For the uninitiated, which I readily admit would have included myself until recently, Bohol is an island Province in the Visayas region of the Philippines. It has a population approaching 1.5m and is situated east of Cebu where I have been based, south of Leyte and is the 10th biggest island in the Philippines, a nation of islands.
With a population of around 100 million the Philippines is the 12th biggest nation on the planet by population and both one of the most dynamic and impoverished nations in South East Asia. With another 10 million Filipinos living and working overseas many families are dependent on overseas income.
As in many Asian nations there is a vast range between the haves and the have nots. Although the Philippines has an excellent reputation for Educational standards and in particular Medical training, the wealthy will often send their children overseas to be educated whilst many poorer families rely on members of their family to work overseas and to remit funds home.
For many young women the chance of an overseas position and the possible bonus of a foreign husband would be a dream come true. There are large Filipino Communities in most nations of the world from Canada to Iceland and surely the Gulf States and Hong Kong would come to a shuddering halt if most households could not rely upon a Filipino Maid and/or Nanny.
However in some households the position is hardly a step above indentured labour with unregulated working conditions, poor pay and little time off despite working a 12 – 15 hour day – and if you do get a day a week off.
Not unsurprisingly many Filipinas find their dream overseas position can end in tears – or worse as this story will testify.
But despite the challenges of periodic typhoons and extensive poverty Filipinos are perhaps the friendliest and most optimistic people on the planet and indeed a few days on Bohol has provided me with one of the most enjoyable short breaks I have had anywhere in recent years.
But I am getting ahead of myself – why was I in the Philippines in the first place?
It was purely and simply a consequence of a dental accident that occurred in Canada this summer. After wobbling for many years and as predicted by my tennis loving Thai dentist, one of my front teeth did indeed fall out in late August when I was in The Gulf Islands off the BC Canadian coast.
On returning to Vancouver I called several dentists and spoke to a combination of both dentists and their receptionists who all gave me conflicting opinions on what was needed subject of course to their inspection and availability. In short I was getting nowhere fast so emailed my friend Gaston in Cebu (the Philippines) who I knew to be a competent dentist as he had often referred to his former students now working in North America.
He made some suggestions and I went to see a local dentist in Vancouver who had been recommended to me by a friend armed with both questions and suggestions from Gaston.
Now given that my plans were to travel from Vancouver to my home in Thailand and I was already tempted to stop in the Philippines for a break and on learning that Gaston had kindly said
‘If you are not comfortable with the input you get in Canada or they do not have the time you can always come to Cebu if you are planning a Filipino holiday and I will look after you. There are some unscrupulous dentists here who pad the fees they charge foreigners who come here for dental treatment but you have been generous with your travel advice over the years and I will sort you out and just charge for the materials’
And when the Vancouver dentist looked at my mouth he just said
‘This is not a simple fix as there is other work required which can influence which way we go – bridge, implant or plate, so if it was me I would head to the Philippines where you will have more time and it will be a lot cheaper.’
So with two dentists, thousands of miles apart, preaching the same message the solution was obvious and explains why in early November after watching 50 films in 15 days at the Vancouver International Film Festival (six in a single day twice without falling asleep!) I found myself walking into Gaston’s dental clinic near the very centre of Cebu, widely considered to be the ‘Second City’ of the Philippines.
Now the good news was I certainly fell on my feet when opting to head for Cebu because Gaston and his wife Eloise were charming and generous hosts even though this was the first time I had seen them since we met at a wedding on Bantayan Island (see here) several years earlier.
I discovered that Gaston was a Dentist of some renown and in fact I often tease Gaston that he must be head of the most famous Dental Dynasty in the Philippines. As well as being a teaching Professor of Dentistry at the University of Cebu Medical School (the second biggest in a nation renowned for excellent medical training) his wife Eloise as also a dentist and thus his Dental Partner as well as his life partner! They met when she was one of his students but in a strongly Catholic country Gaston was quick to stress there was no impropriety involved!
Eloise’s s father was also a dentist as was one of her sisters in Vancouver BC.
They are clearly an international family as Eloise has two more sisters in Toronto and Gaston also has a brother who is an anaesthesiologist in Indiana. There is yet another dentist in the family as one of Gaston’s brothers is a dentist in Davao!
The future is also safeguarded for this multi talented medical family as their eldest son Anton is in Medical school aspiring to be a Paediatrician and Bea, their middle child and elder daughter is in Dentistry school training to be the 3rd generation dentist on her mother’s side.
We will revisit Gaston’s reputation amongst his former students later in this narrative (!) but the bottom line is I could not have had more attentive treatment.
The Bad News was we were not talking just about how to replace a missing front tooth as I ended up having 7 appointments to include a front bridge replacing the gap, another 4 tooth bridge, a root canal, a filling and two implants that will require a return visit after 3 – 9 months.
Oh Yes and a dental bill that should take care of at least 25% if the Philippines National Debt but I did receive free flossing lessons!
So as a consequence of this I did not do much exploring of the Visayas as I had hoped and spent most of my time in Cebu except for a weekend on the nearby island of Mactan (the Costabella Beach Resort has the biggest beds I have ever seen in my life – the equivalent of two Queen sized beds side by side
As I had more time on my hands than I expected there were time for some pleasant dinners and cinema visits with Gaston and Eloise and their friends and family and I also met a variety of locals, many but not all of whom, coincidentally appeared to be young and female.
When I found that I had the luxury of a six, and possibly even a seven day gap between appointments, I realised that I had the opportunity to travel further from Cebu so I asked Gaston where he would go and he mentioned southern Cebu, the island of Siquijor (which indeed I got to a year later and which provides the second chapter of this tale – see here) and Panglao, the resort area at the southern end of the neighbouring island of Bohol.
Whilst in Cebu I had met Jen, a young and bright university student of 28 who had been to Bohol so I invited her to join me as a fixer, assistant and guide as I headed off into the unknown – well not exactly the unknown as Gaston had recommended the luxury South Palms Resort owned by a patient/client of his!
On our way to the Ferry Terminal we made a brief stop at a Cebu Pacific (local airline) Sales office as it turned out Jen had purchased a ticket to visit an Aunt north of Manila in a ‘Promo’ (discounted Seat Sale) 9 months previously and it overlapped with our trip to Bohol.
I said there was no problem in her coming back early to make her trip as planned and not let her Aunt down when she could not get the flight reassigned but she insisted she would wait until another Seat Sale came along – ‘I am a big girl and capable of making my own decisions. Enough. Lets go.’
Anyone who knows anything about the Philippines knows that this is a maritime nation (indeed it is almost impossible to board a cruise liner anywhere in the world without discovering good percentage of the crew are Filipinos) but the country also appears to have a number of domestic shipping accidents most years, often attributed to overloading. However the downtown Cebu Terminal was spacious, our baggage was x rayed, there was plenty of waiting room for the large number of people coming and going and our Ocean Jet Fastcraft was large and comfortable enough with adequate life vests et al. My only complaint was the air conditioning was very cold!
Within a fairly quick two hours (I read and Jen slept) we were at Tagbilaran and my trusty Guide had both co-opted my Australian Bush Hat (in truth it looked better on her) and arranged a transfer to our Resort in Panglau – the island extending to the south of Bohol and only separated from the main island by a very narrow strait.
Gaston had made a good recommendation – the resort was comfortable and spacious with a couple of swimming pools. The one we chose to use was at one end of the resort and our rooms at the other but not withstanding the long walk all was fine. The beautiful white sand beach may not have been up to Boracay standards but in truth few beaches are and it was nicely landscaped with a myriad of Palm trees, hammocks and massage platforms. Indeed not a bad place to do nothing and chill out and that’s exactly what we did the following day, taking shelter when the occasional tropical shower came along.
On our second full day we took the Jeepny styled hotel shuttle into Panglao’s main town Alona Beach, which was just a few miles away.
My only comment is if you are planning to visit Panglao and tempted to visit don’t bother although it is the location where a concentration of competitively found accommodation is found as well as a plentiful supply of restaurants, bars, souvenir and beachwear shops. The harbour beach is dirty with so many boats and it is not really suitable for swimming.
However there were a number of travel agencies which is why we had come. Jen was keen to take me on a sightseeing excursion of Bohol without paying the inflated charges involved if we rented a private car from our hotel.
Jen booked a tour for the following day in a minibus for the princely sum of 300 pesos per person (about £5 $8) which did not include admissions but did include lunch on a floating (river) restaurant.
What was the catch I wondered but Jen assured me there was none other than it did not include any admissions and we were visiting 8 (!) attractions and with that sorted we waited for the hotel shuttle and went back to South Palms.
So the next day October 31 started with a pleasant surprise as either Jen had omitted to mention, or more likely I had not realised, our tour included pick up from our hotel and by 9am we were crossing the strait back to Bohol and heading north when we stopped for a photoshoot in a densely forested area of tall trees before continuing north to Bohol’s most famous attraction, The Chocolate Hills. These are a group of over a thousand rounded grassy hills, mostly between 30 and 50 metres tall, which turn brown in the dry season and after paying the nominal admission charge to access the most popular viewpoint we walked up to a viewing platform overlooking a sea of small hills in every direction.
Our small group of 8 (two other Filipino groups of 3 each) were now off and running and our next stop was the Butterfly Conservation Centre where they had set up some quite amusing trick photography shots giving all visitors the opportunity to ‘grow’ butterfly wings and after admiring all the butterflies we continued to the Tarsier Sanctuary in the Bohol Eco Park. I don’t think I had ever seen a Tarsier, one of the world’s smallest primates, before but I soon discovered a Tarsier is a cross between a large Rat and a small Koala Bear and we saw several sleeping peacefully on branches of trees in the Sanctuary.
Our next stop was near two parallel bamboo bridges across the Loboc River which was a fun diversion crossing from one side to another (memories of Nepal but no Yaks to push you off!) before we continued to our Floating Restaurant and Lunchtime cruise along the Loboc River.
Our boat was really a large pontoon with restaurant area on the deck and was ‘pushed’ along the river by a motor launch. We started and finished at the town of Loboc facing the historic church which was quite literally cleaved in two by the 2013 earthquake and a long ways from being repaired.
As we ate our lunch we travelled upstream to the Busay Falls. Lunch was a pretty bland buffet (if you are a Vegetarian) but no one could complain about the variety of activities and attractions we had visited, and still less when the cost which was just a few dollars!
We made a stop to hear a local choir sing on the river bank and watch school kids dancing in unison to the music with their feet nimbly darting in and out between two long planks of wood being clapped together every second. It was one of the most outstanding examples of dexterity that I have ever seen and I was so admiring of the kid’s skills that I made sure I quickly went down to the gangplank to make a donation to the school before we pushed away.
After the best part of 90 minutes on the river we were on our way again, this time to the Bohol Python and Wildlife Centre which was quite interesting with a variety of creatures including a Civit (wildcat) and a giant python about 7 metres long! There were also a variety of other snakes that handlers would allow to interact with some visitors – I was happy to watch!
Our penultimate stop was to visit the most important Religious building on Bohol, the Baclayon Church dating from 1596, which is designated as a National Historic Landmark but sadly was also heavily damaged in the 2013 earthquake. The church is built of coral stone and it was interesting to explore both the interior and exterior before continuing to our final stop which was the Blood Compact Monument facing the sea on the outskirts of Tagbilaran. This commemorates the agreement that Sikatuna, a local Filipino Lord, made with the Spanish explorer Miguel Lopez de Legazpiin in 1565.
Then all that remained was to drop one of the Filipino families in Tagbilaran so they could fly to Manila in the morning, cross the bridge and (eventually!) be dropped off at our hotel to watch a lovely sunset on the beach.
I have been travelling since I was 18 and made a successful career as a Tour Operator for over 31 years (a profession to which I have now returned to for a second time!) and I don’t think I have ever spent a day undertaking such a comprehensive programme and with such a variety of visits and attractions, each in their own way quite interesting so thank you Gaston for recommending Bohol and thank you Jen for organising the day.
The following day we spent relaxing at the resort and I learnt more about my interesting companion – who had already sealed her place in the Bromfield Lexicon of Memories with a totally unexpected question that she had asked me out of the blue on the day we had met!
Jen was born on the island of Leyte and early in her 20s had secured employment as a domestic help in Dubai. I had visited Dubai several times for family vacations. I asked her what she thought of the stunning architecture, the innovative 6 star Burj Al Arab Hotel at Jumeirah Beach, the 160 storey Burj Khalifa which is by some distance the world’s tallest building, the Dubai Creek area, Wild Wadi Water Park and the spectacular Malls.
Jen laughed and said ‘I never saw any of that’
‘Well how long were you there?’ I asked
’18 months but the family I worked for did not let me out or give me any time off’
It turned out the Saudi family her agency had placed her with made her work every single day of the 18 months she was in Dubai, her average day was up at 5am to prepare breakfast and going to bed around midnight after clearing up the kitchen but on three occasions she was allowed out to visit the supermarket with her employers wife!
I could not believe that any responsible human being would employ someone in a foreign country and not give them the opportunity to explore and learn about the country they were visiting. I found this particularly galling when my entire working career has been devoted to encouraging young people to travel and expose themselves to and learn about new cultures.
Jen just laughed and said ‘It was an experience and I will make sure I travel in the future’
It turned out her stay in Dubai had been even worse because her family were lax in paying her so Jen was unable to send money home to her family and when Jen complained her employer’s wife accused her of flirting with her husband and physically attacked Jen.
As the family had kept her passport Jen could not ‘escape’ and despite their hefty fees many Filipino agencies are notorious for not monitoring the welfare of their clients or ensuring they are paid. However she was able to get a message to her family in the Philippines who phoned another family member working in Dubai who contacted the police who came to visit the family where Jen was working and her passport was returned and she was able to fly back to the Philippines shy of her last 6 months salary of $300 a month.
In truth she could have probably secured a position in the Philippines on a higher salary but life in the Philippines is tough for girls from low income families and there is not much available in the way of job opportunities which explains why it is pretty much the dream of so many young Filipinas to ‘travel and work overseas’ or to marry a foreigner who can open the door to a new life (Remember my earlier article ‘The Dating Game here)
Since returning to the Philippines Jen had enrolled at University and was in her penultimate year prior to having to do years on the job practical experience before graduating. Thereafter it was her dream to work in maybe Singapore or in particular New Zealand but in the interim life was a struggle with college fees, rent ($50 a month) making demands on her limited resources.
Jen was a positive young woman determined to make the best of her life with beautiful hair and an attractive figure. And like many young girls and women in the Philippines she possessed a full set of braces to correct her teeth. And after 5 minutes I never noticed them again!
Dental care is clearly very important to Filipinos and I have seen far more people wearing braces in the Philippines than anywhere else in the world. And in fact when Jen needed an adjustment to her braces she mentioned to her dentist that I had come to Cebu do have implant work with Gaston Batillier her dentist immediately commented ‘Oh he was one of my teachers, tall, good looking and smells good’
I have continually reminded Gaston that whatever the quality of his dental work his reputation as the best smelling dentist in Cebu appeared secure!
Jen’s mother had made her the legal guardian of her step brother who was living with her in Cebu so that he could get a better education in the city so that was another set of responsibilities on her shoulders.
No one makes any claim that life is easy in the Philippines, especially if one is a member of the have nots. Earlier in my stay I had taken two young Filipina cousins for dinner and they were telling me their story. Their mothers were sisters who had 13 kids between them and one was working in Malaysia and renting out her home for income and 11 of the 13 kids were in Cebu, one was working in Hong Kong and the last in the Middle East.
Johanna 23 and her cousin 19 were both working in Call Centres and were articulate and as quick as whip. I was showing them photos of my home and the mountains in Switzerland on my ipad and explaining how glaciers were slow moving rivers of ice and they quickly commented ‘so if someone fell into a crevasse it could be decades before their body emerges?’
I had no doubt if they were in a 6th Form College in the UK they would be heading for a top university but as it was they were fairly well paid earning about 19,000 ($500) and 24,000 Pesos ($700) a month.
They worked from 10pm to 8am and then went home to sleep and it was their responsibility to purchase and cook for 12 every night before they went to work – they had a rosta of meat dishes three times a week, fish twice and vegetables twice – all with rice of course and had were very proud about the fact they had reduced the cost of the evening meal by about 50% under their stewardship.
And to cap it all they had to wash up as well as cook and prepare dinner for 12! I told them they were perpetuating the male dominated and often abusive culture that many Filipino women complain about if they did not insist their lazy brothers contributed to the family chores.
It also struck me that if these two young cousins were given the means to start up their own Call Centre and source some overseas clients they could do very well!
And as for Jen, she was supporting herself by buying and selling sim cards, repairing computers and mobile phones for friends, reselling clothes on the internet and working in a print shop prior to evening classes and I was a great admirer of her enterprise.
So after a final day relaxing a nice final dinner in a neighbouring hotel we returned to Cebu where I was due to have the bridge fitted that had been made whilst I was in Bohol and where Jen, now well in her stride, took me on an interesting days sightseeing in Cebu City – a city I had visited several times before without getting too far from my hotel area.
I still felt bad that Jen had foregone her visit to Luzon to stay with her Aunt and I told her I wanted to buy her a return ticket so she could still see her Aunt, albeit a week later. Jen refused insisting that was too expensive as she had only planned to go when it was a seat sale fare – the normal fare was maybe $120 return.
After about 15 minutes of increasingly heated ‘discussion’ Jen finally relented and allowed me to get her the ticket. So much for the often misquoted generalisation that Asian women are only after money. That is not my experience and is probably a reflection of the poor choice of the individuals perpetuating this myth!
I spent the weeks following my fascinating day trip around Bohol criss crossing between Asia and Europe.
A week later I was back in the UK for the Kendal Mountain Film Festival and the ATP Tennis Championships at the O2 and then on to Ghent in Brussels for the Davis Cup Final.
A month later I was back in Asia in Thailand, another South East Asian country which I now think of as being as much ‘home’ as anywhere.
And then back to Switzerland for Christmas and New Year before returning to Thailand in January and a pleasant surprise.
It turned out Jen’s cousin was engaged to a French man and living in Thailand and only about 2 kilometers from my home in Pratumnak and her cousin had generously invited Jen to visit.
So the roles were reversed and I was the guide spending a very pleasant week showing Jen and her cousin Joanna around the Pattaya area (for more details of Pattaya see here ).
What goes around comes around indeed!
And as for Bohol I well recommend anyone visiting the southern Philippines to include this interesting island in their itinerary.
And as for Jen she is now in her final year at university.
And as for me – a year later I was back in Cebu for more dental work on my implants.
But this time towards the end of a year most of us would like to forget as it appeared the lunatics were taking control of the Asylum with electorates in Britain voting to leave the organisation that had secured the longest period of peace in Europe since history has been recorded and in the USA electing President who quite clearly was not fit for purpose.
And as we had kept in touch regularly throughout the year it was not by chance that I visited another island with Jen but this time she was to see a less congenial side of my personality.
So if you would like to read on and learn about the fun, games and tears that followed just click here to read about ‘Doom and Gloom on Siquijor.’
© Michael Bromfield