Tarsier Time: Hanging Out With the World’s Smallest Primate

A long-time opponent of zoos, my up-close experience with wild animals has been somewhat limited.  A trip through SE Asia years ago provided brushes with iguanas, water buffalo, and the ubiquitous gecko, but sightings of elephants or tigers evaded me; I refused to visit them in camps, wary of bearing witness to animals who underwent training for the sole purpose of entertaining humans.  Wild creatures of an exotic nature felt like an aspect of the planet destined to remain distant from my own small existence; I sometimes imagined them in their natural habitat, but beyond that didn’t persue learning about them in any sort of focused way.

But teaching elementary-aged curriculum for the last two years has brought discussion of animals into my weekly sphere.  Just this month my grade ones finished units on “Animal Survival” and “How Animals Bathe”, the latter featuring a story called “Splish, Splash, Animal Bath” that showed pictures of giraffes in the wild, pecked clean by flocks of birds called oxpeckers, who perch on the giraffe’s back and eat bugs found in their fur.  During these kind of lessons the kids practice their reading aloud while I marvel at the photos, noting the relationship between bird and giraffe, bear and tree, ape and ape.  My friend Josh has built a career capturing video and photos of animals in the wild, travelling to places like the Galapagos Islands to find species that exist nowhere else on earth.  I think of him crouched on the shores there, zooming in on creatures I’ve never heard of, and turn the page of my grade ones’ textbook, next describing an animal called the okapi–related to the giraffe but striped like a zebra (am I the only one who didn’t know  this creature existed?)–and feel like I’m missing out on something pretty big.

I want to be closer to animals.

I refuse to visit or support an institution that exploits animals for human entertainment.  But in researching the various kinds of conservation-focused places that provide safe, natural habitats for endangered species, protecting them and educating people, I’ve realized it’s possible to see some of these creatures without detracting from their lives.

The Tarsier Sanctuary in Bohol, Philippines is one of these places. Shy, nocturnal, and looking a little like a gremlin, the tarsier is the world’s smallest primate.  (Who knew?) Looking at photos online prior to our visit, I couldn’t decide if it was cute or kinda freaky looking, but I was definitely intrigued.  The Philippines tarsier is endangered due to forest destruction and hunting (apparently the capture and sale of tarsiers to be used as house pets used to be a thriving industry) and the sanctuary is home to ten of them.  Joe and I took a tricycle ride there from Loboc, and were able to spot five tarsiers with the help of our guide.  The whole tour was only about ten minutes long, and our hoped-for jungle hike following it was prevented by rainy weather which had forced the jungle path’s closure, but seeing the tarsiers up close was still worth the trip.

Did I mention each of their eyeballs is as big as their brain?

Entry into the tarsier's forest...(Joe's photo)

So shy

Mom and baby

They're so tiny

Taking a break...from naptime


Loboc, Bohol Island, In Pictures

Waking to 6 a.m. rain and rooster calls, fried eggs for breakfast, fried eggs for dinner, packs of children trailing us on the Barangay dirt road, a marching band that travels from house to house each year for forty days, the sea-green river, wide wooden floor planks of a 15th-century church, cats, a clock tower, bananas and Red Horse beer, a porch rope hammock and again, rain, beading on the leaf-tips, threatening to let go.

This was Loboc.

(Click on a photo to enlarge and view in a carousel…it’s better that way.)

(* means the photo was taken by Joe)

Journey to the Jungle

It’s 12:25 a.m. on Sunday, the eve before Korea’s Lunar New Year, temperature for tomorrow predicted at -1.  I’ve been typing away on a couple marketing projects all day,  while Joe fried beans for seven-layer dip, trucked to Home Plus for a bottle of wine, some Johnnie Walker Red, a pineapple, other colourful things. Now he is chopping mushrooms for pasta salad, preparing for our overnight trip tomorrow with friends to a pension in Yangsan.  The train will leave from Bujeon Station at 10:30 a.m.  I haven’t packed but the Philippines is fading and between preparing to leave Korea (38 days!), selling my bookcase, my couch, my mirrors, teaching, writing text for websites and reading up on Rajasthan (11 hours, the guide book says, from Delhi to Ajmer, then 30 minutes to Pushkar…) the blog has been on an unwanted pause.

But I want to tell you about the jeepney ride to Barangay Valladolid, and the Cathedral square lit up with white lights, and show you the Loboc River, and our jungle hut…


The air in Tagbilaran was warm and dark when the boat to Bohol docked.  Men rushed toward us as we walked from the long port exit into a parking lot, calling out, “Where are you going? Where are you going?  Where are you . . .” We’d been instructed by the staff of Nipa Hut Village to catch a tricycle from the port to a jeepney pick-up point called Island City Mall, then ride a jeepney for an hour to a town called Loboc, getting off at a village called Barangay Valladolid.  A man would be waiting with a motorbike to drive us to the huts.

A tricycle–one of the most common forms of transport in the Philippines–is a motorcycle with a ceilinged sidecar and a third wheel.  The bench accommodates two, but another seat is attached to the back and one or two people can share the driver’s seat, and with laps put to use the whole contraption can carry five or six, the motor chugging up hills, crosses and little plastic Jesus’ or Mary’s hanging off the mirror along for the ride.

First of many tricycle rides

The jeepney pick-up was chaotic and crowded.  Our destination, it turned out, wasn’t one a jeepney was headed to, at least not this night, which was Christmas night and appeared to have altered routes and times. A light rain began to fall as we piled into the back of another jeepney going to the Plaza Cathedral, told by a man we could transfer there to one heading our direction.  Hands tapped on my back as we waited to pull out calling ma’am, ma’am, Merry Christmas, palms ready to open.

The jeepney took us elsewhere, Plaza Central, where none of the tricycle or jeepney drivers we asked seemed to recognize the words Barangay Valladolid.  We asked one and suddenly ten would crowd around, shaking their heads, pointing, talking to each other, then eventually wandering off.  At last a tricycle driver told us we needed to be at Plaza Cathedral, drove us there, convinced a jeepney driver with a full load of passengers to extend his route and take us to the outskirts of Loboc, where Barangay Valladolid would be.  Across from the cathedral white lights lit up a square, dangling from trees, people jostling through the pathways, jeepneys honking up and down the street.  We sat with the driver up front, waiting.  Would someone with a motorbike really be waiting at Valladolid?  The journey was taking twice as long as we’d predicted, the time we’d said we’d arrive creeping closer.

We took off, the stick shift swiping my thigh, the driver, a short, round man with wavy hair, dropping his cigarette out the window.  The engine rattled as we drove, climbing out of the city, stopping once for gas, a boy, maybe ten years old, hopping down from the jeepney’s bumper to the station and back, then swinging the bottle of gas to the driver, who set it down by his feet.  “Your son?” Joe asked him.  “Yes,” he said, nodding. “My son.”

The jeepney wound out of the city and onto the main road; there would be no further turns.  One long road and the night, maybe fifteen passengers in back, two young girls on their mom’s lap directly behind our heads.  I rearranged my legs to avoid the stick shift, my bag somewhere on the roof, Joe’s pack between his legs, the engine chugging loudly.  People hopped off at unmarked stops, one or two at a time, until only us and one other man remained, close to an hour gone.  At last we pulled over, one of the signs to our left reading “Nipa Hut Village” with an arrow pointing down a wide gravel path.  No one was there.  “This is your stop,” the driver said, as we tried to explain there should be someone waiting.  He shrugged, already on the road late on Christmas night, driving foreigners to a destination off his regular route.  We sat like that a couple minutes, not wanting to get out with no one around, unsure how far the huts would be to walk.

And then two men, only one visible at first, then the other, pulled up alongside the path; the driver called out, they nodded.  They were there to pick us up.  Sitting on the back of the bike I wedged my duffel bag between my chest and the driver’s back and gripped the metal handle behind me, saying “Slow, please,” cursing myself for not bringing the backpack my friend Amanda had offered to lend me for the trip.  We rode, Joe and his driver behind, passing through Barangay after Barangay, which, we would learn, was the Filippino term for village. The Loboc River was beside us but I couldn’t see it in the dark, my mind focused on the speed of the bike and the grip of my fingers, a small gasp emerging every time we hit a bump.  Ten minutes later, we arrived.

Nipa Hut Village in daylight

Home for two nights

Inside with the mosquito net up

Our jungle hut bathroom

Loboc River

Pics of Loboc coming soon… xo

Tombstones and Firecrackers, Cebu Afternoon

We stepped out Palazzo’s doors after a breakfast of eggs and instant coffee, our bags still newly packed, the port a 10-minute cab ride away, our boat to Bohol scheduled to depart at noon.  A boy smiled to me from the Pensionne’s road and the cab pulled up, a figurine of Mary dangling from the rearview mirror as the driver placed our bags in the trunk and we piled into the back.  During the ride a girl holding a baby scurried from the curb where she sat to our window, tapping on it while the driver waited for the light to turn green, the baby’s hair matted to its head, the skin on its scalp red and dry and bumpy, unwashed, the girl, maybe 13, peering through the glass, tapping on it with her knuckles, her eyes pleading, the baby sleeping.  The light changed.

Palazzo Pensionne, home for the night

At the port we learned our noon boat wasn’t sailing Christmas Day, which hadn’t been mentioned on the site Joe searched back in Busan.  Another boat to Bohol with a different company would depart, we were told, at 3:30 that afternoon.  It was 11 a.m.  Killing four hours at the ticket office didn’t appeal to either of us, so we climbed into a cab, rode it back to Palazzo, stored our bags, and left to walk through Cebu City, a black and white map folded into the pocket of my shorts.  The trees were an iridescent shade of green against the concrete. People called out Merry Christmas everywhere we walked, past homes with barbed wire strung above the gates, down a narrow side street where a church service was ending, along a busy main road crowded with jeepneys–colourful trucks that delivered citizens around the city for a few pesos, stopping when someone tapped the ceiling with a knuckle or coin.

Chapel and firearm poster

From the cab I’d noticed a wall of tombstones and an entryway–to a cemetery I assumed–so with the time to explore I suggested we try to find it.  The map led us there, flower-selling women waving as we crossed the street toward them.

Outside the cemetery. Photo by Joe

Inside, roofless rooms housed graves and their Christmas Day visitors, women and men laying on hammocks or sitting on cement steps, waiting for nothing, watching the afternoon air.  Kids played among the cemetery grounds, lighting firecrackers, aiming a basketball at a hoop with no net; was this their playground or did they live here?

Tombstones stacked in plaster and cement surrounded a field where boys played and ran…

Photo by Joe

and kids wandered, following each other through the tombstone paths.

Photo by Joe

This boy held the firecracker stick…

Photo by Joe

This girl asked me to take her picture, posing beside the star.

Another firecracker lit, time to run…

Photo by Joe

Photo by Joe

After, I bought a cold bottle of sprite from a shop on the street and we sat curbside, watching the jeepney’s drive by…

Photo by Joe

then walked some more.

A deal for the dealers?

Someone's front yard. Photo by Joe

On the map we saw a street called Alcohol Road.  Curious, we made our way there, the time creeping closer to our boat’s departure.  Perhaps it was in the area for tourists, an avenue of bars where they flock on holiday.  We turned a corner and followed the map. No sign marked it, but the street’s location matched the map’s black line.  People sat on the side steps of their homes, music playing from ghetto blasters or old televisions, kids gathered next to a yard populated with chickens and a couple grey goats.  They called out Merry Christmas as we walked along their road, no bar in sight, just people celebrating the day.


Next up: Journey to Lobok

Christmas Morning, Cebu City

View from our hotel room in Cebu City

Waking up Christmas morning in the Philippines I felt more like myself than I had in months in Korea, though I suppose I’ll always feel that way waking in a new country, new flip flops on the floor, a light sweat that emerged in the night, and curtains drawn before an unknown window, the shapes and colours of its view still dark upon the midnight arrival.  I wake and remember I am somewhere I have never been.  This place that has always existed without me now exists as a part of my experience, something I can touch, and fold into my memories–one of which is a roasted pig that was laying on tinfoil on the countertop and served up the night before as part of Palazzo Pensionne’s Christmas Eve buffet, its pink head resting, half-eaten when we arrived, next to a bowl of spaghetti noodles.  A Philippino woman with dark hair to her waist watching a re-run of the American Music Awards told us to help ourselves. “It was cold,” Joe says now, when I ask him how the pork tasted. “It had been out for awhile.”

The hotel staff and a few small kids who must have belonged to the staff had called out Merry Christmas as we stepped from the taxi and into reception, past the guard dressed in uniform and looking friendly even with a gun slung across his belt.  The air-conditioner in our room was loud, rattling against the wall.  I didn’t care.  The bed was soft and I would awake in Cebu City, boarding a boat to Bohol that afternoon. We’d booked two nights in a hut next to a river and a jungle and four nights in a hut on an island called Siquijor.  My sinuses were blocked and my head pulsed with a muted but continuous ache from a cold I’d been battling the last week, but I was convinced the tropical air would cure me.

(More soon!)

Philippines Peek

We’re back in Busan, with stories to tell.

I’ve got a few scrapes from a motorcycle spill, and our bank accounts took a dip after we had to buy brand new full-fare plane tickets back to Korea following a missed flight due to a cancelled boat–but the trip was wonderful.

More posts and photos coming this week 🙂

Happy New Year with love!

On a "tricycle" (motorbike with third wheel, driver and passenger seats) on Bohol, Philippines

Holiday Hello

Hello friends, family, and all my Coco Busan readers out there!

Wishing you all very Happy Holidays!  I hope this finds you relaxing with awesome people, sweet tunes, and something warm, cozy and fireplace-ish.  This week I was really craving a hangout around a crackling fire, and also remembering past seasonal festivities such as Boxing Day shenanigans in Victoria and chill-out time with my mom and bro.  Next year I will be back in my home-hood for Christmas 2012, but this year, the season is promising something a little different.

In five hours I’ll be boarding a plane to this island-filled country…

with my guy Joe…

Joe at the top of Busan Tower

where we’ll be spending a couple nights on the island of Bohol at a place called Nipa Hut Village

Nipa Hut Village, Bohol

and then catching a boat to Siquijor Island, where we’ve booked this rustic little number…

Hut #4: The Helen

for three days at a spot on the beach called Islander’s Paradise.

Needless to say, I’m stoked.  Aside from a 24-hour jaunt to Shanghai back in July 2010, this will be the first time I’ve left Korea since moving here almost two years ago.  This girl is ready for a change of scenery, especially one that involves two of my fav’s: jungles and beaches.

Sending love and holiday wishes to all of you, from me and my kiddies…

Reindeer ears and kindie kids

See you in 2012!

xo ~Coco