The acrid smell of exhaust and unwashed hair mingle with the soupy air to create an aroma unlike any I have ever smelled. It could have been 1,000 tropical days in 1,000 tropical places, but it was here on the island of Bohol in the Philippines. Arriving at Alona Beach with friends via tricycle taxi, I set off alone to find further transportation to my hotel, supposedly 10 minutes out of town. “Take a motorbike,” the woman in the restaurant advised me. I walked down the dusty path to the corner junction, nothing more than two dirt roads intersecting under a cluster of palms where a ragtag bunch of young Filipino men lounged, motorbikes parked at the ready to shuttle ambling travelers like myself. I walked up, and gave my business to the one who jumped up first, in my mind the most industrious. “How much to Linaw Beach Resort?” I asked. “50 pesos ma’am,” the tubby, red eyed fellow replied. “The woman inside told me it should only be 20.” I retorted, even though haggling in developing nations makes me feel an elitist and arrogant American. He looked bashful, knowing he couldn’t win. “30 pesos,” he said, and I agreed. I hopped on his bike and we sped away past dusty schoolchildren and skinny goats. ‘I’m Bong,” he introduced himself. “You know Robocop?” He told me his real name and it was something that sounded like ‘Bongatron.’ He said his mother had a fascination with the movie and named him after a character in it, but I have since googled it and to no avail. Maybe his poor mother was so delirious after he was born she was slightly confused. Or maybe I just misheard him. “You go to see tarsiers?” Bong asked, referring to the tiny primates with massive eyes for which Bohol is renowned. “I take you,” he continued. “Normally 1,000, but for you my new friend, 800.” It took me only a moment to agree, but not before a slight trepidation that I would be abducted and taken into the dense Philippine jungle, my body eaten by the interminable symphony of tropical insects, never to be recovered. The macabre thought passed and we agreed that he would pick me up at noon the following day.
After a leisurely morning munching croissants on the beach, I meandered to the front gate, wondering if my tour guide would indeed really appear. Bong was ready and waiting—apparently he took his job as a guide very seriously. As we buzzed across the island, he pointed out every sight of interest along the way. Clutching his Buddha belly for dear life and slightly wary of the fact that we had no helmets, I rode pillion from Panglao over to the lush island of Bohol to explore the oddly shaped and clustered topography known as the Chocolate Hills. Zooming through the enclaves of civilization, we would our way from the jeepney packed ocean highway up the mountain into dense jungle and countless rice paddies. The midday heat and humidity was extreme; beads of sweat forming from every pore, dripping down my calf in torrents from by bent knees and tickling my toes. In the Lilliputian towns, we pass such aptly named businesses as the No Virus Internet Cafe and Prime Gay Store, fine looking establishments all. Water buffalo plough the muddy terrain, while stooped Filipinos toil in the midday heat, pulling stalks of rice from the murky waters. A gray sky full of unshed tears begins to leak fat raindrops that splash against my sunglasses one by one. I am going to the Chocolate Hills, surreally ensconced in some kind of live action jungle version of Candyland.
Just when the feeling verges on otherworldly, and overcrowded jeepney honks from behind, passing us. “Pray without ceasing,” a sticker on the back window instructs—probably a fabulous idea considering the way they drive around here! The Philippines is a very religious nation, with prayers said on the ferries before sailing and by airline pilots before flying. During lunch, Bong tells me how dangerous Manila is, a friend of his having been kidnapped for a trifling 30,000 pesos ransom. “Did her family get her back?” I asked over our traditional Filipino fare—glass coke bottles jutting colorful straws while flies flit around unidentifiable chunks of meat. “The big man did,” Bong says, glancing heavenward. Amen. My ponderings over Philippine matters of faith are shattered as Bong makes a sharp turn to the right. “The Chocolate Hills,” he proclaims with a grandiose sweep of his hand, as though he is Moses showing the Israelites their first glimpse of the promised land. I ooh and ahh in what seems the appropriate caliber of deferential reverence, because at first I see nothing of interest, just more jungle. But as the motorbike chugs higher up to a plateau affording a view of the surrounding area, I am impressed in earnest. Fantastic conical hills jut up sporadically across a wide swathe of Bohol’s highlands, and yes—with some imagination and perhaps a slight cock of the head and squint of the eye—the hills slightly resemble gargantuan Hershey’s Kisses. I obligatorily traipse to the top of the tourist lookout point, snap a few pictures, then continue back down to Bong so he can take me to the tarsier sanctuary—Bohol’s other prime tourist attraction. The sky opens up in earnest, and Bong inquires to see if I am getting too doused, if I want to stop. “I’m ok if you’re ok!” He laughs, revs the engine and we continue zooming along the slippery mountain road.