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SUN.STAR | We Are Called Langitnon

This narrative, “We are Called Langitnon” (first of two parts originally appeared on Sun.Star on November 19, 2015. 

Paradise, said the old man to his friend, is in Davao. Davao del Norte’s Christ the King Cathedral—which he claimed cost P70 billion, the biggest of its kind in the Philippines—is the sole determiner of a paradise.  His neighbor cocked his head, as if by doing so, the old man’s words would flannel their way down to his head without any unnecessary sifting. I expected him to contradict his friend, but he did not; rather he shifted the conversation to Satan and declared we owe the cursed angel big. Without Satan, he said, we would not be here on earth.

We, the humans—his speech almost convinced me—are the beauty in sins, the beauty out of sins, consequential it may be.

We were aboard Reginsky Express—the only lantsa I knew that promised Wi-Fi, which was, as expected, an empty promise—the kind our politicians used come election season.  It was barely nine in the morning, the sunlight creating sleepy slant lights and shadows inside the almost empty lantsa docked in Surigao City.  Outside, men carried sacks of cement and placed them on both sides of the boat.

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Seated to the old men’s right was a Manileño, whose misplacement was most pronounced in his language. Leaning against the lantsa’s wall, he sighed his words out on the phone: “anong ikayayaman ko dito, probinsya dito. Nakakalungkot nga, eh. Nakakabingi ang katahimikan sa hapon. Pagdating ng hapon, akoy nalulungkot. Walang hawak-hawak na baso. Kailangan lang talaga, kaya heto nagtitiis.” His voice captured the rhythm of the waves, unhurried, taking their time in reaching the shore—a stark contrast to the familiar sea of Surigaonon dialect swimming around us in the lantsa: a mix of the slightly crass Cebuano and the Boholano’s jaja sounds. The Manileño must be exaggerating on his life in Dinagat, a place that not once, but twice belonged to Surigao del Norte’s clout of islands and the place of the Ecleos—the spiritual and political dynasty in the island province.  But he looked worn out, tired, too tired to make a pass on insincerity. The wrinkles on his forehead were as permanent as the gaps between his teeth.

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They, the fellow earliest passengers to San Jose, claimed ownerships of their waiting hours with talks on paradise and lonely afternoons, while I kept on shifting on my seat, eavesdropping, sleepy and smelling like a mixture of the ship’s cot, sea, and sweat.

The thing about Dinagat is that there are no cigarettes sold anywhere. No karaoke. No drinking in front of the house. No smoking in public.

Finding the island’s pastoral silence deafening sounded legitimate to someone like a Manileño or perhaps a Cebuana whose lives were wrapped in cosmopolitan noise. And what he said was somehow true. The thing about Dinagat, Jose—a Surigaonon guiding Tristann, a shoe designer from Manila—said, is that there are no cigarettes sold anywhere. No karaoke. No drinking in front of the house. No smoking in public.

It is a place of nos.

But there was a catch, Jose added while the cigarette smoke escaped from his mouth and ascended to the dusky horizon, you could buy cigs from the pharmacy. I was stooping on the grassy part of the Sta. Cruz shore, trying to frame the coconut silhouettes in the picture, while Tristann was here and about, taking photos as well. Leaning against the coconut trunk, Jose and Mark—the young man who took it as his job to tour me around—discussed the things that could be found in San Jose.  More so, the things that could not be found.

While riding in the early evening on a motorcycle back to San Jose, Mark said that all night life can be found in Sta. Cruz, the place of kahilayan. I chuckled upon hearing the word he used and asked if he did not find it offensive.

“No. Lingaw-lingaw ra may pasabot ana, di ba?”

“PBMA is not a cult. It is an association,” Mark volunteered the information. I was reluctant to ask him about it. I might hit a raw nerve. It was too early a topic for two strangers whose sensibilities take the shapes of the places they come from.

I doubted our Cebuano. I doubted mine. I doubted his. Perhaps this is one of those many moments where my kind of Bisaya differs from the Dinagatnon or Surigaonon kind.

From the moving motorbike, everything looked deceptively peaceful. For a moment, we took shelter from the rain in a basketball court where kids played. Except for the game and the men across News MPC Station who were deepening a brook, everything looked languid.

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“Unya, mangadto tag karaoke,” Mark promised. Maybe he thought that the island’s slowness made me restless. Perhaps he thought that I—who writes about places and people, who lives in Cebu City—must experience, must be longing for a night life, a character big cities like Cebu is known for.

So off we went to La Isla de Videoke, located in the middle of a residential area somewhere Sta. Cruz. Judging from its façade, the bar looked like a studio apartment stripped of its furniture. There were only four tables arranged inside; and amusingly for its small size, there was a fire exit behind the bar attendant. In case of emergency, it was easier to head out from the main door.

It was a small crowd. All young. A group of three occupied the other table. Mark, his cousin, and the other group crooned Ed Sheeran, Max Surban, Jimmy Bondoc. The kind of songs that make the Filipinos Filipino. The kind of songs that make us who we are. Wistful. Romantic. Sad. Humorous.

We remain humorous.

They, at some point, must see the island as a trap. Limiting. Choking.

They—Mark, his cousin, and other young Dinagatnon—must have felt the restlessness too, though a different monster from mine. They, after all, have lived all their years on the island and must be used to silence that they eventually got fed up with it.

They, at some point, must see the island as a trap. Limiting. Choking.

That night, Mark sang “Bilog ang buwan, ilabas nyo na ang kalokohan” twice. His voice carried the weight of a restless soul; the song the weight of promised mischievousness nearly impossible in the paradise of nos.

***

We

are called langitnon.

It is must be the roads, Mark joked, these roads that always go up and down, a replica of the island province’s rolling hills.

In San Jose, there is an obvious absence of tricycles and trisikads; their machines cannot handle the steep, narrow inclines meant for habal-habal.

Some places are twinned with names. Sometimes, the name overpowers the place; the place is subdued, becomes a dependent clause, or a footnote, unnecessary yet it is always there, tailing the name. Ecleo. Dinagat.

The people in Dinagat are called langitnon, and Mark perfectly knows why, on the same manner that I know words like cult and parricide long before I learned the existence of many island groups in the Visayas and Mindanao, long before I started feeding the monster named restlessness with meaty, sometimes fatty slabs of temporal wanderings.

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Some places are twinned with names. Sometimes, the name overpowers the place; the place is subdued, becomes a dependent clause, or a footnote, unnecessary yet it is always there, tailing the name. Ecleo. Dinagat.

Some years ago, the name Ecleo lingered on TV, lingered in newspapers—he who was, (and the hiding is) the supreme master of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association.

During his arrest in San Jose in 2012, around 2000 followers, some armed, barricaded the White Castle—the renowned Ecleo mansion. Mark’s dad, a policeman, set aside his faith and performed his duty. The moment Ecleo Jr. surrendered and was handcuffed, Mark said, the earth suddenly shook. Always taking things with a grain of salt, I uttered my incredulity with a single syllable nu?

PBMA is not a cult. It is an association,” Mark volunteered the information. I was reluctant to ask him about it. I might hit a raw nerve. It was too early a topic for two strangers whose sensibilities take the shapes of the places they come from. He was driving me to White Castle, a place I did not even know then.

“Basin ganahan ka mo-observe sa prayer meeting sa PBMA unya. Open man na for everyone,” he suggested. I have been warned about this solo trip. I might come back to Cebu a convert, teased a friend, as if I devoted myself to a religion in the first place.

Ever curious, I said yes.

“Naa kay puting dress or shirt ba kaha?” he asked.

I did bring a white shirt and told him so. He pulled over by the gate of the Islander’s Castle and told me that a part of the mansion was once open to the public; but Mommy Glen (she is called such by the locals)—the widow of Ruben Sr., the late supreme master of PBMA—has decided to close the gates for security reasons.

The size and grandness of Islander’s Castle offended the horizon. The mansion—too big, too fortress-like—consumed a big chunk of the sky. In an interview I watched online, the province’s matriarch called the mansion “katas ng Dinagat Island.” Chromite was booming then, and she had three mineral production sharing agreements. She sounded, looked happy. And proud.

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The Islander’s Castle—with its big I and C found its way to the sanctity of proper nouns—is the vantage point of San Jose and the millions-worth main house of the Ecleos. From above, the shanties and shacks on the coast could not be seen. From the boat, the little dwellings by the sea staggered, as if the mansion—towering above them—was too heavy a load.

It was almost four in the afternoon, the golden hour for photographers. The light however—which was supposed to be always beautiful—was too sharp for the eyes; the photos of Turtle Island and the surrounding ranges turned out dispiriting, horrid, dishonest.

Annoyance crept in; the man who relentlessly cut the abundant shrubs before me remained unperturbed by my presence. The rest—Jose, Tristann, and Mark—were waiting for me.

Giving up is easier.  I put my camera down, framed the place with my own eyes, and walked towards the group.

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In one of my solitary walks on San Jose’s hilly roads, I saw a line of mothers queuing before Landbank’s ATM, lining up for their Pantawid or 4Ps, a government program under DSWD that targets the poorest of the poor. The Dinagat Group of Islands—known for its rich minerals that drew mining companies to its soil, which left Mt. Redundo in Loreto with many scars and holes, which threatened the fragile existence of a bonsai forest—is one of the most impoverished provinces in the country.

Some mothers acted too gingerly, like the machine that spews out a few bills is God. Some whose nervousness got the better of them asked the bank’s security guard to insert the card in the slot and key in the pin. After the guard handed them their pesos, some excitedly pushed a five or ten-peso coin in to the guard’s hand, his reward for helping them out.

I found the scene heartwarming.

And tragic.

Next to Landbank is the newly painted DTI. And attached to DTI’s right wall was a shack. A well-lived, peopled shack.

It was a hot midday. While the mothers walked their way down to the market, their wallets not as empty, their confidence padded, I walked my way up, trying to find the San Jose, the Dinagat that cannot be found from riding a motorbike.

This act of obedience, this act of collective beautification of their yards appeals to me metaphors for everyone’s faith—they tried to be united, they tried to make their faith unwavering, flowering.

Before their weeded-out gardens, the women with soiled hands talked about the plants they wanted to grow. The choices were not that many. And judging from the plants in the neighborhood, they only had olasiman, pasaw, and bloodleaf to choose from. A certain uniformity should be achieved. The PBMA leaders would parade around later that week, and the residents were instructed to beautify their yards. Perhaps it would be a delight for the officials to see a uniform garden separating the small houses from the narrow streets. But a gardener myself, I know one week is not enough for these plants. To achieve the desired, desirable thickness, olasiman and bloodleaf need at least three weeks, pasaw up to two months.

This act of obedience, this act of collective beautification of their yards appeals to me metaphors for everyone’s faith—they tried to be united, they tried to make their faith unwavering, flowering.

On the following day, at exactly two-thirty in the morning, the loudness of the nearby bell rattled me up from sleep. It bore the frantic sound of emergency, as if the whole island was besieged by pirates.  I told Mark about it when he pitched me from Bahay Turista at eight in the morning. It is a signal for all PBMA members to pray. Even the head of the tourism office, Mark said, has his own alarm clock on his table.

“Adto ta sa prayer meeting unyang hapon ha?” he asked. Or he asked which sounded more like a statement. Together with Tristann and Jose, our itinerary for that morning was to visit some beaches and trek to Bababu Lake.

“Sure. Nganong di. Pero ang akong white shirt naay statement nakasuwat.”

“Unsa man?”

“Drink. Drunk. Hungover.”

***

On

the outcrop in front of Babas Cove—a little place on the fringes of Basilisa—was a tomb of Commander Bata, a “cult leader,” to quote Survic, from Gingoog City who was gunned down by the police and got killed during the encounter in Surigao City. Babas Cove was the camp or the place for the cult’s rituals then. In the cove’s garden, where dwarf coconut trees were grown, was the grave of Lake Bababu’s original caretaker, Peter Langit.

But Survic, the late Langit’s son, had a different name in mind to which he likened their situation.

“Our house is like Marwan’s,” he professed with a mocking twist on his lips. His comparison was timelier—Marwan was hot in the news earlier this year. His statement made me look at the shacks in a rocky enclave. Their house’s walls were made of sulirap—woven langkay, fragile, and too thin to fend off the cold at night, such walls were too thin to protect Marwan himself who was found dead inside his hut after an intense encounter with the authority.

In the Langit’s house, bullets of sunlight passed through the holes, highlighting the threadbare clothes hanging everywhere, highlighting the dismal state of the caretakers’ house of the supposed sacred lake.

Survic, the prodigal son who left his family many years ago, sounded cynical yet proud of their situation. His deceased father was assigned by Ecleo Sr., the Divine Master, as the caretaker of Bababu Lake. He said Ecleo Sr. who frequented the lake told his father that the water has healing powers. Following the footsteps of their leader, PBMA’s members often visit and take a dip in the water.

Survic was my guide, while Ric, his thin older brother, was guiding Jose and Tristann. Mark decided to stay on the beach, talking with the two’s mother, whose maiden name would amuse any Bisaya speaker: Dementia Manaog that was later changed to Dementia Manaog-Langit.

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Comfortable in the wilderness,   I did not have any problem with the route. Tristann, an urbanite all throughout, lagged behind with Jose and Ric. The family’s two dogs kept on running back and forth, tracking Tristann’s and our group. To make himself of use, Survic ushered me through the plans for the property instead.

“Gitan-aw na nis investor.” He touched a leaf, stopped walking while waiting for me to finish shooting a trabunko—a reject kind of spider, a childhood memento resting on a web.

“Nindot himuon ni nga retirement property,” he added and pointed to his left.

Calculating the vastness of the land was impossible from where we were. All I could see was a path surrounded with silent trees whose leaves were sometimes ruffled by the passing wind. But Survic was thinking of noises, of tractors flattening some parts of their land, of tall buildings, of fancy beach cottages, of more people visiting Lake Bababu and the beach, of more technical divers exploring the cave that connects Lake Bababu to Surigao Strait. Under a public-private business venture named Bababu Ecotourism Adventure Park, there is a likely possibility for the plans to push through.

“Kon mahitabo na ang imong mga pangagpas, mawa ang beauty sa inyong lugar.” I could not stop myself from saying. But who am I to say, really? Dinagat has a lot of unpeopled beaches claimed by elegantly tall coconut trees, beaches that bear funny names like Otinan in Lalaking Bukid, names that may anger the righteous. Many coasts except for the one in San Jose resembled Boracay in the ’80s, a beauty unadulterated by consumerism and mass tourism.

“Mao ba? Ipabilin na lang nga in-ani?” he asked.

In-ani. Like this.

I thought of their houses. I thought of my own poverty. I thought of the langkay tied upside down on the coconut trees surrounding their father’s grave, its tip pointing to a drum to collect the rainwater—his family’s ration of freshwater. I could tell Survic wanted to have a better life for him and his family, a better house, a life that would not depend on the occasional tourists like us dropping by, a life that would not depend on rainwater collected in the drum.

But I also thought of how tourism, once mismanaged, can turn into an ugly beast of unregulated resort buildings, of waste mismanagement, of undisciplined, unethical party lovers.   

So I did not really have the answer to his question and just kept on shooting whatever there was to shoot until we saw a swath of waterskin peeking through the branches and trunks, a kind of signal—awkward as it may be—to stop the talk on progress and better lives.

“Duol na ta,” he said.

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The lake was not a long walk from the cove to begin with; it was an easy thirty-minute trek for someone who grew up with mountains and trees.

I have noticed though after my two cents on the proposed project in Lake Bababu, Survic’s enthusiasm lessened. Perhaps he did not see my opinion coming, perhaps he found it ironic: I who supposed to promote the beauty and attractions of the places I have visited detested the idea of development. And by attraction, what he has in mind perhaps, is the generic, homogeneous comfort and convenience every tourist deserves and must get. He must be baffled. He must find me baffling.

We reached the lake wrapped in our individual, personal, almost indifferent, silence. He sat on the protruding rock. I stood by the log lying slantingly in the water. I instantly admired the white granite wall—a landmark I recognized in photos. Not even a minute passed, I saw a group of six big mamsa gliding by the lake’s edges. It was odd, surreal to see ocean fish in a lake. I did not have the same emotion when I swam with the saltwater fish in Hinatuan River, one of the first places I visited on my first solo backpacking trip to Mindanao two years ago.

That single moment broke the awkward silence between me and Survic.

“Hala, swerte ka, tagsa ra na sila magpakita.” There was excitement in his voice. When the other group arrived, he shared the news to his older brother.

“Sa buotan ra og kasing-kasing na sila magpakita,” Ric, and soon the rest of the family in Babas Cove, proclaimed. I wonder if the answer was orchestrated. Would I fancy calling myself—the often cynical, doubtful, ever-questioning self—goodhearted? 

Or should I take the sighting a sign that they, the fragile creatures, are with me on my ecological stand. But my experience was nothing compared to their father’s: the late Peter saw a barracuda as big as a coconut trunk, shooting up in the air before disappearing back into the lake’s depths, leaving a domino of ripples graduating towards the edges. Their father, Ric recalled, though he was the caretaker, he was never comfortable around the lake.

Survic remained seated on the rock. While Tristann, finding the trek grueling and his pants’ thigh seam ripped, decided to rest before facing the route again. Jose accompanied his guest. But Ric did not wait for long, removed his wornout shirt, and dove into the water. I followed his lead and tasted the brackish water. We sat on the log, talking about the quotidian seasons passing through the lake.

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In August, the habagat season, the wind pushes the seawater into the lake, making the bottom salty and the surface fresh. In February, the water gradually gets fresher and fresher, the perfect time to submerge their tawa for a possible catch.

Looking at Ric rubbing his fisherman’s palms against his skin, I could tell that he was more learned about their place. Survic was gone for far too long that he was still finding his way back home.

***

On

early evenings, some kids paced around the market, looking up at the ceiling with an elastic band stretched between their thumb and pointy. The spiders in the middle of recreating their homes would sometimes hit the floor or the tiled tables without any sound. Quite an interesting scene, I would say, as interesting as the San Jose Public Market itself.

On the left outside Bahay Turista was the view of the market standing regal, an unlikely adjective for a public market, at the edge of the sea. The market’s design reminded me of a place I have never been to: Rajasthan.  Out of this admiration, I walked down the road by the cliff and headed to the market every morning and late afternoon. Along the way, I would say hi to a spoiled cat in the carenderia, check the displays in ukay-ukay stores, and once I had an extension wire customized at a hardware store. Little routines that I have adapted in a place I would soon leave as soon as I arrived.

Up close, there was nothing grand about the market. There was nothing grand about its past either; rather there was something fishy about its history. The hiding Ecleo Jr., aside from his wife’s murder, was also convicted on corruption charges on the public market’s overpriced construction. But this was beyond me.

Local markets are my personal destinations; these places are the testament of the living and the real—real people making an honest trade every day.

Past the fish section was the kapehan, the corner facing Bahay Turista, the place where I silently sipped my instant black coffee with the companion of the locals. I would often catch myself staring at someone else’s hand grabbing a plastic of bread or dipping a piece of bread into an overly sweet coffee with milk, or looking at the inn where I stayed perched on the hill. Who owes money to whom. How much does a kilo of tulingan cost? Do you think it would rain soon? are the variations of the conversations among locals.

I wonder how varied, how similar, or how different the local scene must be in other parts of this 81st island province in our country.

While standing at the edge of the unfinished Capitol building in Brgy. 40 (named so, because it costs P40 to go there), Mark said that we could only see 2% of the whole Dinagat. Before us are peninsulas and islands saturated, drowning in the afternoon light.

Despite its big size, the number of tourists trickle. Perhaps, Survic had a point all along; the lack of the in-demand generic comfort and convenience, and I may add, the cult rumors can be unsettling to the nerves. Admittedly, the lack of accommodation, the so-called traveler-unfriendliness of Dinagat was what attracted me: the little inconveniences make me feel that indeed this place is still honest to itself.

On our way up Capitol, Mark joked about the state of their roads, which connect mountain barangays and other municipalities

“Our roads are very luxurious,” he said.

“How so?”

“Lukso-lukso.” He got me with that one.

Mark was my primary lens in seeing his own island province, fully knowing that his ways of seeing his own place, my ways of seeing his ways, my ways of seeing his place can be unreliable over time: if a traveler’s tale changes as fast as the place, the local’s narrative vary from one person to the next.

In Babas Cove, upon learning Survic’s vagabond ways—losing contact with his family, working as a construction worker or fisherman—Mark remarked travel and its ways have changed since then.

“Sa una, when you travel you have this, this, and this,” Mark said, pointing to his temple, eyes, and heart.

There was a camera beside me. I was taking down notes on my phone. Tristann traveled around with a trusted guide and took a lot of photos on his iPhone. But despite these gadgets’ presence, the ways of traveling—its core and heart —have not changed much.

I sat there with the rest, looking at the lime stones, cyan sea, and sky, thinking how  could these elements so different from one another yet could blend well together; thinking of the kinilaw recipe Mark taught me the other night: to remove the stench of the fresh bulinaw¸rinse it with vinegar.

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We are Called Langitnon (Conclusion) first appeared on Sun.Star Cebu on November 26, 2015.

P.S. Travel to Dinagat Group of Islands. It is a beautiful place.

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Jona | Backpacking with a Book

Hi, I'm Jona! I write stories and poetry and take a lot of photos, which I'm too lazy to upload. If you want to receive some photos that I don't share here on the blog, please leave your email here. I'm crazy about cats too. Feel free to browse through BWAB, and I would love it if you say hi! For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at backpackingwithabook@gmail.com For more stories about BWAB, check here. Connect with us through

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1 Comment

  1. What a beautiful place! Dinagat Island is very rustic and promises a lot of adventure! We’ll definitely visit here soon.

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