remains pristine. There is something in the culture of Palawan people that I hope the rest of our country’s population will acquire. They are very responsible about waste disposal and environment conservation. We were greeted with this gentle reminder of what we can bring in and take away from the island, “We ask you to leave nothing but your footprints and take home only photos and memories of the island.” No wonder I didn’t see any plastics floating on water, or cigarette butts and candy wrappers in the sand.

El Nido Resorts, now fully owned by Ayala, is world class. It allows you to enjoy Palawan’s preserved biodiversity, and at the end of the day retire in the comfort of your hotel room. But of course this comes at a price. However, there are other options outside of the resort, which are more appealing to the backpackers.

There’s a nice touch at the hotel that caught my attention. Every night upon coming back from dinner, we found a good night note written on a leaf together with two pieces of tiny pastillas de leche and a piece of paper that narrated a folklore. I wish to share one with you because it touches on my current advocacies: parenting and financial literacy.

This story came from an old lady who still lives in El Nido, Palawan. She is a granddaughter of the main character of the story.


Once there lived a young man in El Nido named Ramon. He was born in 1894. Orphaned at a young age, he took care of his two younger sisters. At the age of 14, he had already taught himself and his sisters how to read and write in Spanish, which was the custom at that time. He also claimed several islands with caves that yielded edible nests of swiflets, a lucrative trade even then. He had paddled boats and eventually acquired tracts of land. He was hardworking and well-liked that the local folk called him Hepe (from the Spanish word “jefe,” which means chief), inspite of his youth.

Since there were very few schools at that time, Hepe taught El Nido’s natives simple arithmetic, using seeds for addition and subtraction. Since paper was not available, banana leaves were used for writing. He also taught them the proper way of constructing their houses, raising chickens, hogs and cows. 

Life with natives was not always harmonious. When problems arose, Hepe would be fetched. Only he could settle their disputes amicably. One such instance was when a lady who was already betrothed eloped with another man. This sparkled a revolt that decimated the natives, who used bows and arrows. When Hepe returned from a distant island, he was very much troubled and frustrated to see the people disobey his code.

Hepe’s code:

1.)  No one must eat any fruit of his neighbor’s tree.

2.)  Nobody must go to his neighbor’s house at 1:00pm or during breakfast, lunch or dinner.

3.)  For special occasions like birthdays, weddings and anniversaries, every family must give something to help in food preparation.

4.)  One woman for one man.

When he turned 21, Hepe had considerable wealth. He owned rights to caves in several islands in Bacuit Bay and he was ready for marriage. He married Macaria, a young lass from Cuyo, by whom he had five sons. While he was very strict with his sons, they did not seek education the way their father did. They married early and depended on their father’s business. They also had many children.

As he grew older and his grandchildren increased, Hepe worked as hard as when he was younger. In all that, he did not forget his love for music, playing the banjo and accordion, composing his own Eracai, a local form of folk music. In 1965 upon seeing his two newly built motor boats, he played his accordion in happiness. Shortly, Hepe breathed his last, surrounded by family and friends who were celebrating his good fortune with him.

Hepe was irreplaceable, both to natives whom he loved and to his family. None of his sons was able to match his business skills, such that shortly after his death, his caves and other properties were taken by other residents of Bacuit, later El Nido.

His grandchildren have since learned the value of education. Several of them had become teachers, midwives, engineers and writers and had moved to Manila or Puerto Princesa. But for all of them, and the grandchildren of the natives whom Hepe helped, his memory lives on.

My reflection on the story:

The story strikes a nerve in the Filipino parent’s heart. Aren’t we all capable of being Hepes when it comes to nurturing our children?

We work hard so we can give them the best education, home, opportunities, etc. for a bright future. Hepe must have forgotten that what drove him to succeed was his adversity when he was orphaned. Scarcity is a great motivator and parents always seem to conveniently forget that because they’re too preoccupied protecting and making their children happy.  Masyadong malambot ang puso ng mga magulang, ayaw makitang naghihirap ang mga anak.

I always look back to the powerful insight I had while I listened to a Jesuit priest’s sermon when my oldest son was still in Nursery. He said, “Parents always think of what they didn’t have while they were growing up, and they make sure that their children will have it and will have a lot of it. Instead of focusing on what you didn’t have, why not remember what you had that worked well for you, and give that to your children?”

Of course, if it’s adversity that you had growing up, it’s hard to give that to your children. But I guess the point is to ponder on what was that thing or who was that person who gave you the encouragement to really work hard and succeed?

If there is abundance in material wealth in your family, how could you not give the comforts that money can buy to your children? I think you just have to take the challenge. Set out rules on how to use and earn money. Make them appreciate what you went through to get where you are now. And definitely, set an expiry date on dependence. In the Philippines maybe college graduation is a good finish line. Make it known to them beforehand that you will “cut their financial umbilical cord” (my oldest son’s words) once they graduate or get married, whichever comes first.

This doesn’t mean that you cannot help them out every now and then, if you can without sacrificing your own retirement nest egg. But I guess the point I’m trying to make is to set rules that agree with your family’s core values ahead of time so each family member knows what to expect. 

Maybe, Hepe should have added a few more items to his Hepe’s Code:

5.) Value education.

6.) Be financially independent once you complete your education.

7.) Get married only when you can afford to.

8.) Have the number of children that you can afford to raise well emotionally and financially.

I hope you gathered valuable insights from Hepe’s story. Enjoy your summer and remember April is Financial Literacy Month so have your kids learn a thing or two about money this summer.

Here’s to happy parenting and financial journey!



1.)  I will be releasing a Children’s book on the Basic Laws of Money soon. Watch out for it!

2.)  My husband Marvin and I will be part of iCon 2014, a whole day Financial Summit on May 17, 2014 at the SMX Convention Center. Students are entitled to special discounted rates. Check this link for details. iCon 2014 FAQs