[PHOTO AT LEFT - Jesuit it is: The Dauis Church dates back to 1697. MANILA, Philippines]

MANILA, JUNE 17, 2009 (STAR) By Audrey N. Carpio - Her father was a whale hunter,” Joel Uichico says, indicating the woman who runs the Pamilacan Island rest stop where we lunched on the first of many lechons. “That was his livelihood, and the trade of his village for centuries.” The hunter would awe listeners with stories of swimming next to the whales and climbing on top of them. The warrior-like image of a man riding a whale with his arms raised, poised to stab the magnificent beast with an oversized hook was indeed chilling. But the daughter ironically ended up seeking employment in the tourism industry, which was trying to put a stop to the poaching of whale sharks, manta rays, whales and dolphins abundant in the Pamilacan waters — the very thing that defined her father’s identity.

Today, father and daughter remain divided, symbolic of the island’s struggle with change in an era of environmental awareness and conservation. Many government and non-governmental organizations have been supporting and retraining the hunters in alternative and sustainable livelihoods, turning them into guardians of the creatures for all the whale-watchers, divers and underwater photographers out there. Bezo Recreational and Aquatic Activities for Bohol (BRAABO), of which Uichico is GM and board director and Bea Zobel Jr. is chairperson, is one such group that is helping the villagers become eco-tourism operators, converting small fishing boats into larger tour boats and training the fishermen’s wives in food preparation and massage services — showing them that it can also be profitable to protect one’s natural resources.

Little town, it’s a quiet village

Back on the main island of Bohol, Zobel made her mark in the town of Dauis, revitalizing a major heritage resource in partnership with the diocese of Tagbilaran and the Our Lady of Assumption Shrine Parish. Zobel had three weeks to prepare the old church of Dauis for the visiting relics of St. Therese and the resulting 15,000 pilgrims. But she didn’t only do that. She cleared out the bodega, transformed it into an exhibition space, cafe and souvenir shop. Cafe Lawis, named after the old town, offers a very lovely chocolate soufflé and other refreshing lunch bites one would expect in cosmopolitan museum cafes around the world, but hardly in Bohol.

The cafe staff, who had never seen or heard of a soufflé before, were all trained by the chef of Bizu. With outdoor seating shaded by grand acacia trees and a view of the Tagbilaran straight, a stopover at the Dauis church for prayers or puttanesca is now an attractive option for tourists on their way to popular Panglao Island. Zobel admits that it wasn’t all that easy, having met strong resistance from one group of locals who were upset that they were not informed at the start of the process. Since she was pressed for time, her group had swooped in with the renovations, and in hindsight, she says she should have consulted with the people early on to avoid the misunderstanding. It was all for the benefit of the community — the Handumanan souvenir shop, for instance, sells artisan jewelry and traditional crafts with a modern twist, all made by Boholanos.

To preserve and protect

Proponents of sustainable tourism understand that a little upgrade and an encouraging shove into the 21st century both need to accompany preservation and restoration projects. There are so many beautiful, natural and historical spots in the Philippines, but if there’s nowhere to eat or nothing to do, tourists are unlikely to come and will thus miss out on a lot of what our country has to offer. It began with the plea from homeowners to rescue several heritage houses in Baclayon from demolition due to a road-widening project. Zobel and Ino Manalo heeded the call and the houses were spared, but the question was, for what? In order to show the public that the homes can contribute to the overall development of the community, it was then decided by Bahandi, the Baclayon Ancestral Homes Association, and the Ayala Foundation that they be converted to bed-and-breakfast and home-stay type of accommodations. The project turned out to be successful, but now they needed to create tourism activities to lure the visitors and keep them there long enough to use the facilities.

This is where our dune buggy adventure comes in. A nature trail recently opened with the inauguration of the Municipal Tourism Center along the Baclayon pier. Ben Chan was instrumental in helping build the center; part of the sales of Bench’s Green Tee, a T-shirt line with environmental slogans, went to its construction. The tourism center will be the hub for coordinating activities around the municipality in addition to accrediting tour guides, regulating and briefing tourists, and of course, safeguarding the environment. Bench icons Richard Gomez, Lucy Torres Gomez and John Prats flew in with Chan for the ribbon-cutting ceremony; the town went nuts. We christened the eco-trail with a convoy of dune buggies and ATVs, coasting along the back roads of Baclayon, spitting dust through the countryside and blazing across the muddy jungle until we ended up by a serene lake where we were fed several types of root crops and kakanin, prepared by the locals from the nearby villages.

Opportunities abounded — one could go kayaking, caving or diving; visits to churches and ancestral homes like the Clarin House for the more culturally inclined. Discussion centered around the humble yet delicious kamote and its many possibilities as the next wonder food. And oh, all the lechon we had — it was organic. That’s right, the pigs were vegetarian (but does that mean less fattening?). Bohol is a beautiful place to visit, but even more so when you know that your fun-filled adventure in something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book contributes to the sustainable livelihoods of the community, protects the environment, respects our heritage, and creates a cross-cultural awareness of how we are all connected.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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