Five Ways to Look at the Home of the Winds

(2 of 5)

“Peace.” says Ina. The formation of hills called Alapad, greenery on one side, exposed limestone on the other, is steep but it’s not a difficult climb. The group – a mixed bunch, all searching for a spot to call their own – hops from stone to stone, avoiding goat droppings and other unrecognizables.

But 53-year old Ina is tired. She insists she’ll stay on the base of the hill until tour guide, Arthemus, drops this clinching trivia: that this Imnajbu vista is where Richard Gomez carried a dying Dawn Zulueta in his arms in the Filipino cult classic, Hihintayin Kita sa Langit.

“Sige na.” she calls out as Art goes back for her. “I-Dawn Zulueta mo na rin ako.”

Nanay, as we’ve come to fondly call her, goes first. She takes a series of photos with Arthemus as her prop. She is nestled in his arms, her head resting on his shoulders.

Arthemus’ muscles bulge. He takes a deep breath as he attempts to fight gravity. The weight of his load battles with wind resistance.

The sea behind them is a mirror, reflecting the heat of a Batanes afternoon, the treeless rock formation a direct hit to warm air on all sides.

And as I sit on Alapad’s edge, I wonder, as I look at this postcard moment, if a windswept Dawn Zulueta ever sweated this much.

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Nanay Ina
I had a pre-written Batanes in my mind. There, in that imagined lacuna, I would find peace brought about by isolation and radical individualism.

This statement is flawed on many levels, of course. Mostly because I don’t really know what peace is. Except that the closest thing that I’ve come to it, a state of non-sensation almost, happens in escape.

What traveler has never imagined treading on land that has yet to be mapped, or blogged? What traveler has never selfishly imagined the exhilaration of earlier explorers unlocking a piece of himself the rest cannot check into, or track through Google Earth?

Solitude suspends the need to compromise. To deal with outside stimuli. To dilute the self. In my imagined Batanes, I have become the island; and, consequently, in Jonathan Franzen’s words “it seemed, the island was becoming the world.”

This was the Batanes I was holding on to as my mind reels back to a possible misencounter brought about by a box of donuts.

I liked the look of Batan from the air. All greens. Very few houses. A month or so prior to the trip, I anticipated the sensation of arrival.

Liveng, thatch-like wind breakers outlining the boundaries of private property, cross through fields and fields of land. They were the only delineation in the unending grass that stretched for kilometers in all directions.

Picture out my chagrin then as a Yuppie cuts in front of me, carrying a bright mustard box of donuts. We both struggle to cram out of the 36-seater into a minuscule Basco airport.

Batanes, to me, has always been a touchstone to the unchanged, a frontier whose distance seals the noise of consumerism.

But there he was, unaware of the perception he just ruined, carrying a dozen artificially-flavored worlds. My immediate reaction was to snatch the box before it contaminates the rest of the place.

This would have still been futile. There seems to be no escape from it.

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“May banko na pala. Ang rami nang bahay! Akala ko pupunta ako sa isla pero ang rami na palang tao. ” says a lady on the passenger seat of our van.

Nanay and I took the same flight from Manila and are now tourmates. Taking a seat beside the laconic driver, she had, in retrospect, cunningly excused herself from polite small talk throughout the trip, hidden behind dark glasses and a straw hat.

Both of us were hoping perhaps to experience Batanes solo. Do-it-yourselfers that didn’t like conceding to the other. But both us though never considered the price to pay for the place’s inaccessibility either.

A liter of gas in Batanes is a whopping P59.00. To give a staunch comparison, gas in the expensive metropolis that is Manila is P42.00 . A typical rice meal in Batanes is P180. It is P120.00 in Manila. A tricycle ride to the next town from Basco is P300.00. It is P50.00 in Manila. By economic necessity, Nanay and I were stuck together. For frugality’s sake, there was no other way to see Batanes than to conquer our discomfort of the symbolic “other”.

Basco is a tightly-knit community with a masonry of stones and streets. Yet it wasn’t the isolated village I pictured it out to be. When we arrive at Marfel’s Lodge, an internet representative is sitting in the living room, infecting the air with the nasal voice of Kris Aquino.

As defense, I retreat back to the van, ready to take Nanay and I away to South Batan.

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The Uninhabited Ones

Batanes is made up of 10 islands. Only three of these islands are inhabited – Batan, Sabtang and Itbayat – while the rest – Mavulis, Ivuhoy, Dequey among others – fall into obscurity, too difficult to get to by plane or boat.

To get to the more uninhabited ones, you would have to set aside several weeks for a willing boatman and good weather conducive for landing on rocky shores. And again several weeks to actually escape the same islands which are devoid of infrastructure and trivial conveniences. While the Ivatans are skilled seafaring people, even they are mindful of the wrath of the West Philippine Sea.

But already, as soon as I get to what may very well be one of the least inhabited islands in the Philippines, I become restless again and look for something farther away.

As we pass by farm to market roads on our way to Tayid Lighthouse, I question Arthemus endlessly about the possibility of going to the northernmost island, Mavulis.

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The lighthouse temporarily satiates this clamor though. Tayid is a looker. A mesmeric combination of stone walls, red roofs and wooden, bolted doors. Cows graze in its pasture. Mount Iraya looms in the background. And down below is a secluded beachfront meeting an ironed-out sea. A companion describes it as “parang screensaver ng Windows XP.”

Several times over the course of the tour, Arthemus has to warn me about standing dangerously close to edges as in here in Tayid. “Papayagan kita, peru yung iba, hindi.” exempting me from supposedly cut-and-dried rules as I sit on jagged rocks, a foot dangling in the air. He seemed to understand that part of my happiness came from what lay beyond.

Nanay takes out her digital camera, proceeding to take photos of everything.

Nanay Ina or Filipina Mendoza is a travel blogger from Batangas but in her Facebook account, she dubs herself a Flyer at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

At 53, she has been to almost all of the provinces in the Philippines, lacking only 12 from Mindanao.

She asks me to take a photo of her in front of the rolling hills. For posterity as today’s her birthday, after all.

Taken aback, I ask her the same question most people I’ve encountered on my trips ask me. “Bakit ka nag-sosolo, Nay? Birthday mo pa naman.”

As soon as it came out, I knew I had become one of the very people I’d secretly been amused with, people who didn’t seem to understand solitude.

She smiles and says “Mas madali kasi mag-plano pag.solo.”, then proceeds to take more selfies, three quarters of which is her profile and a small quarter of it the outland.

I look at her from afar and realize I may very well be looking at myself 25 years from now.

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This is the depth of my relationship with Nanay, and this is what solitude seems to bring to two people looking for it – a distant view of a separate island, always blurred and unfamiliar. I do not know if what I made of her is fiction or a heavy-handed representation of myself in her. Whatever it was, I related to her clamor for human depravity.

I always seem to spot her, separating herself as she takes a photo of the mini-replica of the San Carlos Borromeo church or looking around the port of Ivana.

There never seems to be enough space to escape to but Mahatao fitted us both. Unlike compact Basco, Mahatao is commodious, a ghost town to any tourist who doesn’t peer closer.

When you do, you’ll find that a larger cosmos thrives separately from it. The town is around 30 kilometers away from Basco but it might as well have been a different sphere.

Here, three boys are shooting hoops in the basketball court while just beside it, at the police station, two policemen are writing reports in the front desk, the brunt of their work considering Batanes has zero-crime rate.

Traffic, Arthemus says, is defined as when three vehicles meet on the road. Otherwise, there is no use for the word at all.

As we walk towards the San Carlos Borromeo Church, adjacent to the Book of Blank Archives, the Vice – Governor whizzes by in his motorcycle in his khaki shorts and shirt, without the airs of escorts.

“Kaplan ka pa nu Dios si Chamakuyab aya.”, greets Arthemus, a lengthy afternoon greeting that barely reaches the ears of the Vice-Governor, already a length away.

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The Mayaang a Libro du Vatan or the Blank Book Archives is a collection of bound blank pages beside the National Culture Treasure, the San Carlos Borromeo Church. While some gravitate towards the magnanimity of the altar, I veer towards the quieter companionship of books.

The Blank Archives is where visitors can write in free form their thoughts about Batanes.

There are around 400 sets in the collection, all hardbound in blue. Messages range from gratitude for the place’s easy acceptance of outsiders to professions of love to a muse who might not even get the chance to read it.

I choose book number 199. There is something about its incompleteness that speaks to me. For the first time, scanning through the words of those who came before me, I feel a certain closeness.

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The Insatiable Lacuna

It is 7:00 in the evening, but the sky is still half-way between twilight and shadow. The moon peaks out with a promise of fullness.

We invite Nanay to the park for dinner but the beauty of Batanes has seeped out her energy, and she retires to a small side street with access to the sea.

When I ask her though what the best part of her day was, she says to me with conviction “New friends.”

Here lies the difference perhaps between Nanay and I. People like her are fortunate in the sense that they are able to make peace with their solitude, realizing it is a choice rather than circumstance. She can get out of it if she wants to for I later on, through Facebook, that while this need to be a company of one exists, she also lives in a far more concrete island where she recognizes she is needed by a husband, children and grandchildren; that a structured corporate job with mandatory interaction takes up her everydays.

In a sort of Stockholm Syndromesque relationship, I have trapped myself inside mine.

The constant search for isolation is really just the search for a world that will allow your experiences to be fully your own. To customize. To personalize. To constantly fulfill whims at your time and how your want to do it. And when inconvenience is set on its path, like expecting a place to be what it never really was, the entitled solitude seeker becomes bereft and dissatisfied.

This is what Franzen, once again, calls the symptoms of a world that is now too small and is built on hyperspeed.

The problem with is that the need to find a personal lacuna is often insatiable, and unstoppable. Mine certainly is. Nanay has perhaps learned to control hers.

No matter how solitude protects us of hurt and want, it is also self-defeating by the very notion that we will always want more of it.

Every time I dare think of wanting the realities to change for me, instead of the other way around, I now think of Nanay.

Her legs are pumped in the air in surrender. Her arms are fully stretched in openness. And her iconic words, echoes through my hollowed mind, addressing the cosmos that now deviates from human interaction in order to go deeper to that sense of self.

“Sige na. I-Dawn Zulueta mo ako.”

Five Ways to Look at the Home of the Winds

(Part 1 of 5)

“Innocence.” tour guide, Arthemus, might have told me, if we could talk through the ruckus.

Early morning in Basco, the van careens through karst mountains 70 meters above sea level on the way to Mahatao where a boat waits in the port, ready to take passengers to Sabtang .

The van carries with it a slew of anxiety, nostalgia, sexual tension, and soap, emanating from the ten passengers cramped in in its seats.

If yesterday, these strangers, forced together by circumstance and a cheap tour package, talked in muffled duos, now they were a reverse juxtaposition to the stillness of the highlands.

As if to legitimize this new-found closeness, each has been given a nickname, taking the formality out of a Ronnel Victor or a Julius Ceazar.

Instead, Ronnel Victor, a 24-year old Bank Officer in Taguig, is now The Mayor.

The oldest in the bunch, celebrating her birthday (for what age, she won’t tell), is now Nanay.

Christian and Marie, week-old newlyweds, are collectively called Bagong Kasal.

A penchant for dresses and walking barefoot through rolling hills has made me Miss Cebu.

And Arthemus, with his patrician nose and moreno skintone, so similar to a well-known TV actor, is now JM de Guzman.

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Halfway through the port of Mahatao, passing through the Spanish Lagoon, I let out a gasp followed by a facepalm.

“Kuya Art! Nakalimutan ko yung camera ko!” I tell him, an image of the device still fastened to a charger flashing through my mind. But there was also the rudeness of making everyone late to what might be the only boat to Sabtang for the day. I lie and tell him that the camera phone will do.

Ai, hindi pwede, Maam. What if hindi mo na mababalikan ang Mordor?”, Art prods.
Mordor is his own moniker for Sabtang, this otherworldly cross between a UNESCO World Heritage site and Marlboro Country. He has been to most parts of Batanes, he says, but even Sabtang was paradise to him – endless green pastures with the West Philippine Sea as backdrop. It is the island where we would find our new profile photos.

So, we head back. The others in the van politely hiss instead of groan as we make a U-Turn to retrieve this non-negotiable from Marfel’s Lodge.

“Okay lang yan, Miss Cebu.”, Mayor pacifies. And in a mock aristocratic voice loud enough for everyone to hear says to the driver, “Sabihan mo hintayin tayo ng barko. Late si Mayor. Pak! Ganun!”

The whole van, used to him by now, chuckles like kids on a carpool as we count the number of “Blow Ur Horn” signs, another Batanes landmark, on the left.

Somewhere, there must be a crash of waves, disturbing unaware boulders on the shore. But we are oblivious to all of this, as if the height of Batanes has made us untouchable to all things that are hurting, including ourselves.

Never mind the delayed cross to Sabtang.

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JM de Guzman
To the non-comical, Arthemus Castillejos is just Art. And when he was six, his father moved the whole family from the hubbub that is Quezon City – a city constantly changing and in motion – to the posthumous stillness that is Batanes.

His playmates took him to the very spots that he takes tourists to now. Boulder Beach. The Basco Lighthouse. The Spanish Lagoon. Children kept on touching his face like they would a diety, so enamored were they by his fair skin and foreign tongue.

“Tagalog lang yung alam ko noon.”, he tells me, his only language an offbeat trifecta to the syllabic, prayer-like chant of Ivatan where a street greeting sounds like a prolific bearing of soul. Kup ka Nu Dios. God bless you.

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Art witnessed the Batanes of 20 years ago. Nothing much has changed, he says. It was just less inhabited, and people managed to live without modern luxuries like satellite TV and ice-cold Coke.

Most companies from mainland Luzon never considered expanding to Batanes for fear that its distance will be a hindrance to operations, but with the coming of cheap flights, Batanes has somehow become more accessible.

Internet companies send in representatives, urging residents to finally attach to the rest of the world. Boatloads of Coke come in from Tuguegarao.

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There were only three movies Art’s neighbors, the sole owners of a television set, routinely played on Betamax then : Benhur, The Ten Commandments, and The Sound of Music. Epic cinematic efforts that tried to equal the magnanimity of the place. Tried to. But never really succeeded.

For as epic trips go, most Filipino travelers agree, what could be more epic than Batanes?

Geographically, this is inarguable with Batanes being the Northernmost province in the archipelago. Ivatans, I imagine, must have channeled Maria and ran through its steep hills, hat tossed to the air in surrender.

But those so used to this landscape are oblivious to the grandiosity of cinema or of Batanes.

“Wala na. Para sa kanila, pare-pareho lang naman yung nakikita nila. Bato dito. Bato doon. Kung minsan, nakikita lang nila yung kagandahan pag lumabas sa Rated K o sa Kris TV.”, Art tells me as the faluwa – a round-bottomed boat crossing the Balintang Channel on its way to Sabtang- bobs through unusually-calm waters.

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It is standing room only. Locals are cramped between motorcycles, tires and construction supplies. The whir of the motor cuts our conversation but locals are unperturbed by to the noise. Just as they are, Art says, unperturbed to the feverish clamor for the island.

These might be the very same locals who stare at the trigger – happy set of tourists this morning who, even before the faluwa arrives at the port, has already filled up half of their memory space with photos of the outriggerless vessel and its foot-controlled steering pole.

But Art knows too well why Batanes shouldn’t be underestimated even by its locals.

After an obligatory visit to the Tourism Office, he takes us to the sinadumparans – two-sloped traditional houses – in the village of Chavayan. Usually quiet, Chavayan especially today is a ghost town. Abandoned cats and chickens own the stone roads. Clustered garlic cloves and papery, dried gabi leaves rustle in the wind. Vintage Japanese bicycles are strewn on the ground. Chopped wood and coconut shells pile up outside homes. The remaining functioning houses that supposedly still held residents are, today, uninhibited.

The men have apparently crossed to mainland Basco for an inter-island basketball cup. The women are in the fields. The children in school.

The only signs of life are found on the beachside where a group of kids are holding some sort of forum underneath a thatch hut heavily tilted to the right.

We walk through the village, stopping every few seconds, to take photos of brightly-painted doors and vine-covered walls.

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“Okay lang. Pasok lang kayo.” Art urges as we see a particularly well-preserved structure with a bright cerulean door, , its thick cogon roof covered by a green net.

It begs to be entered but the city dwellers in us, mindful of boundaries, tethers our own curiosity. But Art insists.

In Batanes generally, he says, it’s uncommon practice to lock doors, even if you were leaving for weeks on end. They are purposely left open for neighbors to check the whereabouts of your possessions.

This virtue of unbroken trust is what influenced the concept of Honesty Cafe in mainland Basco, its visitors and residents allowed to pay without the scrupulous eye of an attendant.
In the cafe, visitors drop their payments on a wooden box and write what was consumed on a ledger for everything from cassava cookies to motorcycle rentals, its keys left hanging in the keyhole for convenience.

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This practice isn’t true to Honesty Cafe alone. Sabtang has its very own Conscience Cafe where we seek shade now from the mid-morning sun. A bunch of bikers and a priest testing out their lungs’ strength by belting out videoke hits inside. The quiet-seeking set of the group, wait in the arc outside, sipping their sodas and Minute Maids. Original black and white photographs are hung on the walls of the arc, showing the Sabtang of a hundred years ago when it was nothing but a 20-house village.

Across us is a government building that reminds passersby that, truly, “Honesty is the best policy; it begins with me.” It’s also reflected in battered school signs all around Batanes, constantly reminding young Ivatans of Batanes’ common virtue.

It is again in Timyan Viewpoint, Art’s Mordor, a wooden sign marks the vendor’s plea in black ink “Dios Mamajes. For Sale. Ladies T-Shirt. 250. But I want po “honest.”

While we while away the time, tricycle drivers with thatch roofs over their vehicles join us and share accounts of P40,000 left by tourists in the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel returned days after with nothing out of place.

P10,000. P20,000. P30,000. The denominations change. But the results were always the same. They were returned to their owners intact.

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No surprise that Batanes has zero-crime rate. It’s the outsiders, Art says, who are often jailed.

This somehow sealed, purer world where neighborly motives are unquestioned is enough to make Ivatans think of it as a norm rather than an archipelagic exception.

They question why Batanes holds a talismanic magic to outsiders when they themselves are, as soon as they find a way around the expensive airfares, ready to depart.

But if Art is so verbose to say there is nothing special to this collective virtue, he need only be reminded of his first few hours back in Quezon City.

With his rent and food allowance tucked too tightly in the back of his jeans, the neighborly thing to do, a city dweller presumed, was to help him pick it. Then, run away with it.
Art recounts this encounter as we find shade in the front arches of the Conscience Cafe.

In an embarassed gesture, JM de Guzman wrings his baseball cap and then puts it on backwards. A boy recounting his snafu.

“Sige nalang. Mas kailangan nya siguro.”

 

Small, Sleepy Towns

The tone of her voice, the child’s aunt testified, could raise the dead. Her shrills echoed through the two-story ancestral house, no matter which part of it she came from, ordering the house help to get sopas with mahu or apply floor wax on its red floors.

There was only one part of the day the great-grandmother seemed human to the child. They would meet each other coming from and going to the communal bath, Amah’s (for she was Amah to everyone) gray hair loosened from its normal bun that it stuck in wet, curly wisps at her back. She was childlike then. Her teeth showed in an accidental smile.

After that, she became an unreachable matriarch for the rest of the day. Her affections were hidden in lectures and profanities.

So when the aunt told her that Amah only had one strategy to teach too-sheltered pubescents how to swim: toss them into the deep blue to fend for themselves, the child believed them.

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Ang Gihulugan
It’s important to set the setting in this story in order to see the incredulity in her aunts’ threats.

The child spent her vacations in the small, then municipality, of Guihulngan, four hours away from Dumaguete. It was a small dot on the map then, a rest stop from when you traveled from Negros Oriental’s capital to San Carlos City.

It might have been a small, sleepy town like the rest of the small, sleepy towns that came before and after it. But it just so happened to be the background of her summer misadventures, three months of sealed, dry landscape from March to May every year until fifth grade.

Guihulngan was a fishing village with most of its establishments – the mercados, parks and government offices just alongside the sea. And like the rolls and heaves of its waves, people there talked in soft, lyrical Bisaya as if reserving their voices for better future use.

In its entire history, an aunt again testified, its waters have never taken a life. Only immaterial things like, say, a warning bell. That is the etymology of its strange name. Moro thieves supposedly stole the bell that alerted the town of their coming. And when the bell became too heavy for their boat to haul, they dropped it off in the middle of Tañon Strait. The spot has since then been known as Guihulngan for ang gihulugan.

There is a more morose version to its origin, of how it was actually the corpses of men, women and children that were decapitated and dumped in its waters. But the child had yet to learn about this, and even when she finally did, she, like the rest of the townsmen, held on to the more redemptive version. The over sized landmark shaped into a bell near its Freedom Park affirmed so.

The sea, despite her great-grandmother’s drastic approach to swimming, was always nurturing. It provided a steady supply of kinsan to mercados, small shells for easy picking and recreation to abate the young ones as they struggle between wanting to leave or protecting the place from visiting tenderfoots whose love for small towns was as fleeting as summer.
Then, vacations weren’t meant to be “productive”. No guitar lessons or basketball camps to distract from the necessary banality of Guihulngan’s lethargic world. The parents hied off their children to provinces to strip off their self-entitlement.

So, the child, like the rest of the aunts and nieces, was employed in the family’s general merchandise store to manually count fishing hooks, screws, bicycle handles, carbon paper, bio-data templates, typewriter’s ink, Johnson’s baby colognes, White Flowers and Chin Chan Sus.

But even such meticulous labor was static. Stress was laughable because as transactions go, there was always another day in a seamless number of days that stretched far too long.
Whatever highlight the summer had was self-induced. A haircut became a whole day affair. A visit to the park was a chance to see the town heartthrobs, the Ace Movers and Major Breakers, practicing their dance moves onstage. A television show, whether it was Sang Linggo na Po Sila or Eat Bulaga, made it a must to come home for lunch.

If lucky, the carnival would come along, and usually at the trail end of her stay, the disco at the park that ended with the crowning of Miss Guihulngan or Miss Gayhulngan.

This lack of external stimulus allowed for more intrinsic entertainment. The child analyzed the happenings and conversations of the day several times over before she slept, the portrait of her great-grandfather staring from across her bedside as if chastising her diverse and divergent thoughts.

A people pleaser, she held on to tidbits of information about personalities and events, stealing others’ opinions so that, when chance allowed it, she could parrot them as an adult would.
She overused her tapes of the Spice Girls, Code Red and Alanis Morisette and borrowed Harlequin books, wondering whether, like in the songs and novels, love, whatever that was, was always as tumultuous. She ripped off ideas from novels or vicariously lived through her aunts’ flirtations.

From these, she began to invent stories in her head more about its supposed symptoms – the sleepless nights, sweaty palms and irrationality – afraid that she might have missed them, that it happened even before she knew. Love was, at that time, something that always happened to someone else.

Perhaps, the child thought, the productivity of her vacations were in their non-productivity. To do nothing was a sign of progress for, as sleepy towns go, any change was unnecessary. Change was a symptom of a problem, an external force out of their control. Even if its people changed, the town certainly didn’t, or shouldn’t.

The lure of small, sleepy towns was to find it year after year still on a standstill, even as everything else inside her was already migrating.

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Tilted Houses
That might be sentimental deception though. A decade later, Guihulngan became the biggest municipality in Negros Oriental. It had, the child, now adult thought, far too many pharmacies and bakeries in its poblacion with pot-pots, tricycles and motorcycles veering in all directions. It fought for its cityhood for several years despite Senator Pimentel’s restraint of the “mad rush of municipalities to transform into cities”. It gained the title, then lost it again from 2000 to 2010. And then in the middle of 2011, finally earned its big dot on the map.

In 2012 though, an external force, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake eradicated this stature from its grasp again. The epicenter was two towns away, but its impact was directed towards Guihulngan. Asphalt roads beside the boulevard cracked open, trapping ankles and arms trying to escape. The ground tilted houses, swallowed houses even, including a family enjoying an early lunch together.

In fear of a storm surge, those near the sea fled to the cemetery in the highlands and camped there for over a week in the middle of graves and bone chambers. And even after the initial scare, they continued to sleep on empty grounds outside of their houses for fear of the equally-strong aftershocks.

This disturbance also turned into their first shot at fame. GMA and ABS-CBN correspondents visited hospitals, interviewing annoyed medical staff or dazed patients, too busy covering cracked skulls to enjoy the attention.

Despite this, Guihulngan only had ten casualties from the overall 70 declared deaths in Negros Oriental. A small number for a gargantuan loss, mostly their hold to let circumstances remain as they were. In a small town where changes are first repressed before accepted, any shift is felt triple fold.

In the ten years that the child hasn’t been back following the death of her great-grandmother (if only her own voice could bring her back), Guihulngan’s population has exploded to 93,000.

There is now an LBC, a Rose Pharmacy and a Toyota car dealership beside the aging Mom-and-Pop shops. None of the faces were familiar anymore other than the aunts and their now gray hairs. Childhood friends have since left. Once-friendly neighborhood stores now hang “Walay Utang” signs on their windows.

The earthquake too has left in its wake a slew of unlivable, tilted houses that were converted to temporary storages. The pension house beside their ancestral home, the tricycles’ landmark to where the Amah’s house was, was toppled down, its owner left underneath all the rubble.

And yet even after these years, it’s easy to fall back into the lyrical intonations of its dialect, that familiar twang at the end of every sentence. The roads with signages to Plaridel or Larena still ply off a platitude of “Do you remembers”, even if the child is walking the roads more with her mind than her soles.

Like the friendlier version of Guihulngan’s etymology perhaps, she’d like to think that her great-grandmother never tossed her out into the sea to fend for herself. Their swimming sessions were afternoons of play with pots of saging hilaw and ginamos to last them until their lips paled, their palms wrinkled, and their bodies surrendered to the waves.

Whichever held true were by now hazy and unreliable. Memories, she realized, were never flashy. They were acquired in the quiet, insignificant fragments between her then and now.

The child feels a certain indebtedness for overlooked niches like these, and those that overlook them.

She knows with surety now that the places never gone to for fear that nothing ever happens is, at its very core, where everything happens.

Guimaras: Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and Vegetarianism

There is a fine line between healing and destruction, death and defiance, and life itself, whatever it’s polarity may be.

So it seems in Ricky’s house, and so it seems to Ricky, who has been on both ends. What he once thought as opposing forces were actually just steps away.

We are in in Buenavista, Guimaras. The outside of Ricky’s home is like a temple, a Chinese pagoda of igang and wood set in the middle of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs with roosters, goats and dogs roaming around, constantly gravitating to this center point. It is a home meant to be prayed in, or prayed to.

And if the house is meant to be prayed to, then Ricky is its high priest, a shaman who absorbs the restless energy of the outside world and holds it at bay in this sanctum.
He might scoff at this image had I told him. Ricky declares with vehemence that he has no taste for formal religion whatsoever because, as he professes, “everything is about the process.”

I’m with him there. I was raised in a family where beads were held every night, where there was a week out of the year where you weren’t allowed to profess joy, where you rose up at dawn to greet an immaculate statue and where your own major decisions had to be raised every time to the pulpit. Yet for all its rituals and back stories, I never really gravitated towards it. It lost me at the term “unquestioning.”

There is something about Ricky’s anthill of gray hair though, tied in a high bun, his laughing, constantly crinkly, eyes and his collection of tattoos that make it seem as if he were holding a secret the rest of the world doesn’t know or get.

Outside his gates, the neighbor’s videoke plays the first lines of “Like A Virgin” followed by a man who confesses he’s made it through the wilderness.

We are in a little bamboo cabana, what he calls the Open Close Restaurant, because when he’s in, he cooks for all types of audiences – foreigners, friends and transients like myself who pop in unexpectedly to disturb his weekend. When he’s out, well, only the Rastafarian flags that serve as curtains greet would-be guests.

For a self-declared free spirit, Ricky has rules when he’s in the kitchen. One, he never lets anybody in. Two, he never actually tastes any of the food until it’s served, relying only on three staples: “love, passion, and walang negative”. And three, he will cook only plant-based ingredients. Any form of meat or any utensils that have prepared meat are banned because “pag kumakain ka ng suffering, umiinit ang katawan mo.”

Any animal is always fully conscious of their demise, he says. Meat then might very well be where the world’s anger comes from. Even Ricky’s dogs and chickens are vegetarians like himself.
I chew on the oatmeal-patty burger fresh out of the kitchen and tell him I barely notice the difference.

“Dinagdagan ko kasi ng dasal para mas sumarap.”, he declares. My karma is good. At least for all my three-day stay.

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I met Ricky on paper long before I ever met Ricky. His calling card was lying about in a posh hotel office. On it was a naked woman covering her private part with an over-sized cabbage. Ricky A. Vegetarian, it said. The 5-star hotel was an unlikely place for it. And yet something about the audacity of the illustration, the nonchalant manner with which it was said to be given, the way it stuck out of the stack, between a Korean journalist’s and a marketing associate’s, said that this man dictates his own normal.

The next time I would see him, it would be in an obsolete mall tucked before the port to Guimaras. He had been grocery shopping for what would be our meals for the next few days.

“Siguradohin mo walang malangsa sa plastic mo, ha.” warns our taxi driver.

Insulted, Ricky retorts, “Vegetarian po. Hindi ako kumakain ng isda.”

It is the last day of the Manggahan Festival. Stevedores and boatmen are busy setting up a stage by the port for a rock concert in Jordan, the arrival point of Guimaras.

At the park, booths out of amakan are covered in ripe mangoes, some dangling from the ceiling, others stuck to the wall, still others surrounding posts with bundles and boxes and rows of the fruit the festival is dedicating the week-long celebration to.

Guimaras Mangoes is a proper noun. Here, mangoes are never just mangoes. They’re Guimaras Mangoes, with a National Research and Development Center dedicated to finding out what made it so sweet in the first place. And because supply trumps demand, the proper noun is only P20 a kilo.

Yellow shirts are festooned all over the festival grounds. Picnic tables are out, with celebrants eating mango pizza, grilled mangoes and something called Española Soup No. 5.

There must’ve been an agreed-upon ruckus contest because every general merchandise store seemed to have brought out their feet-high sound systems and are playing it at maximum volume, never mind if the next-door neighbor is playing his just as loud.

No surprise that Ricky lives away from all these. Reminds him too much perhaps of Manila and the life he left behind as a tabloid photographer, chasing celebrities and politicians for a good angle.

Now, he chases animals off his veranda. The city to him is constantly volatile. Even when it sleeps, he says, the underlying waves of sounds and movements are a set of highs and lows. They are crude, never subtle. And that’s how he describes his life as well. It went “from crude to subtle.”

Ricky, a freelance photographer for Iloilo’s Provincial Capitol, is based in the city, still a growing metro of around 2 Million, and yet he can’t quite stay there for very long.

Extremity, to him, are danger zones. His tattoos, a skull, Death, on his right, and a woman, Mother Nature, on his left, reminds him of this everyday. He has to be constantly in the middle within the bounds of a line he seemed to have created.

In his house are framed posters of the same balance he seeks. Outside the room I am staying in are framed photos of a thunderbolt, Intensity, and a ripple of water on the other side, Tranquility.

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Putting my story alongside Ricky’s is a decision born from apprehension. Consider the harsh cut in perspective, the realization that it has to be. The fiction that I’ve made of him seems to be more magnanimous than mine. Perhaps it is used to hide mine, and why I’ve come to Guimaras in the first place.

I show Ricky my own tattoos, the ones that slowly appear without my permission or control. They’re sketched in white like maps that dictate their own geography. Some days, I find that they’ve made a small island on my wrists and hands. Some days, they become an overnight pangaea.

It is my body’s way of fighting against itself in a war whose casualties lay frozen in a state of shock, white faces constantly staring back.

The medical world has a word for this. Vitiligo. When I say it, I stammer like there’s a foreign shard on my tongue.

There is something to be said about deformities though and its relationship with its bearer. Most of the time, the bearer learns to love the deformity, is both fascinated and terrified by how it progresses. It’s like a separate life. Within is an overbearing temptation to use it as a crutch. I tell friends I stress myself out, am too busy to let these tattoos heal itself. I convince myself even that it becomes a distinct eccentricity like Woolf who insisted on writing standing up.

And so while my doctors, bless their hearts, have vented out warning after warning that any remote chance of a cure will involve two physical epiphanies: purging out the stress and switching to a plant-based diet, I’ve never given serious thought to both, that is to say, I’ve gone in and out of being vegetarian.

“Nag-he-herbal ka ba?”, Ricky cuts my thoughts as we walk around a white beach in Nueva Valencia. Bodies are slathered in the rubbery smell of sunblock. Rastafarians are selling rows of necklaces made of bone and wood. I‘ve stayed away from the beach these past couple of months. Perhaps it is the constant reminder of untarnished health. I didn’t want to see it. These days, I am more like the Trappist monks in Jordan where we just came from, covered in brown garbs from head to toe, sweating in their leather boots.

“Nag-he-herbal ka ba? Walang judgment sa tanong na yan, ha.” he tells me.
Ricky’s question leads to many roads, but I chose to go to the safe one. I feign ignorance and tell him alternative medicine, homeopathy to be exact, was my medication of choice.
To cure what, I don’t exactly know. Once, in a coastal town in Cebu, a crystal healer came up to me and diagnosed, almost immediately after meeting, that I lack a certain spirituality. Perhaps that is what I have come here for, to find a drug to alleviate the deficiency.

“Nanggaling na ako dyan.” Ricky tells me while he picks on the flesh of lanzones.
The air is arid against the mid-morning sun. Everything is filtered in white light, saturated colors like a television that’s about to flicker off. We catch a commercial boat docking on the shore and in its wake, the course to Magic Island.

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Palawan

It is 2010. The van winds through snakelike roads on its way to Sabang, cramped with strangers, a carsick child and an overwhelmed mother. The mother fancies herself a traveler, so the child supposedly, should be too. They are on a mission, these two, to prove that motherhood, accidental or otherwise, is never a hindrance to dreams.
The child vomits those dreams and other unidentified objects all over the mother’s polka-dot shirt. Agitated, she tells the driver to slow down. He says he has a schedule to keep.
The van is cloistered now with the sour smell of dreams, the unpreparedness of the physical state even if the mind wills to go. Sabang is still a couple of hours away. They pass by karst mountains, little villages and souvenir shops. The toddler is bawling. The other passengers don’t care. They are on vacation.

When they finally get to Sabang, Palawan’s access point to the underground river, they are told that they might not be able to cross. The sea is too choppy. So, they wait on the coastal wall facing a turmoil of water. An empty beach is on the left. A new resort lurks on the right.
Palawan, to those waiting, seemed to be anything that you wanted it to be. It was a land that held something intangible, always out of reach. And to a new mother still grasping her new role, its lack of label held a certain comfort.

The 7th Wonder
It is 2015. So much of the land is about waiting. It never reveals itself completely to the impatient, or the unprepared. I come back five years after to the person I left stranded on that cross. The daughter is now five years old. Save for a few trips, she loathes crosses. She likes straight destinations.

The hotel on the right of Sabang’s jumpoff point, I later find out, is called Sheridan and is the very reason that brought me back to this stretch of sand.

My room faces a 340-ft. long infinity pool where some Koreans are playing a game of hoops or lining up at the lowered bar to watch Game of Thrones.

Just a short walk away are some lined gazebos that face the beach, most useful to my habit of people watching at dusk. There are construction workers on bikes with their tiffins, teenagers having a good laugh and half-naked backpackers leafing through their copies of Lonely Planet.
Palawan now has a label. It is now found in magazines, brochures and signages. It is now the “7th wonder of the world”. If this doesn’t pack a punch, then perhaps the “best island”, according to Conde Nast Traveler, will.

The first time I heard of these, I cringed. I wonder that if by somehow boxing the very notion of what made it special, we have objectified its worth, created the paradox and efficiency of a single story? Does naming a mother “mother”, for instance, streamline the meaning of a woman?

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But I digress.

The beach on a Sunday is quiet. The waves break and recede to a rhythm ideal for sleep. Deck chairs save for a lulling solitary tanner, are empty. Fishing boats are docked on the shore. The volleyball net sways in the wind. A coconut with an unexpected message emblazoned with a marker perhaps says it all: that Palawan may all be the “art of doing nothing.”

There I go again. Labeling. Hurry. Hurry. My mind is anxious for an angle. Close the story, it says. While I feel off put by the notion, I also feel the need to absolve things of its obscurity, to place my own label instead of theirs perhaps.

We ride an 8×8 to a private property, then walk the rest of the way to the jumpoff point of Sabang’s zipline. On the way, we pass by uninhibited beaches, mangroves and an overgrowth of grass. The word “untouched” comes to mind.

Our guide, Roy, confirms this. No one is allowed to live in this area, he says, for fear that their presence might affect the natural balance of things. Snakes cannot be killed. Wood can’t be burned for fuel. Sea grass can’t be swept away.

“Untouched” may also be a warning. Meaning, establishments should see to it that it the word finds relevance amidst the island’s growing popularity.

Roy says that Sheridan experienced the need to give way to nature firsthand. When once they trimmed a coconut of its dead leaves, five minutes later, a civilian ranger was already in the premises, asking about the tree’s welfare, asking about legalities. Where was the permit signed by the barangay official?

In Sabang, cutting one tree alone involves serious paperwork. An area where only 20% of the land mass is commercialized and the rest of the 80% is still wilderness sees to it that the rights of majority, the trees, are respected. By law, it has just as much need for space as humans do.

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Ziplines as Time Machines
We are a company of four trekking through wet sand. And as if to feel the smallness of our humanities in comparison to the expanse of space, we break off, each one enamored with a crag, a monkey, an enormous vine, a fallen tree trunk.

It is approaching low tide and the sliver of water kissing land form chevron patterns on the sand. I follow them with my feet. Best to walk barefoot until reaching the forest trail.

Where shore ends, a thick foliage begins. The sun can barely pass through the leaves covering the sky. Trekking even with the support of wooden stairs require agility and long breaths.

“I’ve found my angle!” a companion remarks as we pass through the root of a tree, big enough to form an arc over our heads.

“Palawan is all about inconvenience.” he says. “The inconvenience of having to trek to get to one’s destination. The inconvenience of having to pass through trunks of trees.”
We reach the platform and look at the view of jagged mountain and sea set against the thicket. My companion concludes by saying “We pass through inconvenience only to realize it was all well worth it.”

There is a visible line to track the meeting of mountain and sea. The cable runs from the platform to a collection of volcanic rocks that create an otherworldly set of sculptures on the shore.

I am the first to jump off. The ride is pleasantly slow with enough time to see the mangroves on the left and if you look close enough, the zipline operator instructs, you might be able to see the Kalayaan group of islands on the right.

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Trajectories though can often be illusory. A combination of speed and height can also take you through time other than place.

It is 2010 again, and I am looking at another zipline cable. This one is in Mitra’s Ranch in Puerto Princesa. I want to ride it. I am already here, I think to myself. But the daughter clings to the side of my hip. Her carsickness has ruined the trip for her. She is afraid of everything at this age and is quick to complain.

Her own feelings have defined my experience. When she cries, something in me feels inadequate. I feed with her stimuli to compensate. Look, a pyramid. Look, horses. I am a mother now first before I am a traveler. This is what I remind myself. Still, the place calls, so I balance her on the side of my hip while a take a photo with my camera on my left. We take the shorter and safer trajectory of the swing instead of the zipline. She is happy.

In Sabang, my companions follow one after the other until the tour operators themselves slide down to close shop for the day. In a corporate outfit, the operator ziplines with folder in tow. This is her life in the island.

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Northern Lights in Palawan
Later that night, we feast on dinner served on a wooden tray as long as our table. There’s fresh seafood – squid, crabs, shrimp, white fish – vegetables – eggplant and okra – and grilled meat. There’s organic black rice and fresh pineapples too. The next morning, we would visit their farm and, in the most authentic execution of farm to table, I see one of the farmers cut the pineapple off its stalk and serve it straight as palate cleanser. Eat it with a zest of calamansi, the farmer suggests. Acid on acid is surprisingly refreshing. Roy says that 80% of their produce come from Sheridan’s self-sustaining farm where they plan to build a backpackers’ lodge and an archery field soon.

Night in Palawan seems unnatural, at least to my own nature who is unused to total darkness. I walk on the shore, guided only by silhouettes and sounds. In the distance, there is faint light that seeps through the fog, a combination of color and air. It is what I imagine the Northern lights to be.

“They’re fishermen.” explains the resorts Human Resources Coordinator, handing me a cocktail. While looking at the lights, we talk about how Sheridan has come a long way from when I last saw it five years ago.

For one, whereas it used to employ mostly Cebuanos, now it has embraced Palawan fully by getting most of its staff from the area. And those who have been imported now plan to stay.
It now has programs for schools and scholarships for students. They’re now also building a small chapel. They don’t even consider it Corporate Social Responsibility. They consider it part of business continuity. Involve the communities, and in turn, they help you back.

It is unfair perhaps to label Sheridan as an eco-resort. They have taken it to a certain level of sustainability that it becomes a lifestyle, celebrated by many, but a norm for them. It is unfair also to brand it as a luxury resort too because it operates on a certain level of hospitality one would usually expect from homier, more intimate settings.

Perhaps it is best to not label it at all just as it is best to stop putting myself in place as “mother”, “daughter”, “traveler”, “writer” with set expectations for all. How about person? How about human?

“Have you been here before, Ma’am?” the HR coordinator asks.

“Yes. Once.” I tell him.

Hoping for more answers perhaps, he prods with a tilt of his head.
I like Palawan, I tell him, and with the best compliment I can give to those who refuse to be defined, I end with “As to why, I don’t know.”

Listening to the Earth

Chady woke up to his bed shaking that Tuesday morning. He waited for the movement to stop, but instead, it took away his sense of balance. It disarranged sundries neatly lined up on his dresser. It made its way to his feet, until he couldn’t ignore it. He got up and walked out of the room.

There were no alarming sounds that would tell him something was amiss. No loud impact of falling objects. There were no cries from his board mates, no chatter about the movement they could not yet understand. Even Chady doesn’t say anything, allowing his feet to feel what was going on around him. It can be said that he might just be unusually calm. More accurately though is that Chady, like the rest of those in his boarding house, is deaf and, consequently, mute.

Of course, this scenario came more from my imagination than from his testimony. Chady shares his experience during the October 15, 2014 earthquake that wracked Bohol, in a flurry of hand gestures, of words made optical. The exchange of signals look like 500 words a minute in transcription, too fast for the ordinary person to keep up with.

Chady communicates in American English. “I was afraid the house might collapse.” he tells me, “so I went to a safe area.” This is the direct translation of signs taught to them by a non-profit organization called IDEA, the International Deaf Education Association, founded in Bohol over 30 years ago.

He will perhaps never realize that most “hearing people”, as they call counterparts, speak in a different dialect, and that there is no direct interpretation for words most used by his fellow Boholanos in ordinary life. Hoy. Kanang. Kuan bah.

Most deaf people in the beginning, a coordinator shares, do not even know the concept of names. As if coming from a different world, they are taught first how to correlate symbols to objects or loved ones.

He learns, first off, that the woman who has been tending to him all this time is called “mother” and the man who looks like an older version of himself is called “father”. He is taught especially that he too has a name, certainly not the ones his neighbor secretly calls him, misinterpreting his miscomprehension of the most basic things as abnormal, strange, odd.

He hears the sound for the first time in his head, a strange collection of reverberations somehow meant to represent him. Michael. Louie. Chady.

“Hi. I am Chady. Deaf.” a tag says. We are being entertained by Chady in a hotel called Dao Diamond in Dauis, Bohol where he works as a waiter.

While Chady cleans up, Deaf Wellness Coordinator, Lea Bagolor, gives a lively discussion at our table. She is so used to talking with her hands, signaling in succession while speaking verbally for our benefit, that she can barely touch her food.

Lea, whose own sister is deaf, says teaching beginners sometimes already in their 30s is always visually dominated. Teachers go out of their way to bring actual objects to classrooms. “This is a spoon. This is a fork.”

Leaving Chady to his work, we go around the hotel. The kitchen houses the usual clash of knife to chopping board, of raw meat to pan and of vegetables to running water. There is no human sound.

80% of employees in Dao Diamond including the chefs, housekeeping and construction laborers, who built the Polynesian-inspired hotel from the ground up, are hearing or speech impaired.

A sign plastered in its lobby all too seriously says, “Observe Silence.”

All the things that can’t be heard

In a corner in Tagbilaran where heavy traffic is apparent by the sound of horns and the screech of tires, is a Montana-themed restaurant called Garden Café. A sign outside says “Strictly no business transactions. No playing of cards. No pets allowed. No bringing of outside food.”

Beside the sign is a collection of souvenirs made in Bohol such as hand painted fans, tarsier stuffed toys, capiz clutches and jeweled handbags. On its wall interiors are memorabilia that came directly from Montana – framed cowboy photos, boots, hats, horseshoes, scythes and saddles.

It might pass off as any other restaurant meant mainly for foreigners, except for one unusual detail. There is a working phone in each booth that says “Dial 0 to order.”

In other restaurants, this could be a novelty ploy, but in Garden Café, its function is more utilitarian than anything else. Only one designated hearing person receives the order via phone, which he cascades to the rest of the non-hearing staff.

For those brave enough to attempt communication, there are symbols for basic orders on the menu like “Coke”, “coffee”, “chicken”, “bread”, “hamburger”, “pizza”, “fish”, “halo-halo” and “rice”. More specific orders can either be pointed to or written down.

There is a hand signal for “Thank you” too, somewhat prone to misinterpretation by those in the verbal world. IDEA’s founder, Dennis Drake, was faced with a flabbergasted customer once, complaining how “Your waiters are so rude.” Concerned, the soft-spoken Dennis asks the woman what the waiter did.

“He did this, you see!”, the woman said, and goes on to touch her hand to her lips while simultaneously touching the crook of the forearm with the other hand. She thought he was cursing her. Dennis goes on to explain how he was actually showing gratitude.

Being subject to misinterpretation is nothing new to them, shares Dennis, and this doesn’t just exist with hearing to non-hearing members. It does exist with non-hearing to non-hearing members too.

Sometimes, Dennis says, they just throw paper balls to get each other’s attention.  Dennis takes us to a large gymnasium built from the ground up by all-deaf laborers. It now also serves as work area for students learning ironwork, woodwork and other vocational courses. A member, a few meters above ground, was busy welding parts of the metal beam. The other was busy repairing a cabinet in the corner. Another was making the start of a bed. The combined noise generated was disturbing but not one looks up. In times like these, with employees isolated in their own worlds, only paper balls might work. Street smart mechanisms are developed on the ground because there are just pragmatic matters a classroom quite can’t teach. Communication in itself perhaps is still instinctual.

Nevertheless, this system of formal education and pragmatic work makes IDEA an intricate web of self-sufficiency with very little outside help.

There are now about 443 students, a good number of which they’ve set up dormitories, lodging and full scholarships for. From formal schooling through their Bohol Deaf Academy, most of the students are then employed in the different social enterprises. Apart from Dao Diamond and Garden Café, IDEA has a manufacturing company with over 50 employees which exports fly baits, small copies of insects used for fishing, which they export to Canada. They also have a construction company which employs around 60 mostly-deaf to build mass furniture such as cabinets, chairs, beds, desks and the like.

Overall, these IDEA enterprises ranging from manufacturing, carpentry, masonry, plumbing, welding, baking, housekeeping and landscaping employ about 1,000 deaf mutes in over 5 municipalities in Bohol.

The connected Hearing Clinic, one of the most advanced in the Philippines, is always well-stocked with hearing aids ready to be given a way to those who can’t afford them. At one point, they were able to give out almost 1,800 hearing aids in just 2 days, a far cry from the long queue of beneficiaries that other hearing institutions in the Philippines have.

All of the enterprises in turn, from the restaurants down to the construction company, contribute monetarily to the overall goal, deaf mute education.

“We’re not a hotel or restaurant business. These aren’t our focus. It has always been education.” says Dennis.

Yet there is almost a quiet, excuse the pun, elusive stance on how the group operates. There seem to be no pats on the back or racket about its success as if being self-sufficient amidst special conditions should be a pre-requisite, as if to say, this, in any circumstance, should be the normality.

Even Dennis, who came to Bohol over 32 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer, talks about the workings of this inner community as if the whole thing was nothing impressive. The system is somehow defined by all the things that cannot be heard.

The closest form to pride perhaps is when Dennis, introducing his very first student from over 30 years ago says, “I’m a grandpa now.”, his earliest mentees now with kids of their own.

Such quiet efficiency was especially apparent during the earthquake when the Deaf Association was amongst the first to respond in the relief and rebuilding efforts of Bohol, and continues to do so almost a year after the earthquake.

In IDEA’s gymnasium during our visit, pre-fabricated panels for about 100 houses are stacked on top of each other, ready for delivery to the heavily-damaged municipality of Sagbayan.

“Those should be out as soon as the rain stops.” Dennis says, and moves on to show the next project.

The More Accessible Route

The Deaf Association might very well be a microcosm to how Bohol is rebuilding itself after the earthquake. While it has gladly accepted the support of long-term help from international non-government organizations such as the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and USAID, its private sectors have rebuilt fast enough that a year after, it now has the ability to help the rest of its island, and it has done so with very little noise.

“There was no clear direction on where we were going.” the Governor of Bohol said of the Province before the earthquake. Now most certainly, the small island is set to tackle not just its face lifting efforts with plans to rebrand itself other than just a heritage site but a thriving eco-cultural and agri-industrial powerhouse. It also plans to tackle the dirty side of progress as well, especially with a pending domestic airport in Panglao underway.

The islet of Panglao itself, seemingly pristine with its white sand beaches and clear waters, produces six to seven tons of garbage a day in average. During tourist season, this increases to about nine to ten tons a day. It had no clear plan as to how to dispose toxic and residual waste. The whole province didn’t have a designated dumpsite as well.

But community members in Panglao are set to change all this.

“Ma’am, naa moy trashcan?” I ask a woman, wanting to throw some leftovers upon arriving in a seemingly-industrial facility. She looks at me with a knowing smile that initially escapes me.

There was an organic garden in front, with budding lettuce, tomatoes and eggplants. Upturned wine bottles serve as dividers to the different plots. I quickly assume it was a stopover to an eco-tourism area.

Soon after, a woman in multi-colored jacket and boots greet us.  Leonila Montero, the Mayor of Panglao, tells us with a smile that this is Panglao’s solid waste management facility. She, along with an organized woman’s organization, is keen on cleaning up their 4th class municipality.

I realize I had never seen a waste facility so organized and odorless. To the right of its structure are rows and rows of solid waste in white sacks. Biodegradables are composted and sold as fertilizers. At the back is a new shredding machine set to cut down Panglao’s waste down even more.

Montero says she recently released one multicab per barangay to collect waste but segregation at the source is another problem. “To educate takes time.”, she says, not wanting to resort to incentivizing what should be a supposedly-automatic process. While she started waste segregation a long time ago in her own resort, the concept is hard to catch on. “Mahirap. I am not a teacher.”

To go back to the earth perhaps is the more accessible route, something that requires very little teaching. Montero says that although waste management is just starting, the Woman’s organization has already gained a bit of profit from selling the vegetables they planted in the periphery to hotels and decorative plants to tourists, and they continue to plant even without pay. One takes out a new harvest of fresh lettuce, and asks us to get a leaf or two. Notice, she says, how sweet it was.

 “Pawala lang gud sa kasapot”, one of the women gardeners say when I ask her why she was so dedicated. It was her therapy, she says, after a long argument with the husband but apart from that, “Lahi ra jud kung green ang naa sa imong palibot.”

The Silence of an Earthquake

A stocky man with an austere face, Governor Chatto of Bohol, says with candor, “Bohol was not ready for an earthquake. We were more prepared for typhoons.” After the many storms that passed, with Bohol being in the center of the Philippines, he felt like they were and would often be spared of disasters.

But who’s to blame him? The noise wrought by incoming storms, oftentimes with official names that mark them throughout history, can oftentimes be prepared for. But something as nameless and soundless as an earthquake can only be force majeure. Until now, unlike the strong marks of icons like Yolanda, Frank or Ruping,  Boholanos can only refer to that fate-given moment as “katong linog.”

Whatever made Chatto create the Quick Response Team called TARSIER 117 (Telephone and Radio System Integrated Emergency Response) years before the earthquake, he was glad that he did.

“First rule hours after a disaster, go to the Command Center.” the Governor shares. When he went to the designated post minutes after the quake, his Tarsiers were already there.

He emphasizes that they served as important relay instruments of the type of damage experienced per municipality. This first and foremost is the Tarsiers’ first role.

Because of the Quick Response team, Chatto was immediately able to declare that Bohol was under a state of calamity the afternoon after the earthquake.  This resulted to being able to feed citizens in the evening, open malls for immediate aid, open the municipality’s bodegas as well as the cultural centers for relief packing and distribution. Preparedness, like in Dennis’ and IDEA’s part was key to a quick rebound. The Tarsiers became the ears of the Governor that “captured the many stories of the earthquake.”

These days though, there seems to be a lull in the province, not the type of silence of one who isn’t doing anything, but of that severely focused on a task. Chatto stresses that this silence after the rumble is a temporary setback. When constantly asked about what his damage assessment on the island is, he always says “I was in Bali a month after the bombing and in Phuket after the tsunami. I was expecting this (the setback).” They even use the delay of tourists and investment, he says, to further prepare for the eventual influx.

Chatto has lots of plans for his beloved Bohol. Like someone with a teleprompter in his mind, he fires off strategy after strategy, parts of his EATT at Bohol Program. EATT stands for Environment, Agriculture, Tourism and Technology. Bohol, he says, is a province with so many assets, and while they are set on rebuilding as part of BBBB (Build Back Bohol Better) with its heritage churches being top of mind, he is also set on building a New Bohol as well because “Bohol is more than just its heritage sites.”

He mentions plans for cruise ship ports, fiber optics, solar panels and communication cables. This is really all in preparation for what will eventually be a steady stream of eco-cultural tourists. It’s a redundant term, he says of “eco-cultural tourism”, but he firmly uses it because he emphasizes the “strength in not just in the natural attractions but also the strength in the people.” Chatto believes, he says, in Bohol’s “culture of tourism with our penchant for festivals. We celebrate it with gusto.”

This is true, especially for himself perhaps, as after the interview where he extensively answers each question with the ease of someone who knows how to execute, he takes off his formalwear and dresses as a datu, brown sash on his head, a gold organza vest, to celebrate with his constituents at Bohol’s colorful Sandugo Festival.

With only 12 participants this year, it isn’t quite as big as other festivals. They were unsure of how the festival itself would go a year after the earthquake, if they should celebrate it even. But Chatto says next year’s celebration will be better. Standing on top of a float for hours, he waves to hundreds of people, some of whom do a double take, unused to the non-formality of the man. “Si Governor na?”, they ask.

“Bohol is coming in for a very big surprise.” he says before going, as if he too is more of a receiver than the giver of it.

In the sudden bareness after the dancing, the streets of Tagbilaran are a scattered mix of sound and sight. Half-dressed dancers still with face paint sit on the sidewalks. Tempura vendors with nothing to sell anymore prop up their feet on carts. And in an avenue somewhere is a trail beat of a snare.

It takes on a slow cadence, an intimation of some long-lost refrain. The sound is like the end of a rumble from the earth, who was speaking a different language all along, and in the quiet stages that follow an aftermath, one is finally able to hear it.

What was and Is in Camiguin

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.

Left behind

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.

Questions on Home in Malapascua

This is a story of displacement.

Barefoot and bareback, she wanders around the different resorts, dancing to the Gangnam Style on her mobile phone. She skews her face alluringly and shimmies as though she were playing with an invisible hula hoop. She likes to talk, it seems, to anyone who would listen even to a tourist she met just a minute ago. This was also how she met her boyfriend on the same strip of sand, a foreigner she sees but once a year.

While waiting for buyers, she shows me videos, most of them of her dancing, gyrating to a tune that has met its time. And when she walks away, midmorning sun diluting her silhouette, she carries a collection of sarongs and thresher shark carvings, swishing in her arms, as if they too wanted to join the dance.

This is the story of Esperanza, souvenir vendor, aspiring entertainer, who left her hometown of Iriga, Bicol five years ago. And without friend or relative, settled herself in the small island of Malapascua. She eyes foreigners getting a massage on the beach, and when they ignore her by turning the other way, she just shrugs and walks away.

On the other side of the island is a blue-eyed mermaid. The accent, when she speaks, cannot be placed. Later on, she explains this by saying she is Swedish who grew up in England. She might have picked up some form of Asian tone too, a mix of all the countries she’s been to. She talks about mandarin fish, pygmy seahorses and mantis shrimps the way some would describe characters from soap operas, with a mix of fascination and a suspension of disbelief. “Just the other day I saw a thresher shark passing over my head!” she gushes. This is what she’s here for mostly, for the thresher sharks, light-sensitive creatures that prefer deeper waters. Malapascua though holds a rare phenomenon. It is the only area in the world where thresher sharks can be seen a mere 25 feet below the surface or less. This mermaid serves as guide to foreigners of the underwater.

This is the story of Rebecca, who with husband Joel, left a corporate suit in Europe for a more fit diver’s suit. In the morning, with Joel’s hand propped over her shoulder, they get ready for another day of holding office under the sea. This is how they spend their days now. Faces are sunburned but they don’t mind. They plan to stay in Malapascua for at least a few more years at least.

Esperanza, Rebecca, and the throng of tourists who mix together in these now-famous kilometers of sand all have something in common. They are not from here. Very few are.

Malapascua may all be about the sea but the locals, the very few of them who consider themselves as such anyway, push back inland. The perimeter of the island, now owned mostly by resorts and commercial buildings belong more to outsiders. Fishermen who once had direct access from shore to sea tiptoe through tourists now to get to where their boats are parked. Some resorts do not even allow that.

This too, is a story of displacement.

“ Mao ra man nay binuhatan sa mga dato, ‘day,” a boatman, the Captain of Charma, says to me in passing. I biked through their labyrinthine dirt paths, watching a congregation of women play pool, the men on the other side preferring a game of cards.

I paused again ahead, observing men and women untangle nets in midday heat. “Kaniadto wala pa nang mga resorts, mao ni makitan nimo gibuhat sa mga tawo, maglimpyo sa ilang lambat, magstorya.”

Now though, there is mostly the sand, the beachfront that to locals act as main highway. Nothing else.

Of all the places we occupy yet never properly see, nothing is more distorted perhaps than the concept of “home.”

What attracts people to run away to an island that technically is non-existent, its name not accepted as a formal postal address, is a circuitous question. But gratefully, travel oftentimes is not knowing what to find but knowing the need to find it.

I came to Malapascua superficially needing to find stories. As part of a writing assignment, I documented lovers sharing a cigarette under the talisay tree and fiery sunsets for a magazine. But there are stories less purposeful for the lure of tourism and more purpose-driven for something else.

There are Koreans wearing the daster as comfortably as if they were born here. On the shore is a fraternity of vendors, stringing beads while on the side, backpackers haggle even before they’ve finished. And on the inner part of the island are unpicky divers, coming out of houses with Red Horse and pandesal in hand, a common sight during tourist season when most resorts are packed to capacity. These are sights that lovers under talisay trees and fiery sunsets could not hold against.

On the third day, biking through the center of Logon, caught in the middle of a basketball game, I passed by a sari-sari store for supplies.

After all the obligatory questions, the store owner, Nang Bebot, asks where I was from. I could never answer the question quite as aptly as needed. “Ako, ‘day, taga-Apo,” Nang Bebot said. I grew excited, coming from there a few weeks back. We trade stories, personalities we knew. I wondered then what made her move here to an island similar to her own in lifestyle and geography. I was too befuddled to ask. And even then, would she know? Could she give a good enough reason? What other reason is there to move, other than the need to move?

It is easily understandable to me, moving, for those who find the concept of unguarded heat alluring. It is the catch of novelty, the fantasy of colder and more developed areas, and its people. But this woman, she moves here anyway despite close similarities to her place of origin. What was she trying to find, that she couldn’t find in the confines of habit? What does one place hold in certain advantage to the other?

At night, red and blue lights flicker in the darkness of Malapascua’s waters, each a boat that leads back to Maya Port. Bancas are parked for the day with names like Kabughan, Purple Manta and Maliit. Candles are lit on beachside restaurants. Cool air on the skin. All the elements of romance, it seems, fixed in someone else’s memory.

I was not as impressed by Malapascua no matter how I tried to be. And I did try.

“The best places,” Pico Iyer once said, “are the places that leave you permanently unsettled.” The white sand, the macrolife, the vendors who sell fresh catch off the boat, may be to others worthy of fantasy. But to a Cebuano growing up with sun in the eyes and sand on the feet, it is settlement.

Perhaps then a certain displacement is needed to feel at home. Perhaps home is a concept in transition.

I look at the waters, its inviting darkness, the glow of Daanbantayan in the near distance and know that somewhere on the other side of the shore are more convictions waiting to be let go.

The Eloquence of Forgetting

 There it is. A sudden jolt. An undefined sensation. Quickly, you try to grasp the missing fragments like a computer scanning for misplaced files. Is something amiss? Wasn’t I supposed to remind myself about whatnot? And even before hands touch space where mass should’ve been, the mind has already realized it. You’ve forgotten. Something.

The jolt came in the car a few minutes before stepping into the scheduled bus. The notebook, a new one with a watermark of a compass and the wisdom of the ambiguous saying “Travel the World. Your dream begin like a flower.”, has been stranded at home. The notebook is to the forgetful what a soldier is to his ammunition. I counted the minutes it would take to turn back. But the designated driver was dashing off to a dawn marathon, and I to a leaving escape vehicle.

The bus ride to the South was ridden with familiarity. “Nothing new to see.”, I tell myself, the route a rerun of a well-loved film. Paused in some parts, fast forwarded the next, it’s been played a hundred times over since childhood when summers were for fleeing to sleepy hometowns. One town after the other and the sway of trees begin to blur into a single montage. Nothing new to see, I affirm, before dozing off to sleep haunted by the forgotten.

How do you remember Sensation – sight, smell, feel – when not recorded? How do you remember where you were? How you were? More importantly, who you were, when reminders are scarce? Today, when senses are victim of overload, recording becomes a necessity. If only to evaluate afterwards, what Sensation has brought, or left behind.

One must remember to remember.

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North is never North

Dumaguete, though, makes this a challenge. The whole city is a microcosm of change. At foresight, one can easily distinguish whether a part has been destroyed, rebuilt or built. New cafes pop up every other month. Bars catering to the influx of Expats – Australians, Koreans and Americans mostly – change just as easily. And on the city’s center are thriving commercial buildings – Lee Plaza, the only staple among them – that still maintain a close tie with siestas, bartering profit for extensive lunch breaks.

Places should be walked to. For it is the easiest way to spot the novelties of “progress” in a city still confused whether it wants to hold on to its provincial vibe or drift elsewhere. But even then, you still ask yourself as I have several times, what was here before again? The details vary so often. Stores are rebranded. New ones erupt. Signages are installed, taken off or transferred that one starts to think that in Dumaguete, it is not the “where” that’s important but “how long” one has the opportunity to enjoy it.

“Tour us around.” a new friend from Iligan requests.

“Yes, please do.” her Peace Corps companion, seconded.

The request was given to a native of Negros. Unfortunately, the native just happens to have a defective navigation system. North is never North. And even landmarks are deceptive, its proximity too near or too far than actuality. After an hour following the wrong roads, asking strangers every second or so, and trying to find restaurants that are never where they’re supposed to be, our Peace Corps companion remarks, “I’m starting to think you didn’t really grow up here.”

I smile sheepishly. “I forget easily.”, I tell him.

But whereas cities are all about change, islands have a different persona altogether.  On islands, there is singularity of direction. Residents either go to or come back from. There, nobody is ever lost, or rather; one allows himself to get lost, knowing sooner or later, he will be met by the comfort of the recognizable, as the island called Apo will quickly show.

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Swimming off to calmer waters

On the shores of Zamboanguita, 45 minutes from Dumaguete, are a string of boatmen who sell anduhaw and sulig while waiting for customers to cross to Apo Island. Beside their kawayan table set with fresh catch is a lone man climbing from tree to tree, dropping coconuts until they form a neat pile on the ground. My companions and I watch it fall, taking our minds off the horizon which still seemed confused whether it’ll succumb to heat or rain. It seemed we had all slept the night before wishing for the sun, some whispering a prayer before sleep, others a firm affirmation. In the early light, the island was still a hazy patch of blue.

Unsa diay pangalan ninyo, Noy?” we ask the two boatmen assigned to us.

“Panny.” ,the Captain replies.

“Marly.”, the other answers.

Panny and Marly. The duo sounded like characters straight from a comedy skit that we silently decide to call them just “Noy” from there on.

If only Apo Island was met with a silence demanding of its dignity. If only there were Gregorian chants illuminating the awe of an island that greets visitors with 20-foot rock formations like a hand extending a Hello. Instead, it was met with the whirring sound of the motor and the splash of choppy waters that as soon as arrival broke off our boat’s rigger.

“Makauli pa mi ani, Noy?”, we ask the Captain jokingly. The island was a mere 20 to 30 minute ride from the shores of Zamboanguita but the growing swell of its waters made it look more isolated from the rest.

Naanad na mi ana, Ma’am, oi. Parte ra na sa among panginabuhi., he answers all too seriously.

Part of the beauty and crux of isolation is the predictability by which way of life is measured. Even something as unpredictable as weather can be prepared for. And for those who visit the singularity of this life, you are almost always sure of what you want to do, which part you’d want to go to and mostly, what romantic notion you want to buy into, part of the lure of travel, really. In Apo Island’s case, the choice was apparent, so applauded has its reputation been as a successful community-based marine sanctuary.

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“It’s Closed.”, the guide tells us. Oh.

Seniang and Sendong has damaged most of the island’s corals and many of its land resources. As biology would tell you, even plants flooded with water do not grow as easily. If lucky, the guide says, revival is expected in a span of two years, sad news for those who only have a span of two hours. But again with islands, any tyranny of unpredictability can be prepared for.

Sea turtles, the guide baits, are found by the hundreds in these waters, as worthy a sight as the sanctuary itself. Of course, he puts in, tourists are not used to looking for them in their natural habitat, so a few Hundreds should also be added to make use of those whose eyes have built- in goggles. We decline, counting on the substantial odds of what he claims as “hundreds”.

We found one.

It’s the weather, he justifies. Turtles swim off to calmer waters with ebb and flow like this. When they stay near the shore, they risk feeling the strength of the current. That lone turtle, we followed him to deeper waters until he too, swam farther away.

Lest the poignancy of such comes in, Chai, our marine biologist companion pipes out “I saw a sea snake!”, the ideal remark directed to an ophidiophobe. Black and white banded sea snakes are deadly, but marine biologists succumb to selective retention when excited.

“And look at this!”, she adds, a twinkle in her eye, as she plops a black phallic-like slug in my hand. A sea cucumber, she corrects. I hand it back immediately.

“Forget your worries for a while, will you?”, she asks amusingly, as if forgetting were a matter of choice.

She points here and there to dead corals, to live ones, to the difference that separates life from death; to everything that makes the home she calls sea so much more interesting to those without gills. Never mind that knees were scraped, elbows bumped and stomachs were bruised throughout. Marine life, it seems, thrives on the jagged. Comfort is not always an advantage.

“Don’t hurt them.” the marine biologist admonishes when striding over corals, a difficult task considering waves lash at every solid mass that resists, especially bodies.

By the time we finish, the sky had turned into a shapeless shift of grays.

“Naa mo nakitan, ‘day? (Did you find anything?)”, the guide asks with a snicker.

From the shoreline, the sea is a fabric of waves and foam. It crashes into the jagged rocks as if to smoothen a wrinkle. The guide hears the unasked question.

“Ang angay ana, ‘day, kalimtan ra ninyo inyong kahadlok. Kalimti ra gud inyong kakulba. Huna-hunaa lang nagdula mo. Nya saligi ang inyong kapitan o kung dili man, saligi ang Ginoo.”  (You need to forget about your fears. Forget about your nervousness. And trust in your Captain, or else, trust the Lord.)

Again, forgetting. I had started the trip anxious about remembering only to be told more than once, there might be more to learning the other way around.

Even locals affirm this. “Wala may mag-away diri. Kung mag-away man, katulgan ra gud. Nya pagka-ugma okay na dayon.” Elbaen, an inbred henna artist, tells us. Problems are slept on, and then forgotten the day after, a useful trait for an island so small, everyone is bound to rub elbows whether they like it or not. They choose to like it. The center of Apo is where locals easily converge. Women and children sit under kawayan benches sprawled under a Talisay tree, waiting for school’s dismissal, the signal for day’s end.

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Elbaen’s store, Salag ni Maya, are also where many of the town’s men, converge. From there, we find Marly who track us down to deliver news. The boat is on the other side of the island at the Marine Sanctuary, he says. The waves are making it impossible for it to go back to its original landing point. They were swelling higher than expected. It was time to go.

But it’s too early, we complain. Marly quietly cajoles. With weather like this, it is better to leave right away than risk staying another day.

We wave Goodbye to Elbaen and head off to the Sanctuary where the boat awaits. Just when the motor starts whirring, the boat suddenly stops.  The anchor was stuck.

In a blink, Marly dives and retrieves the anchor buried about 15 feet underwater. It is an intimidating sight. There is no fuss when he falls in. It is like a statement of fact, a definite conclusion.

Remembering, to me, seems just as effortless, as effortless as diving down the depths of the mind and retrieving the buried anchor. But forgetting, forgetting is a dive into pitch-black waters that lead to unsure currents.

So often has it become synonymous with abandonment – information, thought, memory. Forgetting, they say, eliminates what one thinks is irrelevant and replaces it, distorts it, nullifies it, stores it in boxes in the back until such time cobwebs deem its contents unrecognizable. For this, it will always be held as a disability. Why is it you can never find a thing when you need it, most complain.

But what then of those we deem valuable, and yet still forget? Concepts like home or fear, for example, all notions close to the heart still fall into pitch-black waters where even Marly finds it irretrievable. What of those?

Perhaps forgetting then is not a just a question of what the conscious finds relevant and perhaps it is not the mind who solely decides. Maybe it is also a question of deeper well-being, the spirit deciding on behalf of the conscious, detaching from what it deems as impediment for survival, disbarment of the excess.

Those who consider it as disability may have taken no notice that forgetting is also detachment from the familiar, a skill so essential to growth – a local, for example, veering off from memory and finding that there are still novelties in the hometown, or understanding that fear is just a stream of thought like most information, easily acquired and easily discarded. With as much effort as we place in remembering then – names, verses of poetry, errands that have to be done in the dailies of domesticity – perhaps the same effort should also be placed in learning to forget.

The boat arrives at Zamboanguita by late afternoon, a little later than expected because of the battle with the current. The salt on our faces have dried. The birds have started to come out. Panny and Marly start to organize the motorboat, preparing it for next day’s passage. They hide the life vests, clean out the storage area and assess the damage of the rigger. It would live, they tell us. We watch them work harmoniously, silently, before waving off our thanks.

Already, we have started erasing them – the contours of their faces, details of their clothing, lines of shared conversations – from memory, a process reserved more for those we see once, and never again.

I write this three months after, irresolute of which holds more truth, the parts willingly recalled, or those that have, like the turtles of Apo, already swam off into the waters of the subconscious. Its currents remain unseen yet continue to run deep. This is the eloquence of forgetting.

A Thousand and One Steps: Sagada

It is a pain to take a bath in Sagada. “Mamaak ang kabugnaw!”, says a companion, who served as a congenial alarm clock to an early itinerary. At dawn, when most Igorots, are still beginning to awaken in their metal-insulated houses, sipping Mountain coffee with the insouciance of someone who doesn’t know any less, we take a quick bath, the quickest we can muster, before heading on to a early hike.

In the Mountain Province, heat is the rarity. Oil bought in sari-sari stores congeal easily. Softdrinks are bought cold with no need for refrigeration. And as we puff up the Main Road to an even more elevated destination, breaths turn into mist, joining the omnipresent fog that signals the start of a typical Sagada morning.

There are no flatlands in Sagada. Although a good number of their Commercial buildings- pension houses, restaurants, souvenir shops – are congested in the Main Road, you have to navigate through an intricate system of stairs to go from Here to There. Even residences are 2 floor levels below or above, most of them with open doors where children and old men peep for a glimpse of the outside world.

Up and Down. Up and Down. Only the Highway is considered as Middle Ground. There are all kinds of stairs- stone, wood, earth, concrete – all deceptive in their façade of sturdiness. Locals are easily distinguished this way. A local’s steps are always instinctual. There is carelessness to their stride, coming from someone who has already picked the more credible footholds even before feet touch ground. But a tourist, a tourist strides through these paths with a deliberateness of someone who is afraid to fall.

Riding The Turtle's Back in Sumaguing Cave's 2nd Phase.

Riding The Turtle’s Back in Sumaguing Cave’s 2nd Phase.

Sumaguing Cave

“Magpahulog ka na lang.”, was the advice of a SAGGAs (Sagada Genuine Guide Association) accredited representative, Janno, as he gives us a few tips before entering Sumaguing Cave. He wasn’t joking. It was, he said, the safest way to land. No resistance led to fewer scrapes. The entrance is a slippery drop comprised of 246 manmade steps from the start down to the base of the cave. There are no helmets, no safety ropes.

“Peru huwag kayong mag-alala.”, adds Janno as another tour guide lights two gas lamps that will serve as the only beacon in this 2-km., 60 ft. high dome. “Alam na namin kung anong gagawin kung anuman.” Janno smiles with the nonchalance of a born and bred Igorot who has explored his share of caves, without baggage. Not even a first-aid kit.

The first phase (there are three phases) is the most challenging. Guano is everywhere. Rocks are weathered. Surfaces are smooth. Still hit by sun and wind, the white rocks are the most dangerous, friendly to the touch but offering no support.

A first-timer, such as myself, has no fear of falling. The only way to survive is to act like a local, to realize that climbing is more instinctual than skill. The feet dictate where it takes you. Up down. Left. Right. Grip. Slide. And although rocks are deceptively slippery, it is the unassurance of the surface that gives a first-timer such as myself the heightened sensation of assurance. To look past where you almost slipped to where you’re supposed to go.

“May free footscrub pa, o diba?”, jokes Janno as slippers were taken off for the more reliable grip of feet. The second phase is a combination of the more porous limestone that once was submerged underwater. Imagination should be widened, he further appeals, as out of the limestone formations in one of the biggest caves in the Philippines, comes a Queen, a King, a Princess, a turtle, an elephant and even a birthday cake. On the way back, we blow it, to celebrate a feat. Survival perhaps.

James, one of the guides, going to the Hanging Coffins

James, one of the guides, going to the Hanging Coffins

The Hanging Coffins

To be an Igorot, if only by imitation, is the only way to survive in Sagada. The word “Igorot” means mountaineer, and whether it is belief or physical protection that dictate Igorots to be so, outsiders can’t really be sure. But you must have a certain reverence for height if you are to love Sagada, for it is only in the inaccessible that any sense of achievement can be found. Most Ganduyans (the collective name for the people in Sagada) rituals strongly follow the same belief.

“The nearer you are to heaven” or the higher you are from the ground, Janno explains, “the closer you are to God.” Hence, most Igorots, those whose religion fall more on the ancient than in the influence of Christianity, hang coffins in elevated places such as cliffs or caves. To get to the Hanging Coffins, you must pass through Echo Valley, an easy feat if you take a shortcut through the World War II Veteran Cemetery.

Going up to Echo Valley, where you can proclaim an enthusiastic “I love you.” followed by a surprising confirmation of “I love you.” too, is easy. Going down to the Hanging Coffins is not. Two kids, James and Dan, no older than 12, served as our guides. And while we find support from anything nature can give, branches, rootends, James and Dan whistle and pick leaves along the way to be made into their favorite sipa.

There, strapped on the side of a cliff, are about 20 or so coffins suspended by rope. Some have chairs tied to them. “Chairs were used to place them in fetal position.”, said Dan. “Have you noticed how small some of the coffins are?”

The most recent addition was in 2010. The coffin is still fresh; the wood light. Going up the second site, another burial area, this time in a cave, Dan tells us this story: Once, a tourist took a skull from an open coffin with the intention of bringing it with him as souvenir. While going up, the skull talked to him in Kakana, the local dialect of Sagada. No one dared steal again.

The second site is a tricky play of holding on and letting go. Gravity is an adversary. Rain is making the already-steep path even more slippery. In the cave, are 6 or so coffins, toppled on top of one another. One was open. A bone sticks out. And I remember Dan’s story.

There are several more burial sites in Sagada that cannot be visited by tourists anymore. A good number of locals just bury loved ones in their backyards. This is to everyone’s mutual benefit, they say. This closeness allows makes guidance from the beyond easier.

Death in itself, while it brings about “closeness” of a sort, is still falling. But Sagada makes you realize that even falling has its advantages.

One of the many strong women workers you'll see in the Mountain Province.

One of the many strong women workers you’ll see in the Mountain Province.

Bomod-ok Falls

“Alam ko hindi kayo sanay sa ganitong lakad. So Gudlak nalang sa’tin.” Says Anita (Igorot name: Day-um), a guide from the Northern Sagada Indigenous Guide Association or NOSIGA. She hands us our walking sticks and teach us to walk sideways, testing how well each step receives our weight. Our all-girl group dismisses her admonition. In our heads, we are already retorting: “We can take it. We’ve walked farther before.” Inaccessibility is as much a driving force as the place itself. Inaccessibility connotes that not too many people have treaded there before.

Bomod-ok Falls is still 3 km. or 4,000 steps down moss-covered rocks, rice paddies, a gold mine and several pocket streams. But confidence wanes the farther we descend. All throughout the trek, locals pass us, carrying the heaviest of loads – a sack of rice, a metal sheet, machinery parts.

Bangaan, where Bomod-ok is found, is in the Northern part of Sagada, where even more isolated areas surprise you with an outcrop of people. “Naa pa diay mga tawo diri dapita?”, we asked as we pass by Barangay Fedelisan, the halfway point to the Big Falls. There are no roads for cars here. Everyday, the people of Fedelisan – students, workers, housewives going to the market – ascend and descend these stone steps back and forth. “And what if you’ve forgotten something?” we asked curiously. “Eh, di Doubletime!”, says a woman from Fedelisan.

We are trying to do just that. “Bilisan nyo!” is the constant cry of Anita, who constantly walks ahead of us as an example. It is supposed to take only 1 ½ hours going to and coming back from the falls. It takes us 6. We justify it to her by taking pictures of every local detail, storing it in Gigabytes as much as in memory. When in fact, we are resting every few minutes, hiding the sound of heavy breathing with the click of capture, the signs of wear with the viewfinder.

The falls itself is dependent on rain. Heat depletes its supply. Rainfall replenishes it. Water is abundant in Sagada. Every few meters or so, one will find a pocket stream, mini-falls or tag-ulan falls, as locals like to call those that appear only when it rains. While Bomod-ok’s grandeur is amplified by tourists, locals are more attracted to its functionality more than anything else. Water from the mountains is cleaner and richer in minerals. Bomod-ok’s is no different. Many tap it to supply their irrigation systems, their washing, even their drinking.

A few locals use it to supply romance. “Merong iba dyan kaya lang karamihan di talaga pinapayagan.” says Anita of local visitors. The current is too strong. Even she doesn’t allow her kids here despite the temptation of cool water, scenic view and the sound of constant falling that somehow invites its visitors to “fall” too. After we succumb to it, plunging in despite chattering teeth, we head back, the sound of the water getting fainter and fainter.

Living in an island, there haven’t been too many encounters made with mountains, or else there’ve been too many seas. Bodies of water teach us that everything can be coasted through. But mountains, mountains teach us that steps, whether deliberate or instinctual, are needed for any act worth accomplishing. The beautiful thing is sometimes the effort to climb or is just as fulfilling as the peak itself.

Every step is an experience. And what better place to learn this than in the town with a thousand stairs?