Sunday, November 13, 2016

THE MATRIARCH OF GUINTARCAN ISLAND

IT IS A SUNNY AUGUST 6, 2016 MORNING. The storm just left a day ago and I am here standing at the edge of a shoreline in Kawit, Medellin, Cebu waiting for my turn to board the wooden-hulled boat for Guintarcan Island. Boy Toledo is now climbing up a narrow ramp towards the deck of the prow followed by his wife Belen, his daughter and son-in-law. Ernie Salomon and Boy Olmedo are repeat visitors while the rest are first timers.

Everyone are excited. Even Boy T, and Belen, who is a native there. This would be my ninth visit after more than a year. I was there last time as the local coordinator and guide for Wine to Water last December 2014. It was a humanitarian mission geared towards improving the potability of water for residents affected by Typhoon Yolanda and by Typhoon Ruby with the distribution of Sawyer water filters.

I am here as an unofficial tour guide this time, gaining nothing for my time and nothing again for my efforts of resisting the island heat. It was Boy T’s idea after all, borne out from that liquid sucked from the mouths of frosty below-zero beer bottles, and I have to dance with his tune. Boy T always loved to celebrate and, this time, he will celebrate his survival of another mild stroke which happened a few weeks ago. I am happy about his recovery and I am generous with his idea.



We will all stay three days and two nights at his mother-in-law’s house. Tita Rosos, the matriarch, will celebrate her 88th birthday on the second day and the Toledo family will witness that occasion along with us. Boy T and Belen even brought a brand new freezer to add to the old refrigerator. The house, which was destroyed by Typhoon Yolanda in November 2013, would now have been repaired by this time. I have witnessed how the community of storm survivors rallied around the old house to make their lives bearable.

The sea looked serene but when we are now about two kilometers offshore, waves tossed and rocked the small boat and spewed spray and mist above the gunnels. The island’s lighthouse stood prominently on a hill, its white paint reflected sunlight in a glare. Right in the middle of the island is a patch of white sand that extend all the way below the lighthouse. The boat helmsman is aiming now for that patch of white.

Out came the passengers, one by one, when the boat landed on the beach. The narrow ramp served as the ladder to reach dry land. When I visited here the second, third and fourth times, I jumped from the prow into the beach like a swashbuckling Pizarro, even as the boat was still lurching in the waves and unable yet to secure rigging, probably causing the skipper’s heart to skip a beat with my act. I have mastered this stunt while as tugboat crew in my younger days. That agility is not yet gone but it just lacked the opportunity as I was astern.

The old house is completely repaired except that the retaining wall facing the shore have not been rebuilt. The serpentine papaya that hugged the ground is gone. In its place is a pile of hollow blocks waiting to replace the crumbling fence. Lola Tita, smiling and upright despite her age, meet us at the foyer and welcomed us all into her home. I kissed her right hand and went back to the courtyard.

I found a spot to set up my bright red Silangan Rev20 tent. I bought this last December 2014 yet I have not had the opportunity to learn how to set it up and to sleep in it and this would be the very first time ever for me. It is almost brand new since it was only used a couple of times by my son and by clients from Poland. It is not free standing and would need pegs to keep the outer shell erect when the stringed pole is inserted and fastened to the retaining grommets on both ends.

The inner shell could be attached inside the outer shell by a system of ladder locks. Then you have to insert two short poles on both ends of the tent to add rigidity. Right. The problem is the sleeves of both pole inserts are just too tight to make attachment seamless. I tried hard and gained success only after I have worn my reading glasses. What if it were in darkness? A dog stops by and quickly took a leak on my tent. Quickly too, a pebble came its way.

Justin Apurado, Locel Navarro, Judy Jane Neo, Christopher Ngosiok, Amaya Montecalvo and Marilyn Mansukhani and husband decide to keep me company on the courtyard in their tents or in their hammock sets. Everyone’s busy with their adjustment to a new environment. There is food cooking as the aroma wafted into my nostrils. I surveyed the back of the house where the “dirty kitchen” is located. I believe I need coffee to let my thirst settle down.



When I have that first slurps of coffee, immediately, my mind goes working. Planning and organizing a trip on the spot on an island that offers a wide variety of features are sometimes knotty. I have suggested to Boy T that we visit the La-aw Lagoon after a few minutes from now and we would have to hire a small boat to bring us to its seaward side. I came to appreciate the value of the lagoons and it is just right that the islanders managed it themselves that no structures be ever built.

Guintarcan Island, for all its location, accessibility, beautiful features and bounty, is surprisingly undeveloped. For me, I would rather have it stay that way. The islanders seemed content with what they have and with what they reap from fishing and farming and, besides, they were able to sustain the education of different generations of children for so many years with their present means of livelihood. They do not need expansive tourism and all those resorts. Drug addiction and crime is absent here.

Let Guintarcan be spared of development and commercialism which other islands are supposed to be reaping. I have known of many island resorts that became popular tourist destinations but behind that glitter and pomp are social problems hounding the communities like high cost of living, increasing crime incidence, drug addiction, pollution, diminishing fish catch, land ownership squabbles, sea access problems, environmental degradation and scarcity of resources. Only the resort owners became rich.

After a few moments, we took a shortcut by sea to the mouth of the lagoons. The boat has to enter a narrow channel where a rock concealed the outer lagoon from the sea. The boat skipper cut the engine out and slid his small boat slowly between the rocks. We are now inside the outer lagoon where a big rock canopy obscure the sun and Google Earth, completely putting us in its shade. Meanwhile, a fisherman and his family are drying kelp on the other side of the rocks.

A passage in the hole on the rock lead all to the second and third lagoons. The color of water here changes into a bright aquamarine. Below the surface are grape-like seaweeds (Local name: lato) growing wild. Swimming is ideal. All around are steep rocks with wild vegetation. I spied a couple of fruit bats hanging upside down from one of the tallest trees. I left the bathers to meet the second batch of bathers that will soon arrive.

For two hours, everyone enjoyed the novelty of swimming on the lagoons while I stood watch on a ledge. My curiosity somehow peaked a bit as I see a scant path leading into an opening. There are small cave mouths among the rocks and there are traces of recent digging activities. Going further, I found an open area that seemed to suggest of an old human intrusion or habitation. Much much older than we thought it to be. This could be an old burial ground or where they do their rituals.

I looked around in the open for animal bones. Perhaps, if I have more time, I could sift it below the ground. I might even find pottery shards or crude tools. One by one, the bathers have had enough of the lagoons and are now in the process of transiting into exit mode. A trail wind among the small but wild forest into a narrow pass that somehow gave a bit of protection of the place from overland intrusion. We walk on flat terrain then onto a dirt road.



I decide to bring the troupe to a long flight of stairs down to an iconic beach that I loved to post in Facebook: Hagdan Beach. It is a small cove and fishing village with pristine white sands and hundreds of small fishing boats secured by stilts on dry land. It is a beehive of activity today. Kids are swimming everywhere, playing tag-and-go in the water, the women busy drying kelp and fish while the men mend their fish nets. We joined the kids and become like them.

But not for long. We climb up the stairs and made our long journey back to Dapdap on foot. Our lunch would be available by now. It is already 14:30 and everyone’s hungry and it is five kilometers away. Vacant motorcycles-for-hire called for passengers which some took but the rest brave it on the narrow concrete road. I noticed the islanders do not walk far distances anymore relying more on the swift and relaxed travel that motorcycles afford.

Prickly pear fruits are now ripe and we pick some on the way, including the leaves. The islanders have never understood this cactus plant for it is an introduced species from the deserts of North America. On the other hand, the wide fleshy leaves are made as canvass board instead to write personal graffiti or as target board to shoot marbles at. I must teach them that this is another source of food and to introduce to them an obscure Cebuano name for that as tabal.

I was the last to reach the Rosos house and I enjoyed the late meal at 15:45 but I am used to it. Afternoon is now coming to an end and, soon, it will be dusk. Boy T had already opened a second big bottle of San Miguel Pilsen. Cold beer is a rarity in Guintarcan. Electricity is available only at 18:00 until 22:00. We brought frozen ones in five cases and stuffed them inside ice boxes and what available space inside the refrigerators. Soon there will be electricity to keep those beer perpetually cold.

It did not. We eat supper under the glow of candlelights and it sufficed to improve our appetites better than being under artificial lights. Sitting on the courtyard in total darkness holding a cup of beer is a wonderful experience. The Milky Way and all the stars are strikingly clear in an island sky. The glows of Daanbantayan in mainland Cebu and the combined one of Ormoc City and Isabel in Leyte stood out on the far horizons. Blinking red lights marked the passing of jumbo jets. I wonder if we could catch an orbiting satellite?

When the crowd on the courtyard begins to go sparse until I am alone with Ernie on the last bottle for the day, I would now have the honor of claiming the sleeping space inside the Silangan Rev20 and my first time ever so. The tent’s length is just enough for my reclining height. My crown touched the fabric and the balls of my feet as well. It is a single-person tent. It does not matter. It has enough space to store all my things dry. I wonder how the two Poles fit in?



The second day – August 7 – starts on a good note of a glorious sunrise. After the usual early morning ritual of sun worship and coffee, I see a broken axe. I volunteered to fix it. I will have to remove first the remnant of the handle wedged tight by several nails inside the eye of the axe by burning it. The extreme heat might affect the temper of the steel but the axe is not a precision tool so I let it be. Besides, its use is confined only to splitting firewood.

I looked around for a handle material and found a discarded piece that used to be part of the old house. It is a hardwood known as molave (tugas lan-han) and it is old and well-seasoned. Immediately, I shaped it with a native bolo and, finding it unfit for the job, I looked for another and borrowed Amaya’s Knifemaker Custom Bolo which does a respectable progress.

I was engrossed in my work and I stopped it when Lola Tita was presented a cake and a candle to blow. We sang a birthday song for her and everybody took a piece of the cake. Breakfast is served and, soon, we will be on another tour on the other side of the island. Marilyn and husband, meanwhile, decide to leave early to pursue their household chore of rearing a child and caught an early trip to the mainland.

Meanwhile, I have to bring with me the axehead and the hardwood to Cebu so I could make a better job with all the tools I need. It would not be perfect, unlike machined lines and curves, since it would be hand-made but it will be a custom classic once it is done. I make my own wooden handles for my hatchets and hammers and these are unique pieces complemented with Southwest Native American art carved on it.

The morning turned into a very warm sky. The heat from the sun bounced off the fine white sand as we walked the shoreline to our destination, which will be Cantingting Cave. It is a big cave which I first entered on my first visit in 2009. That time, I was experimenting a novel idea of catching cave bats for subsistence. I caught four. I used this same method during my fourth visit in 2012 while co-hosting in the filming of NATIVE INSTINCT, a reality survival TV project. The show failed to take off due to severe technical problems.

The way to the cave is now about to be guarded by a government building – the Langub Barangay Hall – still in the works. It is a Sunday and it is abandoned. We followed the path up the hill and found the cave. Everyone donned their headlamps and carefully navigate along irregular levels of ground. The cave is now cleaned of guano but it still stank. The chamber walls are dotted with excrement of individual bats and it looked like a giant leopard hide.

The cave bat population is not that great anymore as when I first encountered them. In 2009, it swarmed the entrance as it flee from our intrusion and disturbance. Although a lot are flying all around near the roof, they seemed not threatened with our presence and did not even bother to swarm out of their habitation. I waited outside as the neophyte cavers take their fill of Hades.



We are following a road back to Dapdap but there is one more feature of the island that I need people to visit. It is the lighthouse and it is on top of a hill. The route to there is already obscured and I have to use my tracking skills if there are still traces of people and grazing animals. If not, I would use traditional navigation to reach the top.

I and the rest failed to bring a big blade for clearing a path and I have to use my hands to break off branches getting in my way and feet to bend bigger branches back. It is slow painstaking work and draining. My hands are sore, my arms and bare shins suffered cuts. I have to pay special attention for anything that might threaten an eye and remove it away even though I consume so much time.

We reach the lighthouse and the fence is locked. It is operated by solar energy and people came here often to maintain the batteries. On one corner of the fence, outside the property, are empty plastic bottles of what used to be distilled water and battery solutions. Improper disposal of toxic material is happening right on this island paradise without the residents knowing.

We retraced our path and walked the rest of the way to Lola Tita’s house. Boy T bought a pail of fresh seashells composed of spider conch (sa-ang), juvenile giant clams (takobo), leopard cowrie (sigay), mother-of-pearl oysters (kapis) and conetips (ahong). This would be a good addition to the goat meat dishes that is now being cooked in honor of the birthday celebrator.

The house is busy with some visitors and I have to scurry myself to the beach to dip in the coolness of the sea, away from the heat, and to heal my cuts with the natural saline solution. When I am done, lunch had already been served and I made a backdoor maneuver to zoom in on the spicy goat innards (paklay) that Ernie had been cooking. On a neighboring smoldering pot is goat stew (kaldereta) which I wolfishly placed on top of the other on my plate. 
 
There was not much to do the rest of the day. The last bottles of beer have been consumed and it is too hot inside the tent to sleep. I decide to thin the axe haft with the Knifemaker Custom Bolo. Then when it got cooler, I crawled inside the tent, with the door opened wide so breeze could enter. I read a book – National Geographic’s New Age of Adventure – and got drowsy. It rained. I woke up and closed the tent door and resumed my dreamtime.

I woke up again and it was almost dusk. I got up and made for the house in time to see the same dog yesterday marking his territory again on the same spot of my tent. I was too late. I resumed reading sitting on a chair. Another dog, raised his right leg to take a peek and a pebble got him this time and it yowled in pain. I washed the abused part of my tent and placed a barrier.

Dinner time came early and seashells galore. People do not know anymore how to cook seashells. All the flesh have contracted deep into its shell during the time when it was boiled and you have to smash it with a hammer to get to the meat of it. It was a nasty undertaking and I have to revert to food that was served during lunch.



We waited for the lights to appear and it did an hour after 18:00 and it only lasted about 15 minutes. Now I am talking with Boy T about energy self-sufficiency and renewable energy. Without beer, the drinks shifted to something stronger like Emperador Light Brandy. Only a few took the chance to join us. Nevertheless, we have to empty the bottle before calling it a day. I crawled to the comforts of my tent and forgot everything.

Early morning of the third day, after coffee, we break camp. Stowed everything inside my Silangan Predator Z bag. The rest did theirs. We are now ready to leave the island for the mainland. Lola Tita walked to the shore to send us off. She never left the place where she stood until I could not see her anymore as the distance become so great. I wished her well and may she have more years. She is really a good lady. A perfect matriarch.

Document done in LibreOffice 5.2 Writer

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