MANILA, April 4, 2005 (STAR) By Igan D’bayan - The church was the MTV of its time… Ino Manalo of the Metropolitan Museum explains, paraphrasing Umberto Eco (the literary sorcerer behind The Name of the Rose). We are inside Baclayon Church with its surreal synthesis of Baroque and Neo-Classical architecture, grayed with years, floods and stories.

HSBC and Philippine Airlines invited journalists from Manila and Cebu on a trip to Bohol for its HSBC-PAL Heritage Vacation project. The impetus for the whole thing is this: Every P45 charged to the credit card of each HSBC Mabuhay Miles VISA cardholder earns him or her one air mile. The more he or she uses the card – be it for food, books, CDs, Q and Uncut magazines, a box of acrylics – the more he or she accumulates miles. Spending is now rendered useful, for a change. The more you spend, the closer you get to that much-needed trip out of crappy Metro Manila. Whether it’s for a local or international destination, it’s fine as long as it’s away from our funny and frustrating version of inferno.

So, if the cardholders accumulate a total of 4,000 miles, they can take their backpacks out of the dusty closet and take a PAL flight to Bohol – with its ancient churches, mighty rivers, fragile tarsiers, crunchy sweet breads, and chocolate hills forever. Yes, just as we’re doing.

We are booked at Panglao Island Nature Resort, which is perched on a cliff (actually not as scary as it sounds). The place is a 30-minute drive from Tagbilaran Airport. I get one of those villas that offer a sprawling view of the beach. The three major beach strips in Panglao are Bolod, Tawala and Doljo. A Jacuzzi, huge glass windows, thatched roof, walls painted generously with yellow ochre – each element making up a disarming, relaxing whole.

Part of the HSBC-PAL adventure package was a trip to the old landmarks as a way of rediscovering Bohol’s cultural resume. The first stop is Baclayon Church, which is reputed to be the oldest stone church in the country. Easy to dig its ornaments: silver tabernacle, religious statues with penetrating eyes, paintings sprawled across the ceilings, etc. And the pulpit: an elevated violet enclosure that the priest clambers onto for sermons.

"Notice the crown above," Manalo says, pointing to a small stone structure above the pulpit with the emblem of the Holy Spirit. This, we are told, was created primarily for effect: It would seem that while the priest is talking, the Holy Spirit is soaring overhead. "This was one of the first examples of production design (laughs)."

After visiting the Baclayon Church museum, we head for the Loboc River for a luncheon cruise. A digression: Traversing the river and running right smack into Loboc Church is a monument to greed and stupidity – an unfinished bridge. Of course, they put a stop to the construction of this concrete-and-steel monstrosity slash idiocy since Loboc Church is a 400-year-old heritage site. You can’t move a landmark – unless the church was made up of detachable Lego bricks. STAR columnist Butch Dalisay once called it the "Bridge to Nowhere." A caricature: People getting out of their vehicles down the bridge, through the front door, across the pulpit, out the back door, and onto the other side of the bridge for the continuation of the trip. They could dub it the Nowhere Express. Another caricature: You rev up your vehicle, jump from the incomplete bridge and end up somewhere in the ‘50s, sort of like Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future. The engineer’s plan was probably scrawled on a bag of broas or on the ass of a tarsier, thus explains the oversight.

We come on board the Long River Floating Restaurant – a barge that sits 30 people, travels the length of the waterway up to either Tontonan Falls or Busay Falls, and offers delicacies from Bohol. We are booked on an abbreviated cruise, but we manage to learn why this cruise is a must for tourists. You dine on succulent seafood, rice and suman as the barge travels the ever-winding river – like a scene straight from Apocalypse Now without the punishing search for Colonel Kurtz. All the passenger needs to search for is the dish that would please his or her discriminating taste buds. No need for Doors songs or impressions of Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando or napalm in the morning. The trip is both Zen and Epicurean. And oh yeah, there is a guitar player playing David Gates songs. What could be more comforting than Bread?

Manalo says that the barge was modeled after the float used during a bishop’s visit to Bohol. At first the owners of the boats peppered their crafts with anahaw leaves, around two million of them. Of course, that covered up the breathtaking view. So a more minimalist approach was in order.

We make our way to the Chocolate Hills, which have been written about so many times that we need another description of them like a hole in the head or another bridge to the void. However, the man-made forest that leads to the cone-shaped hills is one sight to behold. It is sunny, and yet there was a palpable darkness as a result of those thick narra and mahogany trees. "Like one of those dark forests in Lord of the Rings," observes Manalo.

Sometimes, you get the feeling you’re bound for Mordor for an appointment with Sauron, and you have in your pouch one really troublesome piece of jewelry. And then you are roused from your daydream by the sight of the wondrous hills.

Chocolate Hills Forever

To get a clear view of the hills, we use nature’s treadmill – a flight of stairs with steps we fail to count because we are all close to fainting. Daffy fitness guru Richard Simmons could beat me at jogging, or even arm-wrestling. After catching my breath, I tell my companion some lame Chocolate Hill wisecracks. Do you see that tree-less hill (Eddie hill)? How about that small hill (Baby hill)? Or the tall black one (Grant hill)? Ano ka, hill-o?

The next stop is Loboc Church, with its famous façade within a façade. Floods visited the church in ’55, ’64, ’74 and ’84. On the walls are lines marking how high the floodwaters were. A testament to how churches in the country have weathered fated calamities as well as crises of faith. Loboc Church is richly ornamented with cherubs wearing feathered bonnets (so they could probably fly close to the sun), scrolls, tendrils, medallions, pilasters, retablos, a huge pipe organ, and a wooden relief of who I think is San Ignacio. On the ceiling is a retablo of the Lady of Guadalupe saving the town during the flood of 1876 when the Loboc River swelled dramatically.

We go to the Tuburan Heritage Museum and the Loboc Museum and get a glimpse of saints in glass cages, silver halos, paintings by Fr. Alger, as well as saxophones played by legendary Boholano musicians such as Gregorio Sarigumba. Manalo enthuses about how musical Bohol is. He tells the group about how cantoras (female teachers) and maestros (male teachers) mold the youth in the realm of music, and about how the calenda is sung by a novice during one of the morning novenas of Christmas. Manalo also tells the case of a young boy who was heard praying aloud for his soprano voice to never change. "Since the most beautiful voice in the world is the voice of a male child soprano," he shares. Alas, beauty is fleeting – as stated in Japanese haikus and, yes, Bread songs.

We get an earful of how sweet the voices of pre-teens and teens are as the Loboc Children’s Choir regales us with songs from classical pieces to pop tunes to movie soundtracks. Even the boys in the choir belt out wavering Julie Andrews/Judy Garland vocals with panache. As an encore, the members of the choir sing a section from the Misa Baclayana, which had been lost to the town for ages.

Imagine hearing a piece of music that had been given up for gone. To tourists like us, it is a treat. To locals, it is the tones of home.

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Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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