Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Tagbilaran, Philippines

Smack tab in the center of Bohol, a near perfectly circular island, sixty miles across and sixty miles top to bottom, the tenth largest of the many islands of the Philippines, sprouts a colony of 1,268 nearly identical mounds, known as the Chocolate Hills, an utterly surreal site unlike anything else on the planet, as otherworldly as the fairy chimneys of Turkey's Cappadocia or the tepuis of Venezuela.

Ever since I learned about them in my research of what the Philippines had to offer and saw a few photos, they have been the magnet that has drawn me so far south into this archipelago, further than I intended to venture in the six weeks I have for these travels.  But these were something that had to be seen, just like the rice terraces of Baneau.  They were so unimaginable, I wondered if they could be as phantasamogorical as their photos.  They looked more like an artist's creation than something that could actually occur in nature. 

They were said to be best seen at dawn or at dusk.  I pushed hard to make a morning ferry from Leyte to Bohol so I could reach The Hills by dusk and have the opportunity of spending the night amongst them.  I didn't know precisely when the ferry left.  I had been told anywhere from eight a.m. to ten a.m. by people who didn't really know.  I had camped twenty-five miles from the city where the ferry departed.  I set my alarm for 5:15 and was on the road half an hour later.  The road remained flat, so I was able to buzz along at close to fifteen miles per hour.  

I stopped half-way to fill my Tupperware bowl with noodles for the ferry trip and also ate a few.  A little later I added a bunch of bananas to my supply of food. I made the mistake of paying for the bananas with a 100 peso note.  The seller didn't have change so had to go search for some.  It took him longer than I wished to return with my 72 pesos.  Shortly after I resumed my race to the ferry a motorized tricycle chugged past me at twenty miles per hour, slow enough for me to latch on and get a draft for a few miles, making up for the lost time.  It was the first time I had done this here, as most buzz along at twenty-five miles per hour.

I reached the ferry terminal well before eight and learned that the next ferry left at 8:30, loads of time.  There were two large ferries at the end of the dock.  I rolled onto the one that was unloading, only to learn that it was the eleven a.m. ferry.  The other ferry was the wrong one as well.  I was pointed to a small, passenger-only shuttle that I hadn't even noticed, my heart plummeting at a potential rough passage on this boat that looked more appropriate for a leisurely sunset cruise than for the crossing of a large body of water.  The gangway was so narrow I had to remove all the gear from my bike and I was still nervous about rolling it aboard.

I hadn't eaten much and was counting on being able to load up during the two-hour passage.  Prone as I am to sea-sickness, I wasn't sure how much eating I would be able to manage on this vessel.  The first ferry I had taken was a full-sized ocean-going vessel that took trucks and had electrical outlets so I could recharge my iPad.  I had let my battery dwindle to three per cent and anticipated being able to get it back to one hundred per cent.  I was out of luck.  At least there would be plenty of fresh air, as it was all open-windowed.

I ate while I waited for departure and after we'd been out in open water for half an hour, it was clear it was going to be a smooth passage, so I could eat all the food I had brought, including a three-pack of hard-boiled eggs sold at wharfside.

There was one lone WIFI outlet in Ubay where we landed.  It was after eleven when I was able to connect with Janina and have a conversation on FaceTime.  It was nine p.m. in Chicago the evening before, half-way into the Oscars.  Unfortunately Janina can't pick up ABC on her television, so couldn't narrate the proceedings for me.  We talked for a bit, then went to the Internet to learn that "Gravity" was winning a bunch of the early minor awards.  Of more significance was that "Great Beauty" had won the best foreign picture award, meaning it would most likely still be in a theater when I returned in two weeks and we could see it again.  I couldn't stay on line for the final three awards, as getting to those Chocolate Hills before dark was my prime priority.  I knew they were about forty miles away, but I didn't know how much climbing I might have to do or the quality of the road.

As it was, I arrived at the prime viewing site forty-five minutes before dark, climbing up a steep hill that had a warning sign with an artist's rendition of The Hills. 

I'd had a few glimpses of some solitary mounds between Carmen, the nearest town two-and-a-half miles away from the park entrance, small appetizers for the boggling range of them to come.

Half-way up the steep climb I was able to behold the mystical vista of these near perfectly symmetrical mounds that continued to the horizon.  Most were domed, but a few had a pointed pyramid shape.  They were absolutely stunning, something straight out of a Godfrey Reggio movie.

They earned their name by the color they take in the dry season.  They actually consist of coral deposits that were part of the uplift that formed Bohol thousands and thousands of years ago and have been molded through the eons by erosion.

There was a lodge at this high point, but it was closed due to damage from an 7.2 earthquake that rocked the island in October, just a month before Yolanda swept through its neighboring island.  Looking down amongst the hills I could see a few dirt roads and farmsteads.  Camping beckoned, but it would be next to impossible to slip in somewhere without being seen.  I was told by park officials there was no camping in the vicinity and to not even think about attempting it.  It wasn't because it was illegal, but because it would be too dangerous.  Since the lodge was closed, the summit area was off limits after dark as well.  I would have to retreat to a lodge a mile away.

On the way I saw several patches of woods that would have been perfect for camping, but as everywhere in the Philippines, there were people out and about until dark.  But then shortly before the lodge I came upon a dirt road to a clearing with a mound staring me in the face.  I quickly turned off the main road and peered about for a hideaway.

I could see woods to the left I might be able to disappear into.  In the distance I could hear two children playing and just beyond their small home.  Rather than chancing on not being seen, I took the  sound of their cheerful voices to be a sign of benevolent folk who would be welcoming.

Their father was another of the many excessively cordial and good-hearted Filipinos I have met and was pleased to let me camp by their home and even was delighted to scamper up his mound with his two kids before dark to share his view.

He said that the best viewing was in the morning as the sun rose, but I was thrilled with this evening preview and to be shone the path, as it was overgrown and not something I would have been able to spot on my own.  The kids were five and six and hadn't started learning English yet, but they clung to me until they were called for supper.

I went to sleep once again filled with ecstasy not only at all the incomparable events of this day, but in anticipation of even more the next day.  I thanked the bike for the rare and monumental privilege it had afforded me to be partaking of these Chocolate Hills in a manner few do.  It further endorsed my preference for roughing it rather than simply being a sheep herded into a hotel. 

The two kids were my pals during my entire stay, accompanying me back up their Chocolate Hill the next morning while their parents were already tending to their chores cutting back weeds and gathering wood.

Atop their bald-headed Hill with the range of mounds in the distance.

They weren't bashful at all about having their photo taken. 

Below us was one of their father's corn fields awaiting planting.

In another direction was their homestead nestled along a stream.

I didn't mind at all making the steep climb back up to the prime viewing spot.  The heavy cloud cover prevented the sun from brightening the scene, it created a mood that may have made it more striking and sensational.

After an hour of having the summit to myself I ventured off on a rough dirt road amongst The Hills.  They were so thickly forested at their bases they were lost to view.

It wasn't until I returned to the main road that I was able to once again enjoy the majesty and beauty of a few of the solitary Hills for several miles further as I continued on to the coast and the large city of Tagbilaran where my next ferry awaited me to the island of Negros.  Along the way I passed a couple of old Catholic cathedrals that had been severely damaged by the earthquake.

The other right along the road forced traffic to detour around it.

I was hoping there'd be an afternoon ferry so I'd be able to start pedaling at daybreak the next day, but I wasn't making a race of it as I had the morning before.  It wouldn't have mattered, as there was just one ferry a day at 10:30 a.m., which I'd missed by a couple of hours.  I have ten days to get back to Manila for my flight home and four more ferries to catch and just a rough estimate of the number of miles I'll need to ride.   It was eleven days and over 700 miles of constant riding from Manila, to this my turn around point. It won't be as many miles back, but it is tricky gauging the terrain and ferry schedules to come.

I wasn't unhappy at all though to have an abbreviated day today, my first since Banaeu.  I have nursed my legs along just fine, feeling stronger than ever on the climbs, but some extra rest, only doing 36 miles today and then tomorrow a half day as well, will suit them fine.  After the two-hour ferry, my day of cycling won't begin until around one tomorrow.  At least I can count on the ferry being a full-fledged boat this time.  It is the only boat from Bohol to Negros, so will have to accommodate all manner of vehicles.

My hotel here in Tagbilaran is in the center of the city a block from a mall with a McDonald's.  The hotel caters to the budget set, but still has an armed guard on duty, as does any business it seems that could be inviting to thieves with a hunk of cash on hand.  That is the case too with McDonald's and its local counterpart, Jollibee.  I frequent both on occasion, as they often offer WIFI, as well as air-conditioning and filtered water.

The ten peso Jollibee ice cream cone is my preference.  Signs for upcoming Jollibees dot the roads, much more than those for Mcdonald's, as they are more common.  I know I'm approaching a town of some size when I see signs along the road announcing a Jollibee ahead.

Neither Baneau or Baler were large enough to merit a Jolibee.

My food preferences certainly remain with the road side eateries and stands that often offer a surprise. I'll take my chance on something wrapped in a palm leaf than on a chain store burger any day.



T.C. O'Rourke said...

"They actually consist of coral deposits that were part of the uplift that formed Bohol thousands and thousands of years ago and have been molded through the eons by erosion." Or so their ancient alien architects would have you believe...

scgrits said...

Ha! You have discovered "Filipino Time!" Glad you are enjoying it. I know I am biased, but Filipinos rock :)

Love and sunshine,


Dud said...

G'Day George. Thanks for blogging; we would have liked to have done the same trip but for having dental and family appointments in Manila. Glad you were finally able to free-camp. Dud & Pearl.