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International Friends

by Ronnie Hoyle 

THERE is something about a certain 900-meter stretch of white sand beach on Bohol that makes it unique in the Visayas – and it is not the beach itself: that looks the same as almost anywhere else, although it does have a certain charm about it that brings tourists back to the same spot year after year from all parts of the world.

            It is not the fact that the beach has more bars, restaurants, resorts, and dive shops than any other comparable length of beach, either, or the fact that it is known worldwide for the diverse variety of fish life in the surrounding area.

            What makes Alona Beach on Panglao Island different is a lot more intangible – it is the people you find there.

            At first glance, they seem the same as anywhere else in the Philippines and, to a great extent, they are. The majority are Filipino born and bred, and no one denies that it is their land, but mixed in are hundreds of ‘foreigners’ who, for one reason or another, have decided to make Alona Beach their permanent home: and that has turned the beach into one of the first international villages in the country.

            These ex-visitors are reversing the trend of the Filipino who wants to ‘escape’ to the West for a ‘better life’ - because they consider the Philippines already has a better way of life…and they want to be part of it.

            No one really remembers with clarity which ‘foreigner’ was the first to decide to change their way of life and risk settling down on or near the little fishing community that was at first called Tawala Seaside and just a district of the barangay of Tawala, which is nearly two kilometres from the sea itself: there are several people who have made that claim.

            Why they were attracted in the first place is much more simple to define: it was a beautiful quiet palm-fringed cove, just the sort of place they would like to spend the rest of their lives in peace, with just the sound of the sea and birdsong to disturb them. Idyllic may be an over-used word, but that was what they found.

            Like most things, however – even in the Philippines – no ‘secret’ stays secret for very long. At first, it leaked out to wandering scuba divers from Europe who were in search of their ultimate paradise. Then it spread to adventurous backpack travellers. Now the beach has become one of the most sought-after places on Bohol, second only to the Chocolate Hills and a sight of the tarsiers.

            Alona Beach now boasts a cosmopolitan society and the community of friends is learning to live with each other’s foibles to make it the friendship centre on the Friendship Island of Bohol. Together with concerned locals, they have even set up the Alona Beach Community Foundation to help them achieve their aim of integrating fully and participating in the development of the beach and making life better for everyone.

On this short stretch of sand – which has been likened to a ‘miniature Boracay’ - you will find a plethora of people from America, France, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere in the Western hemisphere as well as many people from other Asian countries…and they are all living among Filipinos.

            Of course, society has changed slightly – but for the better – by melding original and new. Even ten years ago, it was hard to find anyone with a motorcycle or a car, or even an asphalt road, on Panglao and most properties were native-built. There were few opportunities for remunerative or productive employment outside of personal fishing and farming and little in the way of modern facilities…ten years ago it was difficult to find a telephone and letters almost came in cleft sticks!

The influx of foreign capital over the years has changed all that: the local people are richer and few have to live the way their ancestors did. Tourism and new ideas have brought and spread new wealth and changed things.

“What we did not want to change,” says one of the first to arrive, Australian Ron Jackson, “were the people: they were the reason we came. We wanted to integrate into their society and become part of local life.” Ron and his wife, Betty, who both came some 25 years ago, at first built a holiday refuge and now live permanently near Alona and are proud to be part of the ‘local scene.’

Others have done the same. Many have married locally and set up both houses and businesses, and now employ local people who had little chance of work a few years ago, like Swiss architect Marcel Brunner who, with his wife, Angela, who he met on the beach about 25 years ago. Now they run the prestigious Alona Palm Beach resort and restaurant and have helped to improve the lifestyle of several local families, as many other ‘immigrants’ have.

German national Kurt Biebelmann, for instance, arrived to go diving – and stayed to set up a business to attract other divers to the area. Englishman Andy Smith appeared to build a European-style boat on the beach – and ended up starting his own boatbuilding business giving employment to many local people.

Danish diver Arne Jensen came to go diving as well and joined an already established dive shop – and ended up married, creating a house and two children! Other world travellers have ended up with a bakery or operating a restaurant or bar and creating much-needed jobs for local people.

Similar stories exist everywhere around Alona Beach and have made those from widely diverse cultures more homogeneous and willing to help each other to achieve a better lifestyle for all. Check out the similar happenings on Boracay, Moalboal, Bantayan and in Cebu and you will find that the international village idea is spreading rapidly in the Philippines.

The blending of different cultures has, admittedly, not always been easy and there have been many mistakes and causes for friction in trying to make an international village of friends – even in the best regulated families disagreements can lead to fisticuffs – but the result has been worth the cost of a few damaged egos.

Rajah Sikatuna may have been right for the wrong reasons when he decided that diplomacy was the better part of valour the day he met the Spanish with their guns and armour, but he was right because his legacy lives on around Bohol today.