The driver looked back at me through the small mirror and asked, “How long you been here?”
“Two months in Asia, one month in the Philippines!” I shouted.
“You’re so dark you could be Filipino!” he exclaimed, laughing.
It was true. I hadn’t been that golden since I was eight and spent every day of summer by the lake. I secretly loved my tan… growing up in the 70s will do that to you. I still remember my aunt Char, who was the coolest adult I knew, lying for hours on the tar roof of her apartment building covered in baby oil with a sheet of aluminum foil under her face.
Of course, we know a lot more now than we did in the 70s, and sun safety is important. But I also find it challenging. If I had remembered to put on sunscreen that morning, it had already been overtaken by sweat, sand and dust.
I was enjoying the motorbike ride despite the assaulting heat and the awkward balance required to stay on the seat without grabbing the waist of the stranger zipping me around the island. The adventure of the day was seeking out the tarsier, a tiny primate with a big reputation.
I had been staying at Alona Beach on Panglao Island, a small outcrop connected by road to Bohol. Alona Beach is a terribly touristy strip of hotels, restaurants and dive shops, though I had some great fun there regardless (which will undoubtedly be covered in another post).
There are daily vans from Alona Beach that visit a tarsier sanctuary in Loboc as part of the well-known Chocolate Hills Loop. According to Lonely Planet, though, the Loboc sanctuary has been criticized by NGOs for its hands-on interaction with the little critters. Hoping to be a more responsible eco-tourist, I picked the less traveled route and headed to the Tarsier Research and Development Center near Corella (see also the Philippine Tarsier Foundation).
When I set out I was determined to take public transportation because I generally find it a fascinating exercise in cultural observation. I had traveled to Tagbiliran on a local bus, which although tight quarters, was roomy compared to the more frequent jeepneys. A jeepney ride meant being squished so tightly next to my neighbors no one could tell whose sweat was whose, my tall-girl knees jutting into the sides of the unlucky passenger on the middle bench.
The motorbike driver greeted me at the terminal and politely told me that because it was Sunday I would wait for a very long time for a Corella-bound bus. I resisted that idea and wandered to a group of buses that surely would be going somewhere. I even sat in one for a few hot minutes following a confusing conversation with an elderly local woman. Then she got off the bus, and since there was no driver either, I gave up.
The persistent cyclist reappeared. While he was still surprised that I wanted to go to Corella instead of Loboc, he was, of course, willing to take me.
I used my poor bargaining skills to bring the price down to about $4, reasoning that it was only $3.60 (USD) more than the local bus, a mental mathematic exercise that only Asia can train you to calculate. My daily New York coffee break cost more than my 30-minute motorbike ride to the cutest primate I’ve ever seen, and yet there I was trying to bring him down to $3. (If you’re en experienced Asia traveler and a good bargainer, I’m sure you think I was ripped off, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will always be ripped off by taxi drivers all over the world.)
Tarsiers are fascinating creatures. They can’t move their eyes, but they can rotate their heads 180 degrees. They are particularly endearing when they are sleeping. It’s not good for them if you get too close, though, so I had to suppress the part of my brain that was shouting, “Touch it! Touch that cute, furry little head! Aw, come on! It looks so soft. Just once! Oh my god, it’s soooo cute. Touch it!” How? How did the human brain evolve this way?
I don’t know. But I took a photo, barely making a sound, and then nodded to the guide that had walked me into the gated forest. He showed me three tarsiers total, two sleeping and one that was wide-awake with daytime insomnia. I worried about that one knowing that they are extremely sensitive creatures. In the wrong environment, they have been known to commit suicide.
From the PTF website I expected hours of trails with viewing options. Instead, they offered only a brief guided walk. While I waited for the guide, I read about tarsier conservation and the alleged link between the tarsier and Yoda.
Matt Simon does an amazing job of describing the tarsier and contemplating the tie to the Star Wars character in this article on Wired: Absurd Creature of the Week: The Tiny Primate That Was Probably the Inspiration for Yoda.
Sadly, Simon also notes that “chuckleheaded tourists will visit sanctuaries and poke and prod the poor things as they rest on branches.” I hope this is not the case at the Tarsier Research and Development Center, but I can only share my experience. I was the only visitor with my guide. There was no poking or prodding, only a hushed reverence and a quiet appreciation for my respectful delight.
When I travel, I like to seek out the local wildlife–of all kinds. But it can be hard to know if you’re truly supporting conservation efforts or contributing to an animal’s discomfort or even demise. In some locations, it’s more clear. If you’re feeding a monkey in a bar or riding an elephant, it’s exploitation not conservation.
Other opportunities are less clear. In Oslob on Cebu Island in the Philippines, you can snorkel with whale sharks at a site where they are fed regularly. My immediate reaction was negative, but I met locals and travelers along the way who suggested I learn more. They explained that these animals were previously being hunted. I also met a fellow diver who told me researchers were trying to determine what effects the feeding had on the whale sharks. I chose not to go, and with great luck I saw a whale shark in the wild.
Sometimes all you can do is check out the situation locally. In hindsight I should have asked my guide a few more questions about the tarsiers and their environment at the sanctuary. I blame my lack of inquiry on heat-induced malaise and tarsier bewitchment. I hope the situation becomes clearer in years to come, but I’m thrilled I was able to see that adorable creature.
And you really should check out Matt Simon’s article. You can see the tarsier in action as it unfolds its incredibly long legs to leap off a branch and catch a bug (yum tasty).