Checking Out Oslob and Tanawan
Saturday August 6, 2014
6:30 a.m. Oslob, Cebu
Still in Oslob this morning. I might leave once I have my morning coffee, but we’ll see. My body could use another day to recover. And it’s rare to get a comfortable room for 200 pesos a night, especially one right on the ocean, so it would be nice to stick around another day and night.
After breakfast yesterday morning, I got on my bike and rode around the waterfront area of Oslob with my camera. There is a lot of history along this coast, and Oslob appears to have been a center of some power. There are still remnants of a series of fourteen watchtowers and forts that were concentrated here. I took some pictures there and then stumbled across a long and rather attractive building that housed a small museum exhibit illustrating daily life in Oslob. For such a small and intimate museum, they certainly had an abundance of rules posted outside and inside and then repeated by the woman running the place. No bags allowed inside. No photography. And many others. I didn’t care about the rules, but I was interested in the photography rule. If I thought I could get an answer, I would have asked the woman about it. In some museums, the rule is enforced simply to keep people moving along and prevent bottlenecks and inconvenience to other visitors. In others, I’m sure it is for copyright reasons. And in some, they worry that the flash will damage the artwork. Those are reasonable concerns. But this museum could have no such concerns, so why the rule? Anyway, I didn’t bother to ask. I knew I wouldn’t get an answer.
It took only a few minutes to stroll down the length of the room, turn around, and come back. There were some photographs of churches and convents. I was amused to note that the captions followed the pattern I talked about yesterday – a church built two hundred years ago, then burned down, rebuilt, burned down, rebuilt, burned down, destroyed by earthquake, rebuilt. Burned down, rebuilt etc. The most recent fire was in 2010, so the church I was admiring that morning was technically only four years old. I tried out my theory on the woman at the museum – the theory that these churches are particularly prone to fires. It seems that if you just say the word “fire”, the darn thing will burst into flames and have to be rebuilt. And you’d think that after centuries of this pattern, they’d figure out what was causing all the fires and somehow prevent them. I thought I was being quite witty, but the woman rewarded me with a blank stare and a repetition of the fact that the church had burned down in 2010.
Most of the exhibits were of household items – samples of the furnishings that would make up the kitchen, living room, and bedrooms of a typical home of a hundred years ago or fifty years ago. Some of the displays didn’t look much different from what you’d see at a typical garage sale table in Canada. I’d noticed this pattern in Taiwan and the Philippines and other places – that the furnishings of the rich of the recent past often consisted of imports from the West. In this museum, there was a small record player, the type that folds up like a suitcase. You fold down the top and then put on a record. They had a little 45 on the platter, and I noticed with amusement that it was a hit by Paul Anka. I turned to the woman and made a comment that they should play that Paul Anka tune over the PA system to give the museum a traditional Filipino atmosphere. No smile or reaction from her.
Finally, I made a comment about how difficult it must have been to keep electronic imports like this phonograph working in the heat and humidity of the Philippines – especially in the salty air along the coast. I pictured these rich families going to the rather large expense of importing these luxury goods and then being disappointed as they stopped working after a month or two. This last sally of mine also got no response from the woman. Her English seemed good, so I’m fairly certain she understood what I was saying. But there was that vast cultural divide again. She simply couldn’t see things from my point of view and couldn’t keep up with my light banter. This, of course, is a fairly typical example of all the encounters I have with Filipinos. The cultural divide between us is so great that having a conversation is pretty much the same thing as having no conversation at all. Nothing I say ever makes it across the cavern separating us. And all I ever get back is the same chorus – How old are you? Are you married? And on and on.
From the museum and crumbling watchtowers, I went to the extensive pubic cemetery. There was a lot of interest there, too. I imagine this style of cemetery was initiated by the Spanish. There were some individual graves in the ground – each with a simple cross placed at its head – but most of the burial sites consisted of the little cement squares piled on top of each other in long walls. Death is not an easy thing to digest in any setting, I suppose, so it’s impossible to say what is the best way to deal with it. There can be no right or wrong way. That being said, I’ve always preferred the idea of cremation or simply placing an untreated body in the ground and letting nature take its course. The standard Western approach of embalming and placing the body in a massive coffin seems extremely silly. I don’t see the point. These Spanish cemeteries also seem odd. I don’t know exactly how the bodies are treated or placed inside these cement compartments, but it appears that they are simply placed inside and the square is sealed up with cement and mortar and a memorial plaque. As far as a comfortable resting place for all eternity, I can’t imagine anything less comfortable – bare, cold concrete above ground. Not to be too morbid, but I wonder what happens to the remains inside this compartment. It has to do what flesh naturally does when it is no longer part of a living creature and break down into its component parts. But where does it all go? Perhaps bodies are embalmed here, as well, and everything is rather dry. I don’t know.
The cemetery was clearly not cared for in the same way that a cemetery is in the West. I imagine that is simply due to a lack of money for maintenance. In any event, the cemetery was in a very bad state, looking more like an abandoned industrial site than a cemetery. This image wasn’t helped at all by the custom of burning candles at the gravesites. There is a cement lip at the front of each cell, and people would place flowers and candles there. Over the years, the candles left black soot over the front, even to the extent of totally obscuring plaques and decorations. The final look was not flattering. Entire rows and sections of graves were black with soot. I noticed that a few cells were sealed up with cement but didn’t have a memorial plaque on the front. These had the words “Paid” written on them in big black letters. I’m not sure what that meant. Were they reserved for future residents? Or were they already occupied and the “paid” notation referred to the plaques themselves? Perhaps these were paid for, and they now needed to be affixed to the front.
Of course, a large advantage to this type of cemetery is a more efficient use of space. The stacks of cells meant that hundreds of bodies could be stored in an area that could only contain a dozen or so when buried in the ground and spread out over a large area. It’s the difference between people living in individual houses as opposed to a tall apartment building. Many more people can be accommodated in the same area. I imagine that this practical concern is where the tradition started.
The most interesting aspect of the cemetery for me was the large number of wasps flying around. I can’t think of their names right now, but they were the extremely large black wasps that live in holes in the ground – holes that they dig themselves. I’ve always been entertained by these wasps, as they seem so concerned with their holes – constantly digging them out and then flying to other holes and getting in fights with other wasps. It was fitting that such wasps – living in holes in the ground as they do – should take up residence in a cemetery. They also made me think of the honeybees living in their individual cells in their hives.
The memorial plaques on each cell gave the date of birth and date of death as well as the full name of the occupant. There was also often a photograph of the deceased as well as a short “In loving memory” type of statement – always in English. I was surprised at how recent most of these dates were. Nearly all of them were from just the last few years, and it made me think that there is perhaps a time limit on these cells. Perhaps they are paid for for a certain number of years and then they are emptied and used again. That would make sense considering the dates that I saw. Oslob is a very old town and I expected to see graves going back many decades if not centuries. Yet, there were no such graves. I also reflected that the traditional information on a grave site is not that interesting. You are informed of the deceased’s age and name and that is about it. Given a choice, I’d prefer to see some kind of personal comment about the person, something that they loved to do, something that defined them or their life. Being a guy hooked on information, I’d also like to see a cause of death. That would make cemeteries much more interesting in general. It would certainly provide a picture of the community.
After my visit to the cemetery, I explored a bit more of the town along the coast and then I returned to my room to get ready for a bike ride out to the whale watching area. Everything I’d read implied that the whale watching occurred in Oslob. However, that isn’t quite true, unless you think of the whole region as Oslob. The actual whale watching site is seven or eight kilometers south of Oslob in a little village called, I believe, Tanawan. I hadn’t decided if I wanted to try whale shark watching. I wasn’t even sure if there were any whale sharks around at this time of year. This is not the usual time for them, but since the local people now feed them, there was a chance there would be some there. Why migrate in search of food when food just shows up every day? (Though considering the size of these creatures, I wonder how they could supply them with enough food. Who pays for all this whale shark food and where does it come from?)
The ride to Tanawan was very scenic and pleasant (despite the endless parade of Ceres Bus Liners blasting their air horn). All in all, the coastline of Cebu is much more attractive than I expected, though the views of the ocean are often obscured. There were several small climbs along the way and two fairly long ones. I made note of these because I knew I’d eventually be cycling up them with my full touring load. The funny thing is that I often fret about how heavy my loaded bike is, but it’s just as difficult cycling up those hills even with just me on the bike and no gear. I certainly don’t go up those hills any faster when I don’t have any pannier bags attached. I crawl up them in first gear at seven km/hr whether I have gear on the bike or not.
Tanawan did not have much to offer beyond the whale watching. It was a small place and had changed almost overnight into a tourist mecca when the whale sharks were discovered. The main road from one end of the village to the other consisted of little but the entrance gates to large whale watching resorts. They offered accommodation, food, souvenir shops, and shuttles to the whale watching departure point. A very unfortunate fact of these resorts (at least in my humble opinion) is the perceived need for high walls. That is a trait of the Philippines in general – the presence of high walls surrounding everything of value. People design their homes and businesses like prisons – completely sealed in with eight-foot walls topped with barbed wire. The only way in is through the gate past men armed with guns. It’s understandable if theft is a large problem, and it probably is. But it’s also unfortunate in that it closes off so much of the country. It’s impossible to see anything of these resorts or of the ocean when you go down the main road. The resorts are landscaped to look attractive and garden-like. And there is the beautiful ocean – the ocean containing the whale sharks, which is the only reason people are even coming here. Yet, as a visitor to the town, you see none of this. You only see cement walls stretching on to the horizon. I had that same feeling about many towns I’ve spent time in, including Tacloban. I noted that the town actually looked much better in a certain way after the typhoon. The typhoon had torn down and utterly destroyed all the walls running along the waterfront. It opened up the entire city and made it look much better. I’m not saying that Tanawan needs the super typhoon treatment, but it would certainly present a much more attractive face if the walls were removed. As it was, I found myself almost repelled by the place. When I came racing down the final hill on my bike, I let my momentum carry me all the way through the town and out the other side and back up the hills. There was just nowhere to stop and look around and get a feel for the place. It was a bit open on the right side. That’s where the school and other normal parts of the village were located. But even these places tended to have walls. The left side consisted largely of high walls enclosing the resorts. If you were a guest come to spend a night or two, you would feel welcome, of course. I’m sure the normal guest arrived by resort shuttle bus from Cebu and simply drives through the gates and is dropped off at the door of their cottage. But I didn’t feel welcome at all, and I kept riding until I reached the far side and then I climbed back up into the hills hoping to get a high vantage point so that I could see the town and get a feel for it.
I rode to the top of the hill without getting much of a view, and I continued over the top to the jumping off point for the big resort on Sumilon Island. This is the other big attraction in this area. The island was clearly visible from shore, and I could see that it had nice sandy beaches around it. Apparently there is good snorkeling and diving there. Guests generally come in large tour groups and are shuttled across to the island by boat. A steep road left from the main road and zigzagged down the cliff to the beach where the boats waited. I’d heard many references to “Asians” in my time in Oslob, and I got the impression that the lion’s share of visitors come from Japan and South Korea and perhaps Taiwan and China. When I rode past Sumilon Island, I came across a group of about fifteen tourists. I didn’t speak with them, but they looked Japanese to me. They all had large suitcases with wheels and were bedecked with whale watching T-shirts and sun-hats and other souvenirs. I think they had just returned from Sumilon and were waiting for their transportation back to Cebu.
I was a little bit puzzled as to what you were supposed to do if you wanted to go whale watching. I did see a sign for “tourist information” at the barangay hall, but there was no one there. I remembered seeing a large sign for whale watching orientation right at the entrance to the town, and I returned there to check it out. I rode down a steep cement and gravel road and found myself at what was clearly the jumping off point for whale watching tours. There was a large building – more a roof than a building – with a couple hundred lifejackets hanging and drying. There were some signs about how to safely and properly interact with the whale sharks when you are in the water. And there were a couple of tables with signs saying that residents of Oslob had to present their ID in order to get the local resident discount. There was also a large group portrait of all the smiling whale watching guides. I was clearly in the right place for someone interested in whale watching, but as with the tourism office, there was no one there. The entire place was abandoned and empty. I stood around for a while and got off my bike and walked around taking in all the posters and pictures. I thought someone would spot me and then come over to talk to me, but no one showed up. I’m sure I could have found more information if I was really interested. There was a restaurant nearby and a souvenir stall. I’m sure the people there could have hooked me up with an official whale-watching dude, but I wasn’t that interested. If there was a lot of activity and a friendly person had chatted me up, I imagine I could have been swept up in the atmosphere and signed up for a whale watching trip the next morning. But I was lukewarm on the idea if not completely against it, and I was content to just check the place out and then cycle on.
Before I left town, I rode down the main street once more. I thought that if I saw a friendly-looking place, I’d pop in for a cold drink. I decided to check out one of the big resorts when I saw that there were no armed guards at the gates. I rode through the gates and down into the resort. There was a sign saying that there was a 30-peso entrance fee if you were not a guest, but I reasoned that I wasn’t staying to use the facilities in any way. I was just checking the place out. The resort was somewhat less attractive than I expected – clearly designed to accommodate large tour groups arriving by shuttle bus and van. There was a big gravel parking area with lots of souvenir stalls on one side. On the other side was a grassy area with the cottages and rooms. I didn’t find out what they charged, but I imagined it would be in the range of $50 to $100 a night. They, of course, would make all the arrangements for whale watching for their guests. I imagine a solitary visitor like myself would just have to show up at the whale watching orientation area early in the morning and see if there was anything going on. I’d have to join up with other people to form a large enough group to rent a boat.
I have no idea what a whale watching trip would cost. Not surprisingly, there was no information posted at all. I was actually a little bit surprised at that. Swimming with the whale sharks has become a very large industry. It’s been around for quite a few years and has certainly seen hundreds of thousands of visitors come and go – not to mention a lot of staff. You’d think at one point, it would occur to someone to post some information for visitors: “Whale watching tours starting every morning at 7:00 a.m. X amount per person. X amount per group of X. Sign up here.” Etc. Anything. Any information at all. But there was nothing.
A funny sidenote to this is that tourism studies is a very popular major at the universities here. Everywhere I’ve been, in all the Internet cafes, in all the coffee shops, I’ve seen an endless number of students carrying tourism textbooks and preparing presentations on tourism. Before I use a computer at an Internet café, I usually check the search history and the saved files and deleted files just for fun. More often than not, the searches are related to tourism – how to treat guests properly, etc. Students are always standing around computers in groups assembling PowerPoint presentations about the proper approach to tourism. I’ve noticed that they generally just cut and paste entire documents from tourism websites. With this intense study of tourism, you’d think some tourism graduate would pass through a place like Tanawan and suggest actually putting up some information for tourists. After all, we’re not talking about a little mom and pop café. This is one of the largest tourist attractions in the entire country. Yet, a visitor like me can show up and be completely ignored and remain completely uninformed about how to go about whale watching. Surely, the whole point of this endeavor is to part me from some of the money in my wallet. Yet, I visited Tanawan and left with all of my money still safely in my wallet.
Of course, I’m not their target market. It’s not like there is a bullet point on their PowerPoint presentation about how to deal with the lone tourist that shows up on a bicycle in the middle of the day during low season. Not to put to fine a point on it, but they after the big fish – the Japanese tour group of fifty people – not the little fish like me.
I did see a sprinkling of white people in town. When I first arrived, there were three young white girls walking down the main street. They were clearly tourists of the backpacking variety. I also saw a couple sitting at a table and enjoying some cold drinks. I didn’t have a chance to speak to any of them, though, so I don’t know what their experience of Tanawan had been or how they had gotten there. Perhaps they were also there on a group tour of sorts.
I rode around Tanawan one last time to see if I had missed anything. People were friendly, I should say. I imagine they see tens of thousands of people like me every year, but all the boys playing basketball at the school called out “Hey, Joe!” and “Hi!” to me as I rode past. The guys with their motorcycle taxis were willing to chat, though they quickly lost interest when they realized that I wasn’t in the market for their services.
Eventually, I turned around and rode back the way I had come over the two large hills and the many small ones. I had my camera with me, but I didn’t stop to take any pictures. The coastline scenery was beautiful, but I could see that the pictures would not be anything special – no different from all the hundreds of coastline pictures I already have.
I passed the rest of the day riding around the beautiful back streets of Oslob and then relaxing beside the water at my lodge. There was endless entertainment to be had there with the fishermen getting their boats ready to go out that night, the children playing, the dogs racing past, and a group of ten rowdy piglets digging holes and play fighting. I was facing east, so the sunset was behind me. Even so, the evening was beautiful with the cloudy skies lit up by the setting sun. Not far to the south, I could see the towering mountains on the island of Negros. That was a sight worth a picture, but I was too content sitting on the sand with my feet in the water to get up and get my camera from my room.