Thursday, May 14, 2009


It is not very often that one gets out of the city to find and experience the pristine and the primeval. Last week, I was in Maribojoc in the island province of Bohol to enjoy not just the fiesta and behold its ancient landmarks but to also experience its “secret places,” the blue and green quiet spaces that glide in and out of one’s dreams.

While Bohol now figures big on the tourism map because of the beaches of Panglao, the Chocolate Hills and the cultural sites, it has other little-known spots that could draw a different breed of visitors, explorers who are drawn to paths less traveled. Like myself. Maribojoc has such special places.

The town is only a 30-minute drive from Tagbilaran City, but it still holds one of the country’s last frontiers. I am referring to its vast mangrove areas that are still thick with nipa palm and different species of trees. (More on these later.)

I must mention that I arrived a few hours before the Pacquiao-Hatton boxing match which was over after only two rounds. The town’s gym was packed with people for the free live show. (My photo of the jubilating crowd came out in the Philippine Daily Inquirer the next day, and it thrilled the Maribojocanons.) But you know what? The bout came live via Indonesia (with anchors speaking in Bahasa). This was because, this time, only theaters and malls in Bohol could have cable TV pay-per-view. Obviously, so people would pay to watch.

Maribojoc couldn’t get it live for its poor constituents even if it would pay the cable company like what it did for the past bouts. So where would the hoi-polloi go? Mayor Leoncio “Jun” Evasco Jr. found a way, a “guerrilla” way.

This is the Jun Evasco I had met many years ago (but I do not remember where or how). He was a Catholic priest. He later became a ranking member of the communist New People’s Army. He was arrested and so heavily tortured by the military he wished they would finish him off. Four comrades who were arrested with him were summarily executed, leaving him the only survivor. He was in prison for several years and was released during the Aquino presidency. He worked in government for many years, his last job being as chief of staff of the unconventional mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte.

The details of Evasco’s life story deserves a separate telling some other time.

Now back in the town of his birth, Evasco, 65, married, with children and grandchildren, is bringing his life experiences as former priest, communist rebel, NGO worker and public servant to his elective post. Coming from a prominent family of Maribojoc, the homecoming Evasco won as mayor by a landslide in 2007.

Maribojoc has a population of only 18,000. Many are into farming and fishing. It has its share of legends and history, among them the bell at the bottom of the river, the centuries-old Punta Cruz watchtower by the sea, and beside it, the wooden cross planted by Italian navigator Pigafetta. This weekend, national historical markers will be installed on the watchtower and the church of Maribojoc. The film “Lagablab sa Maribojoc” starring the late Fernando Poe Jr. was filmed here.

The spiritual life of Maribojocanons deeply connects to the limestone church with ornately painted ceilings, which is dedicated to St. Vincent Ferrer who is nicknamed “Enting.” During feasts, people dance the Enting-Enting to seek the intercession of the Spanish Dominican saint who was a great missionary in his time. Of course, I joined in the revelry inside the church, and earlier, the fluvial procession of fishing boats out in the open sea and got my pants all wet.

But to go deeper into the heart of this place, one must meet the hardy folk who are working hard to move the town into the future while preserving its natural heritage. Many an application for quarrying, mining and fishpond permit has the mayor rejected if they looked like threats to the environment.

And as to the blue and green spaces I mentioned earlier, Maribojoc still has some of the biggest mangrove areas in this country. Fantastic is an understatement. Lining the banks of the Abatan River (which runs through four towns) are thick rows of nipa palms and mangrove trees that sustain a variety of wildlife. Multi-awarded poet Marjorie Evasco (a cousin of the mayor’s) wrote of this habitat as “a temple of dark green silence.”

We rafted on the Abatan River in the afternoon with only the sound of birds and insects to accompany us. At some point, we transferred from the raft to a tiny banca (boat) and paddled quietly into the smaller inlets under a bower of leaves. I thought of the river scenes in Francis Ford Coppola’s film and Joseph Conrad’s novel. For me, this was the next best thing to sailing on the Amazon, minus the anaconda.

Cooper Resabal Jr., a journalist who was based abroad for several years, is back in his hometown to help jumpstart the ecotourism program. This kind of tourism is not for everyone, he said. No dining cruises here like in Loboc. Just the green silence for rafters, kayakers, wildlife watchers, fishers, mystics.

I visited another mangrove area thick with 21 species of trees and with a half-kilometer board walk that leads to an islet planted to coconuts and with a good view of the sea. This serves as camping site. The sanctuary is managed by the San Vicente Mangrove Association. I also visited a farmers’ group that practices organic farming.

I stayed in a bed-and-breakfast place with a breathtaking view of the mountain in the distance, the vast and misty mangrove down below and the silvery sheen of a bend in the river.
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