Darkness may well be an instrument of courage. So is the influence of a different kind of spirit.
In the middle of a human chain, fumbling through crackling leaves and things that slithered, we crept slowly down a coastal wall. The structure was a feeble attempt to separate our resort from a collection of trees. They were owned by no one in particular, those trees, and yet somehow, they were owned by the dark.
Above, the full moon held little clout. It witnessed our missteps to the unfamiliar, where in the middle, a haunted house stood. One of us must’ve pointed it out. And most accepted with a surety that can only be blamed on amber bottles and too much conversation, that there, there was the haunted house. Someone saw a child, she was sure, hiding behind a trunk of acacia. Another saw a ghost of a man. Of this he was sure too. What happened when we got close enough to see the shutters, the house’s outline of rotten wood, the dilapidated tarps, is now a hostage of memory.
That was six years ago, in a travel photography class where there was more of travel and less of photography. It was also my first fumble through Camiguin.
A few years later, darkness still welcomes, as if it, or I, have never left. Light seeping out from expat restaurants or the line of barbecue stalls were minimal, a mere bulb or candlelight. The moon, brighter it seems this time, follows a singular path in Mambajao, your only companion most of the time, when walking on the roadside.
Passersby, locals coming from the coast, are faceless, wearing their anonymity comfortably. So that, after a few minutes of walking, the repetition of “Good Evenings” starts to merge together. And with the dark comes soft rustles of movement, men coming out of shortcuts where there were supposed to be none.
But there seems to be no danger here. Walking alone, a passing tricycle blares out a pop song “Watermelon, Watermelon, Papaya, as if everyone were just playing a game of Hide and Seek. I was the one seeking, for what Camiguin has yet to reveal this time around.
Before sun met the impending blackness though, there was the clarity of White Island, a mere 10 to 15 minute cross from Barangay Yumbing. Bright yellow boats break through the somber weather. And on the strip of sand, waiting for a dramatic sunset I presume, was a couple posing for their prenup photos. The photographer tells them to look, closer now, hug each other. Then, within almost the same breath, he tells them to look away, move off, don’t hug each other. I am transfixed.
An island, by itself a lifeless one, is perhaps the best place to feel isolation no matter how many boats have docked, carrying more tourists with their bright sundresses and waterproof smartphones. Banking on the aid of the sea, White Island is never the same shape at the same time of day. If in luck, it becomes large enough to let you go across, a five-minute walk through soft sand with only gulls as companions. On the opposite side, footprints are erased by the ebb faster than tourists can make them.
There, a discolored fisherman’s boat sits alone, facing the horizon.
Can’t pin down
It must’ve been the dark, but Camiguin feels like all things still intangible, something still out of grasp. By the time we get to Ardent Spring for instance (our host tells us it’s best to go at night), girls clad in oversized shirts and men in boardshorts are already positioning themselves at its warmest parts. It has somehow been forgotten, resting my backside on smoothened rock, propulsions of heat massaging away the day’s aches, that Ardent, like most hot springs in the island, is the result of a constant series of earthquakes.
Unlike most places that thrive on construction, Camiguin more likely thrives on the antithesis of. Disasters have deconstructed their tourist spots one after the other, bringing a back story to what would’ve been the ordinary. Hibok-Hibok, the volcano that destroyed a part of Catarman, erupted and poured lava on most of its structures including the now sunken cemetery and the old Spanish Church in Bonbon. Somehow without the face of disaster, both would’ve been just everyday burial grounds or places of worship. A place of function rather than aesthetics. It was not until 1951 when casualties of yet another eruption reached 3,000. Almost half of its townsmen, around 30,000, left.
But if Camiguin knows anything, it is perhaps to utilize the intangible, to not even rebuild, but make use of its ruins. In mid-morning, the 16th-century remains show overgrown signs of life. Coral stones and rubble are covered with moss. Ferns stick out of corners. And at the back, the well-preserved Centennial Tree stands like a sentinel, overlooking the coast on its right and a byproduct of another century on its left.
Children as young as five act as tourist guides, bringing cigarette boxes where their “fees” could be collected. One Jimboy immediately gravitates towards me. He volunteers to take my picture, hold my bag, show me around. It is not without motive. Hanging out at the Ruins is probably the easiest way to earn for themselves in a town that relies on full labor such as harvesting coconuts and fish. I looked. Jimboy’s box is still empty. I ask him what his earnings were for, and he hesitates.
“Para skwela,” he mumbles. All too suddenly I remember the motto emblazoned in most public schools in Camiguin: Honesty is the Best Policy.
Whiter than his companions, with hazel eyes, Jimboy’s Dad, he told me, was Pure Chinese. Jimboy has met him only once, before the father died in his native country.
The mother, Jimboy continues, works in Taiwan and returns for him every few years.
“Naanad naman ko,” he says.
I wonder then if the same is true for most Camiguinons. Naanad naman mi. This strange take of abundance among scarcity, makes me question whether it is looking for higher purpose or whether it feels like it has somehow met its time. At Mambajao’s market, a vendor tells me when I asked about a strange looking plant. Lactopafi, she called it.
“Makitan ra man na sa dalan, Ma’am. Makaayo na’g 99 ka sakit.”
“Unsa na mga sakit?,” I ask her.
She doesn’t know, but it truly does, she said. A constant need to use resources. A way to make do.
Under the shade of the Centennial Tree, I left Jimboy with his companions, counting and comparing earnings from a structure that has all too soon found its purpose from what was.
Walking through the banks of Mambajao before leaving, I spot a fisherman’s nook, abandoned for the day. Nets have been hung to dry on trees, fishing hooks arranged on neat lines on nylons. There was a structure here once. What remains is the foundation and a half-broken beam with stuckout iron rods and vines that climb up its brokenness.
To visit Camiguin perhaps, so pragmatically named after the ebony tree kamagong, means learning to grope what you can in the dark, holding on to what you can.