climb

archipelagic doctrine

i mentioned in a previous post that i wrote an uninspired, albeit lengthy article about three islands. it saw print yesterday, and i'm a little irked because the editors threw away my entire introduction. of course that's their prerogative, but i think the intro gave the article perspective, and gives a reason why i decided to write about these three islands in particular. like i always say, i write about experiences, i don't make brochures. i write about journeys, i don't prepare catalogues. if you want information on the prices of hotels or the best ways to get there, consult a travel guide. but if you want something tactile and visual, read a writer's account instead. and because many of my 50 unique daily visitors don't have access to the local dailies, here's the article, unadulterated, as i wrote it. it's a little atypical of me, but we all have our so-so days.

Island Hopping
Text and photos by Alman Dave O. Quiboquibo

A Spanish backpacker took the space beside me on the deck at the second-level of a slow-moving flatboat en route to the island of Siquijor, pulled out a cigarette from his front breast pocket, and asked, as we looked out at the vast expanse of sea: how many islands are there in the Philippines? It was a pretty standard question, to which many Filipinos have an immediately witty, albeit indirect answer, made famous perhaps by Charlene Gonzalez’s response to a similar query in the 1993 Miss Universe held in Manila. “High tide, or low tide?” I chuckled.

“If they’re under water during high tide,” the Spaniard said as he brought the cigarette to his lips, “can they still be considered an island?”

He had a good point, although both of us being on vacation (his entering its sixth month across much of Southeast Asia, and mine only lasting four days in the Visayas), his follow-up was a little too serious for the occasion. I gave him the information he required, and illustrated how I wasn’t at all ignorant about the archipelago. But it was his next question, among the many that he asked in between drags of his cigarette, that really got me thinking: “and among all these islands, how many have you been to?”

Upon my return from that recent vacation, I studied the huge map of the Philippines hanging on my office wall. I have been to many islands in the country, and I like looking at maps in general, but it has never occurred to me to actually count how many I’ve stepped on. I have visited many small islands, and have even seen a lot more up close, such as monoliths of limestone or slices of beach, surrounded by nothing but sea. But it was this challenge, coated and packaged as an innocent question, that had me waxing philosophical: has any Filipino actually been to all 7,107 islands?

I do not know whether that is in fact possible, or whether anyone has set out to be the first Filipino to set foot – in a literal sense – on all the islands, and I don’t know whether I actually want to be that person, or if that should be any traveler’s goal. Nevertheless, while studying the political map of the archipelago, my attention was drawn to a few islands which are unique in that they are smaller than most, and mostly intact – there are few or even sometimes, no other satellite islands surrounding them. Most especially, they enjoy some measure of political autonomy, being provinces in themselves, although, in most cases, they are economically dependent on other islands. I have been to three of these unique places: they are Camiguin, Guimaras, and Siquijor, in alphabetical order.

Camiguin

From the port of Balingoan, which is an hour and a half from Cagayan de Oro City, Camiguin rises steeply in the distance, its highest peaks reaching the clouds that seem to perpetually float, almost motionless, over the island. Several sickly-looking barges that carry tourists and vehicles from mainland Mindanao make the 80-minute journey to the wharfs at Guinsiliban and Benoni almost every hour beginning at dawn. The trips end just before dusk. The crossing often takes place without incident, but it is not unusual to see dolphins in the distance.

Visitors coming into Camiguin are often burdened by a heavy baggage of expectations. The province is often thought to hew closely to the stereotype of a picturesque island paradise: kilometers of fine white sand beaches fringed by tall, leaning coconut trees, swaying in the breeze that’s constantly blowing from the sea. But one will not find a lot of that in Camiguin. Much of the coast is rocky, and while there are a lot of coconut trees near the shore, there are few places ideal for worshipping the sun. Which is not to say that Camiguin has no attractions of its own, rather that white beaches, as we have conceived them, are not the only beautiful creations in the country.

If sun and sea are necessary on your itinerary, however, there is an abundance of that at White Island and Mantigue Island. The first is a strip of sand and crushed coral near the northwestern tip of Camiguin. It isn’t even an island but a sandbar, its shape dictated by the movements of the sea, and there is not a single tree to provide shade, or anything where one may hang a hammock. Local entrepreneurs have set-up makeshift stalls selling anything from beer to grilled fish, but this has ultimately made the island unfriendly to photography. On a good day, however, one might be able to view the southern end of White Island, with Mts. Hibuk-hibuk and Old Vulcan in the background.

There is a marine sanctuary just off the white beach surrounding Mantigue Island, which makes it ideal for snorkeling. A small community of fisherfolk live on the small island, drying seaweeds in the sun. There is no electricity as yet, and anyone wanting to stay more than a day is best advised to bring supplies in. Nevertheless, a visitor may still coordinate with one of the locals who can prepare a good lunch, provided he’s informed in advance.

The island of Camiguin is said to have the most number of volcanoes per square kilometer, although there is debate as to whether in fact it is just one large volcano with seven vents. Nevertheless, the destructive force of these giants is clearly felt in the island, even more than 50 years since the last eruption. Earlier volcanic activity destroyed entire villages and sank a whole chunk of land, including a cemetery, into the sea. A huge cross about 150 meters from the shore marks the location of this undersea burial ground, and nearby, the ruins of an old church are all that remain of a village destroyed by an earthquake. The Phivolcs station halfway up the mountain from the capital town of Mambajao has become some kind of an attraction, preserving records of Mt. Hibuk-hibuk’s violent eruption in 1951.

Looking out on the eastern face of the province from the high road near the station, it is easy to imagine Camiguin as an island dominated by the steep slopes of its many peaks, where precious few flat lands are pushed out towards the sea, much like the movement of lava. It is also because of this that the main highway is a singular ring of mostly concrete road, just over 60 kilometers long. It is possible to do a tour of the entire island in just one day. Locals, who are less creative than they are entrepreneurial, will either rent out scooters or motorbikes, or take you around the island to see waterfalls, hot and cold springs, the via cruxes and even lanzones plantations. A more adventurous approach, however, will involve a trek to see the jagged summit of Mt. Hibuk-Hibuk. The trail is steep, the slopes inhabited by bizarre forms of life, and on a clear day, the views are rewarding.

Camiguin offers many different forms of accommodation, and the traveler who may have forgotten to book a room is still sure to find space to sleep: from posh highland hotels, to small spaces and bunk beds for budget backpackers. One place, however, enchants and charms at the same time. Although a little out of the way, Enigmata, lures bohemians and connoisseurs of anything that is far from ordinary. Built around two huge acacia trees and surrounded by concrete sculptures and other works of art, the tree house has spiral staircases, creaking wooden floors, and rooms with high roofs that shake when the winds are restless. There are musical instruments, and open-air terraces that welcome the whistling breeze. Rooms are not equipped with airconditioning; the group of artists who own the place want visitors to make a connection with nature, which is richly abundant. Although a little eerie and obviously not new, the experience of living amongst kindred spirits is unlike any other.

Leaving Camiguin from its port, the island of volcanoes refuses to dwindle into a dot in the distance. In the same way, it is difficult to erase from memory, because although it doesn’t have many of the ingredients of the traditional recipe for paradise, it serves a full course of choices that is at best gourmet, if not, exotic.

Guimaras

Mangoes are the only things that most people tend to associate with Guimaras: an island sandwiched between Panay and Negros, and a very brief banca ride from Iloilo City. I didn’t expect much beyond what my ignorance allowed me, and a brief visit to the province exposed how little I knew about Guimaras – whose image has unfortunately been stained by the not-so-recent oil spill.

In February of this year, the province revived its International Mountain Bike Festival. The third since it first lured bikers from as far away as Dumaguete and Kalibo in 1994. In this year’s edition of the festival, enthusiasts from all over Region VI and as far away as Manila traveled with their cycling gear to the island and competed for modest prizes and the thrill of overcoming the great odds. It proved to be a daunting challenge to the visitors, as riders from this region are among the country’s best, not to mention that the cross-country trail was about 60 kilometers of rough and rugged terrain, made doubly difficult by the unrelenting sun. The national cycling team was also in attendance, which made for a tough, if not star-studded, festival.

The island’s roads and trails, which bisect mango orchards and pineapple plantations, and its strange geology of high plateaus and coasts, are favorites of bikers from nearby cities of Iloilo and Bacolod. But beyond just being a venue for mountain biking, the province is also a place thriving with opportunity. At any of the ports on the island, the local authorities inspect bags not for contraband or dangerous explosives, but for fruits. Guimaras is so jealous of its variety of the carabao mango that no other kind is allowed to enter its territory. Besides, foreign fruits may bring in insects that would lay waste on the only local mango that’s allowed to enter US territory.

Guimaras and mangoes appearing in one sentence might sound like an old cliché, but local innovators hope to give this stereotype a new, if not a different, dimension. So when I encountered mango ketchup, I was skeptical. The bottled invention is yellow, and smells oddly similar to its tomato variety. I nearly echoed the reaction of a visiting Singaporean friend who gasped: “How can banana be catsup?” when he found a bottle of the very Filipino product at a local grocery. But I threw disbelief away when I was served a plate of spaghetti made with mango sauce. I didn’t quite know what to expect, and despite my usually adventurous tastebuds, I was apprehensive when I brought the fork to my mouth. But much to my surprise, I found it to be an interesting, if not deliciously novel pasta dish!

Since all other outside fruits are prohibited, everything is grown locally. And while organic is nearly synonymous to wellness and ridiculously expensive produce, there is a thriving market for naturally grown crops and vegetables even in a province that was once one of the 20 poorest in the country. In Pagatpat Resto, which is a series of cottages built around a mangrove forest, and connected by rickety wooden bridges, organic rice is served. Guimaras Wonders hopes to expand the small area devoted to organic farming, while also actively cultivating organically-grown tilapia.

Not necessarily a result of the 2006 oil spill, but certainly emboldened by it, local tourism at Guimaras refuses to embrace progress which has ruined many beautiful islands. Instead, there is an encouraging emphasis on sustainable tourism (which local officials have packaged as ecological-agricultural tourism). Resort owners are actively replanting denuded mangroves, developing nature trails and offering adventure packages that have minimal impact on the environment. A marine turtle hospital has been established in Bgy. Lawi, Jordan, converting its resident fisherfolk from turtle hunters to turtle rescuers. And lately, the province launched the Guisi Discovery Quest: a community-based tourism project in Bgy. Dolores, Nueva Valencia.

In three days on an island I hadn’t completely explored, I experienced a complete shift in paradigm. I didn’t see any hint of what now seems to be a forgotten oil spill, and I certainly saw so much more than just mangoes. I had gone beyond beaches – although there were several pockets of them around the island’s diverse coastline – and found instead both promise and potential.

Siquijor

The old man showed me a small colored bottle. Inside were what seemed to be dried leaves of an unknown plant, swimming in a liquid that I suspected was coconut oil, and sealed with a prayer I failed to hear. The old man, who wore a non-descript white shirt advertising an unknown brand of noodles, was routinely mixing a small vat of herbs and plants. He was surrounded by makeshift shelves of oddly-shaped bottles, rescued from the garbage pit. He reminded me of the limitations, and proceeded to hand a bottle of oil to a French woman. “This cures all your pains,” he said in Filipino, and I translated.

I turned around and walked back to the scooter that had taken me up a hill in Siquijor. The old man was one of the island’s healers, and the small bottle which I placed inside my front pocket was gayuma. Much to my disappointment, there was nothing closely resembling the arcane in his demeanor, much less with his surroundings. He could have been engaged in the preparation of lunch, and I wondered whether I should discard the bottle for fear of attracting someone I did not love, or for the simple reason that it might be forgotten and rot in my bag.

Several boats travel daily between Dumaguete and either one of Siquijor’s ports: the lazy capital town of the same name, or the more economically progressive and vibrant Larena. There are several options available to the traveler: resorts cover a wide price range, and are scattered near the many pockets and slices of beach around the island, all accessible by the national road that girds the odd shape of the coast.

When night falls, there are sections of the island’s irregular coastline that turn into one’s own private beach, with the moon as the only source of illumination. Because of the island’s size, and possibly because of its shape, it is possible to hire a multi-cab for a day’s tour of the province. The stops won’t be far from the usual, and it would help to ask questions about the available attractions. Usually, it is when we get off the beaten path of most tourists that we find something special. And in Siquijor, which is alive with the noise of roaring tricycles from the early morning to late in the afternoon, the quality of the experience might consist of an evening with just the sound of the sea crashing into the beach and insects buzzing in the trees.

Around Siquijor, the delights are as unique as they are far apart. There is certainly something for every traveler: soft beaches full of sunshine, old relics of deep Spanish influences, picturesque nature sites, and a mystery even the locals are baffled about. The encounter with the healer at his house tucked in the hills may have been disappointing, probably because I was expecting something along the lines of Professor Snape’s classroom, but it was certainly unlike walking outside the Quiapo Church and finding concoctions for various ailments and conditions. A local woman swears on the power of the gayuma, confessing that a man she did not love had seduced her when she was younger. These days, she carries a defense in her bag to ward off any attempts to control her emotions. Her husband laughs at the idea, and said that he had offered no more than his sincerity and charm to get her to notice him.

Two of the island’s oldest structures are found in the lazy town of Lazi. Both built late in the 19th century and set apart by a street lined with skulking trees of acacia, they continue to provide a service to the faithful. The St. Isidore Parish Church has a high painted ceiling and a wooden floor. Across of it is the St. Isidore Labradore Convent, said to be the country’s oldest and biggest. It has a small museum filled with religious artifacts, and birth records written in Spanish. The upper floor creaks with each step, and there are unfortunately parts that badly need repair.

Not far away from the Spanish buildings are the turquoise pools and cascades of the Kambugahay Waterfall, which may be accessed by more than a hundred concrete steps down, and goes up into an eerie-looking forest where the water is almost still. The falls are modest in height, and the pools reasonably deep that many adventurous, if not ill-advised visitors jump and dive.

On the day I left Siquijor, I felt incomplete: I had heard of other beaches, some nearly deserted, others suspiciously gated and deemed private. There were attractions I did not have the time to see, and there was stil a mystery I failed to unravel. It was calling me back, suggesting a future visit. I didn’t necessarily believe in the healer’s potion, which I had surprisingly misplaced, but there I was, on a boat back to Dumaguete, watching as the island refused to vanish in the horizon, smitten by its inexplicable charm, wondering what else the small province held from me, what else I failed to discover. Love struck, I had fallen prey to Siquijor’s gayuma.

Once on these islands

I am always surprised, if not slightly offended, to hear other Filipinos say that there is nothing to see in the Philippines. Often, I ask them: but how much of the islands have you seen? In a way, the Spanish backpacker’s question is more introspective than anything else. It should be a question asked of all Filipinos, not so much as a quest to “check” all 7,000-odd islands on the archipelago, but as a challenge to discover more of a country that has dazzled strangers and visitors from distant lands.

When I investigated the Spaniard’s reason for visiting the Philippines, he told me that his decision was influenced by the opinion of a Barcelona-based author who had recently published a book on Viet Nam, and who had traveled through much of Asia. My travel companion asked the author this question: of all the countries in Asia, which should I visit? The author’s response: the Philippines. And the reason: beyond the shining seas and the infinite beaches, the biggest attraction of the islands is its people. And I couldn’t agree more.
charlene fernandez?
(Anonymous)
who's she? kapatid ni Rudy Fernandez? hehehe

jun delmo
Re: charlene fernandez?
i edited it na. haha. at ikaw pala jundel ang mystery reader ko from australia. i track my readers weekly. and i get a few hits from down under. :D
Re: charlene fernandez?
(Anonymous)
hehehe. aliw basahin mga blogs mo ( now I know na yung blog pala is from "web log" hehehe.

jun d
Re: charlene fernandez?
naks. fans pala kita jun. hehe. bisitahin kita dyan sa australia. :D
Re: charlene fernandez?
come to think of it, i do know a charlene fernandez. and she happens to be the copyeditor of manila bulletin! no kidding! she was about 3 batches ahead of me sa UP CAL. baka sya ang nag-tanggal ng more than 7 paragraphs! haha. ay naku. dugo yung 7 or more paragraphs na yun ha.
7,110
However, most Filipinos live on the 11 principal islands that make up 90 percent of the country's total land mass -- Luzon, Mindanao, Samar, Negros, Panay, Palawan, Leyte, Cebu, Mindoro -- and either Bohol or Masbate, not sure which one is the 11th island, population-wise.

This is why, although peripatetic you and I -- unlike most Filipinos -- have both been to most of the 79 provinces, I have a comparatively meagre island count: Batan, Luzon, Taal, Alabat, Corregidor, Verde, Mindoro, Palawan, Romblon, Tablas, Sibuyan, Leyte, Panay, Guimaras, Negros, Cebu, Bohol and Handayan, Camiguin and that white sandbar off it, Mindanao, Samal, Basilan, Jolo, and Tawi-Tawi's main island :)
Re: 7,110
(Anonymous)
our archipelago is increasing? haha. it would be interesting to count my islands. i'd start north, and go down south. that deserves an article all its own!
Re: 7,110
my count so far, from north to south:

batan, sabtang, palaui, luzon, capones, apuau, canimog, matukad, mindoro, tablas, carabao, boracay, busuanga, coron, panay, palawan, snake, arreceffi, guimaras, negros, cebu, lapu-lapu, bohol, panglao, balicasag, siquijor, apo, camiguin, mantigue, siargao, east bucas, middle bucas, bucas grande, mindanao, samal, talikud, and many smaller islands in caramoan, honda bay, coron.
Re: 7,110
Wow, that's impressive! I just remembered I crossed over the bridge several times to Panglao as well, so that makes mine around 27. Our islands were built by undersea volcanic activity and tectonic plate movements that pushed coral formations out of the water, so I'm sure the numbers are shifting even as we speak. And you know what, most of the remaining 7,000 are uninhabited reefs, cays, and rocks -- except maybe those garrisoned by the Chinese navy in the Spratlys.
Re: 7,110
Haha. I think it's a little pathetic that I haven't even been to at least 50 islands. I should go to more. Mind you, I noticed that there are many major islands I haven't seen: Samar, Leyte, Marinduque, Catanduanes, Masbate, Dinagat, Biliran, Polilio, Basilan, Jolo, Tawi-Tawi... Too many islands. Too littletime.
Re: 7,110
Sulu (157 islands) and Tawi-Tawi (307) are archipelagoes by themselves, while Palawan province is made up of 1,780 islands. Most don't even feature except in the highest-resolution shipping charts, where they are designated mainly as navigational hazards.

The Phivolcs chief told me Leyte was originally two islands joined together by plate movements. The last time the plates moved it led to the Saint Bernard landslide disaster.