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Published: April 28th 2011
The streets were a disorganised mass of cars, people and the local transport in the form of the riotously coloured jeepneys. Numerous buildings wore a dishevelled appearance, as did the people that occupied them. My first view of the Philippines in the city of Cebu may have been what Singapore and Malaysia were like prior to their economic booms. Despite initial appearances, Cebu and its environs has plenty to offer those with an interest in history and natural beauty.
My main transport was a taxi driver nicknamed “Roadman” who educated me on the strong Spanish influence in this part of the Philippines. He was an excellent driver who showed me where Ferdinand Magellan planted the first cross on Philippines soil on 21 April 1521 in an attempt to bring the people of these islands under Spanish rule. However, within the week Magellan’s plans were abruptly terminated when he was slain by local leader Lapu Lapu in the Battle of Mactan. Though those of European decent would call Magellan a great explorer, the Lapu Lapu monument in the Philippines describes Magellan’s actions as “European Aggression”; there are always at least two sides to every story.
Cebu was not my ultimate
destination in the Philippines, for a short ferry ride took me to the island of Bohol. If visiting Cebu seemed liked a step into Asia’s pre-economic boom, then Bohol was a step further removed. This sedate tempo of this beautiful island covered with rice paddies, craggy mountains and swaying palms quickly filled me with its charm. This holiday has been characterised by solid choices of accommodation, and the five night I spent at the Isla Hayahay
was no exception. In terms of an affordable, understated abode, this is one of the finest places I have stayed. The attentive staff were equal to the best I have encountered, it felt as if we were joining part of an extended family for a few days of relaxation.
My package at Isla Hayahay included two day tours. The first tour involved the major land attractions of the island. The strange geological formations known as the “Chocolate Hills” that dominate postcards of the area was the first stop. A climb over a long series of thigh-burning steps was rewarded with a commanding view of these Hills where many holidaying Filipinos were snapping photographs of each other with their cameras or phones. It was refreshing
again to be at a destination where the majority of fellow sightseers were local people.
Foreigners were again in the overwhelming minority when I boarded a lunch cruise along the Loboc River. Though touristy, the cruise thankfully retained a genuine local flavour. Traditional dances and singing were performed at one stop and the rest of the cruise was spent admiring the dense forests that lined the teal coloured river.
The main incentive for visiting Bohol was to finally see tarsiers in the wild. The world’s smallest primate (its body would fit into the palm of your hand) sport large bulbous eyes that look almost alien in appearance. Unfortunately, the tarsier’s popularity has been to its detriment. Many signs around the island point to tarsier attractions, but most are kept in unfavourable conditions just to pander to ogling visitors. Tarsiers are solitary, nocturnal creatures and being artificially kept clustered in groups in cages is so stressful that their average life expectancy is reduced to only six months from their usual lifespan of 20 years – an important detail to remember for any visitors to Bohol.
One place that does preserve the tarsiers in their natural environment is The
Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary in Corella run by The Philippine Tarsier Foundation
, an area where tarsiers wander freely. The brief tour allowed me to see five of the tarsiers in the wild, and they are indeed one of the most curious looking creatures on the planet. At one point I accidentally knocked a branch of a tree where a tarsier was resting and one very perturbed fellow slowly turned its massive and unimpressed orange eyes towards me. If the tarsier was much larger in stature, such an experience would be frightening.
If the number of religious monuments and places of worship indicates the importance of a religion, then the quantity of churches scattered around Bohol demonstrated that Catholicism is an integral part of Philippine culture. Some churches were a single-room building holding no more than a few dozen people, but others were grander affairs. The old Loon Church was once a fine example of Spanish inspired architecture but once inside evidence of a decaying building was everywhere – shattered floor tiles, peeling paint and rusty collection boxes.
The church was empty barring a family of women engaging in a perambulation of prayer. At certain stations, the group would stop and
one of the children, a girl of about 10, would read aloud the relevant invocation – her soft, high voice barely reaching the vaulted interior. It seemed a paradox to see a people so rich in their faith be surrounded by such a poorly preserved place of prayer. It was extraordinary that a place where Christianity was so important could allow some of its religious monuments to fall to such a state of disrepair.
The second tour provided by Isla Hayahay was a water based excursion. Boarding a slow, noisy local craft we chugged towards Mantatao Island; a small, unpretentious place whose livelihood is dependent on fishing. As is usual when wandering through seldom visited places, children were shy at first, hiding behind doorways and peering through glassless apertures that served as windows; but the longer I loitered on the narrow sandy streets, the more children tentatively approached me. After ten minutes I was surrounded by almost two dozen curious boys and girls and I felt like a modern Pied Piper of Hamlin when leading this small band of followers on a stroll through Mantatao.
I was struck by the cheerfulness that these children held from the simplest
of pleasures – whether that be the smile of a stranger or in the case of one boy – the joy in dragging a miniature model of a fishing boat along the ground. No electronic games, bicycles or other sophisticated toys are found here, yet the delight of these children demonstrates that one needs not to surround themselves with the latest gadgets or toys to be happy. I have witnessed similar behaviour in other countries and it reinforced the unnecessary excesses that can seduce a person living in a prosperous economy.
With children waving goodbye at the dock, the boat headed to Cabilao Island, a home to some remarkable reefs. My previous snorkelling experience in the Middle East was enjoyable but the reef here was stunning. Extending for hundreds of metres I peered beneath the waves into another world, where the declivity of the long reef fell away until it was lost in the dark cerulean waters. Time drifted as I swam across the shallow portions of the reef and gazed at a coloured menagerie of tropical fish; large schools of fish caused the filtered sunlight to shimmer in different sheens when they shifted direction, and the clown fish
would peer nervously at the world from within the safe confines of the waving sea anemones. Most captivating were the four Long-fin Bannerfish who elegantly glided amongst the verdant coral as their spindly white fins drew lines in the water around them, much like the ribbon discipline used by a Rhythmic Gymnast during an Olympic Games. It was in this most bewitching of moments that I became a snorkelling adherent and this activity shall feature in my future travel plans.
Drying myself on the boat after my aquatic epiphany, the boat commenced its journey back to the resort which was to conclude my visit to an island abundant with natural wonders. The late afternoon sun melted the sky against the sea, and the many silhouetted fishing boats sat as if floating in a grey expanse that seemed to go on forever.
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