Penman for Monday, December 28, 2015
YEARS AGO I made a promise to take my wife Beng to all the beautiful places in the world I’ve been, so we’ve been traveling up a storm, flying off to whatever destination our aging knees and limited budget can still afford. The pre- and post-Christmas break is a great time for escapades like this, and we’ve run off to Shanghai and Beijing in Decembers past, availing ourselves of budget fares we’d booked months ahead for the privilege of slurping hot noodles in the freezing cold.
This year—encouraged by another irresistible combo deal on airfare and a good hotel—we chose to go down to Bohol. I’d been there a couple of times before on business and Beng and I actually found ourselves stranded there once, overnight, because our Dumaguete-bound ferry couldn’t make it through a frightful storm, so this time we decided to do a proper tour of the place, mixed in with a bit of work we both had to catch up on.
We were lodged at the mid-range Panglao Regents Park Resort, about a 30-minute ride from the airport and a short walk to Alona Beach, a focal point not just for swimming and food but also for the innumerable dive shops that cater to showcasing Panglao’s top attraction, its underwater life. Being sedate and sedentary seniors, Beng and I contented ourselves with sipping cool mango shakes and watching the scenery, but there’s never a dearth of interesting things to look at in Bohol, whether beneath the sea or aboveground.
We signed up for two tours: the “Chocolate Hills” tour, which takes you on a daylong ride around the island for an eyeful of its most scenic spots, and the “island-hopping” tour, which promises an early-morning rendezvous with dolphins, snorkeling and lunch at Balicasag Island, then a short detour to Virgin Island. Seasoned travelers may disdain these one-size-fits-all tours, but Beng and I never do, knowing that they’re pretty efficient and often good value for money for first-time tourists, and that ultimately it all depends on knowing what to look for, and knowing how to appreciate what you’re looking at.
It was a rainy day when we headed out for the Chocolate Hills, so the tarsiers were huddled under the branches and the hills themselves were shrouded in mist, but I took the rain in stride, seeing how it lent a certain freshness and vividness to things, and I could sense the earth exhaling after a long dry spell. The tour guide at the butterfly farm led us along with deft humor, making even dead insects come alive, and we gamely crossed the Hanging Bridge, to and fro, like schoolkids on a dare.
I had visited the old Loboc Church before an earthquake devastated it a few years ago, so I was sad to see it covered in scaffolding, awaiting restoration. What I didn’t expect to be more deeply moved by—not being a regular churchgoer (I pray every night, but have quarrels with dogma)—was stepping into the Baclayon Church, which I had missed on my first visit. Its altar—a main retablo framed by two smaller ones—stood intact and as majestic as ever, and washed in orange, green, and blue light seemed ethereal. But behind a red cloth curtain and the yellow “Caution” warnings gaped what used to be the nave, a cavity that in the 1800s must have throbbed with pious energy, as well as with the flutter of fans and the murmur of courtships, disapprovals, and ungodly gossip.
We set out for our island cruise at 6 am the following morning, and much to Beng’s relief the sky was clear and the water was silvery smooth. We shared our large banca with two women from Canada and another from Germany, our banter laced with the anticipation of meeting our goal for the morning: finding dolphins in the open water. I knew from previous reading that several species of dolphin and whale could be found in the Bohol Sea, but I would have been happy to spot any one of them. Dolphins feed in the morning, until about eight, so it was important that we head out quickly enough, also given that about half a dozen other boats were in the same area for the same reason.
Our boatman, whom we’ll call Dencio, was an experienced spotter (more on his story later), and soon enough, about 30 minutes out of port, he pointed to our right, where two gray and shiny heads bobbed in and out of the water—our first of several sightings. Dolphin and whale watching is the sort of thing a CIA analyst would be good at—discerning, from the seemingly immutable pattern of cresting waves and foamy wavelets, the odd leap of a creature into the air. The Risso’s dolphins we saw (the Flipper of TV fame was a bottlenose) broke out out in pairs and trios, but for every one of them that surfaced, we were told, there were many more underwater. Dencio pushed out his boat much farther than the others did, and for a long while it felt like we were simply drifting toward Siquijor, but just as I was about to give up, I noticed a commotion in the distance—a pod of maybe a dozen spinner dolphins frolicking in the air. The whole boat came alive with glee and Dencio tried to give chase, but we were going against the waves, which had become too choppy, and the shiny caravan of fins and flippers vanished into the horizon.
Balicasag Island is where the divers go, and was our midday stop. While our companions snorkeled in the fish sanctuary and watched giant turtles feeding on the sea grass, Beng and I ordered lunch (fresh fish, of course, broiled and kinilaw) and listened to Dencio’s story: “We used to hunt whale sharks,” he said, “and would kill two of them a day, baiting them and catching them with large hooks.” (This hook called the pamilac lent its name to Pamilacan Island nearby.) “We sold them very cheaply, not knowing that in Japan, a whale shark could sell for about half a million pesos. We could have been millionaires! We did this until a TV crew filmed what we were doing, and then a ban was imposed, so now we don’t catch whales anymore. Today you can find very large ones swimming under your boat. They’re very smart, and can sense danger. Sometimes they look straight at you with their eyes.”
On the ride back to Panglao, we stopped by Virgin Island (renamed Isola di Francesco by its private owner, who has turned the island into a religious shrine)—little more than a long curling strip of white sand with a clump of trees on one end, but serene and restful, a fine ending to a colorful day. Or rather, make that ending a Thai massage, a grilled seafood dinner, and a cold beer.
“They’ll burn in the sun,” Beng had remarked of our European companions, who took every opportunity to swim and to laze in the tropic heat. “That’s because they’ll be flying home in a few days to an icy winter,” I said, “while we just have Manila’s traffic and pollution to deal with.” Sounds like a good reason for another escapade.