Viscayas: The Central Islands of the Philippines

Written by  Roberta Sotonoff

ASIA PHIL
Alongside the road, a man lathers himself with soap and a bucket of water. It’s a unique photo op. From the shanty window his wife shouts, “Have him take off his pants. It would make a better picture!”

Philippine people are like that. It doesn’t matter if they are rich or poor.
They are friendly and as warm as the sun on their 7,107 islands. The Visayas, the Philippines’ central islands that include Cebu, Leyte and Samar, are a good place to get a feel of what the islands are
really like.

Cebu
Cebu City bustles with scooters, cars and jeepneys, all honking horns and spewing pollution. Jeepneys, elongated jeeps with ornate hood ornaments and religious adages are a Philippines symbol. Often crowded, passengers include humans, pigs and chickens.  
Carbon Public Market is as chaotic as the traffic. Pedestrians jostle a lady shaving bamboo for shoots. Varieties of rice, fruits, fish, vegetables, seafood, meats, salt and second-hand clothes make your head spin.
The over 450-year-old Basilica del Santa Niño is mobbed. Worshipers come to pray and revere the 12-inch Santa Niño, a gift from Magellan, the patron saint of Cebu.
Many Filipinos prefer simple island life to the cities. Lush banana trees, bougainvillea, palms, flowers and mat-sided houses with bamboo pole TV antennae and the 400-year-old Baclayon Cathedral border the road on the island of Bohol. Smiling faces on the shore of the Loboc River add to the ambience of lunch on a raft. But Bohol’s most unusual resident is the goggled-eyed tarsier. The world’s smallest monkey, it fits in the palm of your hand.  
A 214-step climb up the conical-shaped Chocolate Hills is rewarded with a stunning vista. Because of an abundance of rain, these 1,268 bumps of landscape look more like mold than chocolate. The calcium carbonate hills were formed by wind, erosion and rain. Legend has it that they are solidified tears of a grief-stricken giant who accidentally killed his love.
All of these fascinating attractions do not take my mind off my swollen and blistered red ant toe bite. Though I am taking antibiotics, it seems fitting to consult one of Bohol’s faith healers regarding the spiritual restoration of my toe. At the healer’s shack, three ladies sit smoking homemade cigars between their toothless gums. The healer blows on my blistered toe, covers it with oil, and tells me the spirits need another day to discover the cause and cure of my malady. Not an option. Quick answers are only possible by consulting with an egg for a fee of 31/2 pesos (one cent). The healer-ova conference culminates with the egg standing on end. Honest! It seems that because I did not say, “tobbi poe,” (excuse me spirits), the spirits got ticked off. They had the “snake fairy” bite me.
A second consultation reveals the toe curse removal ransom: seven cigarettes, three leaves of tobacco, five chocolate bars, one-half kilo of brown sugar, a bottle of wine, a family-sized bottle of Coke and belief in the spirits. I can purchase the ransom, but my faith is focused on the antibiotics My toe does heal, but later in the trip, my other toe gets stung. I hate snake fairies.

Leyte
From healers to heroes, the next day, I visit Leyte. Here General MacArthur “returned” during World War II. Bronze statues of MacArthur, Philippine President Osmena and five companions “wade” to shore at Red Beach.
Leyte is also former First Lady, Imelda Marcos’ birthplace. The Santa Niño Shrine and Heritage Museum underscores her once overwhelmingly lavish life-style. Its treasures are encased in dust. Two priceless mosaics, “Christ” and “Christ and Mary,” decorate the woven mat walls in the Santo Nino Chapel.

Samar
A bridge connects the islands of Leyte to Samar. Coconut trees, rice and sugar cane grow everywhere. During a fiesta in Basey, two little girls dressed in white dresses and angel wings make their way to church. Seeing my camera, kids, with and without clothes, jump off the pier near the banca (outrigger boat) that we are taking to Samar’s Sohoton Caves.
A quick rain pounds against the leaves on the way to the caves. Guide Francisci Corales knocks four times before entering the 25-million year-old caverns, signaling the spirits of mortal intervention. Good, I don’t want to anger the spirits again.
Inside, Francisci taps out a song on some organ-like formations. A raised, rambling, ground configuration, he dubs the “Great Wall of China.” There is a mischievous look in his eye when he points out the icicle-shaped stalactites and calls them “objects of desire.”
After a bumpy trip to Mahagnao National Park, the guide uses his machete to clear a path through a forest growth of ferns, palms, vines, dead leaves and moss and water. My copious sweat and tired limbs make me question my desire to seek out the hot springs, mud pots, sulfur vents and crater. As the sun breaks through the jungle canopy, glistening, steamy water rushes down the rocks.
The1,500-foot ascent to the crater is a challenge. Tremors from this active volcano make the earth move under my feet. Soon the smell of sulfur infuses the air. Steam rises from crater vents. At the top, an endless panorama of mountains, jungle and lakes unfolds.
From the mountains. I travel to Western Samar’s Marabut Resort. It boasts a variety of water sports. A motorized raft adventure passes caves and erupting rock sculptures, including one that looks like a giant fan.
The snorkeling is amazing. An eel pops out from under a rock. Bright green corals and sea plants sway in an exotic dance. A striped black and white, poisonous sea snake zigzags through the water. It ends my snorkeling gig.
There is never a dull moment on the central islands of the Philippines.
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