“Myra, these are not chocolate hills,” says Myra, our guide to the island of Bohol, quoting one of her Italian clients. “These are giant breasts.” On the top of one of the thousand hills, it seems as if only a sex-mad man could have made that remark.
The Chocolate Hills, so named by a nameless tourist, are covered in a thin green coat of scrub vegetation. They look like hills, the way a child would draw them, a series of stolid sinusoidal curves marching forward into a socialist utopia.
“In the summer when the green cover dries up, they look brown,” says Myra. “The legend says that there was once a giant who fell in love with an island girl. Every day, he would hide and watch her bathe. One day, she was going to get married and he knew he would lose her forever so he reached out to grab her. She died of fright. And the giant wept all night, huge tears that turned into the hills.”
A woman who could not see a giant when she bathed? I mean, what kind of giant could hide successfully and watch a woman bathe? A wee giant? And then a giant who wept hills? Truly, the Republic of the Philippines is another country.
Mythology, then geology
“The geological reason is that when the area was under water millions of years ago, those ridges of mountain caused certain tide formations. Those brought the material and deposited it there. The currents caused by the ridges turned it into hills.”
At the foot of the hills, we stop to shop. Our little group, brought to the Philippines by the kind courtesy of Wow Philippines, the tourist authority, is addicted to the retail experience.
Six shops at the bottom of a hill?
Let it not be said that we left those unexplored.
I wander into one and discover a small stuffed toy attached to a fake branch. It has huge eyes and a red t-shirt. “That’s the tarsier,” says Myra. “It’s the world’s smallest primate.”
Later, we go and see some real live tarsiers. This is the only animal that is cuter than its stuffed-toy avatar, and this despite the fact that it looks like it was made of spare parts from various other animals. It’s a nocturnal primate so it has huge eyes, each larger than its brain. It is a fistful of ape, which weighs maybe 140 grams, and most of this seems to be tail.
This is a monster appendage, easily five times the length of the tarsier from head to bum, and helps it get about. I believe that when the tarsier is studied it will be discovered that the rest of the body is designed only to take that tail places.
But it was not named for its tail. It was named for its fingers, the tarsal bones of which are extraordinarily long. At the sanctuary, where we meet the real tarsiers, we are offered grasshopper kebabs with which to feed them. Thin fingers unprise themselves from the branch that my tarsier is holding and slowly take the stick. A few leisurely crunches and the tarsier returns to immobility.
This is the oddest thing about the tarsier in a series of odd things. It is a primate that seems to have decided that it would rather achieve satori through an intense calm contemplation of the universe. It does not rollick or frolic. It does not hop about and scratch under the armpits. It does not move much. It takes hold of a likely branch and stays there. It opens its eyes. A Japanese tourist looms large. It is still. An Indian tourist takes a photograph. It closes its eyes. It is tired of grasshopper kebabs and refuses any more. It opens its eyes.
The excitement is far too much for anyone in our group to handle. We retreat to the shop and someone buys eight cases made of shell.
Bohol, the last stand of the tarsier, is not where we began.
We began in Manila with a mall or two. Smart Filipinos. They know what we’re about. If Indians like to go shopping, let’s show them the shops. After the mall visits, we fly to Puerto Princessa, a town so tiny that it would fit into Gurgaon and no one would notice. It is comfortable and you can walk almost anywhere you want to go. We drive off to Honda Bay, which is why we are here. This is a beautiful bay with many islands, surfacing at irregular intervals, each one looking a bit like a Crusoe experience.
In the year Sushmita Sen earned her title, Miss Philippines was asked: “So how many islands does your country have?”
She is said to have answered: “At high tide or low tide?”
The correct answer as we all know is 1,707.
We’ve been to two. We are now going to double our score.
There’s Starfish Island and Snake Island and this island and that island. The government protects this one, that one is private and so on. “Can one buy an island?” someone asks. “If there were one on sale, there isn’t, but if there were one, it would cost about eighty million pesos.”
The good thing about the Philippines is that you don’t have to bother calculating. The rupee and the peso are sort of equivalent.
We snorkel off Snake Island. The water is clear despite many young Japanese and Korean kids kicking up storms of sand. We swim at Starfish Island where the starfish look like they have been on steroids. And then we go down an underground river, into a deep space filled with glints and rock. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this river, and it feels like something out of a quest for the gold of the dwarfs.
Time to return to Manila to see Intramuros, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s practically the only patch of the city that has any old stuff left.
“We are the Warsaw of Asia,” says Lynn Yerba, our guide. “In World War II, the Japanese bombed us when they conquered us. Then we were bombed by the Americans when they liberated us. Nothing was left standing, except the Church of San Agustin.”
This is a magnificent church, built between 1587 and 1606. It stands comparison to the churches of Old Goa, certainly. And it has a magnificent ceiling. You look up and you see carved pediments and pilasters and other folderols of Baroque architecture. They look magnificent but they are even more magnificent when you realise that they are painted. It’s trompe l’oeil and my goodness, it certainly trompes your oeil.
Besides it has survived any number of earthquakes, bombs and even a fire that the faithful extinguished by using their urine. That kind of place. Mabuhay.
Jerry is a Mumbai-based writer who loves to travel