Friday, November 19, 2010

Chocolate hills, butterflies and rainbows

The title sounds like a Lucky Charms cereal knock-off, doesn't it? This post, however, is not about a sugar-overload cereal, but rather about a day spent playing tourist in Bohol. Bohol, according to the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia, is the place where even the carabao (water buffalo) chew slowly.

The day begins at the Tagbilaran airport, a small one-room (+ comfort rooms) airport in Bohol's capital city. The young woman at the tourist desk offers a binder listing accommodation options. She suggests a one-day tour package that includes all the major land-based tourist sites. I accept.

First stop is at the "blood compact" monument where Miguel Lopez de Legazpi of Spain and Rajah Sikatuna of Bohol signed what is considered the first treaty of friendship between different ethnicities, religions, cultures and civilizations on 16 March 1565. The blood compact part entails mixing a few drops of each man's blood in a cup of wine and drunk by both men.The visit should be a somber experience, but the hot sun, warm sea breeze and vendors hawking overpriced souvenirs is jarringly incongruous.
Blood compact site
A short drive away is the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Baclayon. It is one of the oldest stone churches in the Philippines. It was built of coral stone shortly after the arrival of the Spanish missionaries. The workers used bamboo poles to position the stones and egg whites to cement the stones together.

Bell tower of the historical Baclayon Catholic Church
The old man's face and bushy beard on the left-hand side only appears through the camera's lens (not with the naked eye)
The usual lunch spot is aboard a boat on the Loboc River. I opt to delay lunch and walk around the town instead.
Floating restaurant on the Loboc River
One of Bohol's main attractions are its tarsiers, the world's smallest monkeys. Very few of them are left in the wild so a tourist's best chance of seeing them is at the Tarsier Centre. While the tarsiers are considered adorable must-sees, you can't help but feel an uncomfortable and guilty pleasure in your visit. Tarsiers are nocturnal (active at night). Tourist centres are diurnal (active during the day). Tourist wishes (and dollars, pesos, euros and yen) trump animal behaviour. I know that zoos can play a key role in teaching people about biodiversity issues and in instilling an "ohhhhh, we must protect [insert charismatic species name]" commitment in people, but the whole experience at the Tarsier Centre is too Barnum and Bailey sideshow-ish for me.
Lizard eying tourists at the Tarsier Centre
Sleep-deprived tarsiers subjected to yet another camera-happy tourist (including yours truly)
The next stop on the tour is the Butterfly Centre. After touring the Tarsier Centre I'm not too keen on visiting another tourist spot that objectifies wildlife. My misgivings quickly disappear. I am like a little kid in a candy store. The young guide cheerfully answers all sorts of questions about butterflies in the Philippines - their life cycle, migratory routes, preferred foods, toxins, predators, etc. Many of the exhibits are hands-on and under the supervision of trained staff: giant caterpillars crawling along your hands, walking through a covered butterfly garden, gently poking live pupae. Perhaps it is the educational focus that made the experience so much richer and enjoyable than the tarsier experience.
A caterpillar crawls along my bracelet

Pulsing chrysalis in the garden (when you touch it, it wiggles) 

Butterfly pupae at various stages of development (collected from the butterfly garden)

Butterfly feeding on nectar in the butterfly garden 
The drive to Carmen is broken up with a short stop at the "man-made mahogany forest." (Many of the Filipina women I've encountered have been involved in environmental and tree-planting activities so I imagine the forest is also "women-made" and the frequently used moniker is a misnomer.) 

Between the towns of Loboc and Bilar lies a two kilometer stretch of densely planted mahogany trees whose long limbs arch gracefully over the highway. The trees were planted to stem erosion of the steep hills lining the road. Every year groups plant more mahogany trees (no other species of vegetation). The forest a popular site for roadside picnics and movie backdrops. The atmosphere is remarkably similar to that of Vancouver Island's Cathedral Grove. 

Admiring the "man-made forest"
The penultimate stop is at the Chocolate Hills, the fabled Hershey Kiss lookalikes of Bohol. They consist of 1268 treeless similar-sized hills in an area of about 50 square kilometers. To determine the exact number of hills, the barangays located within the Chocolate Hills' area were tasked with counting the hills within their jurisdiction (sans-aide of satellite imagery). The site was nominated for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Chocolate Hills (during the summer they're brown like Hershey Kisses)
Timing is key to visiting these gems. During the rainy season the hills turn a splendid green colour. In the dry summer months (March to May), they become milk chocolate mounds. At dawn and dusk it's easy to understand why the hills inspire storytellers. (In one story the giant Arogo fell in love with a mortal named Aloya. When Aloya died, Arogo could not stop crying; his tears dried into the Chocolate Hills. Another legend purports the mounds are the poisoned dung of a mischievous carabao that ate all the crops of the townspeople.) Light carves around the hills. Shadows dance. Morning mist glistens. I happened to visit mid afternoon in the middle of a gentle rain. A full double rainbow materializes after the rain ends.

A rainbow arches over the Chocolate Hills after a light afternoon rain
The last mandatory stop of the tour is a souvenir shop en route back to Tagbilaran. I hadn't planned on spending any money there. (I prefer to buy souvenirs from the artisans themselves after a lengthy conversation about their art, how they acquired their skills, etc.) But funky jewelry is my Achilles' heel, and the store has it in spades.

With a lighter wallet and a heavier backpack, my tour of Bohol ends.  

1 comment:

  1. That is one crazy caterpillar walking on your wrist! I agree with you, the intent of institutions like the zoo should be to inform people, not just entertain them (but the two aren't mutually exclusive).