WHY THE PATHS BENEATH OUR FEET SHAPE WHAT'S LOST AND FOUND IN THE NEW NORMAL
On March 16, 2020, the Governor of Bohol placed the entire island province in community quarantine even without confirmed COVID-19 cases in the province. “A lockdown means nobody comes in and out,” the governor reinforced. This was the start of what would be more than a year-long standstill for Boholanos, who, much like their short rivers, depended on the ebbs and flows of outsiders. For outdoor adventurers Rey Donaire, Bradley Ross Rayner, and Jammy Ungab, this could have been akin to a prison sentence. Instead, they used the lockdown to map out old, unpeopled forest and river trails that had not had human contact for years.
“I was never interested in discovering Bohol before. My free time was always spent somewhere else,” says paddler, spearfisher, and ingrained Boholano Bradley, answering how it can be plausible that there could be more to discover in his 4,821 square-kilometer island hometown despite it receiving 4.1 million international tourists every year. The three trail makers went on a two-month-long excursion around municipalities like Sierra Bullones, Candijay, Garcia Hernandez, and the sunken island of Ubay (no, Chocolate Hills was not in the itinerary) to trace what river whisperer Rey calls “that blue line on the map that just gets directly cuts off.”
Read their interview with Atlas as the three discuss the importance of trails as an inevitable precursor of human settlement, of sharing secret spots in the time of social media, and the fine line between inclusivity and conservation.
Hi, guys! Thanks for joining us today. Could you introduce yourselves, and tell us what made you go into the life paths that you’ve chosen? How have you been in this pandemic?
REY: My name is Rey Donaire. As a guide of kayakasia, I make routes for certain types of trips. You can call it experiential kayaking, but we also add other disciplines as we call it, like kayaking to a specific place and then hiking there. Then, the next day, kayak again. I study routes; I look at the map a lot. I look at possibilities on what we can do on rivers, on coastlines, islands, and how kayaking can connect us to local communities. We’ve been doing this for ten years.
BRADLEY: My name is Bradley. I haven’t been doing much (laughs). More recently, I’ve been discovering Bohol. To be honest, I underestimated Bohol. I’ve also been doing a lot of woodworking, surfboard shaping, and… yeah, still exploring the outdoors. I either do standup paddle or spearfish. I spearfish about four times a week.
JAMMY: My name is Jammy Ungab. I founded Plastic Free Bohol in 2016 to raise awareness against plastic pollution in Bohol. Before, I didn’t care about plastic pollution, but now I’m very conscious about it. I have to rethink every time I buy something because I have to calculate how many years it will degrade. So I’m very conscious about what I buy and use now. I found out about Atlas through Bradley. He was bringing MPowerd lights to our trip. So when I checked out your website, I saw the Rocketbooks, so I ordered my own. It’s one of my favorite purchases this year. I also like traveling solo or with my partner.
What was the pandemic like for you then? The three of you have made this sacred connection with the outdoors. It’s very much a necessity in your book. What happens when that necessity is taken away abruptly?
BRADLEY: In some ways, I may have connected to it more. I wasn’t interested in discovering Bohol ba. Kasi, my free time was always spent somewhere else like Samar, Siargao, etc. This time, no choice. So, through Google Earth, I checked out places na, “Ah, parang maganda dito.” Before the pandemic, many tourists would ask me what places in Bohol could they find the off-the-beaten paths. I couldn’t give them anything because I wasn’t particularly interested in Bohol. So now, I’m incredibly excited to offer a different experience. These places I’ve mapped out aren’t for everyone. More for those inclined to spend time with nature.
REY: Same with Bradley; in some ways, it was beneficial. Some of these places have been in our minds for a while now. We just never really had the opportunity or the time to dig in and explore it. So, we’ve always planned on exploring rivers. Bohol doesn’t have long rivers, and many aren’t as famous as Loboc or Wahig. So, no one was exploring what it’s like up there at the source.
JAMMY: Yes, I think the lockdown helped. When my boyfriend was here, we would go to different places and explore the hidden parts of Bohol, yet I was surprised to learn that there are still so many parts of Bohol I haven’t explored. It’s so beautiful with so much potential. When I first moved to Bohol, I didn’t have a lot of friends. I was always at home, and I felt disconnected from nature. All the more when I moved to Cebu. I felt disconnected and fell into depression, so I decided to finally move out of big cities. I started backpacking. That’s when I started reconnecting with nature. This is what I want to do. I want something laidback, near nature, and somewhere that I can recharge when I’m exhausted. Pero daan na jud ko laagan. Bisan akong lola iya jud ko iingon na laagan ko kaayo.
Anything that you were stunned to find in Bohol?
JAMMY: There’s a trail in the municipality of Dimiao and another one in Sierra Bullones that isn’t so well known that even the guide who went with us hasn’t tried it before. So, it felt great knowing it isn’t for everyone. It wasn’t meant so much for the commercial tourists.
BRADLEY: For me, we have old forests here in Bohol; I’m very fond of that. I’m a water person, so seascapes are my bias. But 2021 allowed me to explore the inland more deeply. Also, the white water rafting experience that we had together. Rey mentioned before that Bohol can be a white water rafting destination, so we tried a new trail from Dagohoy to Danao. The landscape was beautiful, and so was the camping. On one side were all rocks, and then, on the other side was the jungle. I was so in awe because every two kilometers, there was a different rock formation.
It’s interesting to me what Rey mentioned that there’s a lack of awareness in the way we approach our river and trail stories. They would typically be the settings of Filipino folklore. Why do you think these river and forest trails haven’t been given enough attention until now?
REY: Maybe because certain sections of rivers and forest trails pass by remote areas, so there is no access. It’s still very much a wilderness.
BRADLEY: I honestly like to keep it that way. And I like using a motorcycle because you can stop anytime, anywhere, take photos. With a bike, you can try different trails that you usually would just access on foot. Especially in this pandemic, it’s sometimes tiring to meet people. They ask where you’re going. Sometimes it feels too gossipy, so best if I don’t meet anyone for long periods.
Is there fear on your part in following where those remote areas might lead to?
REY: Maybe not fear; it’s just geographically detached. You know that blue line on a map, and then when you trace your finger to see where it leads, it just directly cuts off? Maybe because no one followed where that river leads to. Satellite images help. Even though you don’t see water there, you can see there's water flowing underneath it because of the vegetation. It took a while for me to notice that this can signify a river, the way the vegetation thrives because they’re near a water source.
Given that many of these places you’re visiting are so remote, how do the locals react when they see you? Do they see you as a foreigner almost?
REY: In 2018, we passed through this certain river. There were only two of us, and we traced it to the end. In the rainy season, this particular river has rapids. So, we timed it at that time because heavy rains would make the river more navigable. When the locals saw us, because it wasn’t a regular sight for them, they thought we were insurgents. There was that fear of, “Who are these guys? And why are they here?”
What do you think might happen once these forests and rivers are somehow retraced and rediscovered? Given that they pass by such tight-knit communities, do you think there’s a good and bad side to opening them to outsiders?
REY: The good part of retracing and rediscovering these trails, I hope, is that there will be an inclusive gain for the locals. Like, in our ventures, we guide the barangay tanods to explore their rivers. Most of them have lived there for a long time, have grown old there, but they’ve never really ventured that deep into their waterways. Going deeper gives them a fresh perspective, this renewed appreciation for home. We hope it will eventually lead to conservation. The bad part is that once the words get out, there’s always this hurried development that follows and one that doesn’t have proper planning. A sari-sari store suddenly pops up. The place gets trashed. Because of the advent of technology and people always in a hurry to post new locations, sites receive visitors even when they’re not ready.
BRADLEY: Yes, every time I share something on Instagram and someone asks for details about the place, I make sure that the person knows how to take care of nature. We don’t have any rights to the area because it’s not ours, so I’m afraid that someone might trash it, but at the same time, I also want to share it with people. I’m always torn between those two sentiments because it’s difficult to take back whatever damages have been done.
JAMMY: Like Bradley, before, I used to post a lot of photos with locations. But when I was living in Siargao and was working in a hostel, a guest said to me, “Hey, I found this place because of your Instagram post.” That’s when it occurred to me that I contributed to social media, so I had to be careful with sharing about places, especially the remote areas, to protect and preserve them. When I especially need to tag it, I always put a reminder to travel responsibly.
Thanks for mentioning the word inclusivity. That’s an essential component of community tourism. Have there ever been places though, in the years that you’ve been traveling, that you somehow regret contributing to its development?
JAMMY: Yes, like there was this trail that we visited in Sierra Bullones. I wasn’t expecting that they would have trash because it was so remote, only for me to be surprised that it had the most trash! It was where the locals would swim. Before the pandemic, we also did a silent protest in Lila because they started feeding the whale sharks. It stopped now, though, because of the pandemic. I’m relieved.
REY: Yes, these are usually the places with a wide gap in terms of economic capacity compared to poblacions. And that’s why you cannot fault them. That mentality of, “Ah, we can make this a mini Boracay.”
Is that where the mixed sentiment is coming from then, the idea that trails lead to human settlements, and human settlements lead to degradation? Is there sometimes a struggle to keep places a secret?
REY: Yeah, there is, honestly. That’s why I like bringing people like Jam and Bradley because locals can see how they treat the place with respect. We recently went to a waterfall, and there was a mom and her children just throwing their chichirya around. After coming from the top part of the falls, they saw that we were bringing plastic with us. Hopefully, the optics of it, that outsiders are bringing out trash and not getting them in, moves them to pick up their waste as well.
How do you think we can impact tourism differently after the reopening of lockdowns and normalizing the interaction with the outdoors?
JAMMY: I agree with what Bradley said before. We must think of nature’s well-being and give her a voice, rather than just our comfort this time around.
How then do you think we can match the pace of development with nature’s way of recovering?
REY: Yeah, exactly. That’s why I have chosen this kind of craft because it’s not mass tourism. There is little talk coming into how the ecosystem is in the places that we oversaturate with tourism. In our conversations with Jammy and Bradley, I tell them, let’s go back to the time before Alona Beach became Alona Beach. Now, it’s an overutilized one-kilometer stretch of sand. Or the Chocolate Hills before it became what it is now. There was a trail that led there, and then developments came in. It goes down to forests and rivers. It’s all the same. There is no regard for the carrying capacity. How many people should be in there? Or what specific activity is best for it. Otherwise, the tendency is, “Oh, let’s put concrete here, or excavate a swimming pool there,” without thinking about how it affects the natural aesthetics of a place or the irreparable damage it does.
JAMMY: In a way, the pandemic has been good to nature. It allowed nature to heal, especially here in Alona Beach. I live here, and before the pandemic, it was pretty dirty. I don’t even want to swim because the water was murky and sometimes it smells. Now it’s clearer.
We also have a secret waterfall that my boyfriend and I like to go to. We call it Disneyland because, for us, it’s the happiest place on Earth. And when we went back, we were amazed to see how nature had reclaimed it, how the trail was no longer there.