Of monkeys, mounts and men
When we stored the last packages of Chinese tea in our bags, walked out the door of our hostel and headed towards Shànghǎi Pǔdōng International Airport, the place we had arrived at 40 days earlier, it was at first hard to realize: our time in China was up!
Our first destination in the Philippines would be the Visayas archipelago in the central South part of the country – itself the second largest archipelago in earth – or more precisely the island of Bohol. Getting there implied an adventurous combination of diverse vehicles: From our hostel we took the Shànghǎi metro to Longyang Road, got on the Maglev (the magnetic levitation train, built with technology made in Germany, but never implemented on more than a testing track in my country) to the airport terminal, caught an overnight flight to Manila, arriving at 4 am in the morning, caught another, domestic flight to Cebu, the capital of the Visayas, took a taxi from the airport to the ferry port – passing through one hour of traffic jam -, then a ferry from Cebu port to Tagbilaran, the capital of Bohol island, got a tricycle fromthe arrival port to the main Jeepney stop at Tagbilaran island mall, endured a one hour Jeepney ride to a village called Loboc, where the Jeepney dropped us at the main road junction, from where we had to walk about 2km the tropical afternoon heat to finally reach the hut village we reserved a cottage in.
For someone who’s never been to the Philippines, one obvious question would be: what the hell is a jeepney? Well, jeepneys are somehow the key to flexible local transport here. Basically, it’s small truck, painted in the most iridescent colors, with a covered back platform containing two long benches put in front of each other. Jeepneys can be public or privately operated and run on fixed routes, serving all cities and villages on the way. A Jeepney may stop at any point on the road when requested by passengers, so if one wans to get off, its enough to knock on the vehicle roof and – if there’s no inmediate reaction by the driver – shout “stop” or rather “para” if you are in the Visayas.
Tricycles, on the other hand, are the Filipino equivalent to Indian Tuk-Tuks: motorcycles equiped with a steel structure built around them to seat passengers. While on a Tuk-Tuk the passengers are seated behind the motorcycle, on tricycles the benches are located on the right side of the driver – which gives them a metallic-fly-like appearance. To our eyes, they appear to be built for two passengers, but the maximum we saw seated in one at once was eight passengers a who knows if they could fit even more inside. Due to their lower speed level and higher instabiliy, tricycles are generally used for smaller distances inside town or between two neighboring villages.
One of the larger islands inside the Visayas archipelago, Bohol is famous for the Chocolate Hills in its interior and one very particular inhabitant: the Tarsier, the second-smallest monkey on earth (it was considered the smallest until some decades ago some scientist found an even smaller species in Indonesia).
Loboc, the place we stayed on the island, is a small village near the river decending from the interior hills into the sea. The mud trail towards our hut village led through the middle of a rural township, passing by several agglomerations of locals’ houses, where all people seeing us walking by would greet us with a loud “Hello! What’s your name?”. The trail was lined with coconut rinds drying in the sun (we were told that they are used as coal for firing the barbecue), chicken pecking corn grains, goats grazing and men sitting around having beer and rum.
May is the month of long school holidays in the Philippines, so that we experienced the village crowded with children bathing in the river, driving around on bicycles or playing with one of the numerous kitten crawling around – while the school, built around the trail passing in the middle of school buildings and school basketball field, was completely deserted.
Besides the marvelous natural scenery and extremely friendly people, the best part of staying in Loboc was: as foreigners we were nearly alone! The Nipa Hut Village even appeared to be a little abandoned by its owners, left with one lonely administrator – Archibald, a young Filipino – doing its best to make us feel welcome there, and a giant yellow Australian phyton called Blondie, that was lying around motionless in its bamboo cage all day. We felt sorry they wouldn’t make more of the place, as the location besides the river and the constitution of the village was extremely scenic and clearly had the potential of being a FIlipino version of the Goan Corner in Hampi (India).
Getting around in the Philippines is a holiday after struggeling with China for a month an a half, as the English level of locals, even people from tiny villages, is impressive. Suddenly, communication was not a problem at all and thanks to this tiny detail we felt we were again able to soak up the impressions of our new environment more deeply.
Also, we noticed much closer cultural ties to the Filipinos when compared to the Chinese (or the Thais, or Malays or other people we had the opportunity to know in Southeast Asia), possibly due to the strong impact of Catholicism in the country, as well as the cultural and linguistic heritage from Spanish and British colonial times. The Visayan dialect incorporated even more Spanish words than standard Filipino language, particularly the numbers, time, dates, and words related to transportation – as for example the previously mentioned “para” to stop the jeepney.
The best way to explore the islands in the Visayas is by motorbike, as it gives you the best feeling of the islands’ environment, while allowing to stop anywhere you want to have a look around the villages or strengthen yourself with a cold drink and some delicious mangoes – the most emblematic fruit in the Philippines and a particular specialty of Cebu. Indeed, the mangoes we had here were not only the cheapest (non-tourist price around 80 Eurocents per kilo) but also the most delicious we’ve eaten in our lives – soft, juicy with the right balance of sweet and sour taste and easy to peel with your teeth.
That said, on our first day in Bohol we arranged for a motorbike and headad towars the most Eastern point of the island: Anda beach, supposedly the most beautiful beach in Bohol, located at 90km from Loboc – a detail we haddn’t actualy known that precisely when starting the trip in the late morning.
The way to Anda led us along the Southern coastline, with marvelous views of the sea, the volcano of neighbouring Camiguin island and the rice fields and green hills of the island interior to our left. It was a Friday, besides the school holiday period another factor causing the beach to be packed with Filipino families, having a picknick or barbecue, singing karaoke and and enjoying themselves in the shade. Admittedly, the beach deserves its reputation, even though – to our big deception after nearly three hours riding the motorbike through the burning midday sun – making a dip into the water wasn’t refreshing at all, as it was HOT, like a thermal bath from the hot springs in Chile’s Andes.
Tired, sunburnt and our butts hurting from excessive time in a motorbike, the following day we decided to move around Bohols famous interior sight by public bus. Our first stop: the new-built Tarsier sanctuary, some 5 km up the hills outside Loboc. Spotting Tarsiers in the wild is quite difficult, not only because there are not too many of them left, but also – particularly because – thanks to their color and size they are able to hide very well in the tropical greenery.
Known locally as mawmag in Cebuano/Visayan, the Philippine tarsier is a species found in all the South-Eastern part of the archipelago, mainly on the islands of Bohol, Samar, Leyte and Minandao. It is a night active animal and one of the smallest primates on earth, smaller than the palm of an adult’s hand. The sanctuary hosts some dozens of those tiny creatures, sleeping under small bamboo roofs or big leaves during the day and only occasionally opening their globular eyes and turning their heads in slow-mo towards cheering visitors.
One hour bus drive from the Tarsier sanctuary in direction to the town of Carmen, deeper into the island interior, we reached the famous chocolate hills, an agglomeration of 1200-1700 (no one seems to know the exact number) dome-like grass mounts, spotted around a lush green landscape of rice fields, tropical forrest and solitary farms. The source of their name is only revealed during the dry season and when observing them during the sunset, when the hilltop gradually take a deep brown, chocolate-like colour in the dimming sunlight.
We returned from Carmen after nightbreak and stopped in the centre of Loboc to grab a bite for dinner. It was Saturday night and we were lucky to see the villagers preparing for one of the biggest events during the year: the finals of the Loboc Singing Star competition!
Impossible to miss out on such a unique experience, so we organized a bottle of San Miguel beer and sat down in between the locals to admire the musical skills of the competitors. Some of them didn’t get one tone right, but most of them sang surprisingly well, with one young girl leaving us with our mouths open when performing “I have nothing” by Whitney Houston – no easy song to perform, and she did it amazingly. In Loboc, Bohol, a rural village of 17.000 inhabitants on a tiny island in the Southern Philippines and certainly without sophisticated singing lessons available.