Bob Dylan is on the Radio. The phone lights up on the passenger seat. It says, Margszie. I am surprised her airline allows calls in-flight, so I pick it up and find out she has arrived thirty minutes early, which is a first for her. Philippine airports are generally congested to the rafters and Margaret telling me her flight from Manila into Cagayan de Oro departed thirty minutes early is unimaginable. Her making it thirty minutes earlier than her scheduled flight is short of a miracle.
I am driving to the new airport, about three hours from Valencia and though the sky is showing signs of early orange, I have already had my share of klutz in the form of my pulling over to pee by the roadside (there are no rest areas this side of the planet, and I stick to my stance that ammonia is good for flora) and stepping into shin-deep mud. Three AM is when I turn in, not when I begin a three-hour drive in pitch black Bukidnon dawn, so naturally, my brain cells are having a coup. Half of them are feigning sleep while the other half are laughing at my caked up sneakers.
Margaret gives me a hug as soon as I jump out of the truck. Her eyes are bloodshot and I remind her she is too old to be partying like Miley Cyrus. I see my old high school professor, Mr. Reyes, by the curbside coming in from one of his cultural consultancy trips and offer him a ride. He says his driver should be around soon, so we promise to keep in touch and say goodbye. I miss having a driver, that’s for sure.
Probably unfair, and entirely rude, but in one fell swoop, I accomplish an entire year’s worth of social obligations—I pick up Margaret (theater school buddy, fellow artist, music video director, and a full fledged Yahoo) from the airport, have a breakfast social with a New Yorker an old friend wanted me to meet, am treated to a catfish lunch next to the water by my photographer friends, Armand and Allyne, share coffee with high school, college and tennis camp buddy, Michelle, and I hunt down Judy, my elusive anthropologist classmate from Corpus Christi Elementary and University of the Philippines—in a day. So, by the time Margaret and I make it to the last ferry crossing in Balingoan, two hours east of Cagayan de Oro, I am feverish with guilt. No one should treat their friends this way.
When we dock into Benoni, locals call out to us to rent out their minibuses, their motorbikes, their extra bedroom, virtually anything that is commodity to the visitor and the transient. The nice thing about Camiguinons is that they will try to sell you something but never in the urgent, pushy, life-and-death kind of way. They have a very keen understanding of the geography of their diminutive island, the fundamental idea that if you rip someone off, the single, circular highway will lead the victim back to you. And if you say no thanks, they always remind you that whatever they are peddling will still be available if you change your mind before they walk away.
Socioeconomic reasons might play into this psyche. Camiguin is laid back and bountiful. People are educated (there are a surprisingly good number of colleges on the island), sheltered (well-preserved wooden Spanish colonial homes), and well fed (the ocean is at their doorstep). It is probably not a stretch to say that the sound of lapping waves and the sight of an explosion of stars every night make for a happier, healthier people.
One guy comes at me and tries to rent out his scooter, and because it was seven hundred pesos (16 US dollars) for 24 hours, and looks like a convincing Vespa, I agree without hesitation. Nevermind that I’ve never driven a manual motorcycle before and that the thing weighed like Thor’s Mjölner. Our transaction is slightly interrupted by a procession of singing villagers carrying an image of a saint. He tells me I could pay when I return it the next day over the din, and that he just needs my license. I tell him I cannot possibly drive without a license. He scratches his head, and then concedes. I just love the trust being thrown around, around here. Collision damage waiver is foreign and does not apply. Nor does collateral.
In keeping with our theme of haste, he teaches me the basic wrist and foot coordination to shift between gears and in five minutes and with Margaret’s arms around my waist, we speed off towards the capital, Mambajao. Every now and then, our Vespa knock-off would sputter to a halt as I miss to shift a gear and I would have to drag it to the shoulder of the two-lane road to restart it. Every now and then, I would forget about the burning hot engine between my legs until I am reminded by way of my scorching calves. Margaret learns faster than me. She has gotten down the agile act of jumping off the bike and landing on both feet before it sputters and falls to the wayside to a perfect science. I usually just fall unceremoniously with the bike.
It is now dark and we miss the turn to my sister’s friend’s hotel. After what seems like a never-ending jaunt through blind curves, perilous cliffs and treacherous crags, Margszie finally declares we’re lost. But not really.
The road is a forty-mile loop around seven volcanoes, some still active and crowned by wisps of steam clouds, so the farthest we are from or destination would mean the closest. I reassure her that if we hold out long enough, we’ll find our way back into the ferry port. But we agree to backtrack because the dark makes the trip especially dangerous. And plus I was inadvertently feeding myself with insects (I still can’t figure out why my jaw drops open and my tongue dangles when I have the wind in my face).
At around nine PM, we finally find the unmarked side street leading to the tiny hotel. But not before gorging on some cardboard-tasting Mahi-mahi at an Italian restaurant. Yes, Italian, because so many expats have made Camiguin home. There are several Pizzerias all claiming Neapolitan roots, at least one French bistro, a Swiss restaurant, and several German Biergartens. It’s quite odd and charming to see little foreign cafes with thatched roofs sheltering blonde children unable to extract themselves from fishermen’s nets on the sand. So many expats so that they’ve succeeded in teaching locals driving skills. I’ve seen motorists actually stop at a four-way intersection, giving way to the car on the right.
We crash at our tiny hotel by a volcanic, black sand beach. Our inn-keeper who seems lightly intoxicated (and would remain so for the duration of our stay), had stayed up worried for us the whole night. The next morning, we feed on some very red hotdogs, garlic friend rice, eggs and the ubiquitous instant “three-in-one” coffee. Filipinos love the package deals so much so that these little packets of surprise extend to our daily consumption of caffeine. If it’s three-in-one, it must be saving me money, never mind if it consists merely of coffee, cream and sugar. Then there’s also the occasional four, five or six-in-one coffee, because it is fortified with some trace element from a carrot or a moringa leaf which would probably be as useful to your body as calipers are to a gourami.
Less than a block away is the launch for the motorized outriggers called bancas to White Island—a spit of sand bar a mile away from shore. The island is bare and unsheltered except for two or three makeshift sari-sari stores so sunbathers can revel in a spit-roast fiesta of ultra violet splendor. I teach Margaret to snorkel, jackknife, and make scuba signals. We swim around enjoying the silver scaled reflections of schools of fish until she blurts out a bubbly gurgle and quite literally starts running and flailing all over the corals towards shore. She freaked out after seeing a water snake and annihilated a good amount of anemone and cnidarians. After catching her breath, she starts laughing while I offer an ice-cold beer from the Sari-sari to mitigate her embarrassment. I tell her she should snorkel more often in San Francisco. She says it’s nasty and no, thank you.
Azure is a color White Island’s water is ample in. And if you tire of swimming in it, try resting on the sand, looking out to the mainland and enjoying green instead. A mess of rainforest crawls up to the summit of Mt. Hibok-hibok, slowly disappearing into the sky as steam clouds ooze out in cotton waves.We buy several sea urchins from a guy with a basket and dip the gooey meat in chili vinegar. An hour later, we are back on the main island and speeding towards the Guiob Church ruins. By speeding, I might mean 18 miles an hour, but who’s measuring? Everyone here moves in a much slower beat, and rightfully so. Why do people rush, anyway?
During a Pompeian turn of events in 1871, a volcano exploded in the middle of the night and devastated Catarman, claiming the lives of its people and pushing the town into the water—church and cemetery included. What remains today are the limestone walls of the Guiob Church, the bell tower and the creepy underwater cemetery, where people dive into and hunt for the barnacled tombstones of the twice-over buried. Once in soil, again in water.
We take photos of the ruins’ moss-covered buttresses but are frustrated by the hideously concrete, photo-bombing lighthouse erected by some ingenious idiot not too long ago. A little girl smiles at us while she burns incense in a can very close to where the altar might have been. When we investigate, she tells us it’s to keep mosquitoes away while the wretched smell of burning plastic convinces us to move on. So we stumble away into the touristy Bura Natural Soda Water Swimming Pool, where a sign says drinking the water cures you of arthritis, stomachaches, and other random ailments. The water is cold and we shiver out of it as quickly as we could. We stop by several sinks where another sign declares them safer to drink from (as opposed to the pool, where babies and adults like myself, pee for all the world to bathe in). There is a minerally, soda-ish flavor to it, but it’s no San Pellegrino.
We are more impressed however by Lisa, who, by the roadside, sells a ton of banana cue through mere good looks. Parking our bike next to her makeshift barbecue grill, and chewing on our third stick of plantains, we strike up a conversation on how much she makes in a day. Across the road is a basketball court where all the rambunctious teenagers work up an implacable appetite. And at two pesos a stick, her blackened, margarine and sugar covered plantains pay for college. I tell her to google stocks, bonds and mutual funds before waving goodbye.
We loop further around the island, dodging lazy dogs, drying copra and pop-up basketball courts. Every village we pass through seems to have a little bonfire of raked leaves, very reminiscent of my childhood. Before this was banned, grandmas, aunties, moms and maids used to collect the day’s leaves and light them up to get rid of organic trash and mosquitoes in the late afternoon, when they are most rampant. So there was this pervading, annoying yet endearing smokehouse smell in your clothes, your car, your sofa and your hair. This has long been banned when folks gained a better understanding of the environment: As more and more people threw in more and more foreign materials into the fire, more toxic elements were being released in the air. And as mosquitoes flew away from the fire, they hurried into the houses where smoke was unlikely present. That became more of a problem. Now, it’s a smell I miss but not on my clothes. In this sense, Camiguin seems stuck in time, either unaware of the changes, or intentionally ignoring it.
It is dark when we finally make it past the somber lagoon and the ferry pier. We stop somewhere in the capital and hunt for lanzones, whose flavor is unique and legendary in this island, but find only sour and immature ones because of the off-season. We end up eating dinner at a karaoke/buffet halfway to closing. We eat, sing a song, and then leave as any self-respecting karaoke/buffet connoisseur would.
Before heading back to the hotel, we take a detour uphill to Ardent Hot Springs to ease our aging joints. Hinged on the foot of a volcano, steam coming from the burning lava underground heats the water, which in turn is sieved into multi-level pools of various temperatures. It is quite relaxing if you don’t mind the tour buses, the crying kids, and the rowdy teenagers screaming like mating banshees. Hey, thirty pesos ($0.80) gets you thirty pesos. If you want something more private, get on a plane to an onsen in Japan.
The next day, I bring Margszie to this huge tree house hotel I frequented before the place succumbed to age, mismanagement and obscurity. Created by an artist and his benefactor, Enigmata is a site unto itself. It is a legitimate tree house with several rooms cradled by reinforced branches. Sculptures and art pieces are found everywhere you look. Passages are holes and ladders, and beds are kapok and hammocks. Surfaces are made of wood, recycled bottles, and repurposed dreams. Enigmata is decidedly Peter Pan-like and does not require effort to elicit a connection, but time hasn’t been kind to it. The roofs leak and when we arrive, there is water everywhere. The front desk guy explains the next-door wooden hotel burned down two nights ago and the water from the fire trucks haven’t completely drained. When we look out to the burned part, through a window in one of the rooms up on the tree, we know it was part of Enigmata. Sayang. Margaret and I agree that the next time we visit this treasure, it might look like a Guiob ruin of sorts.
We get on another banca and bounce on the waves to Mantigue Island. I haven’t been back in years so it takes me by surprise when, instead of chartered outriggers, there are now several coop-ran ones to the island. I learn that the whole thing is now a marine sanctuary but a little disappointed that I have to pay several fees to get there. I don’t mind the fees at all because they are necessary to keep the island pristine. It’s the meal-piece way they are collected that is annoying. Jetty fee on shore (there is no jetty), snorkel fee if you want to rent snorkels, banca transport fee, environmental fee, entrance fee to the island, and another fee to snorkel in the marine sanctuary. It probably wouldn’t amount to five hundred pesos ($12.00) all in all but just the inconvenience of digging for money instead of rolling in the sand gets to me.
I am even more surprised to see no houses on the island. It is mostly sand, trees and signs welcoming me to the new marine preserve. There is a small hut that sells the catch of the day, and upon asking to have the tuna broiled and the mussels in coconut milk, I ask the lady where all the islanders are. She says they were transferred to the back of the island so that they are protected from high winds and strong waves. I ask her if there were a path to get there, but when she signals with her lips into the woods behind her, it immediately feels dodgy. I just can’t find reason in insulating tourists from locals at all. Unless the latter are mangy, rabid creatures and Dr. Moreau runs this property, the whole scenario does not make sense at all.
So Margszie and I swim around the island in waist-deep seawater until we reach the village. It is smaller than I remember it, and the schoolhouse that had its fourth wall blown away by a typhoon is no longer there. We ask a lady hanging a fishnet to dry where the school is. She smiles and says they tore it down. What about the kids? Do they have to cross the water to go to school? She explains that since the island tidied up, they have provided a boarding house for young students to live in while attending school on the mainland. The children come home on the weekends. Better school, better teachers, better facilities. And then she points to the four solar panels a couple of feet away from her. They put that up so we now have electricity here, too. By “they,” she probably meant the municipal government. And I probably initially gave in to over reaction. But I still don’t understand why I have to go through thick woods or swim around the island to have this perfectly insipid conversation.
When we get back to “our side” of the island, our lunch is waiting on a plastic table under a palm roof. We gorge on it before jumping into the water and talking carelessly about common friends, art films, and the corporate world, as though we are hypertensive and have lost enough hair to warrant running away from it.
A yacht of considerable size even by western standards, drops anchor several yards away from shore; Two inflatables reach the island; One with a grey-haired man, and two well-mannered children; They are all in linen drawstrings. The other with six brawny men, portable tables, chairs, a barbecue grill, and a picnic basket. They are all in blue shirts. Everybody in both boats is wearing sunglasses.
I know where this is headed. There is a smell of burning leaves in the air and somewhere in my backpack is a pair of caked up sneakers. But the times they are a changin’.
All photos ©M. Sanchez and M. Guzman