“Eight days a week is not enough to show I care” crooned the guitarist, serenading us on the deck of the lunch-cruise barge as we drifted down the Loboc river on Bohol. “Eight days a week, I loooooove you” he continued, the plus-forties tapping their feet or singing along.
I wouldn’t go out and buy a Beatles album, as I’ve heard their songs too many times, but I do like it when someone sings one, as some of my first memories are of their songs. I pondered what it is about the Philippines that makes its inhabitants so musically talented - pretty much everywhere you go there is a guitarist playing - maybe these guitar-playing and singing talents are something that the country can thank the Spanish for.
I don’t get the impression that the Spanish are thanked for much else except Christianity, judging by the reverence in which they hold chief Lapu Lapu, who killed the Spanish conquistador Ferdinand Magellan on the nearby island of Mactan. He had sailed there in order to teach the inhabitants who was boss and, badly misjudging their fighting spirit, had decided to leave all of his mercenary forces aboard in order to save the glory and gore for the meagre Spanish contingent.
After telling the mercenaries to watch carefully in order to learn the superior Spanish art of war, he marched his band of country-men ashore, only to be promptly hacked to bits, with most of his companions. This display rather confused his audience of mercenaries, one of whom remarked that he wasn’t very impressed with the superior Spanish art of war and preferred the old-fashioned approach of just lopping heads off with a big axe.
You can still the memorial “Magellan’s Cross” on Cebu. Magellan’s cross? Well, wouldn’t you be too, if you were a sixteenth century nobleman who had just spent six months cooped up in a galleon eating mouse-urine-flavoured biscuits, only to be killed off by someone who, most embarrassingly, wasn’t of the ruling classes or even European - I mean, the Spanish court would laugh themselves silly when they heard about it, wouldn’t they, and where was the honour in that?
This text about Magellan is a bit of a digression. As a further digression within this digression, the reader may be interested to know that, according to recent findings, the straits of Magellan off the Cape of Good Hope weren’t actually first discovered by Ferdinand Magellan at all but by a Chinese admiral in 1421. For a fascinating and plausible theory that the Chinese discovered pretty much everywhere before Europeans did, I recommend the reader check out the book “1421, the year China discovered the world”, by Gavin Menzies.
As if to reinforce my musical impression of the Filipinos, our lunch barge pulled up at a pontoon on which sat about forty ukulele players and singers, aged from about eight to eighty, their faces wreathed in huge smiles. The small children wriggled with impatience at having to sit still, whilst the young women fluttered their eyelashes and, when I smiled at them, blushed and looked away, giggling to each other. Granddad plucked intently at an instrument I didn’t recognise whilst a young lad strummed a guitar bigger than he was.
After a while I noticed one of the parents nod an ‘OK’ to a group of boys, who promptly downed their instruments and dived into the river, one of them climbing up onto our barge and then using it as a diving board. Some of the day-trippers aboard backed away from the spot where he was climbing, fearing a soaking when he hit the water, but they needn’t have worried, as he jumped far out and dived in head-first, hardly causing a ripple as he went in, let alone a splash. “Hmm, maybe I should have a go at that” I thought, “then they’d really have something to worry about” (my water displacement is, shall we say, rather greater than the boy’s is). After the lovely pontoon music show we finished off our lunch. The food was competent rather than superb but was enjoyed by all except my son Nigel, who turned his nose up at everything, which was no surprise, as he’s only eight. Thankfully he eventually found something he could enjoy, the superb mango, watermelon and pineapple, which tasted way better than, in my experience, they ever do in Europe.
I sat and watched the jungle slide by on each side of the river. Palm trees reached out from either side and above the barge, their fronds swaying in the gentle breeze and the sunlight filtering through them, dappling the decks in hazy, soft sunshine. As I watched my wife Fon fuss over my son, a feeling of contentment and peace came over me. Everything seemed OK, even the things about life that were less than perfect. I find that as I grow older I experience happiness in a different way. When I was younger it was all about losing myself in intense concentration while doing something exciting, now it’s more about tranquillity and family values.
Other highlights on Bohol are the great scuba diving and snorkelling. I’m not much of a scuba diver so I went snorkelling to a spot near the little islet of Balicasag, which I unreservedly recommend. We left our resort aboard a local banka boat at the crack of dawn in order to get a chance to see the dolphins that for some reason appear at that hour. I had somewhat cynically thought that this was probably unlikely to happen, but they appeared on schedule and in numbers, then swam around us for a good hour. They seemed to be swimming in family groups, some of them just barely breaking the surface and others (maybe displaying the exuberance of youth) jumping right out of the water. They are such lovely creatures, with their funny faces seemingly permanently grinning at some private joke. We arrived at Balicasag a while later and, after an unusual-for-me breakfast of steamed prawns, friend eggs and rice (which tasted better than I expected it to), we boarded a much smaller, hand-powered boat. Motorised boats are forbidden to enter Balicasag Marine Sanctuary in an initiative to protect the flaura and fauna: this arrangement appears, judging from the profusion of fish swimming around the coral in the crystal-clear water, to have worked. A long column of fish swam in an almost military formation along the reef wall. They seemed so ordered and organised that I wondered if one of them was in charge. Was it the fish in front? Or maybe he was just the expendable point-man and the fish behind him was the one in charge?
The Chocolate Hills of Bohol are the island’s most popular tourist attraction and deserve the attention they get, as they look most peculiar. 200 hundred-foot tall earthen mounds jut out of a flood-plain, most topped in grass and looking like the perfect place for a picnic. Almost all of them are almost perfectly conical in shape. I tried to research the reason for their strange shape, but couldn’t find an answer - a bit like the authors of the official tourist tablet at the site, who didn’t seem to know either. The hills are reminiscent of the English burial ‘barrows’ (or mounds) on Salisbury Plain, only much, much bigger. It looked as is, instead of a few prehistoric chieftains lying underground, here there were dozens of dynasties of emperors, each interred under a couple of tens of thousand of tons of earth, in a scene a bit like Salisbury plain meeting the pyramids of Giza.
For our first visit to the Chocolate Hills we hired a driver and mini-van and were taken to the tourist centre on the single hill which has been developed for the purpose and which is covered in concrete, fast-food outlets, hawkers and screaming children. When I asked the driver if he could vary his route so that we could experience the scenery without the crowds, he reacted with the same incomprehension as I remember getting from a donkey at a sea-side fare in England, when I used my feet on its flanks to attempt to make it change its customary route. A few days after this disappointing experience we returned to try and experience the hills in a more natural way, hiring a motorbike on which we could meander through the lanes and take in the experience at our own pace. We had planned to hire a local guide (when I say ‘local’, I mean one of the farmers working amongst the hills) and to then climb one of them. We were thwarted by a rain-storm, which was a bit unfortunate, but at least gives us a good reason to return. Those readers who are wary of motorbike-riding in SE Asia are advised to get themselves driven to the Chocolate Hills in a minivan and to hire an additional helper to trail them on a bike, and then to hop on the bike when they reach the hills, where the small roads are relatively safe.
Bohol is a destination I enthusiastically recommend to all travellers, regardless of the depths of their pockets or how burning their aquatic ambitions are. If the reader wants to meet one of the extremely cute and ET-like tarsiers (a small tree-dwelling rodent with enormous eyes, 360 vision and powerful foot suckers) then I recommend he or she to avoid the horrible little tourists zoos and take a walk through the forests, to hopefully see the animal in its natural environment, rather then while being prodded with fingers and blinded with camera flashes. The best value accommodation for money is the Aloha Tropics resort, with the Bohol Beach Club more expensive but also good value. Those with very fat wallets should consider Eskaya
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