Chocolate Cravings and Tiny Tarsiers

Do you remember those “dirt cups”  that parents would sometimes bring into school  when we were little?  They were these snack-size, plastic dixie cups filled with pulverized oreo crumbs and brightly colored gummy worms that you could dig for with a tiny spoon or, if you were like me, with your fingers. I imagine for parents, these were great because you didn’t have to worry about your kid eating real dirt and ingesting an overdose of  dangerous bacteria. For me though, and certainly many other kids, these treats were great because you got to play with chocolate.

Like many self-respecting, bakaholic, young women,  I have a deep love for chocolate. I find few things as satisfying as a square of 70% cocao confectionery goodness. In my old apartment, three hungry college girls and anywhere from two to five staggeringly ravenous boys from upstairs, few things disappeared as quickly as a plate of homemade brownies, chocolate chip cookies or delectable vegan chocolate cake. Thus, when I heard that there were “Chocolate Hills” on the island of Bohol in the Philippines, my chocolate craving kicked in and  I immediately felt compelled to visit them. Despite its obvious implausibility, I couldn’t help but imagine umpteen, towering mounds of chocolate dirt stretched across the horizon as far as the eye could see…

The Island of Bohol

Intrigued by the tantalizing appeal of these Chocolate Hills and Bohol’s other famous attractions (beautiful beaches and the tiny tarsier monkeys), several friends and I quickly decided to plan a last-minute excursion to Bohol for the first and only long weekend of the semester. Miraculously, our collective planning efforts successfully yielded two booked flights through the nearby city of Cebu, a chart of ferry timings to Bohol,  two hotels, and several tiny suitcases filled with sufficient bathing suits, sunscreen, cosmetics and entertainment for our four day adventure.

We planned to embark on our escapade immediately after school on Friday. It would seem, however, that nature was not on our side. Due to a massive typhoon in northern Luzon, our flight from Manila was delayed until 9 pm that night. By the time we reached our hotel in Cebu, it was midnight and we had to gingerly tiptoe into our spacious room. After a mollifying few moments of accidentally breaking a cot, watching my friend attempt to kill several pesky flies and a solid 6 hours of sleep, our crew ambled to an early breakfast before rushing to the port for our 8am ferry.

Cebu is a large port. There are actually several docks from which you can catch passenger ferries to the surrounding islands, including  the city of Tagbilaran- our destination on Bohol. On top of that, there are several companies that make multiple runs a day between these two hubs. Hence, the four of us assumed that we would have no problems hopping on an early boat. Of course, in the back of our minds, we all knew that it was a holiday weekend and realized that this meant many people would be traveling. Nonetheless, we eagerly searched for tickets to Tagbilaran on the early ferry and were cruelly disappointed to find that none were available until 4:30 pm. No sunny day at the beach… but instead a day to explore Cebu.

Kelley and Cara with an old canon at the Fort

Tentatively, we head to Fort San Pedro: Cebu’s old Spanish Fort bearing some resemblance to Fort Santiago in Manila. We were hesitant when we first arrived, but after wandering through the large wooden doors into the sunny center courtyard, we realized we’d found a beautiful place to pass the morning. Perched atop old stone walls, we sprawled and contemplated the scene around us. Beyond the fortifications, a group of little Filipino children danced, limbs flailing, to the latest Black Eyed Peas and LMFAO hits. In the center of the courtyard, a young bunch of Korean tourists jumping in sync to pose for dynamic pictures. Too tired to engage in such enthusiastic acts at 8 am, the four of us leisurely lounged on the grass in the upper courtyard  and passed the time slumbering next to the cilantro plants and leafy green trees.

baby tarsier; about the length of a thumb

Hours later, rejuvenated from our rest and a stint at Starbucks in one of Cebu’s malls, we journeyed back to the port. After a bumpy couple of hours on our Super Cat Ferry, we reached our destination intact. A mere thirty minutes later, we arrived at our charming resort on Panglao Island: home to the lovely Alona beach and a number of quiet resorts along the ocean shore. Once we’d settled into our nipu hut for four, Kelley and I were so enthralled by our beautiful, well-lit pool that we immediately threw on our swim suits and took a pleasant night dive before heading to dinner on Alona beach a few kilometers away.

We spent the entire next day on the beautiful beach at the Bohol Beach club. The hours passed languidly as we lay basking in the sun, swimming in the warm sea, and sipping on fresh boku juice.  With the quiet surf in the foreground of our thoughts, it was easy to forget all the stresses of the”real world” and, instead, focus on the most pressing concerns of the day: our novels and conversations about ambitions, travels, adventures and the following day.

After some deliberation, we devoted the next day to fitting in as many tourist attractions as possible.  I woke up early to attempt arranging a car to see the sights. Hours later, we managed to find a vehicle and commence our fun-filled day. Our first stop was the Tarsier Monkey Reserve. Imagine the smallest monkey that you’ve ever seen and then a creature about a fourth the size of that. Divide that monkey in half and you probably have a mammal about the size of a tarsier. Tarsiers grow to be no larger than the size of a fist. Our knowledgeable guide and a welcome video informed us of many fun facts during our visit. One of the least endearing was the tendency male tarsiers have to eat babies that they don’t recognize.  I suppose, in their defense, even tiny mammals must propagate their genes with the same voraciousness as lions. During our walk around the compound, we were lucky enough to spot 4 tarsiers: 3 adults and one baby- who was only about the length of my thumb (see photo). We learned that, despite their miniature stature, adult tarsiers require a hectare (1000 sq. meters) of territory in the wild and consequently the reserve only has ten.  Given this small number, and the fact that tarsiers are nocturnal, we were fortunate  to see so many of them.  Thankfully, the park has an excellent tracking system and knows were its residents are at all times to ensure minimal tourist disruption. Aside from the fact that tarsiers constantly look petrified because their disproportionately bulging eyes, tarsiers in captivity have been known to commit suicide when disturbed during the day- so the Tarsier Foundation’s system helps prevent this type of distress while still allowing tourist to enjoy gazing upon these adorable, alien-like creatures.  On the other hand, it did mean that our excursion through the compound lasted a mere 20 minutes and  we were quickly on our way to the next site.

Our next stop was a natural pool overlooking the rice terraces and lush green farms of Bohol. This stop was essentially a bust. When we arrived at the “natural pool” we discovered only threatening monkeys on the road and a small, concrete swimming area brimming with rambunctious, splashing youths. They were on a field trip from a nearby orphanage enjoying their National Heroes Day excursion. Though they looked like they were having a grand time bouncing about and partying to some upbeat electric tunes, we declined their offers to dance and moved on to our next stop: the Chocolate Hills.

The chocolate hills

The Chocolate Hills are, unfortunately, not made of chocolate. Surprising, I know, since they seem so deceptively artificial. Driving along the curvy roads up to the viewing site, it is almost impossible to believe that they are 100% natural- hills are only that conical in infantile artwork. Their chocolatey brown color strongly suggests these mounds were arbitrarily plopped down across the landscape to conform to surface contours like giant, melting, moldy Hershey kisses. A sign atop one of the hills assures doubter, like myself, that these oddities are natural- caused by ancient coral deposits carving out the land when Bohol was still hundreds of feet under the sea. Despite my juvenile disappointment, I found something impressive about these protuberant piles of dirt and rock.  They may not be made out of chocolate, but their unique peculiarity is noteworthy and the view from atop the tallest “peak” is beautiful.  Satisfied with our walk and the lovely view, we head back down to the car park and I even managed to get my chocolate fix by  purchasing some delicious, chocolate buffalo milk from a vendor outside the tourist center.

Reflecting on our trip in the car on the way back to Panglao Island, realizing that we had to leave the following day, I decided that our sojourn to Bohol had been successful and a good fix for my chocolate craving. Our plans may have been slightly modified, our excursions short and sweet, and the Chocolate Hills may not have offered up a new opportunity to play with chocolate dirt, but the trip as a whole satisfied my true yearning- the comfort and comradery that that sitting down with a house full of friends over a plate of brownies can bring.  The hills may gave been quirky, memorable and a little awe-inspiring, but the highlight of the trip, for me, was definitely realizing that- both on our trip and upon our return to our flat in Manila- I am finally beginning to feel at home in my new surroundings.

Originally published: September 27, 2011

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