Apo Island

 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.


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.


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.


“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.


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.


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