Carmen / Sevilla / Antequera, Bohol, the Philippines
April 2 – 3, 2011
My 78-year-old mother didn’t balk at the 214 steps before her. She was as gung-ho to climb one of the Chocolate Hills as my sister and I.
The Chocolate Hills are a collection of over a thousand conical hills of similar height and shape. During the hot and dry Philippine summers, their grass cover turns chocolaty brown. These geological Hershey’s Kisses are generously strewn all over Carmen and neighboring towns at the heart of Bohol Island. But this year’s monsoon season started too early; the hills were alive – lush and verdant.
This geological phenomenon is atypical of its kind. Like mom’s favorite place on earth, Guilin in China, this area in Bohol is characterized by karst topography, an area comprised primarily of limestone, a rock sculpted by water in avant-garde fashion for millions of years. But unlike other karst landscapes, such as the jagged peaks of Guilin, the Chocolate Hills are gracefully undulating and uniformly dome-shaped. The uncanny manner of erosion whereby these hills have been shaped still leaves geologists scratching their heads.
While rowdy tourists were jockeying for the best spot to strike special-effects poses with the hills as backdrop, Mom took time smelling the flowers, unencumbered by digital documentation. Having scaled the summit (the average height of the hills is over 50 meters), Mom rang the bell at the view deck’s wishing well to declare her chocolaty conquest. Her thoughts on the hills? She marveled at the mass-produced symmetry.
Down from the hills, passing through the town of Sevilla, we stopped to see the Bamboo Hanging Bridge over the khaki murk of the Sipatan River. Although recently reinforced with steel cables, the bridge was still rickety. We were prepared to skip this one as we didn’t expect Mom to have any Indy Jones bone in her body. She gamely traversed the 20-meter length of the bridge, her girl Friday firmly clutching on to her, and proved us wrong. It was peanuts for her; she gingerly took each step with the surefootedness of a tightrope walker.
As it turned out, it was much ado about nothing. Only a small souvenir shop, established by AusAID (Australian Agency for International Development), awaited us on the other side. After the unnecessary shopping interlude, we crossed back through the other bridge. Mom proudly raised a victorious arm – she had been to a tourist trap and back!
Karst regions do not only have sculpted protuberances, they also exhibit deep gashes on the landscape, punctuating rivers with waterfalls. In the off-the-beaten-path town of Antequera lies Mag-aso Falls, casting misty sprays over rocky rapids (aso means smoke). It took 197 steps down the ravine to reach it. Mom went for it without batting an eyelash. She became, unofficially, the second oldest person to descend to the falls (the oldest was 80 years old), according to the gatekeeper.
The falls is only about 25 feet tall, not exactly a majestic cascade. Its swirling eddies, however, could devour. But what it had going for it is its remoteness. This was probably the only place in Bohol that did not see a deluge of tourists; there were no visitors other than our group. The crashing roar of the falls enveloped the surrounding forest into an inconspicuous blip on the radar of the touristy throngs.
After the inevitable photo-ops on slippery rocks, we started the climb up the winding concrete stairs. The steps were, of course, more challenging in the ascent, but the surrounding jungle atmosphere offered an array of distractions. Towering mahogany trees canopied the damp tropical ecosystem of giant ferns that conjured up the dinosaur era, toads that posed for paparazzi shots, and assorted plus-size insects. There were landings for stop-overs, which came in handy for Mom – although I thought I needed them more than she did.
I promised Dad on his deathbed that I would take care of Mom. I was about ready to congratulate myself for taking her to see all these sights in Bohol. She just smiled and said, “I did it all for you!” She climbed those steps and walked that bouncy bridge so that I could see all the sights.
After all these years of the karst landscape that is my life, through peaks and valleys, hills and gulleys – and, yes, hanging bridges – it has always been she who holds my hand.