This essay appeared on my travel column DOWN SOUTH with a different title, ‘Gintama’ or new moon: The pleasures of Capul and its dialect, on September 6, 2014.
“Lagas” was the only word I understood. I was walking with three girls fresh from high school to the lighthouse and we met a boy on a motorbike. I assumed he was their classmate. He asked a question to the girls, which they answered but all I could catch was the word “lagas.” They must be talking about me. Lagas, back at home, is the corn mature enough for harvesting. I often heard this word from my father during the time we had the widest corn farm in San Juan, Tuburan in Cebu.
“Lagas na ang mais. Pwede na sanggion,” he would tell us, hoping we would join the communal harvesting. Of course, I always found an excuse not to.
Ate Teryang, the Boholana caretaker of the previous house I had lived in for four years, often used this word. “Lagas na to, oy,” she would say, talking about random old people from work or from her neighborhood back in Tubigon. In Bohol, lagas means old.
So perhaps the girls referred to me as lagas. Well, compared to their oozing adolescence, I am admittedly old. Except for that word, traveling to Capul Island in Northern Samar is linguistically adventurous.
I noticed this when I boarded the boat docked at Allen. There was the distinctive sound of Waray, but there was one sound I could not pin down that swam in the sea of Samar’s language.
“Inabaknon,” informed the woman sitting beside me. It became an instant lesson on basic Inabaknon phrases and words I might find useful. I keyed them in my phone, or else I would forget them as soon as I heard them.
The boat to Capul carried the smells of sweat, sea, fish, and dried fish—these are the smells of an island, the smells the woman beside me wore, the smells I myself wore.
“Pagdating ng Capricorn, aalis na ’to,” she said in Tagalog because I could barely understand Waray either. Geographically, Capul is quite close to Luzon’s tail. It is that island sandwiched between Northern Samar and Sorsogon, yet it does not linguistically belong to either of them.
I soon understood what the woman meant when a jeepney with the word “Capricorn” in bold letters posted above its windshield pulled over. Everyone had to scoot over and occupy as little space as possible for others to sit on.
Leaving a space unoccupied in a passenger boat to a remote island is unforgivable.
Upon arriving, I checked the municipal hall and was aghast to find it locked. I idiotically peered through the glass, thinking the staff must be having their lunch break, that this must be one of the eccentric ways of a remote island. But the hall was empty. I crossed the basketball court and entered the shack of a police headquarters. The policeman was lying in a bed while listening to music from his phone.
“Ba’t closed ’yong munisipyo?” I asked in my awkward Tagalog.
“May 1 ngayon. Holiday,” he answered, smiling. He must have been thinking I was a half-wit. I could not blame him. Along with my problematic sense of direction, I have rocky affairs with time as well.
I left scratching my head and laughing at my own idiocy.
Something was going on inside the church. Kids huddled in the first three pews in the center. Crepe paper flowers were ready on the table by the main door. Kids held flowers that already looked limped and lifeless. The younger ones did not know what was really going on here. Their eyes kept on drifting and simply mimicked the acts of the older ones. The ates and kuyas moved around with comfort. Some played at the yard fenced by bulwarks.
May first: the start of Flores de Mayo.
I left them to look for a place to stay for the night.
Although Capul has a different language, there is a language that mothers share, probably not just mothers’; it must be a character common among island people: to be genuinely accommodating, not the touristy kind of accommodating. The moment Nanay Nilda, a retired teacher, learned I was traveling alone, she gave up her hesitation and allowed me to stay at her beautiful home. A proud mother of professionals, her living room was adorned with varied plaques and framed certificates of her children.
“Walay restaurants dinhi. Wala ring carenderia,” she cautioned. She found me amusing and very dark—way darker than them island people.
After answering the common questions solo female travelers received, I left for the lighthouse.
“Mag-ingat ka. Mag-isa ka lang,” she advised. I made her worry when it was already past eight in the evening, yet I had not come back from the lighthouse.
The lighthouse, perched on the northern part of Capul, is the picnic place for the young. Sprawling, the grassland below the lighthouse is the pastoral postcard in my dream. It was a lovely afternoon with just streaks of clouds ferrying through the horizon. The girls I walked earlier relaxed under the biggest and oldest talisay tree. They shared their snacks with me.
I did not hear them burst into laughter; rather, they were glued on their phones, checking photos and statuses on Facebook. I found it rather paradoxical. I tiptoed around the word “disconnect.” Perhaps Ondaatje’s “sadness of geography” can be applied on Capul—disconnected, separated not only geographically but also linguistically to the rest of the country.
Adolescents have the strongest urge to connect. To Facebook—a growing verb—is to connect.
I was guilty of it as well. Because it was burdensome to trouble them to speaking Cebuano or Tagalog, I marooned myself in the middle of the meadow, sunbathing, reading, and checking Facebook in between. Taking a dip crossed my mind especially by the cliff facing Matnog, but the waves crashing against the outcrops looked discouraging. They were not hungry, they were ravenous. It seemed like they would claim anyone who made a mistake of stepping on their territory. No, I’m not romanticizing them. A combo of outcrops and wild waves is a making of a terrorist for swimmers.
The narrow cove on the left is where locals answer their thirst for saltwater, which is practically 360 degrees in this small place.
As the sunlight softened the meadow, the branches of the talisay trees, and the lighthouse, a different group of young locals arrived and frolicked at the cove. It was already sundown, but I did not leave until the sun’s reflection knifing the sea completely faded.
The three girls parked their motorbike at the foot of the hill.
Darkness fell fast and consumed the islands with rationed electricity. At six, the entire place was dark. I don’t know, but I have this reckless—bordering on the romantic—imagination that remote islands have the lowest crime rate (this could be an explanation for having a shack as a police headquarters) and nothing can go wrong as long as one does not have nyctophobia, a severe fear of darkness.
I eventually found a motorbike parked along the way. While waiting for the driver who was having his dinner, I talked to an old woman who had lived in Cebu. She punctuated her sentences with a laugh, a trait that I also have. We had an Inabaknon lesson with darkness concealing our tanned faces. It made our voices more resonant. My face was sometimes illuminated when I typed the sentences and phrases she taught me.
The new moon peeped through the silhouettes of coconut leaves above us.
“Gintama,” she laughed the word out.
When someone whom I considered special once sent a photo the following day with the new moon perching at the border of the composition, I shared the word I learned from the local woman.
Gintama, new moon—a word I learned here at Capul.
I accidentally reset my phone, and all contacts and travel notes were all erased from the thirteen day backpacking trip along Luzon’s tail, Eastern Visayas, and northern Mindanao, but the only foreign word etched in my head was gintama. It stays.
Because language becomes personal once shared.
Erratum: “Gimata” is the right word and not “gintama.”