Saturday, September 05, 2009

Snapshots and Flip-flops: Cebu Pacific Holds Online Travel Journal Photo Contest

We did the touristy works in Bohol, one of the Philippines’ destinations of the moment, an island province at the heart of the archipelago with nice beaches, diving sites, a clean river to cruise on, old churches, intriguing fauna, landmarks that are worth your while, well-appointed resorts and an overall rustic feel much touted and romanticized by stressed out city dwellers.

A burst of rain welcomed us when we arrived the first day of July, the start of the run of Cebu Pacific’s Wandering Juan, a Web site in which its customers can create their own travel photo blogs. The best ones will win trips. The rules are: They must be creative and they must incorporate the tsinelas or flip-flops in the photos.

Why the tsinelas? Although it is of Japanese origin and design, the tsinelas has been part of Philippine popular culture, supplanting the traditional the wooden clogs called bakya as the footwear of choice around the home, when going to the market and even when on excursions. Once relegated as "lowly" or "uncouth," the flip-flops became fashionable with the surge of branded ones, particularly the Brazilian Havaianas. Not just worn around the house and palengke, the flip-flops are now also worn inside malls and offices.

Like footprints, the tsinelas has become a symbol of an itinerant lifestyle. And how Filipinos on excursions love to boast "I was there" indirectly, via photographs of themselves with the landmarks. Never mind if they don’t know the history and meaning of those landmarks. There will always be kodakan moments along the journey. The pictures will be shared with friends, most often as pang-iingit.

Now, with easy access to digital technology and the Internet, pictures are not only shared with friends, but with the larger public. Travel photos are posted in online journals and blogs, spawning travel photo blogs—not much words, only photos.
Cebu Pacific makes use of old loves and a new craze for their latest promotion: The Wandering Juan online travel journal photo contest.

"Wandering Juan provides Pinoy and Pinoy-at-heart travelers a venue where they can brandish their travel achievements for all the world to see," said Candice Iyog, Cebu Pacific vice president for marketing and distribution.

The country’s popular budget airline has been one of the spurs for Filipinos to travel around the country. The country’s topography, an archipelago, and the high cost of transportation have been restricting travel around the country. Now, with Cebu Pacific’s low-cost promotions, different destinations are made relatively accessible.

Travel spurs travel photo blogs, which inspires more travels. In the case of Wandering Juan, creative travel photo blogs win more travels.

The contest runs from July to October 2009, and accepts entries taken during that time and in Cebu Pacific destinations both local and international. Those who wish to join the contest must create a visual journal of their travel experiences — photos featuring their tsinelas in landmarks and sites they’ve visited, with people they’ve met or in a sequence a la travelogue story. The complete mechanics may be viewed at the Wandering Juan site, At stake are trips to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.

Incidentally, if contestants want their entries printed, they can avail of Cebu Pacific’s Fun Prints service, which is operated and maintained by Mozcom, the Philippines’ first commercial Internet service provider.

"This is a good time to be a traveler and learn more about the world and our places in it, given all the affordable options and unique services that make travel dreams possible and more meaningful," Iyog enthused.

We, a group of journalists, had sort of a test run in Bohol, a lovely place to do it. Cebu Pacific has daily flights to Tagbilaran, the capital of the island province.

Bohol is a rising star of Philippine tourism together with Palawan. Like Palawan, Bohol has interesting sites, resorts, beaches and tourism structures that make going to the sites and beaches painless. They also retain their precious provincial feel characterized mostly by the lushness of the vegetation and the lesser incidence of crowdedness. Many people complain of its "sedateness," of it being too laidback and too rustic, and the lack of a nightlife. But you don’t travel here for the nightlife; you had better remain in the city.

We booked for the popular Bohol Countryside Tour, which takes you around the island’s popular spots, including the famous Chocolate Hills.

From Tagbilaran, we went about 20 kilometers east to the town of Loboc for a river cruise. The start of the tour was at the Loboc Tourism Complex, by the Loay Bridge and across the old and august Loboc Church, where there are souvenir shops, a multi-purpose hall, restrooms, booking stalls for the river cruise and the floating restaurants. The restaurants were barges really with tables and chairs that can accommodate about 50 passengers and pushed by a motorized banca. Lunch was served buffet style, while the barge glided further inland. There was entertainment—a girl singing an incongruous repertoire of folk and pop songs—while we passed by fields, huts, other floating restaurants and coconut groves. Some portions of the river bank were spruced up with ornamental plants, mostly cannas, and ornamental lampposts, a jarring sight among banana trees and coconuts. We made a stopover in a riverside shed in the barangay of Gotozon for dances and rondalla music, a livelihood project in tourism. There were much kodakan. At a point we turned around and headed back to the tourist complex.

The Chocolate Hills are located in the middle interior of the island, more than an hour’s drive from Loboc. Going out of Loboc, we through the Tina-i sa Manok, literally "chicken intestine," a portion of the road that winds around the mountains, and passed through two kilometers of highway fringed and canopied by a "man-made forest."

The forest, about 800 hectares in the towns of Loboc and Bilar, of mahogany trees growing in an orderly manner looked beautiful in its uniformity, the result of a reforestation program in the 1960s. Today, tourists frequently make brief stops to take pictures. At the time we went, it was probably the mating season of the giant millipedes. The millipedes here are many times larger than the ones found in Luzon—creepy but peaceful little critters. The first time I saw one was in Mabinay, Negros Oriental. They were brown. In Capiz in Panay Island, they were bottle green. Here in Bohol, they were blue.

In Bilar, the Chocolate Hills began to appear—huge limestone mounds like islands on the bristling green sea of rice stalks. There are about 1,500 of these haycock hills scattered on the island’s central plain, mostly in the towns of Carmen, Batuan and Sagbayan. They turn brown during the summer, looking like giant Hershey’s Kisses, hence the name. This early part of the rainy season, they were green.

To have a panoramic view of the hills, we went to the barangay of Buenos Aires in Carmen, where the Chocolate Hills Complex, with its old tourist facilities, was built on two hills. Concrete stairs of 214 steps lead one to the view deck where much kodakan happens. The view of hills is truly impressive from this vantage point.

Aside form the Chocolate Hills, which amazes me every time I see them, another iconic image of Bohol is the tarsier, the smallest primate, endemic to the island. Every tourist will want to see a tarsier, which is nocturnal and currently endangered. Many roadside eateries keep one or two in small cage to attract visitors. By the Loboc River, there is a walk-in cage where visitors can see them up-close and feed them crickets. Despite warnings, visitors get away with touching or poking the animal as supervision is lax. Protocol is strictly observed at the Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary in the town of Corella , 14 kilometers northeast of Tagbilaran City.

Managed by the Philippine Tarsier Foundation, a non-stock, non-profit organization established in 1996 that aims to conserve and promote the tarsier, the sanctuary maintains about 130 hectares of secondary growth forest on the foothills of the barangay of Canapnapan.

The sanctuary has a large cage where the tarsiers live, maintained by Carlito Pizarras, who is frequently interviewed in articles and documentaries. Called the "Tarsier Man," Pizarras once caught and sold tarsiers. Now, he is conservationist, working with the sanctuary.

Staff members accompanied and guided us as we searched for tarsiers among the thick growth. We found about five, including a mother and her baby.

Out last stop was the Baclayon Church. Bohol is known for its old churches, which mostly retain their original features. The churches of Loboc, Loon, Dauis, Maribojoc and Panglao are the outstanding ones, and Baclayon is the oldest of them all.

About six kilometers east of Tagbilaran, the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception of Baclayon was built in the early 18th century by the Jesuit missionaries using huge blocks of coral stones. Beside it is a school and an old convent with a museum housing relics and religious items, dating back as far as the 16th century. In the late afternoon, students spilled out of the school, some gathering at the small park by the sea, in the shadow of the church that faces the sea, austere, gray and eternal.

We retired in the modern comforts of Amorita Resort in the island of Panglao, 18 kilometers away from Tagbilaran. Panglao lies on the southwest of the main island of Bohol connected by a bridge and a causeway. The towns of Panglao and Dauis are located on this island, and also Alona Beach, with its one-and-half kilometer stretch of white sand and string of resorts. Opened in 2008, Amorita is one of the newest resorts in the tourist strip and perhaps the most prominent, being perched on a cliff overlooking Alona Beach.

Amorita has 20 deluxe rooms and two sky suites at a hotel near the reception, and 14 villas, six of which have a view of the Bohol Sea, spread over the landscaped garden lush with palms, hibiscus and birds of paradise. With 150 square meters, each villa has a wooden gate, which leads to a private plunge pool and the room, Zen-like in its cleanness of design.
Though the resort has no beachfront, it has an enviable view. Guests are afforded a panorama of the Alona stretch, best enjoyed at the infinity pool, or at the restaurant or at a platform where dinner can be set under the trees and globular lamps and diners can feel as if floating toward the sea and sunset. The open-air Saffron Restaurant, so named because of the color of the sunset which casts a lovely glow on the restaurant, is where one can watch the beautiful sunsets of Bohol and enjoy comfort food.

We imbibed the view while sipping cocktails and lying on the lounges. With legs propped up, the whole Alona Beach with its waving palms and bobbing white boats on turquoise water seemed to be at our feet. We simply had to take pictures.

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