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Monday, 19 November 2012

BOHOL WANDERINGS


It was close to Christmas when we arrived in Tagbilaran, the port city that serves as the gateway to Bohol, a short ferry ride from Cebu City. We were pleased to leave Cebu City and in particular, the hotel we stayed at in Cebu, behind us. The hotel itself was fine but its bar served as setting the scene for the stereotypical old Western man with young Asian girl that forms part of the Western travelers impression of South East Asia. Bohol was in full Christmas spirit, with the plaza opposite the Cathedral of San Jose, an old Spanish colonial church, festooned with festive decorations. Large images of Madonna and child hang from the trees. It was a carnival like atmosphere, with the church acting as the fulcrum for proceedings. The Catholic Church has a strong presence on Bohol, with one of the Philippines oldest churches, the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, dating back in part to the 16th Century. We visited this church the day after arriving, which was made by the efforts of 200 native forced labourers, using stones cut into square blocks and then piled on top of each other, with apparently, the whites of a million eggs to cement them together. Attached is a convent, that houses a small museum with a collection of relics and artifacts, as well as a dungeon, used to punish natives who violated the rules of the Roman Catholic Church and a number of creepy looking statues who are supposed to depict saints but came across as more demonic than angelic.

Christmas decorations

 The beautiful white sand beaches of relatively nearby Boracay, recently voted the world’s best island by the magazine, Travel+ Leisure, have overshadowed Bohol. Bohol, though, has its own array of pristine beaches and resorts as well as claiming two drawcards that Boracay can’t – the Chocolate Hills and the Tarsier Sanctuary, a conservation centre that acts as a visitor centre, venue for research and a habitat preserve all in one. We told our driver that these were the two sights in Bohol that were must sees. True to form though, the first stop on our tour was to view the blood pact statue, overlooking the ocean, one of the triumvirate of sights, along with the tarsiers and the Chocolate Hills, that features predominantly on Bohol travel booklets. The statue commemorates the arrival of Miguel López de Legazpi, a Spanish explorer, who arrived looking for loot, in the form of gold and spices. He managed to persuade the locals that he wasn’t Portuguese (true) and that he wasn’t out to exploit them (no doubt a lie). The reward for such skilled negotiation was the peace pact López de Legazpi signed with a local chieftain, a pact solidified by a blood contract between the pair, consecrated in the statue that is now a popular spot for tour operators to take visitors. It is one of Bohol’s most reproduced images, depicted on the provincial flag and seal as well as on a multitude of tourist flyers.

Boracay beach-life
Back in the taxi, the next stop was supposed to be the Tarsier Sanctuary. The driver had told us the previous day that he knew where it was, an assertion he repeated, after I double-checked he knew the way. I was really keen to go to this sanctuary, where up to 100 Philippine Tarsiers can be observed in (almost) natural habitat. Conversely, I was keen to avoid going to one of the roadside stalls on the road to the Chocolate Hills that display tarsiers. Tarsiers are notoriously poor captive animals. Captive tarsiers allegedly have a shortened life expectancy, experience health problems, in particular eye problems, and apparently have a tendency to “commit suicide” by crushing its skull by hitting it against objects (however, this may be another leaping lemming scenario and may not be true). No doubting though that these roadside stalls wouldn’t be the most friendly place for an emotionally frazzled tarsier.

Tarsier
Of course, as so often happens, when travelling in non-English speaking countries, there was the inevitable communication breakdown. We stopped on the way to the Chocolate Hills. “What is this?”, I asked the driver, already despairingly knowing the answer. “Tarsier here, get out” was the unwanted response. This is not what I wanted. Our driver’s English, which had seemed exemplary until now, now seemed rudimentary. I asked him about the sanctuary-he had never heard of it. I showed him on the map (like I had the day, an hour before, when he promised us he knew all about it). It was too far out of our way now, he said. If we went there, we wouldn’t be able to get to the Chocolate Hills. I didn’t know what to do so I sulked in the car, refusing to get out while the driver refused to change the schedule to take us to the sanctuary. The (Filipino) standoff went on for a few minutes until I relented, deciding that I would have a look at the stall and if the tarsiers were being mistreated, I’d get back into the car. I had to admit, however begrudgingly, that the stall wasn’t as bad as it could have been for the tarsiers, although I’m guessing that it wasn’t ideal for them either. There were signs up asking us not to use flash photography (that hurts their oversized eyes) and to not to touch the tarsiers, so there were no gimmicky tarsier photos on offer, meaning that the tarsiers here weren’t being too exploited.

Tarsier two
Tarsiers are unusual looking creatures, like a mix between E.T and Gollum, with oversized eyes and long, thin fingers. Their eyes are said to be the biggest of all mammals, in terms of eye to body ratio. Nocturnal predators, their large eyes give them an advantage when it comes to catching the insects that form the bulk of their diet. They have a certain fragile charm that makes them quite beguiling. They sat holding on tightly to branches and seemed pretty relaxed by the invasion of their privacy. Their cuteness is also a curse, making them popular (if unsuitable) pets. Predation by cats, loss of habitat and the pet trade have had a severe impact on the numbers of wild tarsiers on Bohol. While we never got there, the efforts of the Sanctuary are to be commended, hopefully ensuring the survival of the species, even if I never got there due to the capricious whims of our driver.

Some of the Chocolate Hills
After the tarsier stall, we continued on to the Chocolate Hills, the second of our two obligatory stops for the day. I don’t know exactly when I first learnt about the Chocolate Hills. I know that they were featured in one of the nature books that I used to spend my pocket money on when I was a kid, so I would guess that was when I had first heard of them. Regardless of where or how I learnt of them, the Chocolate Hills are somewhere that I have always wanted to visit. The Chocolate Hills are an unusual formation of conical and almost symmetrically shaped hillocks, sprouting out of the ground like 30 metre high fungi. They consist of at least 1,260 hills and maybe more than 1700 hills (I’m not sure why they can’t get an accurate count, after all hills can’t move) sprawled out over an area of more than 50 square kilometers. These hills consist of marine limestones, although I prefer the local explanation that described the hills as being dried faeces left behind by gods or giants. They derive their name from their appearance during the dry season, when their green grass is burnt brown. While the hills are held in high enough regard to have been declared the country's third National Geological Monument and proposed to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, they haven’t been exempted from exploitation, with some hills quarried and others mined by small-scale enterprises. On the whole though, I was left a little underwhelmed by the Chocolate Hills. To be fair, we hadn’t came in the dry season when their grass was burnt off, meaning the Chocolate Hills weren’t chocolate at all but green (and it’s not easy being green). It seemed we were the only non-Russian tourists there. They  hurried up the steps from the carpark to the lookout, took a quick snap and then headed back to their tour bus as fast as possible. For once though, this was a site where I didn’t need to linger at for an extended period of time.

Mary posing
After the Chocolate Hills, our driver took us for lunch on a floating restaurant, buffet on a boat that plows up and down the Loboc River.  The river is a dark, mystery green colour surrounded by lush forest, with palms the predominant vegetation lining its banks. On board, we were serenaded by a band as we dined, who played a mix of standard English songs and more traditional Boholano songs, passing the hat around at the end of the boat ride. At the end point of the boat tour, the ‘villagers’ put on a cultural show, dancing, drumming and singing (although I wouldn’t be surprised if the villagers were boated in from surrounding towns to dance, drum and play for tourists). The best part of the village visit was watching the boys jump into the river from the tops of tall palm trees, partly done for show but mostly for fun.
A drummer at the village 
That night, I enjoyed a San Miguel, pleased that I had ticked an item off what I would know call a bucket list. It could have been a bad day, with the tarsier misunderstanding and the underwhelming ‘highlight”. Somehow though, underwhelming or not, it’s always great to see something that you have dreamt of seeing from an early age, with the bonus of a couple of other sights that will live in our memory for a while. 

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