Colonial Cebu and the Beautiful Nature of Bohol

The flight from Seoul to Cebu lasts just over four hours. Flying with Cebu Pacific, one of Asia’s largest budget carriers, I wasn’t at all shocked to see a jam packed interior leaving little leg room for comfort. I sat down in my seat beside an bubbly Korean woman wearing Fendi sunglasses and her husband who looked as though he could have been her son. The flight attendants handed out our customs form and a few moments later I realized that the odd couple sitting beside me had no clue how to fill it out. The lady had checked that she was a male. The man had noted that his occupation was Korea. Good grief.

I could see they wanted to ask for my help so I put on a smile and hunched over my seat to help them fill in the info correctly. They were incredibly appreciative in the classic excessive head bowing sort of way. Unfortunately we were so crammed in our seats that whenever they bowed their heads they hit their foreheads on the chairs in front of them. They wanted to know what box to check under the title “reason for travel.” I discovered that they were on their honeymoon! It soon dawned on me that the flight was mostly filled with couples. After doing a quick surveillance of the flight to my great pleasure I was able to confirm that I was the only single person on the plane.

Surrounded by newlywed Koreans I noticed that most of the woman had rather elaborate hair styles covered in clips and ribbons. It seems as though this cage of love birds had just stepped onto the plane from their wedding parties. I was later told that the flight to Cebu is deliberately scheduled to leave Seoul late in the night (10pm) in order to accommodate all of the honeymoon couples. Walking up and down the aisle I couldn’t help but laugh out loud as each married couple wore matching outfits. Korean couples are famous for their corny fashion matches. I walked back to my seat and closed my eyes before taking a nap.

Our flight landed shortly before 2am. I quickly picked up my luggage at the turnstiles and slipped through immigration. The waiting room outside of the departure lounge was full of local families sleeping strewn across several chairs. A really friendly local man beckoned me over to sit beside him. For the next few minutes he exhausted me with friendly conversation. At one point, I was so tired that I rested my forehead on my backpack and fell asleep as he continued to chatter away. The Cebu Pacific office finally opened at 3:30am. I quickly bought my tickets to Boracay and Manila and then headed outside of the terminal.

I noticed the man ran up right behind me. It was then that I realized he wasn’t trying to be my friend but rather was trying to sell me something. He told me that he was a taxi driver and would take me to my hotel. I rolled my eyes and on little more than one hour of sleep I managed to stiffen my back and prepare to bargain. He quoted me an outrageous price. Something like ten times the normal taxi fare. I looked at him like he was crazy and said “I’m not paying a flat fair I’m looking to use a taxi meter thank you.” As soon as I said that I burst onto the street and hundreds of taxi drivers started yelling for my business. My “friend” immediately dropped his fixed rate in half, and I still refused to budge. A moment later I told him I was a Catholic and he instantly said “oh yes let’s use the meter!”

In the next thirty minutes we drove through Cebu in the pitch black. My first impression of the Philippines was more of a South American Hispanic vibe. I felt as though we were driving through Puerto Rico or Havana as we drove by Catholic cathedrals, slums covered in brilliantly coloured mural paintings and little children running after stray chickens in the street. The full moon lit up the sidewalk where dogs and workmen slept on flattened cardboard. We arrived at my hotel, Kukuk’s Nest Guesthouse at four in the morning.

Hopping out of my cab, I paid my first Filipino friend and fell onto a barstool. I quickly signed into my room, took a quick shower and walked back downstairs and ordered a Baileys on the rocks at the bar. I chit chatted with three locals who were munching on local food fair. Each of them offered me the food on their plate, and sips from their glasses. Filipino’s are known around the world for their smiles, manners and hospitality. One wonders if the locals here are taught extensive manners classes in school. I am always referred to as Sir. “Sir may I get you another drink, Sir here is your breakfast, Enjoy your day, Sir.” I love it.

After a much needed rest I woke up the following morning starving for something to eat. I ordered a two dollar breakfast which consisted of multigrain toast, fried eggs, crispy bacon, fresh mango juice and a cup of tea. The hotel has a great eclectic atmosphere. The owner is an artist and collector of sculpture. Every wall is covered in tribal oil on canvas, every corner sits a sculpture, every ceiling a chandelier made of sea shells. As I slowly gobbled up my meal I tapped my feet to the Beatles Rubber Soul album which played through the morning air.

I stared out onto the main street as graffiti-splashed jeepneys wheeled around the corner. The first jeepneys were modified army jeeps left behind by the Americans after WWII. They have been customized with Filipino touches such as chrome horses, banks of coloured headlights, radio antennae, paintings of the Virgin Mary and neon coloured scenes from action comic books. These colourful automobiles act as public bus transport in major cities. At eight pesos a ride (six US cents) it may just be the cheapest mode of travel on earth!

I waved down a bright pink jeepney and hopped up through the back entrance. I rushed to the front and sat down on the bench. I offered the driver my fair and he motioned for me to pay the little boy hanging off the back bumper of the vehicle. Memories of South America, I quickly plopped my coins into the eager hands of the nine year old boy. This little boy had the loudest voice I have ever heard. He swung off the back of the jeepeny and screamed at people on the street. My jeepeny ride was a perfect way to get a tour of the city. We drove through colourful fruit markets teaming with coconut, mango, bananas and watermelon. We zoomed along shanty towns where local children took an afternoon nap on the top of car roofs. I smiled and waved at men working at shoe repair shops and a group of men who excitedly bet on a game of chess.

One of the first stops on Spain’s conquest agenda, Cebu lays claim to everything old- including oldest street, the oldest university and the oldest fort. I hopped off the Jeepeny outside of Cebu Cathedral. Luckily it was a Sunday and I was able to attend a jam packed Mass. The huge cathedral was overflowing with locals who held their rosary beads and kneeled facing the pulpit. I then walked down the street towards the Basilica Minore del Santo Nino which was built in 1740. I was hesitant to cross the street so decided to wait for a local woman and her child to step forward.

At the entrance of the cathedral I stopped at the security gate to show two police officers my bag. The female guard asked me, “where is your girlfriend, where is your wife, why are you alone?” She said this to me as though traveling without a woman made me look like a seedy terrorist. I laughed and told her that I am single. She stared at me in shock and moments later offered me her niece as a possible perfect match. After staring down at this fifteen year old girl I couldn’t help but laugh and say, “you are so generous but I am not looking for a wife I am here to go to church and be a good Catholic.” She once again stared at me, this time around, with a bit of respect.

Outside of the cathedral men sell colourful helium balloons which feature images of the Virgin and Christ. A group of nuns wearing bright yellow skirts handed out thin candles in front of the main doors. This particular religious building houses the countries oldest religious relic. The image of Jesus as a child is said to have been given to Queen Juana of Cebu by Magellan on the queen’s baptism in 1521. Standing at the large wooden doors I stared out onto another packed mass ceremony before walking into the beautiful outer garden, pond and water fountain. The Basilica gardens were dotted with statues of famous Saints. I ran into several Korean and Japanese students during my tour of the city. They all come to the Philippines to study English, apparently a thriving industry in Cebu.

I then walked to Fort San Pedro which was built by Miguel Legazpi in 1565 as a defence against marauding pirates. This gently crumbling ruin with gardens is the oldest Spanish fort in the country. The fort complex is organized into a triangle. Lush green grass in the centre with tropical trees and bushes lining the perimeter. Walking up the old stone stairs I found a colourful flower garden and bonsai tree collection. From the top of the fort I stood over an old battle canon and watched the sun set over the city. I walked down the other side of the fort and came across a group of about thirty young woman wearing bright red billowy dresses. They asked me to take a picture of them and I soon discovered that they were “The Voice of Cebu” a traditional Filipino folk choir.

In the morning I hopped into a taxi for the city’s ferry terminal. I found it interesting that the driver never stopped at an intersection but would lightly honk his horn to warn other motorists that he was fast approaching. I was dropped off at Pier 3 and was told that I had to walk to Pier 1 to get a ferry to Tagbilaran, the capital of Bohol. So, half awake, I walked to Pier 1 to soon find out that I actually had to be at Pier 4 to take the SuperCat tourist ferry to Bohol Island. Massively irritated, I backtracked and speed walked before arriving at the correct ferry terminal.

Filipino’s love Christmas! They start to put up their holiday decorations around September. The waiting room at the ferry terminal was covered in Christmas trees and blinking lights. Once sitting on the ferry I couldn’t help but laugh as the large plasma television hanging on the front wall played a sing-along Christmas video. As the ferry filled with passengers all of the locals clapped and sang their favourite holiday songs. Just before the boat left the dock the music was turned off and a pre-departure prayer for our safe journey appeared as Star Wars rolling credits on the television.

Ferry travel is synonymous with Filipino culture. Seeing that the country is made up of 7106 tropical islands it made sense that I island hop at least once during my stay here. The ferry arrived in Tagbilaran two hours later. I had not booked a tour of the island so as soon as I hopped off the ferry at 10am I searched for information on tour prices. I was quoted 30 000 pesos for the day. I suspected that I was being ripped off so I rushed back to the terminal exit where I found a couple from Brisbane who were haggling with a mass of tour guides. We quickly agreed to travel together for the day and were able to barter down from my original 30 000 pesos offer to a shockingly cheap 20 000 pesos for the three of us! We only had six hours to tour the island as our ferry back to Cebu would be leaving at 4:45pm.

We drove inland for the next ninety minutes. Past colourful rice paddies, small villages and jungle covered hills. Our first stop was the islands main attraction, The Chocolate Hills. An interesting quirk of nature, the Chocolate Hills consist of over 1200 conical hills, up to 120m high. They were supposedly formed over time by the uplift of coral deposits and the effects of rainwater and erosion. The local belief that they are the remnants of a battle between two giants. In the dry season, when the vegetation turns brown, the hills appear as chocolate drops across the horizon.

We hopped back in our van and drove through the islands beautiful man made mahogany forest. Thirty minutes later we arrived for a cruise of the Loboc River. Each cruise boat features a colourful Filipino buffet lunch and live band. For the next hour I stuffed my face with various noodle dishes, grilled pork and crispy fried chicken wings. The band constantly had me laughing as the two male singers belted out Mariah Carey and Beatles tunes. The Loboc River winds through palm covered jungle and provides a great panorama as you eat your lunch. My favourite part of the cruise was when our boat pulled up beside a floating raft. On the raft sat a ten man band that played tribal music while about thirty local women in pink skirts danced and sang with big smiles on their faces. The music reminded me of something one might hear in Hawaii. The performers on the raft come from a very poor local community and their river shows create a steady income which allows them to continue their simple life in the jungle. At the end of the river we stopped at three tiny little waterfalls that couldn’t have been more than two feet high. The lady from Brisbane who I was sitting beside made me laugh out loud when she said, “Why are all of these Korean’s going crazy with their cameras. A bunch of rocks pissing!”

Hopping off the boat and back into our van we continued our drive around the island. A local bus which could barely contain its local passengers (feet spilled out over the bus roof) had an interesting bumper sticker which read, “Be Careful, Say Your Holy Rosary Every Day.” Our next stop was the Tarsier Rehabilitation Centre where we had a chance to view the islands most famous animal. The Tarsier is the world’s smallest primate (the fury guys can easily fit in the palm of your hand). This monkey is endangered do to pet hunters and loss of rainforest habitat. They can now only be found in the wild in Bohol and one other island in Indonesia. The Tarsier is an odd looking animal as its two huge eyeballs stick out from its tiny little nose and their long fingers remind one of a salamander. Interestingly enough, Steven Spielburg used the Tarsier’s unique physical features as an inspiration for his famous ET alien.

Our last stop in Bohol was a tour of Baclayon Church, the oldest Cathedral on the island. The church felt ancient as soon as you walked inside. A sense of gothic creeper past over me like a wave as I walked past several statues of various Saints looking pained and mortified. The Cathedral was lined with hundreds of benches and created a beautiful image as the afternoon sun past through the dirty stain glassed windows. Directly behind the altar sat a brilliant gold shelf which held several statues of Christ, The Virgin and Apostles.

We were soon dropped off downtown where we walked around for the next hour. When we were finally ready to head back to the ferry terminal we realized that this city didn’t have taxis! Our only option was to hop onto a Habal-Habal. The Habal-Habal is simply a motorcycle taxi with an extended covered seat. I hopped into my little seat and sat with a bit of fright as my motorcycle driver zoomed through the busy streets. I looked behind me at the couple from Brisbane who looked beyond frightened as their drivers followed my lead. We finally arrived at the ferry terminal tired, dizzy and just in time for our boat back to Cebu.

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