Tuesday, April 6, 2004

Weekend in Bohol

In the interest of the U.S. government, I spent last weekend in the province of Bohol. Bohol is a set of several islands in the central region of islands in the Philippines known as the Visayas. In the interest of the U.S. government, I got a massage on the beach, swam in the sea, went diving, and saw the tarsiers, the world's smallest primates. I did some work, too. (Pictures coming)

The goal of the trip was provincial reporting, a way to get out of Manila and talk to people in the provinces about what's important to them and what they think of the upcoming elections on May 10. So, with the help of a provincial official, my incredibly gracious host, I met with the governor, a congressman, several mayors, business leaders, the bishop, and others. To get a sense of the rest of the populace, I talked to farmers, restaurant workers, dive shop owners, bar patrons... the backbone of Bohol!
I stayed in Tagbilaran City, called "Tag City"... but only by me, because I keep mangling "Tagbilaran." The MetroCentre Hotel is a pretty nice business hotel. I also got the chance to experience Bohol's one television station, on its cable TV network. The station showed lots of ads. In between them, words appeared in the corner: "STOP" "EJECT" "PLAY". A very high-tech operation. In the evenings, they showed recent movies like James Bond's "Die Another Day" and "Rush Hour 2." They were also run by the TapeMaster, you could tell from the FBI Copyright warnings before the movie. Copyright violations are alive and well in Bohol. The vast majority of my time while staying at this hotel was spent in meetings, which are too boring to post here.
While I was meeting with the mayor of Corella, he took me to his town, home of the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary. This is a tarsier. It is found only in Borneo, Sumatra, and some Philippine islands. They are tiny, endangered, they have huge eyes and hairless tails longer than their body, and their heads can turn over 180 degrees around. Yeah, it's pretty much a rat with opposable thumbs. Some tarsier keepers toss the animals to tourists for pictures, but I was content with petting one.
I saw several resorts in Panglao Island, the resort area of Bohol. I had dinner twice at the Alona Palm, on Alona Beach. The Alona Palm is a beautiful resort with spacious rooms, a nice pool and good food. I first had dinner there with a congressman and his family. The second time, I ate there because I was pretending I wasn't staying at the Alona Tropical Resort.
As you can see from the site, this place is so bad only Germans will go there. It had no hot water, no fresh water (try showering and brushing your teeth with salt water. Go ahead, try it.) The towels had large brown stains that I'm going to tell myself are water stains. There was a fan and lamp in the room, but their cords were wrapped up because the room had no power outlets. The walls were paper-thin, so I woke up every 45 minutes or so. However, I must say that I only got _any_ room on the beach because my host arranged it. I checked four different resorts (including the Alona Palm), and they were all booked. I had dinner at the Alona Palm that evening, pretending that I wasn't staying next door. Later, I went out in the water, which was so salty that you could float with no effort at all. The sky was almost bright with the stars and moon. After I got out of the water, the Massage Patrol pounced on me. For 350 pesos (about 7 dollars), I got a massage on the beach. All was good, except that it was also a head massage, with oil. So my hair was filled with salt, sand and oil. And, as I said, no fresh water in the shower.
As I then found out, there was also no shampoo. After a frustrating and futile attempt to use soap, I asked the "front desk" (a little desk next to the bar) for some shampoo. "None, sir." Shocking. Again, the Alona Palm was my saving grace. I went next door, prepared to beg and offer everything short of multiple-entry visas for a bottle of shampoo. Only 150 pesos was necessary -- apparently this happened a lot.
The next morning, which I was eager to see because my partying neighbors didn't allow me much sleep, I walked along the beach. The sand in Bohol is almost like flour, powdery and light. Near the end of the beach, I found Philippine Islands Divers. I went on my first dive a few months ago, at Puerto Galera on Mindoro Island, and I was eager to try it again. With the help of Rena, a Japanese dive instructor there, I spent about 30 minutes in the pool going over the exercises I'd learned before. Important ones, like how to get your regulator back so you don't drown in a foreign country and make my Embassy package up all your stuff and ship it back to the States. (However, if I did die, it would be in the line of duty. So there are pluses.)
I dove down into what they call "The Pit," about 20 meters down. The marine life there was unlike I'd seen anywhere. Huge schools of fish, 2-foot-wide starfish and seemingly endless forests of coral were all over the place. If you've never gone diving before, it's a great place to start.
I hastily checked out, and asked the hotel for transportation to Bohol Beach Club, on the other side of Panglao Island. Several friends from the Embassy were staying there, so I thought I would visit before I left for the airport.
I should have been more specific about "transportation." I was expecting a car, perhaps a tricycle. Nope, I got a motorbike. So, there I was, with two bags, trying to figure out how I'd get to the resort alive. The driver took one suitcase on his lap, and I slung the laptop back around my neck, then held on tight to the seat rail.
During my time in the Philippines, I have gone diving and learned how to fly a plane so small it's like a bicycle on wheels. But this 15-minute motorbike trip was by far the most frightening. This guy didn't know the meaning of "leisurely." Gravel, dirt roads or 115-degree turns, he went at top speed. I did survive, albeit with a burn on my leg from touching the exhaust pipe when I got on. A relatively small price to pay.
The Bohol Beach Club is one of the largest resorts there, with spacious rooms and a long stretch of beach. They've got lots of seating, and good food. Altogether a good place to stay, I noticed from my 2-or-so hours there. After having lunch, I headed to the airport (in a car, thankfully) and flew home.
I'll be returning on May 10 as an election observer, and I'm looking forward to it. I might even spring for the extra cost of renting a plane and fly myself there. But I won't be taking a motorbike.

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