Bohol comes alive

SNARK WITH HEART - Cate de Leon (The Philippine Star) - September 11, 2016 - 12:00am

The first and last time I flew to Bohol, it was barely a month after the devastating 2013 earthquake. There was no electricity, and the first sign of this was how airport staff manually pushed luggage along the dead baggage carousel. Our hotel’s generator was barely keeping the air conditioning alive, and even basic island pleasures such as finding cold beer became difficult. But the vendors and shopkeepers along Alona Beach kindly pointed me in the direction of the one shop that had enough power to chill their brews — even if that meant they didn’t get my money.

Fast forward to 2016: Air Asia flew me back to witness the streets of Tagbilaran come alive with the colors, music and dancing of the Sandugo Festival parade. We walked briskly along the road, drinking in the communal, celebratory air and appreciating the flash of costumes and performances of each group we passed. Schools competed for the best dance and reenactment of the blood compact between Datu Sikatuna and Miguel López de Legazpi (a friendly blip in our centuries-long war with the Spaniards). The whole of Bohol seemed to be in attendance, and each performing group was met with deafening screams — not of fandom, but from a community that knew each other well. These were screams that brought me back to a time when high school competitions meant everything to me.

A quiet start

The day before the Sandugo madness, we wiled away the afternoon at Be Grand Bohol. I’d stayed at many high-end hotels, but Be Grand had an intangible quality of making you feel warmly tucked in and well taken care of. The staff was genuinely friendly and accommodating — from the time they welcomed us at the lobby, served us dinner by candlelight, and even as we bumped into them out late at night along Alona Beach’s strip of bars. In Bohol, everyone is genuinely happy to see and have you, regardless of the time of day.

My room felt so much like home, in fact, that I regretted tagging along with the little group that decided to spend their last night partying on Alona Beach. My usual introversion was kicking in, along with the awareness that my body couldn’t handle lack of sleep and alcohol (our call time the next day was 7:30 a.m.) as well as it once did.

But even on a Friday night, the strip along Alona had a very chill and laid-back vibe. As we dug our feet into the soft, powdery sand, we found ourselves opening up about our love lives, even though we had just met each other the day before.

One of our companions was keen on her AFAM-hunting, though, so we later found a tiny hut/bar where things got interesting. Soon to be owned by a friendly Irish expat named Gregory, his gorgeous girlfriend (with whom he seemed to be in an open relationship) started dancing raunchily on tables along with her friends and some locals. We watched safely from a distance, used to the sight of white people being white people in conservative Asia. But their energy was infectious. One moment we were spectators and the next we were dancing right beside them, losing inhibitions for a couple of hours and making connections with people we’d probably never see again. Bohol is just right, in that sense. Whether you’re feeling allergic to noise or want to lose yourself in crazy, fun and non-judgmental company, there is a spot for you.

Naturally, I felt physically terrible and regretted my decisions in the morning — but definitely not while it was happening (which is probably what matters most when it comes to our choices in life).

Fulfilling childhood dreams

On our last day, we headed to the Bohol Biodiversity Complex in Bilar. Here we learned about the local efforts to study and take care of the environment. This was refreshing to witness in a country where throwing trash in the streets and selling goldfish in little plastic bags is the norm. In particular, we were taught the importance of choosing tree species that were endemic to our geographic location, making sure our reforestation efforts worked well with the ecosystem already in place. We ended our visit by planting one tree each. I chose to plant a cinnamon tree (kalingag), because none of the other available tree species were ringing a bell. But when our guide said “cinnamon” I was like, “Oh, that’s what goes into my cappuccino.” And while we don’t necessarily deserve credit for contributing to the environment (our survival and sustenance are more than enough), each planter is recorded and commemorated with a label attached to his/her tree.

After getting our hands dirty, we realized we had a few more hours to kill before our flight — hours we spent fulfilling our childhood fantasies of seeing the majestic Chocolate Hills, with its lively population of dragonflies buzzing overhead. We then lowered our voices as we entered the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary, so as not to upset the sensitive tarsiers sleeping and hanging out on the trees. I had heard they were tiny, but found them even smaller than I had imagined — no bigger than my pet hamsters.

By lunchtime we were famished and presented with our last meal for the trip — a sumptuous boodle fight at Too Nice To Slice — a cake and pastry shop that doesn’t make boodle fights on the regular, but lays them out upon special request. And despite it being a boodle fight, we were provided with utensils in case we didn’t want to eat with our hands. Such is the Boholano hospitality, extending every possible effort to serve, and always doing so with a smile. I remember being awed and humbled during my first visit at how well taken care of I was despite the fact that the area had been so recently crippled. Three years later, after most of the debris had been cleared, I saw that this really was the Boholano way, regardless of their circumstances.



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Tweet the author @catedeleon. Photos by CATE DE LEON






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