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A Venture into the Visayas

Way back in the spring of 2001, when the worst you might expect was kidnapping by separatist guerillas, we took our two children to the Visayan Islands, in the central Philippines. We flew first to Cebu City, landing very near the spot where, in 1521, Ferdinand Magellan concluded his explorations. From there we boarded a ferry to Bohol, home to the legendary Chocolate Hills.

That portion of our journey began with a prayer, broadcast in English on the ship’s public address system. A Catholic invocation: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. For the hearing impaired, these devotions unscrolled simultaneously on the cabin’s video screen—a sort of divine teleprompter—pleading not only for safe passage and the security of loved ones left behind, but also for profitable business ventures and first-class examination scores.

Despite the foundering reputations of certain Philippine ferry companies, I squandered no anxieties over the seaworthiness of our air-conditioned SuperCat. Instead, I leaned back in the airline-style seat, and looked out over the bustling port, backed by green hills. The harbor was awash with all manner of craft: lateen-rigged sailboats, outrigger canoes, rust-streaked freighters, navy frigates.

Having dispensed with the prayers, the video screen now offered a Hollywood action film, in which—as usual—the villains were bound and determined to get precisely what was coming to them. But with any luck at all, I thought, our upcoming week should be only slightly less predictable.
According to a U.S. State Department memo issued in January of that year, “the threat of terrorist action . . . does exist in the Philippines,” but “security is not a major concern at the popular tourist and diving sites.” My wife Sarah and I had read this announcement, examined a map of the trouble spots, and decided that Bohol was safe enough. We planned to check out the island’s scenic wonders, visit two friends working with the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity, then retreat a few miles offshore, to the sanctuary of Balicasag. The reefs and walls that surround this sixty-acre islet are famous among divers, most of whom visit on day-long junkets from expensive resorts on Cebu or Bohol. But Balicasag also has its own, more rustic accommodations, operated jointly by the national tourism authority and the Philippine Navy. What, we told ourselves, could be safer than that?

And, in general, we did feel safe. Most Boholanos are friendly, devout, and justifiably proud of their Baroque churches, white-sand beaches, and geologic wonders. Disembarking in Tagbilaran, the provincial capital, we struck up a conversation with Peter Noroño, who offered his services as guide and driver. We accepted.

Our first stop was the Chocolate Hills, a forty-mile journey from breakfast towards the island’s center. In the dry season, when the voracious Philippine sun has burnt the grass to a pale cocoa, these geologic oddities are said to resemble a huge array of Hershey’s kisses, unwrapped. But in early April, the hills are yellow-green, the color of fresh-cut hay, if hay came in stacks 300 feet high. We climbed the steps to the top of one hill, past trees hung with blooming white orchids. Despite the occasional drops of rain, it was thirsty work. So we retired to the handy restaurant for a round of cold drinks, a platter of calamares fritos, and an order of potato chips—not from the bag, but actual potatoes sliced wafer-thin, deep-fried, and delivered hot to the table. This miracle seemed to impress four-year-old Marina and eight-year-old Dave far more than the peculiar shapes of the hills. We suggested several theories of creation: a lovelorn giant’s fossil tears, selective erosion, volcanic activity, the hourglasses of the heavens. Marina stopped chewing just long enough to ask for salt.

On the way back to town, we paused at a riverbank establishment that kept a dozen captive tarsiers—palm-sized primates whose wide eyes have the look of permanent surprise. These individuals were wonderfully gentle, light on their long-toed feet, as quick and appealing as songbirds. The proprietors suggested a cruise upriver, where we might view a spectacular waterfall, even spy a wild tarsier, but our kids were unenthusiastic. “No thanks,” said Marina. “Looks like rain.”

So we drove instead to the stone church in Baclayon, the oldest in the Philippines. Inside the sanctuary, under a vault that has stood intact for more than four centuries, the senior class was practicing for their high-school graduation. We stood at the back, admiring the painted ceilings, while swallows winged in and out of the grated windows. Then we trooped up a flight of stairs to the museum of relics: sacred music printed on cowhide and bound in water buffalo, head-high candelabra, a wooden image of Señor Santa Niño (the baby Jesus) with a decidedly Spanish nose, missing his middle finger.

When the rains finally came, a cascade of almost Biblical intensity, Peter made a heroic dash to his car for a pair of umbrellas. He ferried us back towards town, navigating a new crop of potholes. We asked him to drop us at Bohol Quality, a cavernous, multi-level department store, where one can find everything from raw peanuts to boneless snapper fillets, lace doilies to hand-made guitars.

We wanted to stock up before the next day’s transfer to Balicasag. According to our friends at the Habitat Village, Mark and Ellen, it never hurts to arrive on a tropical island with a liter of rum and a handful of fresh limes. At the cash register, I noticed a German tour group, heavily laden with liquor and cigarettes. From the bewildering selection of local rums, they had chosen the most expensive añejo, about US$7.00 per bottle. I followed their example. We continued through the maze of aisles, buying chocolate, cashews, and crackers for our pair of finicky eaters, along with several boxes of ultra-pasteurized milk.

Our shopping completed, we stood for a moment on the sidewalk outside, as a significant percentage of the city’s 70,000 residents paraded by—on foot, in jeepneys, astride motorcycle taxis fitted with sheet-metal sidecars and christened with names such as “Highway to Heaven,” “Back 2D Island,” and “Señor Stoning.”

I didn’t see what happened next, nor did I see it coming. I heard Sarah cry out, and I followed her shocked gaze to her attacker. The woman was not much more than five feet tall, with streaks of gray in her black hair, and tanned skin nearly the same color as my own. She had used her clenched fist to deliver a low blow, and now she stood glaring at us. There was a challenge in her expression, along with something like hate, or defiance. “What was that about?” I asked inanely, but the woman did not respond. Meanwhile, Sarah grabbed Dave by the hand and started across the street. “Come on,” Sarah said. “Don’t confront her.” I picked up Marina and followed.

We fled several blocks in the general direction of our hotel, before slipping into the friendly confines of a Chinese restaurant. One wall displayed a banner congratulating local students, and several celebratory dinners were already in progress. Over roast duck and pan-fried shrimp, Sarah and I tried to decipher what this incident meant. But we could not. There was no identifiable provocation—or motivation. The woman did not have the unfettered look of a lunatic, yet she had acted purposefully, with malice aforethought.

Back at our hotel, the La Roca, preparations had been made for a wedding feast. In the dining room, a whole suckling pig lay in state on a gigantic platter, its skin roasted to a crackling brown. There were no guests in sight, so I lingered a while over the buffet table, admiring the range and variety of dishes. Then I bought a couple of cold beers, and carried the bottles up to our room.

The next morning, we woke wary, though no more vulnerable than usual. The kids wanted to swim before breakfast, but the pool had filled with leaves and grit during the previous day’s downpour. Marina settled for a swing on the creaky playset, while Dave contented himself with hunting the six-inch lizards that scurried amongst the shrubbery.

As coincidence would have it, Peter Noroño’s sister-in-law was the assistant manager of Balicasag’s 20-room resort. He arranged for a van to deliver us over a causeway to the southeast corner of neighboring Panglao Island, where we were met on the sand by two fishermen from Balicasag. Their boat was long and narrow, fashioned from wooden planks, equipped with two outriggers, and powered by what looked to be the gasoline engine from a water pump.

We piled our duffel into the hull, then balanced ourselves on thin boards set athwart the gunwales. The noisy crossing took less than half an hour, the pumpboat racketing over a shallow expanse of seagrass, a bluewater channel, swirling with currents, and—finally—the dramatic wall of coral that fairly encircles the island.

A crowd met us on the beach. Or at least it seemed like a crowd. There might have been two or three resort employees; the others, mostly children and middle-aged women, offered to carry our bags, or sell us souvenirs, or simply smiled in greeting. Under the glare of a blazing midafternoon sun, the best we could do was smile in return, and defer all interactions until later. We plodded over a narrow strip of crushed coral, past a shady gazebo not much bigger than a toll booth. Inside sat a young man holding a machine gun on his lap. He too smiled. We continued a few more steps, into the open-air restaurant that serves as the resort’s clubhouse and headquarters.

Relying on its reputation as an out-of-the-way destination for seasoned divers, Balicasag offers few of the amenities common to Asia’s more upscale retreats. There is no swimming pool, no tennis court, no spa. The duplex bungalows are cooled by ocean breezes and electric fans. The pace is leisurely—almost somnolent—and that’s precisely what we wanted.

For the first two days, we contented ourselves with late breakfasts and ripe, sweet mangoes, followed by bouts of snorkeling or beachcombing. Our favorite meal soon became kinilaw, chunks of raw fish or boiled shrimp marinated in coconut milk, vinegar, calamansi (like a miniature lime), ginger, Spanish onions, green tomatoes, and hot chile peppers.

Although Balicasag is home to about 200 residents, a Gang of Five seemed to claim us for their own. They wrote their names on a scrap of notebook paper: Naty (short for Natividad), Lucy, Erlyn, Concep, and Lody. Then they extracted a promise—before we left the island, we would buy a souvenir from each of them. This trade in trinkets apparently provides a vital income for many families. As a result, each dive boat that anchored near the island was stormed by a boarding party of women wielding wicker baskets of seashells and jewelry. Sarah tried to suggest a more gentle marketing technique, without much luck. It was too bad, really, since some of their wares were truly beautiful: spider conchs, eyed cowries, the delicate and spectacular comb murex.

Fishing, naturally, remains the islanders’ primary occupation. Each morning, the men plumb the waters surrounding the local fish sanctuary, often drifting just outside the marker buoys. I joined them myself on several mornings, in the company of Erlyn’s son Edsel, but with much less success than the experts. For some unfathomable reason, the fish scorned my painted offerings, preferring fresh squid instead, or the meat of hermit crabs cracked with a pair of rusty pliers.

As the days passed, the Gang of Five continued to make periodic reminders of our promise. They also made other offers: boat rentals, babysitting services, fresh seafood, custom engraving and embroidery. We were reluctant at first, maybe because of the incident outside the department store. In any case, we hoped to establish a less mercantile relationship.

Marina, for example, was having a fine time playing with a pack of Naty’s grandchildren—games like tag and tea party and follow the leader. Dave was more reserved, however, preferring to throw darts in the clubhouse, or to experiment with a seashell’s ability to withstand strong impacts.

Meanwhile, Sarah and I were struggling to avoid the look of cash cows, though we understood the urge to milk. On Ellen’s suggestion, we had brought a duffel bag full of children’s shoes and clothes, along with an assortment of school supplies, as gifts for the islanders. We knew that these items would be greatly appreciated whenever given, but gratitude was not what we wanted.

We took turns circumnavigating the island, an easy hour’s stroll. From the beach, one sees thick-trunked palm trees and concrete bungalows, rows of brightly painted fishing boats dragged high onto the sand, the tower of a lighthouse. There are deep greens and bright blues and blinding whites all around the edge, but the island’s interior is shadowed. Away from the resort, the inhabitants seemed shy, almost withdrawn.

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