Round and nothing short of grand, the moon lit our way to the hundreds of stilt houses outlining the coast of Busuanga. Rigor—the young Tagbanua I met at the entrance of Baracuda—guided me through the pathways and alleys that got narrower after several turns.
Busuanga’s islandness is different from that of Siargao or Malapascua. Restaurants, coffee shops, bars interjected between small local stores, oddly positioned between a cement shop and a vulcanizing shop. Everything seemed scattered and in disarray.
Everyone seemed comfortable with the indistinguishableness between the seeming luxury and utter poverty. Everything shared a place. Everything had its own rightful spot.
Amid this space sharing, it was the extremes—the richest and the poorest—that were pushed towards the sea: the most extravagant resorts stood proudly, exclusively on surrounding islets, while the poor’s stilt houses staggered in the slum.
“Naghihintay na si Uncle Chairman sayo,” Rigor, who was walking four steps ahead of me, broke the silence. Only patches of moonlight stubbornly insisting between the cracks of dark roofs lit parts of random walls as we approached some houses nearest to the sea. With walls so thin, I could tell whose household was Kapuso, Kapamilya, or Kapatid.
Rigor turned right and called “Uncle Chairman?” and some words I could not comprehend, only I knew it was something about me when Jona was inserted between unfamiliar utterances.
“Pasok ka, Jona,” encouraged a middle-aged man of small build. A mollusk pendant dangled on his bony chest. A silver chain—the kind that dons, goons, or rappers wear—surrounded his tribal heirloom. His index and middle had a ring each—a class ring-looking.
His polo was unbuttoned, which he paired with khaki shorts. Not bulging but not really taut, his belly had several lines that made two little waves when he sat.
His two kids shared the small bed behind him, while watching a poorly transmitted local TV program—the kind we called gilamok—with the screen having hundreds of tiny blinking dots like pestering mosquitoes. Many used clothes were hanged by the walls. Before taking his seat, Rudolfo repositioned the swirling fan with a missing front guard to make sure I received the most air.
“Upo ka, Jona,” he said while he adjusted the golden strap of his watch.
“Wala akong problema kon pupunta ka sa village. Pero alam mo naman ’yong mga kasama natin diba, ’yong mga elders. Hindi sila komportable kon may taga-labas na papasok,” he started.
“Bakit, ano ba ang purpose sa pagpunta mo don?” he asked. He adjusted his watch’s strap again. I had so many answers or questions why I would love to see his ancestral domain. “What is the name of that flowering tree that stands out on limestone cliffs?” would be the first question I would ask once I met a Tagbanua elderly. Its red blooms pushed the leaves to almost non-existence. They dangled and stood out at the cliffs of spikes, grayness, and green patches—the very limestones that made his island famous.
Asking the natives guarding the lagoons and lakes seemed futile as well. “Kahoy,” they would say. Aside from this flowering tree that nobody knew, there were bolo trees whose leaves turned orange, announcing, not autumn’s, but summer’s arrival.
Instead, I found out there were several Berings in Cambugao and Banwang Daan—the barangays at Coron with around 200 households. I met Nay Basing whose teeth were discolored from chewing mama.
“’Pag pupunta kas Cambugao, hanapin mo lang si Basing,” she smiled.
But Rudolfo—the tribe’s head—put me in my proper place.
“Sila, taga-tribu, ikaw hindi,” he half-kidded. He asked several times about my purpose of going to his ancestral domain.
“Pwede ka namang pumunta don. Pero alam mo na ang gagawin sa susunod na babalik ka,” he advised.
I left his small space without even asking the questions I prepared for him. What made him seek the complexity of Busuanga? What made him leave the simplicity and beauty of his storied ancestral domain? His island that remained reclusive despite the constant outpouring of visitors with tour operators naming its nooks in colors and lagoon: green lagoon, blue lagoon, twin lagoon—names common enough to remember by tourists whose memory can easily be blurred, like the sceneries from a moving vehicle. Barracuda seemed easier to recall than Luyloyan. For the outsiders, it was Barracuda, named after a dubious sighting of such a menacing creature around a decade ago. But for the Tagbanua, it was their Luyloyan—a place who was named after sadness—their ancestor falling off the cliff while hunting for a balinsasayaw’s nest.
Back at the backpacker’s inn, I shared the good news with newfound friends about the possibility of me meeting the tribe. They had been hesitant and discouraging of my plans since day one.
“Di ka na makaalis don. Gagawin kang asawa ng taga-Tribu,” warned the staff.
“Baka lasunin ka nila.”
“Ayaw nila ng taga-labas.”
Tribes like Tagbanua have always endured the brunt of bigotry. But all this talk about either getting poisoned or philtered somehow found its way into my consciousness especially I was traveling solo, especially I was, and am, a woman traveling solo.
It did not help when a message from an unregistered number arrived: Si R— eto. Pinsan ni Rigor. Male. 30 years old. Single.
A text that could have been any random ones looking for text mates suddenly turned into a threat. I knew bigotry when I saw one. Sadly, embarrassingly, I wore it.
“Naghahanap ‘yan ng asawa!”
“Kung ako sayo, di ako pupunta.”
I left Busuanga without getting any closer to my real destination.
But perhaps this was one of the charms of many places: to tease. For the traveler to come back. For the traveler to remember first visits are meant as introductions. To understand—no matter how begrudgingly—that the unfolding of a place sometimes takes time, patience, and effort.
By then, with patience gradually taking root in my being, perhaps I would know the name of the tree that nobody knew.