BILIRAN, PHILIPPINES. “ADTO KAG SAMBAWAN? Kuyog nalang nako,” suggested Noe. We were at Naval, both booked at the modest pension house near the port.
After checking in and informing the front desk of my whereabouts, the lady on duty informed me that there were no boats for Maripipi on Sundays. I sat on the bamboo bench, mouth agape, overwhelmed by stupidity and sleepiness, while she disappeared to prepare my instant coffee. After handing it to me, she disappeared again to attend to her laundry at the back. When she returned, she pointed to the man sleeping in the open room by the front desk.
“Taga-Maripipi na siya. Konsehal na siya didto. Basin pwede ka mosabay. Hangyua lang,” she advised. With the grit of a traveler, I asked Noe later on.
The following morning, we were aboard a jeepney to Kawayan, to catch a boat bound for an island rumored to be where tarsiers originated from, though they are now inextricably linked with Bohol.
“Wa ko ningtuo sa una kay naa mana sila sa lasang. Una ra ko ningtuo pagkakita nako.
Nakadakop ang akong ig-agaw og usa,” Noe shared. His Bisaya was soft and melodious, like the rest of the locals inside the jeepney. When he talked to an old woman, our fellow passenger, he used a different language with hints of Bisaya. It must have been Waray.
“Karagwa!” blurted out the old woman across my seat when she talked about their small-town politics. She smiled broadly with most of her teeth missing.
“Kinsa man ning bugas diri?” shouted the conductor to the driver out of nowhere.
“Hala, nalapas na!” the driver answered. Instead of making a u-turn, he simply wheeled the jeepney backward.
“Karagwa! Wa toy lung-agon ron,” the old woman again. I could not determine if “karagwa” was her version of “atay,” “pisti,” or “yawa.”
“Di man ko ganahan mamalikas, ‘day, maong karagwa nalang,” she told me when I asked her about it. Whether it was a real word or made up, I still don’t know. She was a fisherman’s wife. Her husband and sons specialized in hunting pagi (stingray).
The old woman and Noe, whom everyone called SB—short for Sangguniang Bayan—traced their neighbors’ names and relatives.
It started drizzling when we got off. Nanay Karagwa sent her regards to her relatives at Maripipi.
Human speech could not rival the mammoth sound of the small boat’s engine. Noe looked like he was in deep thought, so I marveled at the scenery instead. In addition to the boat knifing the sea, the sky pricked it with little needles of rain, and its surface tremored around us. From the distance, the clouds teased the Maripipi ranges. The clouds in Leyte and Biliran loomed below the slopes in July.
On my first day, the van ride from Ormoc to Naval was rather slow due to a machine malfunction, affording me the chance to look at things a second longer: a local woman washed her muddied slippers and feet with an open hose by the road; and behind her, past a kangkong field, the clouds flirted with the cleavages of the mountains.
Guarding Cebu from Pacific terrors, Leyte, Biliran, and Samar often endure the brunt of typhoons.
Our arrival at Maripipi was also the departure of our short encounter: Noe was heading to his family and I to Ol-og. If I could not find a place to stay for the night, he offered his.
At Ol-og, I left my backpack with my laptop and other things at the store across the Talisay tree where a small boat was docked. Rodel—a custodian at Sambawan—ferried visitors to the inverted S-looking island during his days off. After a short ride, I soon met the rest of the stewards. Despite the fact that I was just another stranger stepping on their island, they invited me to lunch when I asked where I could order food. They had tinuwa, kinilaw, sinugba, and pinirito—all prepared from the same fish: molmol. They even gave me a glass of Coke and were sorry for not having cold drinks on the island.
For the stewards, happiness sprang from the simple truth that I traveled all the way from Cebu to set foot on their protected island. All afternoon, we traded banter over food. JC, the head of the stewards, joked that I should bring tsiks—young pretty girls—for all of them next time.
“Onse mi kabuok, Jo,” he teased. I found it rather amusing how familiar we sounded with each other. Only close friends called me “Jo.” I traded jokes with them like they were the bystanders idling at my mother’s small store, or like they were the male writers I hang out with sometimes. It was a rather festive afternoon in their quarter’s small balcony, despite the gloominess brushing the horizon.
The other side
Aside from some talisay trees and a few coconut trees—the most adaptive trees I have known—on the other bend of the island, Sambawan is covered in tall grass that would have been great feed for cows if there were any around. To ward off mosquitoes, the stewards uprooted the ones near the private cottages.
After lunch, Rodel boated me to the other side of the island—the diving site they were
promoting. Divers from Malapascua sometimes explored the environ. It was heartbreaking, however, to see the corals nearest to the cliff. They were all shattered from years of dynamite fishing, informed Rodel. The practice was as common as the fish before marine protection was imposed on the waters surrounding Sambawan.
Once I got back to the mainland of Maripipi and got my backpack back, the store’s owners instructed the habal-habal to bring me to the Montuerto’s residence, whom I heard, accepted transient travelers.
“Nagkita mo ni Daday didto sa Sambawan?” the old Montuerto asked me.
While the old Montuerto and the help prayed the rosary at the living room, the rain performed its own religion on anything it hit: roofs, plants, trees, earth. Daday arrived all soaked from the downpour. She was the one who took my photos on a boulder at Sambawan. The Montuertos fed me like I was their visitor, and Ate Daday insisted on sharing the room with her.
At the dark drizzling dawn, she walked me to the pier. I could not thank her enough.
While treading on the badly-lit path to the public ferry, I thought of my little conversation with JC over tuba, kinilaw, and stories.
“Wa ka nahadlok maglaag-laag nga ikaw rang usa?” he asked.
“Wa,” I answered with conviction and sincerity. We were at the small balcony of their quarters drinking tuba with kinilaw while trading island stories.
Even in a city of chaos like Manila, I found little kindness here and there, so how much more in Maripipi? An island unknown to most people, an island that can still be considered innocent in the notoriety of tourism.
Test of trust
Or perhaps it is one of the duties of a traveler: to count the place’s blessings given, to accept misfortunes with humility, to learn anything new, to remember something forgotten.
“You trust the kindness of strangers?” JC tailed his statement with a question.
Perhaps my leaving my things in different places (a heavy bag of goodies at the pension house, my things at Ol-og) was a test I set for the place, as if I was internally asking, “can I trust you, Biliran?” Indeed it was rather reckless for a solo woman traveler to trust strangers, but my gut told me to completely open myself to this part of the Visayas. It felt like there was one heart running through the veins of the island and its people, pulsating with kindness.
True, my encounters with strangers are rather ephemeral, but JC pinned it. With the moral calamities around us and with cynicism slowly creeping into our beings, traveling teaches us once more that kindness is still deeply rooted in some hearts—kindness as sincere, as clear as the waters of Sambawan.
Jona Branzuela Bering scales mountains, treks rivers, combs beaches, hops towns, takes photographs, saunters city streets for stories and poems. She always travels with a backpack, books, pens, and notebooks. She blogs at http://backpackingwithabook.com/.
For inquiries and suggestions, one may e-mail her at backpackingwithabookgmail.com.
WHERE: Sambawan Island Maripipi Biliran