Editor's Pick

Amazing Grace


Two years after an earthquake shook the very landscape of the province, Bohol is back on its feet—just as beautiful, and stronger than ever.

Story by
Lou Albano
Photography by
Videography by
Francisco Guerrero
Read Time
Location Tag

The Tarsiers were acting weird.

Carlitos Pizzaras, the heart and soul of The Tarsier Foundation in Corella, had been studying the tarsiers since he was 12 years old. He couldn’t understand: why were his tarsiers—usually languid and indolent in the morning—behaving like they were on grade A MDMA? They were nervous and jumpy; highly unlike themselves.

And then it happened: just past 8 o’clock the next morning, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake shook Bohol. About 200 people died, over 900 were injured, several thousand structures were reduced to rubble, and a few interior towns were isolated. Maribojoc and Loon were two of the most devastated towns.

“First time talaga na nakatanggap ng medyo gan’un mula sa kalikasan,” says Boholano Peter Ross Lomantas, an employee of the local DSWD who was in the middle of the sea when the quake struck.

Historic churches, some from the 16th and 17th centuries, were damaged in the quake.

“Kita mo yung mga tarsiers, nandoon na sa lupa, kasi nagsh-shake  ’yung mga puno. Ayaw nila ’yun kasi malalaglag sila,” narrates Pizzaras, who ran to the Foundation as soon as he sorted his situation at home. “Pero kahit nasa lupa na sila, may space between them [pa rin]. Nagpapaka-loner pa rin sila. Kanya-kanya sila doon, isa-isa lang. Yung iba nagtatago sa mga dahon.”

In the town of Inabanga, an hour and a half’s drive away from Corella, townsfolk have it that a farmer did as the tarsiers: He rushed out of his house and dropped to the ground. But what came next, neither earthquake primers nor drills could prepare him for. While still on his knees, he saw the ground throbbing open, beating like an angry metronome. It was cracking horizontally, as though giving birth, or trying to not give birth to something from beneath. (“Parang sa movie na 2012, ma’am,” a local would reference the apocalyptic film, trying to better explain it to me.) And then right before his eyes, the flat farmland just behind his house shot up 10 feet above ground.

It would later on be known as the North Bohol fault line, but the farmer wouldn’t be there to hear it. As the story has it, he fled Bohol to go to Cebu, where he’s seeking psychiatric help. “Na-buang siya, ma’am.”

And then: giggle. The townsfolk demurely giggle as though they said a nasty joke. It was this giggle, more than the incredulous story, that would make a stronger impression on me. Who knew Boholanos had such a wicked sense of humor?

Pretty much everyone in Bohol has an earthquake story to tell; that’s not surprising. The amusing thing is how they usually finish telling their tales with a certain kind of lightness, often a giggle or a quasi-laugh. It’s clear they’re not simply brushing off the gravity of the situation like a coward who can’t deal. It’s that, two years later, they’ve pretty much moved on.

Carlitos Pizzaras, conservationist and champion of Philippine tarsiers
Unless you head to these places, it’s difficult to feel—or even see—this devastation now.
SUP Tours serves the active-sports market, a growing sector in the province’s tourism industry.

“Everyone’s been busy,” says Father Ted Torralba as he moves around the curia of the Bohol Cathedral. His term paper, titled The State of Sacred Art in Tagbilaran, jumpstarted the creation of a Commission of Cultural Heritage of the Church in the Diocese of Bohol back in the ’90s. He’s been the department head ever since, restoring heritage churches—which come aplenty in Bohol. But on this Monday morning in July, he oversees the construction of the Diocesan Curia, just behind the Cathedral.

He’s been particularly busy: as reported in the media, the province lost a lot of its beautiful old churches to the quake. There are 11 structures that were declared needed to be restored, rebuilt or reconstructed, but he says there are actually about 25, and he’s getting down and dirty to get them back up.

“A month after the quake, we decided we needed to stand up and do something,” he says. His statement brings to mind the popular social media campaigns “Bangon, Bohol” and “Tulong na, Tabang na”—a testament that the province just... you know, kind of kicked itself up and into action.

Josephine Cabbarus, one of the heads at the Bohol Tourism Office, admits that while the quake left Boholanos demoralized and traumatized, it only took the province all of one week to get moving.

“Natatawa nga ako,” she begins her story. “After the quake, the tourism council had to go around the province to check the sites. A lot of the roads were broken, so we had to go by interior roads. Everybody was using those—public transport, volunteers. You know, who was taking care of the traffic in these roads? The kids! Some of them as young as four years old. May mga dala pa silang flaglets. Walang pasok, nagkusa sila. Wow, ’di ba? The roads were narrow and very dusty, there were blind curves but they were there. They were giving their share; they wanted to help. I found them so cute, but it does move you to tears.”

This proactive spirit of volunteerism is echoed throughout the province: The Loboc Children’s Choir, for instance, took it upon themselves to go on tour to help raise funds. “They started here in Loboc, then went to Manila for several fundraising performances,” continues Josephine.

Panglao island, one of Bohol’s most popular destinations, quickly organized themselves and became something of a center for logistics. “[They] really took it upon themselves; they went out of their way to help,” Josephine says.

Pretty much everyone in Bohol has an earthquake story to tell; that’s not surprising.

“Yung mga donations na para sa Panglao, hindi na nila tinanggap. Pinasa na lang nila sa ibang LGUs na mas nangangailangan,” says Peter. Some of the Panglao resorts offered their rooms to volunteers of the relief efforts as their way of helping out. The Panglao port was where pretty much everybody took off to buy generator sets in surrounding provinces. It was also the takeoff point for the distribution of relief goods to municipalities rendered remote by land travel.

In the days following the quake, everyone in Bohol just got to work. Even Boholanos who weren’t there when it happened rushed back home to help. Bohol waited for no one to save them, and that’s very impressive, but here’s where the province’s quiet resolve will move even the most jaded: When Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) hit Tacloban just 24 days after the quake shook Bohol, Boholanos immediately diverted their attention—and whatever donations came their way—to the devastated Leyte province.

“Mas kailangan po talaga nila ang tulong,” Peter says. “Masama talaga ’yung kalagayan nila.”

Authorities and locals alike will tell you that the 2013 quake forever changed the landscape of Bohol: The municipalities of Maribojoc and Loon fell on its knees. The famed Chocolate Hills surprised everyone when it revealed itself to be white on the inside. They say the whole province is now closer to Cebu.

Apart from the farmland that shot up 10 feet high in Inabanga, Maribojoc now also has a wider coastline thanks to the lifting of the seabed. “There’s a part along the Inabanga coast that used to be a shore; now it’s part of the sea,” says Joannie of the Tarsier Foundation, who’s from Inabanga herself.

But unless you visit these places, it’s difficult to feel—or even see—the devastation now. All over the province, people are calm, sweet, and easy-going. Tourist sites have all but recovered. It took an insistent driver pointing out the already-repaired cracks on the bridge connecting Tagbilaran to Panglao before we even noticed cracks on them. The driver also pointed out the ruins of Dauis church, one of the 11 heritage structures badly damaged by the quake—now looking as if there was regular maintenance work on an old church.

“Okay kami dito. You can come here; it’s business as usual. Bohol is as beautiful as ever.”

On Alona Beach, there were enough visitors for a full moon party to take place during the low season, and The Tarsier Foundation is happy to share that it has successfully survived the slow year of 2014. It’s now back to servicing nearly a hundred guests a day, double their 50-visitors-a-day rate of the previous year. “Okay na ulit,” smiles Carlitos. “Pati yung volunteers namin, back to normal na. Siguro yung nagbago, yung length of stay: Before the quake, they [used to] stay for 10 months. Ngayon, five months na lang.”

At the Astoria Resort, a boutique hotel in the town of Baclayon, near the Bohol capital of Tagbilaran

“There’s extra effort on our end to put the word out there,” Josephine says. “Our [goal] really is to communicate to the world na okay kami dito. You can come here; it’s business as usual. Bohol is as beautiful as ever. Alam mo, hindi naman talaga yung earthquake yung naka-apekto sa Bohol, eh. It was Yolanda.” Bohol gets its electricity supply from Leyte, so when Yolanda smashed into the province, darkness pretty much fell on the island. “How could we operate big establishments without electricity?” she asks.

“Matagal [nawalan] ng kuryente dito, ma’am; na-bog down talaga ang Bohol,” says Peter. Panglao residents say it must’ve been five months of blackouts. “Kaya mga generator talaga ang binili namin,” says Cristina Abrau, a Panglao resident. “Nagsibalikan lang ang mga turista mga February 2014 na.”

It didn’t help that media coverage was also guilty of generalization. “They said General Visayas [was affected by Yolanda] but in truth, Tacloban lang naman,” says Joannie. “So yung mabagal na rate ng bisita, hindi lang dahil sa lindol. Dahil rin sa Yolanda—nag-double calamity, so people were expecting something else to happen.”

“Pero salamat na rin,” Peter good-naturedly considers. “Kasi sa forecast nun, sa Bohol din dapat papunta si Yolanda. Hindi siya nagtuloy.”

The quake shook Bohol, but it also opened the province a bit more to some goodness—or blessing, or love, or whatever you want to call the positivity it received after. Maribojoc’s wider shoreline has become an in-the-bag attraction for beach visitors, and the newly-discovered North Bohol Fault Line’s fixtures and signs tell us that it’s gotten plenty of curious visits. Even the ruined churches have become popular destinations—people want to see what’s left of them. Everybody we spoke to told us there’s been an influx of people visiting Bohol, and staying there to live, strengthening the province’s human resources.

The restoration work on heritage structures, which Father Ted has rallied for all these years, is finally being given some semblance of importance: “We had restoration plans before the earthquake, but [in the aftermath, it shifted] to a larger scale,” he says. Training is now more in depth, and there are courses developed, offered, and fast-tracked as a result of the quake. “Bohol has the highest concentration of historic and heritage structures—including the highest number of pipe organs—outside Manila, and the highest concentration of ceiling paintings. We lost all of them when we lost the churches; that’s why we’re really trying to restore them. This work will never end. It is monumental.”

But the biggest and most important... gift, if you may, that the quake gave to the province, was the local government finally fast-tracking the construction of the Panglao International Airport.

It’s the talk of the town, with locals sounding supremely excited. “Prinopose yata ‘yan nung ’80s pa, pero after the quake lang siya nag-materialize,” says Peter. True to form, on our way to Panglao from Tagbilaran, both sides of the road showed work getting done. It was clear, however, that it’s only begun—at the end of summer, in fact—and has a long, long way to go.

News reports say the airport will feature eco-sustainable technologies, echoing directly the new tree-hugging plans of the Bohol Tourism office.

“A lot of our new tourism packages came after the quake, but it’s not because of the quake,” says Josephine. “The Panglao Airport was fast-tracked after the quake, so we’re thinking it’ll have an environmental impact. That’s why we’re coming up with different packages and highlighting different destinations—we need to decongest Panglao.”

At the moment, eco-tourism benefitting local communities is front and center of Bohol’s tourism plans. “We highlighted Tubigon’s loom weaving, for instance, and the organic demo farm in Maribojoc.” Though tree-hugging and do-gooder activities aren’t new to Bohol; long before relief volunteers came, establishments like Vicky Wallace Sandidge’s Bee Farm have attracted environmentalists and non-profit do-gooders since opening in 2002.

There were no signs of the quake at the farm—from the place nor the people.

What started as a hobby—she simply loved gardening local root crops and then bee-farming “because I love insects”—organically grew: From one hectare of land and four employees, the Bohol Bee Farm is now an 86-employee business spread out across four locations in the province.

The farm now sits in a sprawling 7-hectare property in Panglao. Wooden planks define the indoor space where a huge restaurant is found. A grocery and ice creamery welcome the visitor, while the eight rooms of their bed and breakfast are hidden in the perimeter of the property. Guests can swim in the sea just below the restaurant, which is decorated like a family’s ancestral home. It’s a huge property frequented not just by the NGOs, but also by tourists from around the world. Somehow, it successfully avoids selling out.

We visited on a Sunday afternoon, as Typhoon Egay was making itself felt: it was dark and gloomy, and fucking cold. But in Vicky’s restaurant, we were warm and cozy, served with a delicious stew. There were no signs of the quake at the farm—from the place nor the people. It was as if it didn’t happen, even as a dream.

On our last afternoon in Bohol, the good folk of Astoria Bohol took us to the Baluarte, a provincial seaside park in Baclayon where couples go to for some quality time, and kids go for a sweet bike ride on the long outstretched pier. Boholano boys would dive during the low tide for some pearls, maybe, or for a quick kick to end the day. We still had a full hour before the golden hour of 5 PM, but our surroundings had already turned quiet.

Nature’s power was on full display—dark clouds began to layer themselves, the strong wind was beginning to annoy, and the rushing waves warned of bad weather—but also in full display was Nature’s restraint: The clouds converted a usually harsh 4 PM sun into a soft glow, the rays of El Sol cracking through the nimbus, ever-so-faintly reaching out to the sea. You kind of had to stand still and to take it all in, and if you believed in a higher power, you felt compelled to murmur a prayer of thanks.


This story was originally published in GRID Issue 09.

This story was originally published in

Issue 09 | Amazing Grace

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