Blood compact, anyone?
by Preeti Verma Lal
"Exactly 1,268 mounds of chocolate? Or, a drop of blood in the wine chalice? It is lunch time, take your pick”. In Bohol , the tenth largest island in the Philippines , the guide with a bamboo hat and an embroidered hand fan, left me baffled with her bewildering lunch options. My jaw dropped. I was flummoxed. Chocolate? Naah. God packed me off without a sweet tooth, so even an ounce of chocolate weighs a mound for me. Wine? Naah. It certainly is ambrosia in the god’s neighbourhood, but not for the teetotaler me. “Have the wine for friendship? It is a blood compact”, the guide insisted with a guffaw. A Shylock impersonator, I wondered. A hand of friendship and a drop of blood! In the land where pintados (tattooed ones) were the first settlers, my jaw dropped a few inches further.
“Let’s get the dagger out, slit our arms, mix the blood in wine and become blood sisters,” the obdurate guide repeated. I squirmed. “Like that…” she craned her neck out of the coach window and pointed to a sculpture in Barangay Bool. The Blood Compact Commemorative Shrine depicts the historical event of March 16, 1565 , when the native chieftain Datu Sikatuna and Spanish explorer Miguel Lopez de Legazpi signed the first treaty of friendship between the brown and white race. The friendship was sealed with a drop of blood mixed in a pint of wine, an event that is celebrated every year in Bohol as Sandugo Festival.
I sighed. Thankfully, wine was ticked off the lunch menu, but mounds of chocolate were staring ominously. “You would have to walk up 214 steps for the Chocolate Hills”, the guide’s warning boomed. I looked at my colossal camera bag and my stilettos and baulked. So, it is not really chocolate, but a geological miracle called Chocolate Hills that is Bohol ’s most touristy destination. Lend your ear to folklore and you would hear about the squabbling giants who threw stones and sand at each other and the hills are reminders of the mess that the grumpy giants left behind. Get more geological and Chocolate Hills become the weathered formation of marine limestone on top of an impermeable layer of clay. The chocolate simile derives from the fact that during the dry season the grass turns brown making them look like chocolate mounds.
In the island 626 kilometres south of Manila , after the wine and chocolate spoof, I knew not what waited. The coach sped through the mangrove forest, perhaps the most biologically diverse mangrove ecosystem in the Philippines . The lush green fields looked enchanting against the turquoise backdrop of the sea, with little sandy islets breaking the monotony of the blue. Faraway stood the Immaculate Conception Church , a stone church often touted as the country’s oldest church.
The clang of the bells got jumbled with the hoot of the floating boat restaurants on the meandering Loboc River . Finally, the lunch mystery was over. On the boat, lay a lavish spread that was specially prepared by a Filipino chef who had rustled up samosas and biryani. As the boat languorously went past nipa and coconut trees and a local Elvis hurriedly strummed a guitar and belted out Presley numbers, I forgot all about the lunch slapstick that the Bohol trip began with.
I just had a day in Bohol , the island which probably takes its name from Boho (literally, holes). The itinerary was cluttered with butterflies and dinner in an organic bee farm, but I was ready to forego everything to see the tarsier, the world’s smallest primate. Barely a handful, with grey fur and nearly naked tail, the tarsier weighs about 140 grams. Clinging to twigs, the tarsier resembles painted pictures straight out of a storybook. They are cuddly, but their eyes which are larger than their brains look frightening – they seem to dangle out of the tiny face.
That night I curled up in a bed by which hung an advisory: Beware of pythons. That night, pythons did not mosey up to me. That night, I dreamt god had shrunk me – I had metamorphosed into a tarsier and was leaping from a tree in search of cockroaches for lunch… In Bohol , I shrugged the nightmare. I did not want to be tarsier; I was ready to sign a blood compact with god. Anyone.
The Economic Times, 2010