How are you, Bohol?

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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

ANDA’s 18-kilometer stretch of white sand invites solitary activity. Read. Write. Walk.


IN my travel journals, the ones slowly filling a part of the shelf, there is this mandatory entry: Dear Portia.

They make up a collection of letters written to a five-year-old whom I have left, and will continue to leave behind, in search of things still unnamed or unknown. The letters are littered all over pages, some written before departure in airports or ports, and a good others when alone in a hotel room, thinking of what to find and how to find them.

I read one now on the ferry going to Tagbilaran where the first line in a Tom Hanks movie playing is “You think these trips would be easier but it’s just the opposite.”

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Dear Portia,

“You don’t really know me,” you said. It was one of those trivial instances before I left. Perhaps I chose a more plain-looking pencil case like the one I would’ve chosen when I was a child instead of the pink explosion of glitter you must’ve wanted. I thought how strange that statement is to have come from someone who came out of me.

A psychology study I read in passing says the nearer you are geographically to a place, the more socially and emotionally attached you are to it. Bohol is reachable from Cebu through several ways: via fast craft straight to Tagbilaran, via Dawis, via Talibon, via Jetafe and via Tubigon. From any of these routes, it is an easy hour-and-a-half cross, or less.

There are a series of islets shared by both islands, Hilutungan, Nalusuan, Caohagan and Camungi to name some. Most tourists from Cebu would consider Bohol as an easy day trip, and leave it just as quickly to slip off somewhere else.

Proximity, though, has its ironies. That study perhaps bypassed me, because Bohol, for a time, with its accessibility and familiarity, seemed too easy. “Look at my hands.” I wanted to say to it. “They are so much like yours. Look at my feet. They are no different.” So I went off to more far-flung giants, the types that needed to be conquered.

But on October 15, 2013, the whole island was shaken by a 7.2 earthquake, different from what Cebu, its neighbor, simultaneously experienced. “Lahi man gud to nga linog, ‘day. Diri kay up and down man ang lihok sa yuta. Dili man side to side.” was the repeated testimonies from Boholanos.

A week after the earthquake, I trundled through the municipalities of Balilihan, Sagbayan and Clarin, its most damaged areas, with 2,500 fallen houses and about 200 casualties, to help distribute tents, wondering why suffering had suddenly made the place more fascinating.

Now, a year after, I pass through the island again and see remnants of aftershocks. Tagbilaran port still carries rubble from its damaged building. Its temporary departure area is a large tent on the side of the original, now unused, structure.

Island City Mall, one of its biggest shopping malls, was repainted a bright yellow-green, perhaps to hide the cracks that had been coated with plaster.

And there are the churches, which show the most apparent damage. Baclayon saved most of its loosened stone blocks with the church and the government still unsure of whether to rebuild it or just let it go.

Yet the tourism sector says Bohol is better than ever.

“Usually, it takes about a year or so for tourists to come back to a place after a disaster. But it’s been less than a year, and tourists continue to come in,” says Neil Reyes, research and statistics officer of the Bohol Tourism Office.

Panglao specifically, its famous island, never seems to run out of tourists, or so I think as I look down from the cliff deck of our hotel to its coastline below. Despite iffy weather, the beach is sprinkled with children, adults, foreign bodies and boats ready to take tourists to dive sites like Balicasag. The resort we stayed in, like most resorts in the area on the weekend of the Sandugo Festival, was fully packed.

Neil says, now, they also see opportunities that can only arise from start-from-scratch situations.

“Bohol was so dependent before on its countryside and beaches.” But now they see new opportunities for agritourism. Farms will soon be converted to tourist sites along the lines of the already-successful Bohol Bee Farm.

Then there’s the new market of geoscience enthusiasts. The Inabanga fault line, a three-kilometer crack where the earthquake passed, going through the municipalities of Inabanga, Loon and Maribojoc is now considered a pilgrimage site for the curious.

The three damaged Chocolate Hills sliced in half now allows access for further study. “Before, nobody knew what was inside those hills. Now they can find out,” comments Neil. Most tourists stop by the roadside in Sagbayan, where one of the three broken formations is most visible, to take selfies or to examine closely the hill’s exposed limestone. And besides, Neil notes, these are only three out of the 1,268 still intact.

More serendipitously, perhaps, out of all these “malformations”, or new formations, is the seabed at Maribojoc which was lifted up by more than a meter, resulting in reclaimed land that pushed the ocean back to about 50 meters. What used to be underwater is now a broader stretch of sand, a playground for local children. A wider shoreline, the Tourism Office is foreseeing, means more opportunity to capture the beach-hungry.

So, if you take any preconceived notion about Bohol – the Chocolate Hills, tarsiers, peanut kisses, the Loboc River, its heritage churches – at hindsight, there is a feeling of already knowing it even before an actual visit. But throw an earthquake in what seemed like an idyllic, quiet province and all remains of familiarity is thrown out the window.

Fireflies waiting at Abatan

You certainly will not think about fireflies first when mentioning Bohol.

After we spend the afternoon with an overload of color at the street festival, we transfer to the almost pitch-black municipality of Cortes.

“Puno siguro ug abat, mao na Abatan.” says Neil when I ask about the etymology of Abatan River, 13 kilometers of flowing water that passes by Cortes to Maribojoc. Like many perhaps, Neil misinterpreted the kind of darkness that surrounded such a place.

But the tour guide follows with a more starry-eyed take. How apt it is to name a river where fireflies find their life partners after abat (in Cebuano, abot), a verb, which means “to meet”.

The tour guide explains it is here where saltwater and fresh water meet, right under what is now a newly-repaired Abatan Bridge (its wooden parts are still found at the bottom of its sturdier metallic counterpart.)

Fireflies though, do not converge as easily as water.

First, the right environment. The winged creatures do not just go to any mangrove tree. Small as they are, they are given to following their noses. The pagatpat, a sweet-smelling mangrove specie, is where they like to rendezvous. And there aren’t a lot in the area. Out of hundreds of trees in the two-kilometer tour, fireflies choose only about 10.

Darkness perhaps invites a certain silence because not one in the 20-man flatboat spoke until reaching the first cluster of trees. There, fluorescent orbs of varying intensities float on the treetops, restless, constantly wandering. Some veer away from their cluster, exploring water and nearby trees.

Dear Portia,

You said “I want to come with you,” tired perhaps of being stuck at home while I traipse around, always elsewhere. “Next time”, I said. When you’re ready. When I’m ready. Just wait. But you are ready, you constantly insist. But you’re not, I insist too.

“We’re watching firefly porn,” a companion breaks through my thoughts.

True enough, this is the ultimate purpose of a firefly’s light. Males who shine brighter get to attract mates faster. And time is essential. These fireflies only live for two weeks from maturing, at which time, they will have to find their mates. A little soon after that, their lights flicker off.

The boat stops every so often as we pass one clump of light to another, until finally, we dock on a makeshift port where the biggest cluster of fireflies is seen. Like Christmas decors, they string on about three or four mangrove trees, surrounding the small river cove where the flatboat is docked.

These fireflies, creatures so natural in a world so artificial, remind me of how disconnected I often am to the waiting.

My seatmate shows me her attempts to capture their light. She props up her DSLR on the elbow of the boat, taking several shots, the best of which show tiny yellow-green dots like something from a science fiction movie, instead of the serene yellow orbs that they were.

“Dili jud ma-capture oi. Kailangan jud anhion.” I grinned.

While fireflies are selective about their residences, they are not selective about weather. A bit of wind or rain won’t hinder them from coming out, assures the tour guide.

So there they are, every night, at different parts of their lives – waiting for a mate, to give birth, or death. They wait. Like this island perhaps, or that five-year-old grumbling at home.

We’re ready, says Anda

“Sa tinuod lang, maayo ra sad nahitabo ‘tong linog kay nahatagan sad ug atensyon ang Anda,” says Mayor Dodong Amper as he joins us for lunch outdoors, facing Anda’s underdeveloped public beach, Quinale. This area is just a strip of the overall 18-kilometer long stretch that makes up Anda’s beaches.

The attention Amper, a first-time mayor, wants is the improvement in the infrastructure going to his municipality. Anda is about 99 kilometers from Panglao, on Bohol’s eastern tip. From Quinale’s shoreline is the blurry silhouette of Camiguin, reachable from Anda by a few hours’ ferry ride.

Unlike what I initially thought, there are some areas in Bohol that are quite inaccessible. Amper says about 80% of Anda’s roads, especially to the drop-off point going to an anthropological gem, Lamanoc Island, and other potential tourist areas, are still unpaved. Of course, I have no firsthand account as I conveniently slept through the two hours it took to get here.

Anda is a fifth-class municipality. But that fact can easily be missed when faced with white sand from side to side, and quiet travelers that seem as careful to keep the silence of the municipality as much as the locals.

Anda is dubbed as the “Next Big Thing” in Bohol’s tourism landscape, but it is also an area looking for its own identity. They use words like “rustic” and “untarnished” in their branding statements, the highlight of which was when their “rustic” caves were used in Jericho Rosales’ fantasy series, Panday.

It does not, quite adamantly, want to be the next Panglao, and especially not the next Boracay. Its most beguiling asset even is that, certainly, it doesn’t try to be beguiling.

There are no bars or formal dining restaurants. Its most well-established eating place, where the Mayor took us for a farewell lunch, serves sinugba, kinason and pancit. Otherwise, there is the Food Center, a series of carenderias beside the open market. There is a convenience store just beside that for snacks.

There are no souvenir shops or formal packages, no vendor selling Anda shirts or a tricycle driver offering his tour services for the day. I traipse through their market in the morning, with fresh avocados, bulad and ukay-ukay spread on tarps, and merchants seem too shy to talk, especially when they notice a camera in hand.

And while there are a strong number of hotels, 27 to date, ranging from bed and bath types to the high-end Amun Ini, the properties are too far-off from each other to create heavy people traffic. Most are content to stay within their own private coves and caves.

Jun Ayag, Anda’s tourism consultant, says Anda is certainly not for everyone just yet. It is more for people content to read their books or spend some time on their own. When I went around the beach at dusk, figures skim through the water at low tide. They pick a shell or two, take a photo of this and that, but they never stay long enough to invite conversation.

I see a foreigner in the distance, her bright red dress a sharp contrast against the blue sea and sky. The next time I see her she is making her way to the resort, just as locals start to head back after spending the late afternoon picking shells to take home.

But if Anda seems isolated, there is more to be said about Lamanoc Island, its biggest asset for tourism success. Lamanoc is 20 minutes away from mainland and is said to be isolated enough to give any visitor an involuntary technological sabbatical.

Mystic

There are many things said about Lamanoc: that it is said to be inhabited by spirits, the type that make your camera stop working, that pirates lived there, that shamans sacrificed chickens (hence the name “manoc”) as offering to the diwatas and that a woman, a witch, named Ka Iska, built her house there.

Unfortunately, the wind that invites a lot of foreigners to Anda for windsurfing is also the same wind that prevents us to get a first-hand account of Lamanoc’s mysticism.

Ayag says this though, that there are still some bones, wooden coffins and hematite paintings left from the Stone Age whose meanings still have not been discerned by scientists.

“I’m coming back, of course,” I tell Sir Jun with a grin, suggesting we camp on the island the next time. We call it an afternoon and head for different parts of the beach for the day.

“I want my picture taken here,” a companion points out to the wide expanse of sand with no manmade structure other than an empty lifeguard station. So he can show to his friends 20 years from now, he says, as proof of what was in comparison to what will ultimately be.

It is not a question perhaps of whether Anda will take in more tourists, but how soon. Ayag is enthusiastic about steady investments in the next few months. Their website that shows a list of possible ventures is up and running. The brochures are ready for print. And Ayag has represented Anda in several expos, like the Internationale Tourismus-Börse Berlin, the largest trade show in the world.

Dear Portia,

“I want to do this alone,” you said, skipping your way through the stone path and shooing me off. It might’ve been the strenuous day at the beach or the full stomach after that big dinner. But oh boy, your readiness kicks me hard in the gut.

Anda, it seems, is still a child, a person waiting to be a person. Those willing to see it are the types willing to see the pains of growth.

Later that morning, we visit Anda’s church where I took a photo or two before heading outside. The park across is unusually full of people at mid-morning on a Monday.

“Dagan!” a man instructs a child wearing a miniskirt. She drops the bat she was holding and runs ahead to where a boy was waiting on a plate. Ahh, baseball.

From the stage, high school boys watch the scene and give their own set of instructions. “Liko! Tuyok! Kuhaa ang bola!” in between stirring a big pot of noodles to feed the whole team. These were the Anda Braves, Central Visayas Regional Athletic Association (CVIRAA) champions for baseball and softball. They come here every day, they tell me, between and after classes to practice.

“Pasulay ha.” I request, getting a mitt that was still sweaty from recent use. Their pace though was too fast. So after a while I just watch from the sidelines, fascinated that such an American sport could be found in the hinterlands of a fifth class municipality.

Every place perhaps, no matter how near, requires constant re-acquaintance. The ones we see so up close, so familiar and familial, are the very same ones whose changes we don’t keep track of the following time around. To this, the peril of familiarity often is perhaps, that it is an illusion.

After five days around Bohol, reaching home, a bright face with disheveled bangs greets with a shriek from the doorway and throws her body in the air with no thought of me being unable to catch it.

I look at her, so changed, so unchanged, and in an absurd greeting to someone whose whole life you think you’ve seen, I wanted to say “How are you? You’re different from when I saw you last.”

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on September 04, 2014.

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