bucolia: fish and cheap (second installment of the kaladkarin chronicles, part III)

when ané roused dennis and i from sleep very early wednesday morning, i was immediately struck with that profound realization that i had had, on average, about 3 hours of sleep each day during the last four days, or about only 11% of the last 100 hours since we left cubao at around 9 in the evening of friday. this, to my mind, wasn’t healthy at all, considering that we were engaged in very physically demanding activities. i sat up to discover that everyone else had already gone down, while dennis, after saying “oo” in a tone that’s probably common among people who’ve been disturbed from a nice dream, immediately started snoring again. i rushed down to where i left my things, collected those that were left out to dry, and stuffed everything else, hurriedly, into my bag. at around 4am, our jeepney came, and we were taken to donsol, for the next phase of our bakasyon grande.

it was an exhausting ride, which left me weaving in and out of sleep. i never really managed to rest, although everyone else was locked in that almost catatonic state of consciousness, deprived of sleep for so many days, moving around like drones, or very excited zombies. when we took the turnoff to donsol, the sun had just risen, and it provided dramatic lighting for the majesty that is mt mayon. eventually, we reached a resort in donsol near the tourism office, where the rest of ykamo and friends had just arrived.

after breakfast and a few introductions on my part, we readied our masks and snorkels for some serious whale shark interaction. earlier, we signed waivers and skipped the video presentation, and headed for our bancas. each of us were assigned a guide and a spotter, and i shared my boat with ané, joseph, francis, and marga. bobby, one of the local interaction coordinators, said that july, our guide, would give us a short lecture on our way out to sea, but five minutes into the sunny, breezy trip, he was concerned with looking out into the wide open. i expected half an hour more of getting to know the new people on my boat, a few minutes of which would be allocated to the promised lecture on interaction etiquette, but as i relaxed my body, reclining as best i could, our spotter shrieked, “butanding! butanding!” we were no more than 150 meters from the shore, and here we were, in deathly depths, in the fine company of these gentle creatures. and i looked around, i expected dorsal fins breaching the surface. but we had none of that. the spotter was pointing to a dark shape moving on the water, and i could’ve sworn it was merely the shadow of a passing puff of cloud.

but we moved in for closer inspection, and before i had my camera ready, a huge, dark-gray, spotted creature swam, not too swiftly, under our banca, whose motor had been killed so as not to scare the sea-dwelling giant. we marveled at the sight, like giddy, starstruck, fawning teenagers who were within spitting distance with a pop idol, repeating exactly what had been seen, when virtually everyone else had the same visual experience. “did you see that! did you see that!” “it was huge!” “it had so many spots!” “let’s call it spotty.” “amazing!” “oh my god, they look really scary!” “are they going to eat us?” “are you sure they don’t bite?” “they don’t bite, they just swallow.” july, our guide, was unimpressed. 6 years of taking tourists to as close as 5 meters from these wonderful beasts, and you’re probably already very jaded. “maliit pa nga yun eh,” he snapped. and the interactions which followed proved him correct.

i wore a raggedy excuse for a life vest, prepared my mask which, on mai’s suggestion, had just been smothered with toothpaste, and prepared for my turn to jump into the water. i still wasn’t convinced that i’d float wearing that tattered orange vest, but after seeing the look on francis’s face, and how he, in his distinctly ilonggo way, marveled at having been this close to the creature, i could not wait for my turn. my first jump wasn’t a success. i was actually looking at the other direction. but the interactions which followed were anything but unimpressive, and was all worth risking.

“talon, alman, talon!” i heard my companions shout as i sat on the edge of the banca’s hull. i did, but despite my efforts, i propelled myself only a little. but not much effort had to be exerted, because whale sharks, indifferent as they are to my presence, will, with mouth agape, go about their business of filtering plankton and thousands of thousands of liters of seawater through its enormous gills, and if you happen to be floating in its path, you might find yourself in the peculiar and unique feeling of coming face to face with these gentle giants of the deep. in spite of their humongous size, whale sharks are completely harmless to even the most inquisitive of humans. and they don’t get more inquisitive than me, and fish -- or shark, for that matter -- don’t get any larger than these megamouths. so there i was, swimming, rather awkwardly on the water, and my masked face submerged, with my legs, kicking in all the might they could muster, when out of the hazy void, appeared a creature of the sea which sparked in my heart a confused mixture of fear and awe, of dread and wonder. any person in the right state of mind would have leaped out of the water. but based on what i’ve so far done these past four days, i was far from being completely sane.

so there i was, swimming with this whale of a shark, paddling the fastest i could, observing from the deceptive distance of the tempered glass on my mask, the alternating spots and stripes on a fish whose colors resembled a cross between an inverted dalmatian or a reverse zebra. the shape of the fish was unmistakable, and my childhood memories of watching “jaws” were kindled with a kind of agitated surprise. nevertheless, in that 20 second window of opportunity, when i followed the butanding as best i could, my entire constricted vision filled with the enormous length and girth of its body, with my emotions dithering from terrified to amazed to unbelieving, i came to understand many things. and then it was gone, swallowed by the deep, unspoken mysteries that is the sea. i lifted my head up, and the shrieks and applause of my friends on the boat were indistinct. i had apparently gone in a direction different from the banca, and i had that troublesome feeling of being a man overboard. i freestyled back to the boat, and when i managed to hold on to the katig, our guide said, “dyan ka lang.” fish food, i quickly thought. with my legs dangling in the water, i was bait, all 150 pounds of me, for the less gentle inhabitants of donsol bay. i’ve always had an inexplicable fear of deep water, partly because i can’t swim very well, partly because i think great whites are everywhere, and largely because i fear the unknown. then july instructs me to cock my head into the water. few people are ever this privileged.

beside me and under me, a whale shark that ané has appropriately called jumbo was gliding, almost without effort, and the banca whose outriggers i held on to securely, followed at nearly the same pace. 30 seconds felt like eternity, and eternity felt a little too short. but it was a tremendous interaction. without much exertion on my part, i followed this animal, looking at it, just looking at it, marveling, and wondering why it could not live above water, asking what might have caused those nicks on its dorsal fin, tantalized by its throbbing gills, and its flat, friendly snout. and then, almost imperceptibly, it turns away, and as it does, i had this odd feeling that its tail would hit my foot, and that it would be cut in two. the tail was large, and looked every bit menacing, even razor-sharp. i clambered my feet onto the katig but kept my head in the water, and watched as the fish of my fancy swam gently away. on my way back to the banca, i was drugged. seriously. i trembled. i was hyper. i was ecstatic. i talked non-sense. i spoke truth. it was bliss, and the P550 was all worth it.

throughout that morning, starting from half past 9 till a quarter to 12, we made around 20 sightings. most of the time, i just looked from the safety and distance of my banca, allowing francis to take the plunge. but in five instances which account for less than 2 minutes, i had my slice of up-close interaction with these creatures. everything that’s been said about them is true, and i wondered if ané and joseph had nearly the same fulfilling experience, interacting with the fish vicariously through our exaggerated narrations. july said that after noon, the number of whale sharks dwindle, because the plankton submerge deeper. with our appetites for huge bowl of shark’s fin whetted, we headed back to shore. we had lunch at the resort owned by oca’s friend. while we waited for a jeepney to take us to sabang, most of the crew took time out to sleep. malvin, bing, arnel, iton, mai, ané, and myself were awake. one of these guys asked if those who had just arrived had similarly climbed 3 mountains, suffering little sleep in the last four days. in fact, it was around this time that we hatched a plan to act enervated and spent, hoping that everyone else would volunteer to do most of the work. this was utter folly and useless of course.

after lunch, we loaded our stuff and proceeded to sabang, where we hoped to bask, the following day, in the sun and sea of caramoan peninsula. getting to sabang in camarines sur from donsol in sorsogon, is no small thing. while all within bicol, this isn’t necessarily adjacent. albay lies between, and throughout the trip, we had at times an unimpeded view of mt mayon where we had a few photo ops, and i had long conversations with joseph, who raved about his trips to europe, and elsewhere. there were a few instances when we had to slow down since holy week processions were under way. throughout the entire trip, the whole unit, save some really hardcore ones, was fast asleep, not minding the very uncomfortable ride.

it was already way past 9 in the pm when we reached sabang, and we quickly looked for a place to stay. we had the misfortune of finding only one place of lodging, which, for absolute lack of creativity, was called the 3 brothers resort. in the fuss of our exhaustion and the slight rain, we may have missed its citation as the world’s worst resort. after we had unloaded, looking for a place where we could prepare dinner, and the sights and smells of the place sank painfully in, it wasn’t difficult for many of us to decide that, despite the accommodations, most of us would rather prefer to sleep outdoors, in our tents. the resort was in such a sorry state of disrepair, it was possible to imagine one getting skin lesions from contact with the mattress. it was a gloomy, decrepit, sordid affair that other than a place to leave our things, we stayed as far away from it as possible.

by this time, we were all very hungry, and not surprisingly, it was still the usual suspects tending the kitchen. bing was there. iton was at hand, and so was i. i asked bing what ever happened to our plans, and he just smiled and shrugged his shoulders. which isn’t too bad, since we were promised a sumptuous meal. after the late dinner, some of us gathered for more than just a round of drinks. and once again, other than kuya mar, there were still the usual suspects: arnel, malvin, myself, and bing. yes, bing was now available for some drinks, his medication being over. marga joined us eventually, and she was one of the last women standing (or sitting, for that matter). with a sufficient mix of beer and gin, sabang, which was noisy and filthy, felt like one of the most ideal places on earth: there was a steady breeze, the sea gently slapped the sand, and there were good, funny people around. malvin teased me, which by now was nothing new, and was almost welcome. arnel, whose favor i was trying to win, hoping to get invited to their halcon trip, was his usual self: very spare with his equally funny remarks, looking around with sombre, very observant eyes, listening intently, smiling with some restraint at malvin’s jokes. there were times when i would think that arnel -- known to AMCI as pres, having been club president more than once -- was either really bored or really tired with my usually pedantic, didactic, cruel, and critical self. when i spoke to him, he often looked back with his very soporific gaze, and it was difficult not to be infected. but on this, our fifth day, he was far from wanting to turn in even at so late an hour. and so, though there really was no competition, it was very clear who had the highest tolerance for alcohol.

eventually though, a mix of exhaustion and inebriation forced me to find sleep, this time in bing’s tent. and the moment i lay down, i must’ve fallen quickly asleep.

photo credits: nelson pomentil and arnel gabilan
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