“Nganong naabot man ka diri, Nong?” (What brought you here, Nong?)
“Unsaon ta man, day, diri man nako nakit-an ang akong pikas sa kinabuhi (It can’t be helped, day, I found my other half here),” answered Nong Tony who has lived in Britania for 15 years. The tone he used for unsaon ta man appealed to me as a resignation: a resignation that life needs the other half to continue living, a resignation that a person must leave a place to find another for a sole reason: love.
With his index finger, he drew the Lianga Bay on the sand.
“Naa ta dinhi ron (We are here),” he said, pointing at the middle of the italicized L he drew. The bay in front of us didn’t resemble his drawing on the sand.
It is, indeed, odd that we lose the sense of the outline of a place once we step on it when it is very clear from the plane’s window.
In front of the resort, four islets lined up like rocks thrown by a naughty giant.
“Nganong nagkatag-katag sad na sila no (Why do they scatter like that)?” I asked nobody in particular. Burdened by rain, the unmoving clouds loomed over the bay. The clouds, the islets stood still in contrast to the motions on the shore.
“Pagbuot sa kinaiyahan (It is nature’s volition),” answered Nong Tony. Pagbuot sa kinaiyahan and unsaon ta man seem to be his preferred words. The elderlies, I have noticed, always attribute the worst and the best that come to their life to fate, to luck, to nature—that there is a transcendental power that governs everything from the grandest of schemes to the most trivial of things.
While I was talking with Nong Tony about the overcast sky, a frail-looking teenager arrived in an outrigger pregnant with lumber. His limbs shivered. A young man helped him dislodge the logs onto the shore. They shared the singular warmth of the cigarette to ward off the morning chilliness. Another boat arrived. This boat didn’t have the wing-like outriggers. It was a huge tree trunk hollowed. Dungay, a saang (spider conch) hunter, Nong Tony informed me.
According to Nong Tony, Dungay is the most capable at saang-hunting. Perhaps he has established a sense of connection with the spider conch. He sold them for three pesos apiece to the resort, which doubles the price to their guests.
How does it feel to hunt for a spider conch? It is a large snail with spider-like fingers, prongs on the lip, which moves using its curved, knife-shaped operculum attached to a long strong foot. Where do they hide in the seemingly vast bay?
The night before, the fisherman, not far away from where I sat, emptied his boat from water. The sound of the bucket scooping the water and the water splashing onto the shore and the hissing of the sea—almost a whisper—were the only movements and sounds that accompanied me in the early Britania evening. A boat, the American Express, looked at home on the almost still shore.
Britania is supposed to be off, isolated from the municipality of San Agustin and the elongated Surigao del Sur, shared the resort owner. A short bridge and a dirt-road-like reclamation project connected it to the rest of the province.
A swamp occupied the space between Britania and the rest of San Agustin, but the filling of a swamp or sea with rocks and earth is called reclamation—reclaiming the land.
It stopped being an island. And what is left is the nostalgia of its islandness: the stillness of everything at night, the gradual motion of something in the day.
Looking forward to the sunrise as always, I woke up several times, but whenever I opened the window, the pitter-patter of the soft rain covered the whole place.
The timid drizzles made me hesitant to visit some of the islet. Aside from the fact, the rental of big boats including the American Express cost P1500. But with some persuasive charm, I was able to finagle a boat for P500. It was a typical outrigger, which reminded me of Papa’s. Bebot, the husband of the resort owner, said “lisod pangitaon ang kwarta (money is hard to find).” The very reason I haggled.
Twenty-four islets fashion the bay, but the nearest eight are the most visited. Beyond the boardwalk on the left, an outline of a privately owned island can be seen. Another island, named Bonbon, sounds mythical to me since it is invisible from the shore.
A weekday, and a rainy day at that, I expected to walk the sandy shore alongside Romnick and Allan, the two boatmen, who informed me the best time to visit the islands is April or May. They sometimes talked in their dialect, Kamayo, and the only word I could grasp was inday, ambot in Cebuano, I don’t know or I have no idea in English, whatever for the teenagers.
But on Hagonoy Island, I chanced across another boat of four walking the other end. Sometimes when we share the island with others, we feel greedy. We feel that we own it, that it is created for our selfish pleasure. The island is elongated with a patch of green in the middle and a concrete skeleton of once a small house. The other end gradually becomes rocky; its tail reminded me of a dragon’s.
Naked Island—as naked as it is—made me feel vulnerable. What if a sudden wave arrived, there would be no place to run for cover. The small outrigger I rented was unable to sustain the sudden waves. Allan said “Nalumos ang makina,” which can be literally translated as “the machine drowned,” and how it sounded so human.
Luckily, the boat of tourists I saw in Hagonoy was present. Together with Mayette, Mailyn, Ronnie, and Rommel, I hopped the rest of the islands.
And the inevitable questions arrived, “Why are you here? What brought you here to Britania?” They never forget to ask those after learning I’m from Cebu, a woman at the least, traveling alone in the notorious Mindanao. I simply answered “laag-laag lang gyod (just traveling).” Perhaps they wanted me to elaborate, but I did not. I travel not to let others know my stories; I travel to listen to theirs.
At least 40 coconut trees stand on Hiyud-Hiyoran. Hiyod, which I mistook for kiyod, actually means to undulate, to stir up the water as to form ripples. On that rainy March day, the wind stirred up the water.
An island with a sign of a cross is called Boslon. Two cats inhabited the island. And such a fact saddened me. Why did their owner dispose them on the island? How about their food? “They feed on the rats,” Allan said. I wonder how many rats can be found on a small island like Boslon. And cats, I know, do not have the nerve to fish.
Once the sea recedes, a sandbar appears between Boslon and the nearby Panlangagan Cave Island and Panlangagan Forest Island. While the three women asked Rommel to take their picture on the sandbar, I approached two mature women who were hunting for sea urchins. Expectedly, the rain, like endless needles, pricked the sea. We sheltered on the huge rock, while inspecting the monster-looking sea urchins, which come in three different shapes and names: tuyom, sayak, sawaki.
Tuyom is the one we can easily find on the shore. A prick from its long spines can cause a week-long throbbing sole, which according to my nanay (grandmother) is best urinated on to dull the poison the thorns brought. Sayak is the oval-looking one that hides in the inconspicuous crannies. It seems like it has its own mind telling itself to hide from the seeking human eyes. When I tried to draw it out, it further withdrew to the minuscule space a cranny can provide. Sawaki is the most monstrous-looking of them all and the most consumed.
Being a fisherman’s daughter, sawaki was part of my childhood. But its unappealing look discouraged me from trying it. Yet traveling makes us do something that we would not have dared to do in the comforts of home.
So in the middle of prickling rain, we ate sawaki like doubt didn’t exist in this world. Its taste, unlike its appearance, is vapid; I wasted my doubts for nothing. Now I understand why fishermen, like my father, and their wives always bring vinegar and salt whenever they scavenge the shore: to give an instant taste to easy catch such as sawaki and bat (sea cucumber).
The women waited for their husbands who went fishing nearby. Their outline could be seen from where we stood. A big container of rice, a bottle of homemade vinegar, and a bottle of local rum were placed in the nook of the rock. A liter of Coke was soaked in the sea to cool.
They wanted us to wait with them for their husbands to come to the islet, so we could have a taste of their fresh catch. But we had to leave, me to Tandag—the boundary between Surigao del Sur and del Norte; Mayette, Mailyn, Ronnie, and Rommel to Hinatuan—the home of the most enchanting river I have ever seen.
An hour later, already packed and about to leave the place, I still saw the wives waiting for their husbands to arrive.
For the photo essay, visit Of Stories and Storied Places