Clear skies, the first in a week, welcomed us as we climbed into the van with three temple employees and two other mission couples on an adventure to the Bojo River. Preparation day, at times, allows us to visit new places in the Philippines and when Brother Manning, who had served here once before, offered us a chance to go on an excursion that included snorkeling, we jumped at the chance.
Cebu is a long thin island in the middle of what are called the Visayan Islands, which collectively are located in the middle of the Philippines. Along the island’s coast is some relatively flat land sloping steeply up to inactive volcanic mountains, which form the island’s spine. We headed south of Cebu City for about 1.5 hours, transversed the mountains to the west side of the island, then traveled another hour’s drive to the south just past a small community named Alinguinsan. Notice, we did not say how many kilometers since that gives illusions of a quick drive when in fact, driving speed in the Philippines rarely goes over 30 km per hour due to heavy traffic and narrow roads. The first part of our upward climb took place on a road that was partially washed out and the suspension of the van was sorely tested. By and by the road improved and we drove faster than 10 km per hour. The road coming down the west side of the island was of fairly new construction, the road being concrete – a relative super-highway where we could travel 50 to 60 km per hour, except for the curve in the road every few hundred metres. The view of the mountains is beautiful, however, with little development off the main road. Mountains here are clothed in jungle from head to foot, and the mix of coconut palms and a myriad of plants we don’t recognize is beautiful. An occasional piece of ground sports a small farm. Houses along the highway often block the view but the vistas show up once in a while like teasers along the drive.
|Close-up of dragonfruit|
Next a relatively tall and mid-aged gentleman guided us on a tour of their organic hog production – one sow, and five pigs about 40 pounds each at this stage. Mary-Rose really enjoyed feeding the pigs some branches cut off of nearby trees. The leaves on these branches are eaten by people, as well, as a sort of spinach. We have seen a lady coming out of the temple block carrying a load of them that she had cut in the vacant property here that is awaiting future construction of another chapel. Bedding for the hogs is woodchips which the hogs incorporate into the ground making the beginning of an organic fertilizer as they blend it with manure in their walking about. The bedding-manure mix is then put into large, rectangular boxes about 10-feet long and 3-feet wide – although pigs are smart, this is done by the work crew. The workers that transform the bedding into fertilizer are earthworms, protected from the free-range chickens by a covering of coconut-palm leaves that also serve as a mulch and shade the ground from the intense sun at this latitude near the equator. The pig poop turned-to-earthworm-poop has no particular smell and can be handled and used as a fertilizer to grow local crops, which included tomatoes, eggplant, dragonfruit, cucumbers, bananas, mangoes and lemon grass. I don’t recall seeing bananas on this small one-hectare farm, but there must have been some as the workers use what they grow in feeding visitors both here and at our next stop, as much as possible.
|Cute, not-stinky piglets|
|In his element|
Warning: TMI if you're not interested in botany!
FYI, when a banana tree (it is not a tree) is spent and has produced its many hands of bananas (the bunch) on its stem (also called rachis: read about bananas if you are a pure botanist, at the following URL: ), then it sends up new shoots from a corm as the leaves, which form a stem-like trunk, die off. Or simply, like a begonia bulb, the banana plant sends up new shoots once the top dies off, and just like an onion, the stem is really a bunch of leaves that grow up together to form the structure that supports the flower on-top. Any of the banana shoots can be transplanted to grow a new banana plant.
Meanwhile, back on the farm...
|Elder and Sister Pace and Steve Villanueva in the garden|
|Mango trees grow really big!|
|See if you can find the little round passion fruit.|
Fed, educated and contented, we loaded into our van and headed onto a new adventure – navigating the west coastal highway. The difference between the west side of Cebu from the east side is the degree of westernization. Near Cebu on the east, the coastal highway is filled with large trucks with the various loads of cartage, along with a mix of relatively new Japanese and Korean and a few Chinese and American vehicles (they are almost all new except the taxis because the ability to buy vehicles is new for the middle class in the Philippines), flowing along in a matrix of habal-habal (motorcycles for hire) drivers swerving in-and-out amongst the traffic, trying to gain advantage at some risk to self and passenger in order to move quicker than the cars and trucks that are limited in their speed by sheer number of vehicles on the road. (In the time it took you to read the last sentence you might have been lucky to drive 10 feet).
The west side is different – there a fewer large trucks, though there are some; there are fewer cars, though there are some; and there are fewer habal-habals on the road, though there are some. Introduce another “species” of traffic regulation, which ensures slower driving speeds – the tricycle. Not a three-wheeled one you recall from your childhood, but a pedal-drive bicycle or sized-down motorcycle with a sidecar that can hold two to four people somewhat comfortably if you are small, but up to 13 if you stack every square inch with at least one or two bodies. The smaller number is the norm. You also see cargo of an occasional hog or two, and I have seen a cow in one.
|Not our photo, but we've seen this!|
|Again, not our photo, but notice the schoolgirls in uniform top left.|
One blessing of the Philippines is that there are many schools; one mixed-blessing to drivers is that these schools are usually along the busy roads, and many of the children arrive in a tricycle. With narrow roads filled with all these types of vehicles and their cargo – your vehicle sometimes does not travel very fast. Where there is a school coming up, a barricade is placed upstream a hundred metres of the school on one side of the highway and downstream on the other side of the school for a hundred metres. This slows the traffic down, as you can imagine, but keeps kids safer. How many big trucks and tricycles can you wait for to take your turn before you lose your patience? As many as needed, since there is nothing you can do about it and it is fun to see all the kids dressed smartly in their school uniforms (with a different set of colours for each school, and the girls in skirts) and generally with bright smiles on their faces.
Now we are out of the school areas and onto the “freeway” reaching speeds regularly of 30 km per hour with bursts up to 50 km per hour when it is safe to swerve toward on-coming traffic because we are bigger than they are and they know to move over, or where there actually is room to pass. Glimpses of the sea to the right, and the occasional banana stand of a hectare or two (no real plantations along here) add variety to the usual visual fare of small houses with their tin roofs, and small businesses at almost every house. The famed “Sari-Sari” store that used to be the neighborhood 7-11 run by one of the moms has been replaced by a business in most every dwelling along the busy highways. You have to make a living and the road traffic provides a continuum of customers. Everyone has to eat so many of these are food-based businesses, with phone load signs popping up frequently and the occasional money-transfer operation. Small dry goods are on display, but the main display is snacks. Bananas and other fruits in season are popular items as well.
|with our leis|
We arrive at Alinguinsan, a small community that would have started out as a fishing village. Mary-Rose and I have been here before to catch a bangka for dolphin-watching and snorkeling. This time, we drive through the town and continue a bit down the road until we see the second river, the Bojo. We turn off the highway to drive down a much smaller, narrower road. We have arrived at our destination. A member of our reception committee guides Brother Manning as he moves the vehicle onto the left side of the road and parks in the space parallel to the road which is about the size of the van. We all hop out, glad and thankful to be here. We stretch our legs and aging bodies to get them going again, and find our bags of snorkeling gear and changes of clothes. Down the road we go to a path that will lead us to our next adventure. We are pleasantly surprised as we each bow our heads and receive a home-made lei from one of our new Filipina hostesses. Each lei is totally covered in various patterns of seeds along the strand of fibre that supports colorful flowers and tiny round, brilliantly colored fruits that adorn each unique creation.
|Steve on the walkway|
|Nipa palms and other growth along the river|
We follow our hostess and senior host to a bamboo walkway that takes us past nipa palms (local shingle making-palms) and other lush growth along this tidal river. Purposefully, we have arrived at high-tide time. The water is 9 feet (3 metres) deeper than it was in the night, so a boat can move along the river to the sea and return after an expedition before the water drops too much. The mangrove forest typical of tidal waters crowds the narrow, spring-fed river, and each unique tree type is labelled with the Latin species name. The guides are proud of their being able to tell you both the Latin and local names of the trees, since this is a botanical reserve and our day here will help pay for the continuation of a reforestation project in the adjoining mountain area, while providing wages for locals.
|Ron toting our snorkeling gear in our fancy Canadian pillowcase|
Again we are greeted warmly, but this time by a chorus of four aging ladies and their aged guitar player. After our applause we are again given welcome drinks – buko juice. A young coconut has been trimmed at the top for each of us, a small hole cut into the thin layer of young coconut meat to let a stainless-steel straw enter the refreshing coconut water inside. A hibiscus flower adorns the top of each coconut, bringing out the deep reds of the large blossoms. We are seated and then again welcomed in local tradition by the aged man bringing a smoking smudge pot and manoeuvring it around or by each chair to ward off evil and provide safety. The thick thatched nipa palm roof provides a deep shade as we refresh with coconut water and enjoy conversation with our hosts and hostesses.
|Welcome song and dance|
|Buko (young coconut) welcome drinks|
|L to R: Lea, Armi, Steve, Boatman, Elder and Sister Manning, Ron, Sister and Elder Pace, Mary-Rose|
|Out into the ocean|
|Calm, sunny, with great company and beautiful surroundings|
Our second guide, Rosanna, now took over. She is a botanist of other sorts, a marine biologist who knows the corals and the fish and the dangers. We get instructed first. We paid 250 pesos ($5 US) each extra for this opportunity to snorkel, not always offered on these tours. Brother Manning had come many times before and so they knew him and knew we would be a cooperative group that would respect their responsibility to maintain the area and follow instructions. We floated out the passageway onto the ocean. What a beautiful day! The last time we passed by here out on the ocean a few hundred metres off-shore, we were fighting 4- to 5-foot waves in a small bangka as we traveled back from our dolphin search and some snorkeling and picnic at Hermit’s Cove, a wonderful little, secluded beach just a couple miles away. Today the waves were no bigger than those in a swimming pool. I debated whether to get in the water, as my last snorkeling activity included being in 5- to 6-foot waves off Apo Island where my snorkel did not work well and I had difficulty breathing and panicked a bit. Another story but the guide hauled me a hundred yards back to boat, and I later got in again but in calm water on the other side of the island. So I debated, but my life jacket was the right size and I slipped on my snorkeling mask and fins and followed Mary-Rose, merlady, into the water. The guide reminded me to relax, and I just bobbed to test the life jacket – it worked. I pulled the mask over my face and breathed to make sure things worked okay this time. I put my face in the water and breathed a few breaths, and then relaxed and headed out for about 40 minutes within easy stride of the boat.
|Looking and learning about different corals|
|Photos can't capture the peace and beauty of the underwater world .|
I had some minor cramping in my foot and so I headed back to the boat to make sure I was okay. Our guide took Mary-Rose, Brother Pace and Brother Manning over the corals explaining their different names and roles in the coral ecology. Although they were about 100 metres away, I thought I would swim toward them as I tested my rested legs out again. One of the male guides was swimming that way with a life ring and so I stayed within 20 or so feet from him as I extended my range and met up with the others. They had seen some sea horses and I was interested. At least until I saw one and it looked more like a worm than the seas horse we see in picture books. But with every 5 to 10 metres covered, new and interesting life added variety to the ocean’s beauty. We will miss this when we go back to our land-locked Alberta. In our newly renovated bathroom, our shower curtain is a montage of dolphins and ocean fish in their brilliant colors over an ocean-blue background. I told Mary-Rose she could put on her snorkeling gear in the shower, but I don’t think she is “biting on that bait.”
All good things must come to an end. I had regained quite a bit of confidence in snorkeling again and we had seen more of creation that beautifies the earth. These memories will be locked into our minds – we forgot our underwater camera – but we are glad that Brother Pace and Brother Manning brought their cameras along so we can also put them on to a screen to relive our experiences again. Should I say, it snowed at home today?
|Coco the grasshopper with his creator, Lea|
Although the highlight was past, our adventure continued. With all that energy exerted, it was time to refuel. We returned, got into dry clothes, and were treated to a Filipino buffet of fried fish, fish soup, rice, pork adobo with saba (cooked bananas), and more buko juice, for those who had ordered it. We all found something that was delightfully delicious.
Then came the demonstration of how to make the traditional rice cooker – an 8-side container made by weaving one coconut leaflet into a structure about 4 to 5 inches total height and about 2.5 to 3 inches in width. If you can imagine putting two, four-sided pyramids one on top of the other, that would be the shape. In brief, the mid-rib of the coconut leaf is stripped out, leaving the two long sides of the coconut leaf. The strands of leaf are about 2 cm (3/4 inch) wide and are still joined together at the bottom. These two strands are woven together to form the little, double pointed basket. When the strands are loosened at the top once the weaving is completed, rice can be inserted into the container which can now be lowered into a pot of boiling water. Once the rice is cooked, out comes the rice pre-packaged. You can buy these for 10 pesos each with the rice inside. Small ones sell for 5 pesos each including rice. We received 4 of these and I tried to make one with lots of help so we have 5 of these as decorations in our apartment. Decorating our wall is also a 6-inch long grasshopper, origami-like, made of coconut leaf as well.
Our send-off came from the same singing group as they expressed their thanks in song and wished us on our way. Mary-Rose purchased a number of small and larger handbags woven by local folks, before we bid a fond farewell.
Off to the van, and a small miracle followed – the traffic heading home was much, much lighter than we expected. We quote MacArthur “I shall return.”