August 8, 2014
“Tubig Tubig Tubig Tubig!”
There are 7,107 of what Lord Alfred Tennyson called “Oriental Eden-isles” and during our most recent escapade, the travel partner and I have been to a little under 20 out of the thousands of islands and islets in this breathtaking archipelago, and yet, it seemed to have been a journey from one spectacular body of water to another rather than merely hopping from one island to another. I have never spent more time in the water than I have in the recent weeks. It is only now that I have been officially introduced to the most mesmerizing waters and underwater life, and ironically, most of it took place right in my own backyard – my Mindanao.
Nevertheless, there is room for accounts in and out of the water. So whilst my backpack, notepad, and travel clothes are still waterlogged, I shall unpack my thoughts, wring them across the pages, and allow driblets of the latest adventures to trickle down my journal.
Siargao Island, Surigao del Norte: The first aerial glimpse of Siargao was love at first sight. As it seldom happens, the actual scene before my eyes matched my mind’s imagined paradise. Siargao is described as a teardrop-shaped island, but it looks nothing like that to me. It is a viridian butterfly alighting upon a smaller group of islands! It is difficult for me to associate Siargao with tears; unless, heaven forbid, I were restricted to return!
I landed in Siargao without intending to surf. The euphoria of traveling was enough for me; but a good lunch, a little push from my proselytizer, and the distance from the airport to our corner of the island was all it took to convince me that being in the surfing capital of the Philippines did not make too much sense unless one surfed. I did not regret it. We surfed on days when we were not off to some hidden lagoon or distant tide pools, and we surfed on days even after we had frolicked to nearby islands surrounded by turquoise waters. We surfed on days when we did not have road trips across the island, and we surfed on what we called “rest days.” We were surfing newbies but we found ourselves in “Cloud Nine” – a moniker that perfectly describes the unequalled feeling of riding a wave.
And there we were for nearly two weeks with our very own little dwelling surrounded by coconut trees just across the dirt road from Cloud Nine where I had a grand time realizing my childhood playhouse fantasies. We had a kitchen where I enjoyed preparing coffee and food for someone who had an appetite of a castaway: Tanduay-flavored pancakes, and fried eggs for breakfast; for lunch or dinner kinilaw, chicken adobo, chili wings, octopus, and other seafood that we acquired incredibly fresh but uncostly from the market. We had a porch that was constantly decorated with our laundry and fun-soaked clothing, tiled floors to sweep and keep sand-free, and a room that revealed fireflies when the lights were out.
We took road trips across the island, swam with stingless jellyfish, once made a wrong turn and ended up in another side of the island where we encountered possibly the largest burger in Siargao in a totally unexpected place, befriended the most adorable children along the way, reached the unpeopled hidden lagoon of Caob where we had it all to ourselves, and twice visited our favorite emerald tide pools of Magpupungko with its several basins of underwater life and glassy surfaces that appeared magically undisturbed for ages. Supporting the travel buddy in his free-diving endeavors earned me snorkeling lessons from him in the very same paradisiacal swimming spots, and day by day, my uneasiness in deep water gradually dissolved in the beautiful surroundings.
If not for the further adventures and destinations that awaited us, we would have loved to tarry in Siargao. We had made friends in the surfing community and it already felt like home. On our last night, we had a farewell barbecue with our new friends and topped it off with a swim under the moonlight in nearby tide pools, and played with bioluminescence that sparkled with the movement of our bodies.
The experience in Siargao was nothing short of wonderful. The sun shone when we needed it to shine. Of course, we left the island sporting darker skin shades and with minor scrapes on our arms and legs from all the various island activities, but our traveling duo agreed that we both could not remember the last time we had that much fun.
Surigao City and Surigao del Sur: The ferry ride from Siargao to Surigao City made hungry traveling minstrels out of us. After grabbing a couple of delightful ginanggang na saging (grilled bananas coated with margarine and sugar) from a street stall, we asked for a restaurant recommendation from two guards of a certain establishment. They were of the same mind that “Simply’s” was the best place to have some barbecue. When we were not able to locate “Simply’s” after going up and down the city’s barbecue district, I became suspicious. Sensing a possible mispronunciation, I joked that perhaps they meant to say “same place,” although I felt a bit guilty afterwards for ridiculing the helpful guards. But lo and behold, the tricycle driver eventually parked right in front of a signage that said “Same Place.” We had to give the guards some credit; the barbecue was simply very good at that same place they were referring to.
We were in Surigao City because it was closer to two of our targeted destinations. After spending a night in the city, we set off to Tinuy-an Falls and Enchanted River and found ourselves on roads and vehicles that attempted to displace our internal organs for hours on end. I have learned that in my country, the actual metric distance between one place and another and the words “near” and “far” are not good indicators for travel duration. These figures and words are defined by the condition of the roads, the mode of transportation, the ever-varying and irreconcilable calculations by the locals, the number of times the rickety bus has to halt in undesignated bus stops, and how close the habal-habal driver comes to imitating a roller coaster. Therefore, looking at a map or inquiring whether a certain destination is near or far will not do much good. If you are intent on going somewhere, you just have to gamble, prepare to be surprised, and see for yourself. Fortunately for us, the long and rough transit paid off.
It must be noted, however, that I have qualms about people dubbing Tinuy-an Falls the “Niagara Falls of the Philippines.” Such a claim raises exorbitant expectations and thwarts spectators from admiring its own uniqueness and grandeur.
But Tinuy-an Falls and Enchanted River are true to their names: Tinuy-an –otherwise out-of-the-way if not for a worthwhile reason, and Enchanted – it speaks for itself. 60 kilometers of rugged roads apart, the two spots share the same seat in the province of Surigao del Sur, but it was Enchanted River in the quaint municipality of Hinatuan that left us literally speechless.
I remember being in the middle of a conversation when we first caught sight of the river. We stopped in our tracks and could utter nothing else but whispered wows. As we plunged into its allure, I could not decide which was more enchanting; the fact that the source of the slightly saline water remains a mystery, the unbelievable visibility of the schools of fish and the bottom of the river despite its immeasurable depth, or the color of the water – crystal purple fading into several shades of aquamarine that melted into the most delicate blue.
Being much aware of my companion’s love affair with the clearest and bluest waters, I was brimming with joy at the surfeit. The water was, in reality, beyond depiction. It was the color of joy.
Camiguin: The initial plan (this is to trick the reader into thinking that we actually made plans) was to return to Surigao City and take an overnight boat to Cebu. But Camiguin was calling. From Hinatuan, we retraced our route halfway and spent a night in Butuan City, journeyed west the next day to the town of Balingoan, and proceeded by ferry to “The Island Born of Fire.”
Since the beginning of the trip, we successfully traveled without return tickets and without advance bookings for any of our lodgings; and at that point, we were still lugging our unused tents. On a whim, the travel buddy decided that it was high time to do some camping. Thus we camped by the hot springs at the slopes of the active volcano, Mount Hibok-Hibok, and made it our home during our entire sojourn in the island.
With cold springs, hot springs, waterfalls, and 7 volcanoes within mere 238 square kilometers, one cannot possibly be unimpressed. A coastal road borders Camiguin and circling the island was one of the most scenic drives I have ever experienced. On one side of the road, tidy seaside villages and a glimmering seascape; on the other, lush and mountainous landscape clad in shawls of mist. Known all over the Philippines mostly for their sweet lanzones and pastels, I did not expect Camiguin to have such an arresting majesty!
And yet, the surface was only a fraction of the island’s beauty. If not for the travel buddy’s efforts and eagerness to introduce me to the wonders of the subaqueous world, I would have missed seeing the whole new vista beneath Mindanao’s waters. It was in Camiguin’s various dazzling snorkeling spots that I became acquainted with hues and creatures I had never seen before. Thousands of giant varicolored clams greeted us, fish of different size and color swam alongside, friendly clown fish left their anemones to respond to our outstretched hands, and corals flaunted their splendor before us. Thanks to my inability to speak underwater, the personal snorkeling coach was spared from squeals and exclamations of delight.
It is admirable how the local authorities allows tourism to flourish while conserving the island’s flora and fauna and maintaining an un-commercial atmosphere. In addition, their reasonable government-regulated rates from entrance fees to boat fares were always to the traveler’s advantage.
Camiguin was as dreamy and pleasant as the crystalline waves lapping on the immaculate sands of White Island, and as pacific as the dainty yellow flowers that fell on my notepad while I wrote on those serene mornings beside the murmuring hot springs.
Around the World (Cup) in 20 Days: No one could have forecasted that I would mention soccer in any of my writings, and I had never watched a full game of soccer in my life prior to the 2014 World Cup, and yet…
The night before we flew to Siargao, Costa Rica played against England, and Uruguay defeated Italy. That alone is a hint that the first leg of our trip was based on the FIFA calendar in lieu of the Gregorian. Thenceforth, arrivals and departures depended on the game schedules; and losing sleep and driving through Mindanao’s unlit backroads several times in the middle of the night to the nearest venue with a cable TV has made things more exciting.
The World Cup was not merely about athletes competing with each other; It was a display and confrontation of different cultures, the travel buddy explained. Perhaps he just needed someone to keep him company, but I bought that. In my view, Brazil and Germany were the teams that stood out in the quarter-finals. They were the only teams whose distinct and contrasting styles left an impression on me even though I knew almost nothing about the game. I noticed that the German team resembled the great German orchestras – composed, reserved, precisely coordinated, and consistent. The Brazilian team also performed like their musicians – spirited, animated, emotional, and charismatic.
I was drawn to the Brazilians but I felt that if I were to root for one single team, I could rely on the Germans. Little did I know then how impaired the Brazilians would be without two of their key players. I expected to see both teams at the finals, not the semi-finals. All of a sudden, the historic 7-1 game took place. We watched that shocking episode at 4:00 a.m. at an inn in Hinatuan, on a masochistic TV that had to be slapped in order to have better reception, with wine and chocolates that we specially bought for that match. The game was almost too heartbreaking to take. I sympathized with the Brazilians and celebrated with the Germans by taking all my emotions out on the chocolates.
On the 20th day of our trip, Germany triumphed against Argentina and the country of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms reigned supreme. On that same day, we left Camiguin to begin a new stretch of our trip.
I find this worth mentioning because the whole journey has presented itself as a venue for me to experience things that went outside the realm of musical instruments and my usual life betwixt book covers. I used to scoff whenever Facebook’s newsfeed would flood with the latest sports events and I would implore my contacts to consider more important matters. But then, there was the person I was accompanying who could talk for hours about violin intonation and mathematical ratios especially after a few shots of alcohol, current world affairs, discuss Pamuk and Rushdie with me – and still obsess over the World Cup. Among many other things, this is what I have learned: One can have as many interests as possible, one can embrace and try to understand as many things as possible, and one should recognize one’s limits but discern how to expand them, if possible.
Wasn’t there a certain John Lubbock who said, “Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books?” Somewhere between “earth, sky, mountain, and sea” I shall have to insert “travel companion.”
El Nido, Palawan: We reached the town nestled between exotic karst cliffs just as Typhoon Glenda was leaving and Typhoon Henry was in passage, and El Nido did not seem too happy. But she is like a woman who looks beautiful even when she is in a bad mood; and we witnessed how dramatic she could be in dreadful weather.
It is a different story, however, if you witness nature’s rage in the middle of an island-hopping trip. Our outrigger had to seek refuge twice on islands that were not part of the original itinerary, and the boatmen laboriously tried their best to keep it from crashing into the rocks. Angry winds blew from every direction. Sea spray and biting rain mingled and became indistinguishable as we sought cover, soaked and shivering, under a single raincoat on a small margin of sand set against a karst precipice that was oddly called Umbrella Beach.
On the other hand, we asked for adventure, and we knew that a real voyage can never be purely sunshine, blue skies, and calm seas; but it was still extremely disappointing when the ferries to Coron continued to be cancelled for three days and we had to return to Puerto Princesa and fly back to Cebu. We would just have to go back for Coron someday. Besides, we never expected to see all of the 1,780 islands and islets in the Palawan Province in one trip.
Nevertheless, somewhere along the diminuendos and crescendos of the storm, the winds relented and the sun shone just enough for us to see Bacuit Bay and some of El Nido’s famous beaches and lagoons in their otherworldly magnificence; and in the travel partner’s persistent quest for inimitable personalized trips amidst an ocean of tourism ploys and identical package tours that rob people of authentic experiences, we finally managed to do what the tourism office and every booking agency claimed impossible: We camped at the Small Lagoon in Miniloc Island… and it was lovely. That was a feat we could talk about for the rest of our lives.
“The Sadness of Geography”: Running out of fair weather, clean clothes, and motion sickness pills for me, we took our ocean-drenched beings to dry in my hometown of Dipolog.
Not really. As soon as we arrived, we had already schemed a day-trip to the beautiful Tinago Falls in Iligan, and another impromptu road trip to the sweeping mountains and valleys of Alvenda, Mutia.
Apparently, we had an extra supply of sunshine. We always did. After traveling together in Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao, and 5 countries within one year, we know that for sure.
Storms, missed flights, rough roads or seas, and mishaps proved challenging, but the saddest part is having to return to your rightful geographical designations and part with someone whom you’ve had the pleasure of spending every single day with, someone you’ve looked out for and who has looked out for you in return, someone who has become your bestfriend and your favorite person in the world.
But just as I am confident about that extra supply of sunshine, I know further adventures are just around the bend. Once again we will hear the water vendors at every terminal call out to us, “Tubig, tubig, tubig, tubig!” – in another language or the same.
For the time being, I shall remind myself one of traveling and life’s greatest lessons: The only time you should be clingy is when you are riding on the back of a motorcycle – arms around your travel partner, hair blowing in the wind, while watching the rest of the world go by… 🙂