FOR a while there, I thought I had become socially inept. It was like one of those movies where the hero sits in the middle of a scene, and the sounds combine in a rising din around him. On the plane, the earpods I had on couldn’t block out the loud voices of American tourists in the row in front of me, and the noisy barkada some rows behind. I found myself increasingly irritated, now unaccustomed to noise.
It was weird, this transition back into society, my first plane ride in 15 months.
A much-awaited dive trip to Bohol originally planned for last April, the height of summer, had to be postponed because of a new COVID-19 surge and quarantine. Fortunately, Cebu Pacific offers a travel fund that allows you to cancel a flight (no charge) and put the money on hold for another ticket. The hotel, Lost Horizon, and the dive center, Alona Divers, both on Panglao, had allowed the same no-charge postponement. Even the paid saliva RT-PCR test with the Philippine Red Cross (PRC), conveniently bookable online, allowed one rescheduling.
This was the new diver’s normal, I thought: grabbing every quiet period between surges to get into the water, lest the world shut down again next week.
So when my friend Karen said the trip was reset for the end of June, I told myself, if all the rebookings went smoothly, this trip was meant to be. And they did—Cebu Pacific rescheduled in minutes, and so did the PRC.
The saliva test took very little time; one of the collection sites nearest to my home was in the Robinsons Metro East parking area, and although it can be a little daunting to naturally produce enough saliva for the little vial—no expectorating, or the discoloration could render the sample adulterated—it was painless. I submitted my sample by around 11 am; the emailed result was in my inbox by 1:30 the next morning, 14 1/2 hours later.
I was also cutting it close, as I had to upload this test result to the site of the Bohol Tourism Office, with a confirmation of reservation from Lost Horizon and an itinerary, to get a certificate of acceptance from the province. It was again a painless process; I submitted my test results at around 7:30 am Thursday for the Friday morning flight; I got my certificate, with a Bohol QR code, about two hours later. I also had to download a Traze Contact Tracing app for the phone.
I emailed my test results to the Bohol Tourism Office at around 7:30 am; I got my certificate and QR code about two hours later
Also, Wednesday night, while I was working, a thought popped into my head to check my dive gear, which had remained unused for six months. True enough, my dive computer was dead, which required a drive to Makati the next morning for a battery change.
Other than a slower line to enter the airport—personnel in PPE, social distancing—things progressed smoothly at Terminal 3 for the 11 am flight to Tagbilaran, and the flight was ahead of schedule. At the Panglao International Airport, it was another long but fast-moving line to the tables of airport personnel, who politely checked your documents. (Be environment-friendly, and save them all on your phone.)
So please, don’t be a dumb tourist, especially now
I cannot fathom how some people still don’t read instructions in these trying times, and many had to step out of line to download the QR code on their phone, when it was clearly indicated as a requirement in both the Bohol Tourism and Cebu Pacific websites. “Wala kang QR code?” “Wala, eh, pare, saan yon?” “Nasa instructions. ” “Di mo sinabi sa akin, eh!” So please, don’t be a dumb tourist, especially now.
The airport is a mere five minutes away from Panglao’s Alona Beach, a dazzling strip of white sand that today is less crowded, the feel is almost rural. You can find your little spot and stay there all day, and all kinds of restaurants are open. Because divers usually take off early for dive sites, however, we had to eat an early breakfast, and things were still a little slow; we frequented the restaurant of nearby Pyramid Beach Resort that had a hearty breakfast and good burgers at 7 am, when local workers were already diligently cleaning up the beach.
Lost Horizon is a clean, basic hotel, with comfy beds, airconditioned rooms, and nice balconies for drying out your stuff, comfortable enough for divers who spend most of the day out, anyway; we just wished they opened more lights in the evening!
The locals seemed happy to see visitors. Alona Divers, run by Dumaguete native Joey Jayme, has the most cheerful and helpful staff; we joked around that it felt like they were ready to give you a foot spa, kneeling to attach your fins when you’re geared up, and helping you waddle over in full gear to the edge of the big boat for a giant-stride entry (literally, you just take a big step off the boat).
Our gear was also systematically placed in labeled crates so you know where to dump your stuff after surfacing from every dive—a deal-breaker for divers, who are spoiled in the Philippines. Elsewhere in the world, you get back up on the boat with some 20 lbs of full gear; here, the bangkeros divest you of your burden while you’re still in the water! Still, it’s your responsibility to check if your gear is complete, and more important, if your air tank (it’s not oxygen, BTW) is on.
I am always at a loss for words to describe the feeling when I first hit the water after a long absence
I am always at a loss for words to describe the feeling when I first hit the water after a long absence. The water was beautiful, clear, just the right temperature, and full of fish, and that moment when you swim out over the edge of a wall above an endless drop-off into the bottomless blue is like taking off into flight.
I like to describe a wall dive as God pouring buckets of fish, like aquatic confetti, down the side, as you swim into schools of hundreds of bright purple, yellow, and other brilliantly colored fish. People come to Bohol for the smaller stuff, and we totally tripped on several frogfish we spotted.
A wall dive is God pouring buckets of fish, like aquatic confetti, down the side, as you swim into schools of them
What, you may ask, is a frogfish? They are unique, chunky little members of the anglerfish family (Antennariidae) that grow to about a foot long and walk—yes, walk—on their fins; they’re camouflage experts, and come in the most spectacular colors. They hardly swim, and like to keep perfectly still on the coral. We saw several of the cute critters on our dives on Balicasag Island, declared a marine sanctuary by Presidential Proclamation in 1989, and famed for such dive sites as Black Forest (for the black hard coral) and Diver’s Heaven. A school of jacks used to frequent these waters, but we didn’t see them; it is a sobering possibility that fishermen may have already caught some of them, as we did see several fishing lines in the water.
Panglao looked so different from when I last dove there, with concrete roads and lots of restaurants, but it still feels laid-back and spacious. McDonalds and Jollibee stand beside each other, and McDonalds was blaring out BTS music to plug their BTS meals. Karen searched for an Italian restaurant which, we were told, had closed down.
We did find a two-month-old Indian restaurant, Bollywood Tadka, with kitschy interiors that combined astroturf with industrial beams (go figure)—but the food was absolutely to die for. I recommend the aloo paratha (fried flatbread with potato) and the dhal makhani (creamy black lentils). We discovered that the chef-cum-owner was Nepalese, but married to a woman from Delhi—thus, the authentic food.
I also grabbed the opportunity to say hello to a good friend based in Tagbilaran, graphic designer and artist Felix Mago Miguel and his wife Amel, whose daughters suggested dinner in a beautiful restaurant called Mist, with modern Filipino interiors and an international menu.
Indeed, if you’re looking for an open piece of paradise that’s relatively easy to get to, Bohol is it. Friends say the general requirements are too much trouble, but after this trip, I realized how much places that thrive on tourism have really bled from this pandemic, and how it has become almost a patriotic duty to pour tourism money into our own local destinations first before venturing farther away.
It has become almost a patriotic duty to pour tourism money into our own local destinations first
On our last dive, like a final “thank you” for our efforts, we encountered several huge turtles feeding on the seagrass, quite unperturbed by our presence. We saw a particularly huge green turtle (Chelonia mydas), easily a 300-pounder, kicking up the sand. We watched it for minutes before the creature turned around and came face-to-face with one of my friends, David. Its head was almost as big as his, and for a split second I feared it might charge him (although I have never heard of a turtle do that). Instinctively, David held up a peace sign to its face, about three feet away. The big fellow paused, seemed to nod—and turned to swim lazily away into the blue Bohol sea.