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Archive for March, 2014

The Secrets of Loon

As part of my official work in late 2012, we headed for the town of Loon, a poor town whose senior citizens were beneficiaries of the social pension program. We were granted another view of the Bohol countryside – the rivers and the churches, but most of all, the people of the province going about their simple and cheerful ways.

Inspite of their status as a third or fourth class municipality, Loon had an impressive senior citizens center that was fully functional. It had rooms and offices for the Office for Senior Citizens Affairs (OSCA) Head, their local nutritionist and Persons with Disabilities (PWD) focal person, as well as facilities for meetings and assemblies. I was told it is a DSWD-accredited, awarded-winning facility.

Very near it is their famous church, as proud and majestic as its sisters in Baclayon and Loboc. Though much younger, the church of Our Lady of the Light, held as much significance religiously as well historically. Established in the 1700s, the original structure burned down before being restored in the 1800s. Like many churches in Bohol, it was built by the Jesuits before being turned over to the Augustinian Recollects. It was also used by Americans as a garrison against the Filipino guerillas. Only in 2010 was it declared a national historical site.

A long crack ran across the left-side façade of Loon church also known as Our Lady of the Light parish. The local social welfare aide who accompanied us said it was from the last big earthquake they had in the 1990s.

But what makes Loon special are the coral-stone steps at the back of the church. Stretching straight from the sea and passing the town proper up to the church itself, this infrastructure was used extensively by the Spaniards during the height of the galleon trade. Called “Inang-angan”, it consists of 5 flights and around 200 plus steps. The only other stairs like these that I know of are the ruins I saw at the St. James church in Iguig, Cagayan Valley. Any foto-ops on these stairs are reminiscent of Intramuros and its historic remnants, and I strongly recommend the site for pre-nups.

Upon the mayor’s suggestion, we were also taken to Loon’s nature park- a mangrove reserve which features the rare sea-going Macaque monkeys. I have seen many mangrove parks before, from Lanao, Negros, Mindoro, to Palawan and Capiz, but all I saw between the receding waters and ebbing tides were the stranded fish and crabs, darting in and out of holes in the sand. And as for the monkeys, besides the zoo, the only other place I saw monkeys walking around in relative freedom were in Subic. But in Loon, there are monkeys that actually go down to the waters to hunt for small crabs, shrimps, and seashells. It is amazing to see these Macaque monkeys – unafraid of the seawater, cracking open seashells and eating fresh seafood. I once saw a feature on this National Geographic on TV, but seeing it first-hand was a real treat.

Less than a year later, the great earthquake of Bohol would occur. Many of the historic churches would crumble and be heavily damaged. While majority of Loboc church collapsed, some parts of it survived. Loon’s Our Lady of the Light was not as lucky and it was destroyed completely. Nothing of the church remained, not its walls, its façade or its foundations. The cultural treasure of Bohol since 2010 was totally flattened. Even the stone steps behind the church were also damaged. Cracked in many parts, it could not survive the same temblor that left gaping sinkholes and sinking coastal barangays in different areas of the province.   

The province of Bohol was known for many years as an NPA rebel stronghold. But even during Spanish times, it served as a haven for Filipino revolutionaries, partly due to its natural mountain and forest covers. What Bohol could not escape is the possibly the poverty or the low economic status of its people. Their version of eco-tourism was suppose to generate the necessary income for the province and as the favourite tourist and vacation spot it has become, it was doing just that.

It was unfortunate that the earthquake damaged so much infrastructure – roads and bridges, and even the old churches that were its pride and joy. But if there’s anything that will help them get back on their feet, it’s the spirituality and hope Boholanos always had. Their simple living and perseverance, and their continuing faith, will help restore what they once had. Now if only the government also does its job and step in where necessary..



Remembering Bohol as it was (Before the Quake)

I was fortunate that right before the big quake, I was able to bring my current partner, Toni to see Bohol sometime in November 2012. This time I took a different route; flying directly to Tagbilaran, I engaged Rod’s services once again and made sure we got to go around all the important sites. We opted for lodgings within the city where there are now numerous fastfood restaurants to choose from to cut our travel expenses. Since I actually had official work to do the next two days, we had to schedule our tour as soon as we arrived.

It was Toni’s first time in Bohol and she had always wondered about the beautiful churches I was telling her about. Since we both believed in making three wishes whenever one visits churches for the first time, we headed straight for Baclayon Church. Unlike before, strict dress codes have now been imposed to visitors. And since we were both in shorts, Toni was compelled to borrow a sari, a balabal of sorts from the manangs to cover her legs before entering the church. I was allowed my short pants since mine were below-the-knee board shorts. Proper church decorum was now required – tourists may still take pictures inside but a few meters away from the altar; too much giggling or talking aloud is prohibited, and visitors are encouraged to say a short prayer instead of merely site-seeing inside Baclayon church.

We still got to see the Baclayon museum and its old religious artifacts dating as far back as the 1600s, but the statuettes seemed fewer now. What are attracting tourists now are the three images that seemed to appear on the outside walls of the church itself – a side view of Padre Pio who has a full-size statue inside, a figure of Mother Mary and the child Jesus, and a frontview of an adult, soon-to-be-crucified Jesus. Signs like these were normally considered as warnings by religious Filipinos, and visitors and Boholanos alike thought something really bad was going to happen. Looking back now, could these have been signs for the big earthquake that would devastate the island province of Bohol?

At Loboc Church, we were not allowed in for some reason that it was closed. We also didn’t get to see its museum or hear the Loboc Chidren’s Choir practice. Of course, I have to explain to Toni why the belltower was so far from the church proper, and why there is a ghastly unfinished bridge ruining the skyline. After all these years, no one has thought of simply removing that eyesore. Maybe they want it as a reminder of how foolish some government officials can be. Nonetheless, the local government has turned the bridge into some kind of promenade-park with plants and flowers, as well as some benches for people who want to hang around by the river. Now as an afterthought, I’m thinking it should’ve been the one completely destroyed by the earthquake instead of the heavily damaged Loboc Church to save everyone the trouble.

After a few snapshots taken outside the church, we headed across the river to ride the famed riverboat cruise. The whole system of getting passengers now seem more orderly with fees being paid to the agents who arrange for which boat you will ride. The boats now seemed sturdier and safer, of about uniform size to accommodate a reasonable number of customers with no fear of capsizing due to overcrowding or overloading. I could now leisurely eat my buffet lunch while enjoying the on-board music, now also a standard entertainment provided on the cruise. In between, we pass by large rafts with locals doing their own version of musical entertainment complete with song-and-dance routines. The foreigners absolutely love this kind of attraction – what with the performers colourful costumes and obvious talent, this brings back the times when Filipinos were really proud of their cultural traditions and loved showing off for guests. I was told the groups are actually locals representing different barangays near the river. The attraction was both an incentive and a means of livelihood for the communities. Kudos then to the local officials who thought of this.

 To cap off a heavy meal, there is now the popular ice cream shop nearby where you can try unique ice cream flavors made from products of the Bohol Bee Farm. Though a visit to the Bohol Bee Farm is now one the recommended tours, one can have a taste of its products just as you get off the boat. Popular fruits ranging from coconut, mango, and pineapple, to exotic avocado, ube and pandan, were combined with our truly Filipino flavors of cheese, mantikado, and halo-halo, all utilizing the locally-made honey as natural sweetener.

Another highlight of Loboc is its newly-established adventure park. The still unfinished facility is already being visited in droves by tourists who want some physical excitement. While its zipline is nowhere near as long as Dahilayan’s in Bukidnon, or as deep as the one in Lake Sebu, it’s short run still gives one an amazing view of the Loboc river, its mini waterfalls, and its outlet to the sea. We were told that over those same forests and hills, are the natural habitat of the mini-marsupials, the very cute tarsiers of Bohol.

We then proceeded to the other usual tourist “haunts” – the Bilar man-made forest and the Chocolate Hills. Toni found these nature treasures of Bohol quite fascinating. We risked causing heavy traffic in Bilar just so we could take picturesque shots of the trees. At Carmen, being much younger and limber than I am, Toni effortlessly climbed the steps. I never knew then that those pictures of her at the viewing deck, beside the bell or the wishing well, would preserve for posterity our memories of Bohol; because less than a year later, the earthquake would damage this overlook site to an almost unrecognizable state.

On the way back, we dropped by another latest spot on the tourist rounds – the so-called “ShipHaus”. Seen from the highway itself, this residence of a longtime boat captain was constructed to look like the exterior and interior of a ship. The balcony was designed to look like the bow, an anchor dangling from its side down to the garden below. Inside, rooms are furnished like cabins, with the grandest being the captain’s quarters. However, this attraction is more fun for kids rather than for adults who have been on-board actual boats and ships. 

Being the probinsyana that she is, Toni has a true affinity for “wide, open spaces” like me and quite a penchant for various flora and fauna. So it was imperative that she gets to see the tarsiers and meet Prony, the famous python of Bohol.

At the Tarsier Conservation site, Toni again had the advantage of being physically fit. Constructed over the hills and its usual vegetation, one had to climb steps and walkways to see the tarsiers who are now more comfortable and less stressed in their own trees. Tarsiers here are now more numerous; they are of different ages and are now coded and named. This gives one a more “personal” connection with them. The briefing at the start of the tour, complete with flyers and a short video, is also quite helpful; it is more “professionalized” such that visitors are compelled to “behave”.

Being nocturnal animals, tarsiers sleep during the day when most tourists come to visit, and the noise with all the excitement bothers these poor creatures, not to mention people’s insistence on touching the animals. Photography with flash is still prohibited. No direct contact means no petting or close-up fotos, and there is no longer insect-feeding unlike before.

Upon visiting Prony, who was bigger than ever, I also noticed that the entire enclosure has been expanded. There is now more space for moving around and animals’ cages are better arranged. There are more local birds on display, including chickens and ducks, that an entire aviary of its own can now be made. Lesser known Philippine wildlife can now be seen and I bet to the delight of kids; there are iguanas and monitor lizards, local civet cats we call “alamid” and “musang”. Yet Prony and her caretaker “tranny” are still the “superstars” here. Marimar is an all-out transgender now, who sometimes dons a bikini made from Prony’s molted skin.

I was glad to have visited Prony one last time, because a few months before the big quake, Prony would be gone, following Lolong, the giant crocodile of Agusan, who died earlier in the year.

For Toni and me, that Bohol trip was like a bridge between the past and present. I desperately wanted her to see the beauty of Bohol as I had known it and I am glad she got to see most of its treasurers before the earthquake. Taking Toni along on my travels was both an opportunity for us to get to know each other deeper, and to discover new places and experience new things together as we made our own memories.


Bohol’s Churches and Museums

The next time I visited Bohol, it was with some senior citizens because of my official work with DSWD. While we took in some of the usual tourist spots, we steered clear of the ones which required too much walking or climbing around. Thus, I discovered the other historic sites of Bohol worth visiting – its churches and museums.

By the time I returned to Bohol with my family, I made sure my senior citizen Mom and my sisters also saw the old churches. Being from the Ilocos region, my family and I were reminded of our own Augustinian-designed churches in Ilocos Sur. It may sound stereotypical, but my Mom enjoyed looking at the churches so much we stayed quite a while. In fact, she noted that Bohol could be a perfect Holy Week get-away; the sheer number of churches and their accessibility would make the minimum 7-parishes Visita Iglesia quite easy.

Thus we discovered that Dauis church actually has a well-spring underneath its altar flooring and its waters are said to have healing powers. Baclayon church, on the other hand, has its own museum with quite a collection of ancient relics and artifacts. They date back to the time when statuettes of angels and saints had heads and hands of pure ivory, while priestly vestments were ornate and made of expensive material. A little known fact about Baclayon is that it actually has a dungeon where Boholanos deemed to be violating certain rules of the church were tortured once upon a time. 

Meanwhile, Loboc church also has some of the old features of parishes then. Heavy wooden pews, confessionals, pulpits built high up on one of the pillars, plus a bamboo organ to accompany the choir in their Sunday singing. It is actually beside its museum area where the famous Loboc children’s choir practice. I noted some markers on a side wall of the church – two lines which indicate how high the flood waters reached when the Loboc river overflowed during two recent typhoons.

Meanwhile, in Tagbilaran City is the St. Joseph the Worker church. Situated in the city proper, it is one of those originally established by the Jesuits in the 1700s before being turned over to the Recollects. From a church made from simple materials, it was expanded and reconstructed in the 1800s until additions like its convent and belltower were put up. Unfortunately, it does not have that “old world look or feel” to it anymore since much of its design is already quite modern, most especially its facade. Now referred to as Tagbilaran’s Cathedral, the only remaining ancient aspect to it is its location. 

Another heritage site that also lost its unique historical flavour is the ancestral home of former Philippine President Carlos P. Garcia. This little known museum was rarely visited by tourists who would rather explore Bohol’s natural treasures rather than travel down memory lane. Besides family heirlooms and Presidential memorabilia, the old Garcia home also displayed some strange archeological finds within the islands. I remember the Chinese porcelain and clay pottery presumably carried by traders on their Chinese junks, some heavy silver, religious relics and artifacts to parts of cannons loaded on Spanish galleons. There were a variety of seashells which can be found in the beaches of Bohol and the skeletal remains of some ancient Boholano who happens to be a prehistoric female.

The great thing about coming back to Bohol is that each time there is always something new to do. At the Chocolates Hills, senior citizens who could no longer climb up to the viewing deck opted instead to have half-body massages offered by some enterprising locals at the waiting area-pavilion. At the tarsier enclosure, flies and other insects attached on long sticks were offered for “feeding” the cute marsupials. And Prony, the python, was now being introduced by its caretaker – a transgender nicknamed Marimar after the popular telenovela, who will even perform a song-and-dance number for additional donations.

Because my sister desperately wanted to go dolphin-watching as well, we discovered an affordable beach resort along the famous white sand beaches in Panglao island. Dumaluan beach with its even coastline and pristine waters was comparable to Alona beach and could give Boracay a run for its money. I would keep coming back to this place either for overnights or daytrips just to get a taste of Bohol’s picture-perfect beaches.

In the next few years, I would be back in Bohol with colleagues, family members and new lovers. I would see many changes to Bohol as it transformed into the truly eco-tourism destination it aimed to be. The tarsiers would finally be moved to a conservation area with a bigger space and more like their natural forest habitat. Prony, the python now had a few other animal friends, species that are also endemic to Bohol like birds and lizards. The municipality of Loboc would now have its own zipline that will fly across a panoramic view of the river. There’s the Extreme Adventure Tour (EAT) in Danao town which features a zipline, a “plunge”, wall-climbing, rappelling, river-tubing and kayaking among others.

And yes, as time passes, many things change. I remember my earlier visit with an old lover, when we were ogled and frowned upon for being an obvious same-sex partnership. But by the time I was campaigning for LADLAD in 2010, I saw openly-gay tourist guides, even a food attendant at the riverboat cruise, and Prony as much it’s caretaker, the transgender Marimar, had become one of the most popular tourist attractions, and her song-and-dance numbers are now full-blown production numbers.

Bohol held many reminders for me, from successfully accomplished tasks, or opportunities lost or taken advantaged of, to loved ones who are no longer in my life. It would have been quite painful to have such reminiscings while visiting Bohol again; but I always believed that even with the same old places, what is important is that new memories could still be made – sort of “exorcising” the past. And so, I kept doing just that. I had always loved Bohol and it held too many good memories for me not to share its beauty with someone significant in my life.


The Beauty of Bohol: 2006 First Impressions

After the big earthquake that devastated much of Bohol, I regretted not ever having written anything about this beautiful place. Maybe because it was one of my favourite hide-aways that I refused to divulge its secrets to others. But now, I am sad that I never spoke about the many reasons why people should visit Bohol at least once in their lifetime. They will never see it as I saw it then, as it was evolving as a prime tourist destination and must-see vacation spot.

Bohol first captured my heart during a visit in 2006. I was still recovering from the end of a long-term relationship, and travelling was my only consolation. I did not know what the island had to offer in terms of tourism then, and I would’ve been happy to simply have an airconditioned room, with a bathtub, cable TV and room service during my entire stay there. But the rental car guy I contacted was too enterprising a businessman, that not only did he find me great and affordable hotel, he also doubled as a “tour guide” of sorts. And that was also the beginning of a lasting friendship with my “suki”, Rod. Over the years, I would keep recommending his services  to both family and friends visiting Bohol. So there it is: one of Bohol’s great treasures is its wonderful people.

First travel tip I learned in going to Bohol – you can double it with a side trip to Cebu. The plane fare is much cheaper to Cebu from Manila than going to Tagbilaran City directly. So take a day-tour or stay a few days in Cebu, before crossing over to Bohol via ferry boat from the port. One can have an itinerary much like a trip to Northern Mindanao’s Camiguin Island, where you can fly-in from Manila to Cagayan de Oro City, enjoy CDO’s sites or maybe drive over to Bukidnon for a day, before sailing off to have some beach fun at the island.

And so it is that Bohol is famous for its nice beaches in Panglao island in particular. But for my first visit, I went to see its caves and hills, its various flora and fauna, just as its own kind of “eco-tourism” was being advertised then. Rod’s services includes airport or pier pick-ups, before dropping off your stuff at your lodgings. Travel tip No.2, if you aren’t there to enjoy the beach anyway and will just be spending most of your time checking out the different tourist spots all day, accommodations in Tagbilaran City proper area would suffice. There are a lot of bed and breakfasts, pension houses and motels you can choose from with clean, spacious and airconditioned rooms at a much cheaper price range. City-based hotels also abound and some of them have swimming pools which more than compensates for the lack of a beachfront view. 

Preliminaries over and done with, Rod whisked us off on a 7-spot tour right away. Our first stop was the Hinagdanan Cave in Dauis, Panglao Island. This underground tourist attraction boasts of a freshwater pool where people can take a quick dip. Be warned though that the stairs going down are quite steep and sometimes slippery. Hence, if you are with elderly companions or people afflicted with arthritic or weak knees, you can skip this tourist site. An underground cave, it has a few electric lights but having your own flashlight can still be useful if you wish to have a clearer view of its limestone stalactites and stalagmites.    

Next up is the Blood Compact memorial which features life-size bronze statues depicting the historic meeting between the island’s chief, Datu Sikatuna and the Spaniard Miguel Lopez de Legaspi. Here they performed the ancient ritual of “sandugo” to forge peaceful and diplomatic ties. They say blood is drawn, not from the arm, but from the chest – just above the heart, and the blood is then collected and mixed with water or wine and equally divided to be drunk by the primary parties. Residents here believe the actual site of the blood compact is nearer one of the rivers, probably Loay, where Sikatuna and his party personally met Legaspi and his men. So this marker, for all its historic significance and appropriateness for photo-ops because of its great view, may not be that accurate after all.

Next stop is Baclayon Church or what is actually the Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception parish. Admittedly one of the oldest churches in the Philippines, it was originally established in the 1500s and was used by the Jesuits. The Augustinians eventually took over and its reconstruction into the classic coralstone building is now their most valuable contribution.

Like most churches, it was constructed utilizing forced labor of the locals. Boholanos were made to cut the coral straight from the sea and haul them inland to be mixed with eggs and molasses to bind them together. These carefully selected materials made for a strong structure that could endure the ravages of time. Till now, you can see corals and seashells imbedded in the limestone flooring near the façade of the church.      

Further on is another old church, Loboc’s the Church of San Pedro. This is where the Spanish friars moved their parish after realizing that Baclayon church’s location near the coastline exposed it to Moro marauders or pirates. The length of the Church of San Pedro spans a portion of the Loboc river and provides an awesome view of the waterway from the main road. However, the overflowing waters have flooded the church many times.

Near Loboc Church’s distant belltower, an unusual structure stands; an eye-sore of an unfinished bridge mars the landscape because of some government officials’ lack of respect for their Boholano heritage. Had the construction project pushed through, it would have entailed the demolition of one of their most popular parishes.

By the river are boats that can be rented to give you a few minutes ride to the small waterfalls, or to the other end where the brackish water of the river meets the saltwater of the sea. The “Floating” Restaurant meals are “a-must” though, and most tourists take advantage of the midday break to enjoy the spot. Besides a relaxing boatride on the river and a buffet meal, there is likewise on-board singing to entertain you, so the reasonable fee they charge is well worth it.      

After taking in lunch at Loboc, we soon left to see the famous Chocolate Hills located in the distant town of Carmen. On the way, we passed by an area planted to numerous mahogany trees. A tree-planting project in the 1970s by the local Boy Scouts, it has now grown into a splendid forest known as the Man-made Forest of Bilar. Perfect for some outdoor picture-taking, it actually gives one a feeling of being in Europe or in North America. More than three decades since that seemingly irrelevant outdoor activity, the Bilar forest now seems a worthy natural investment. 

Still far from the actual look-out point of the Chocolate Hills, approaching the town of Carmen from the long winding road already gives one a glimpse of the curious mounds rising out of the plains. Several hills dot the landscape which in summer look like giant chocolates, but which in the rainy season appear verdant like avocado ice cream scoops.

Travel tip No. 3, one must be physically fit or healthy enough for much of the walking and climbing to be done. Once again, one’s knees must be in tip-top shape to climb the hundred-or-so stairs to the look-out ridge. You can get about the same scenery at several rest-stops before the top if you’re not up to climbing all the way. The only difference is besides a “panoramic” view of the Chocolate Hills, there is also a bell and wishing well at the top which adds material to your photo album/scrapbook.

On the way back, I told Rod I had to see Bohol’s unique marsupial, the tarsier. The Philippine Tarsier is such a rare animal and it is believed to be found only in the province of Bohol. Fortunately, the souvenir shop where we went also had a Tarsier Reserve of sorts. The cute creatures were no bigger than one’s hand and clung to tree branches, peacefully sleeping the day away. Once it gets dark, that’s when they move around and scavenge for their food in the forests. Since they are so sensitive, tourists can’t touch or pet them. We had to content ourselves with photos taken from our cellphones or cameras with flashes turned off.  

Since there was still some daylight left or because he likewise enjoyed touring me around, Rod took me to two other “tourist” spots worth visiting, but not really known to the other tour guides.

The Hanging Bridge souvenir shop is where also the “buko-eating superman” lived. This middle-aged local man was already featured on Filipino television with his ability to crush open and shred a whole coconut with his bare teeth and hands only. For a small “donation”, he will show you his unique talent.  A few kilometres away was also Prony, the over-sized pet of a Bohol resident. Caught from the wild as a young snake, this reticulated python grew so fast in size and was now a several inches thick and several meters long…unusual for its age.

I was asking Rod so many questions about Bohol’s tourist spots and he gamely answered all my queries. Clearly, not only was he proficient in his home province’s unique features, he truly loved the places and things he grew up with and was proud to share them with visitors.

I would be back in Bohol many times over with family and loved ones, for leisure and for business. And each time, Bohol would have something new for me to see.