it was already very late friday when i reached the office to find it without the usual din of chitchatting government employees. i had just returned from another unsuccessful trip to isabela for a hearing that did not push through when i discovered that it was the department’s anniversary, and a few activities were underway somewhere on the office grounds. i took the cue and left earlier than i was supposed to. i had accidentally squirted vinegar on my shirt and i wanted to change into something fresh, since i was up to facilitate this meeting in makati a while later. i reached makati just in time for the appointed meeting, but i turned out to be very early. it was supposed to be a reunion of SIF people, and it was put together by jasper who had really weird-looking hair. he may have looked like a young fanny serrano, and i hope this doesn’t reach him. the program went smoothly, and i was rushing to leave since i’d been invited to chili’s. it was orland’s birthday, and i was listed as a guest. when i got there, malvin quipped something about my being only a recent acquaintance, yet already has his foot planted deeply into the affairs of the group. can’t blame him really, and i myself was a little surprised i was there.
we were supposed to go to calavite the following day, but for some reason or other, since june 13, monday, was just declared a special non-working day, we ended up drawing up a plan to visit pandan island. and so, after a brief dramatic interlude involving some folks i know, i was home, gingerly looking through my things, thinking what needs to be packed for the trip. i hadn’t managed to get any sleep, but i was eager to make it to 7-11 buendia for our 5am rendezvous. the trip to abra de ilog was scheduled around 8, so we needed to get there early. alas, everyone arrived a little late, and although we had cris’s car with us, we failed to reach batangas in time. since we were eager to get our butts across to mindoro, we took the first trip to puerto galera and decided to look for a boat that would deliver us to abra de ilog from there. when we reached puerto galera, we had half the mind not to proceed to pandan. but the thought of hearing marga whining about being disappointed convinced us that we should push for pandan. so despite the P2000 tab, we decided to take a small outrigger to the mouth of occidental mindoro.
once there, we had come upon another snag. the next trip to sablayan would leave at 2.30pm, once the next RORO arrives. this meant we had to wait for almost 2 hours. kuya mar intervened and we rented a van to sablayan, a ride that cost us P3000. this was fast becoming a very expensive weekend, and the awful roads going to pandan didn’t quite lift our spirits. once we reached sablyan, we did some marketing so we could save on our meals, then crossed the small body of water to pandan grande. we found out that we had the island and the resort all to ourselves. no one save the resort’s staff would be there to keep us company. the company seemed to find the island to their liking, and i had already previously warned them about the very spartan facilities available: no electricity, sea water showers, and an expensive buffet. to this, someone said: how are we going to charge our cellphones? these mobile gadgets can sometimes be a bane. still, i remember people asking if there are fans in the cottages, and i said, even the lights are very dim flashlight bulbs. in pandan, power is provided by a few solar panels and a small generator.
we deposited our things in our cottage: the newest on the island. it was conical in a way, with the lower floor being a bigger circle than the one on top; it had three rooms, one on the second floor, including a very huge bathroom which had access to the outside. there were 5 beds, each draped over by mosquito nets arranged in a highly bucolic fashion. the cottage was built using very native materials, and it felt like it had been designed using an inwardly artistic gut feel. security was least in its priorities since none of the rooms are equipped with any reliable locks. in fact, the second floor has no door nor windows at all. it’s pretty accessible, but it was an evening that was robbed of any movement in the air. sea breeze didn’t waft into the foyer, and we could only sense that we were near the beach since waves gently touched the crushed corals around the island. the evening fell over the small island like a bucket of black paint. there were some small gaslights around which failed to illuminate the path to any appreciable degree.
after our buffet dinner, we took out 2 of the 3 liters of gin we bought from the mainland. arranged some cushions over a tarp, and began our merry-making in the company of countless insects making a cacophony of sounds. they could not compete with the ruckus we made. pandan island has strict policies on noise, but with no other guests around, we were free to do as we wished. at least for that night. i may have gotten drunk very early on, since to my recollection, it was a brief evening, and i quickly fell asleep even while two or three shots more were left from the second liter of gilbey’s. the next thing i knew was that i was being awakened by a rather frantic marga. the previous day, i had made a deal with the chef to get us the cheapest trip to apo reef -- yet another unplanned aspect of the trip -- and we were supposed to leave for the atoll at around 8am. it was already 3am, and marga’s concern was that we were pressed for time. so she roused me, and in the confusion of being snapped from a deep slumber, i imagined she must’ve gotten a fresh charge, or was high on some fashionable drug, since she was crackling with life, moving hither and dither like a crazed energizer bunny on steroids. she collected the cushions from the lawn and busied herself with fixing them, saying, “let’s fix the puzzle, let’s fix the puzzle”, and complaining about the small gaps between them. then she fixed the bottles, including the one with a lit mosquito coil, and she burned her finger, and told don, “i thought you were my friend.” then unconvinced that we were in fact going to apo reef at P500 each, she had to confirm that i had in fact made arrangements, and when i said yes, she said: “oh alman, i’m so glad we hired you. i was already very much awake at the time, since i had loads of fun watching marga, but that statement really jolted me. iton and i were practically rolling all over the floor with laughter while cris was silently swinging on the hammock, amused and amazed.
since marga had yet to use up the second wind which endowed her with this much life, we accompanied her to the beach to look at some stars. and there were just so many stars out there, it was hard to tell the constellations apart. this troubled marga a lot because she could not find the big dipper. she managed, though, to spot orion’s belt, her “personal star” because “it’s the only one [she] know[s].” marga should be given alcohol more often. it’s fun to watch her go through these drunken monologues.
the following day, everyone woke up late. we left pandan close to 9am, and had breakfast while on the boat. mardel said it was the best breakfast he’s had on a speeding banca. the trip was long and for over two hours, was rather monotonous, save for the huge waves that came crashing, drenching all of us prematurely. then, in the distance, a great green stripe that stretched outward into both directions revealed itself, and the faint white silhouette of the lighthouse was already visible. this was how expansive the reef was, so much so that our banca had to make a really wide turn to avoid damaging the corals, or itself. at exactly 12nn, with the mighty noonday sun beating down upon us, we docked on pandan island. its pristine beauty and castaway charm were mesmerizing. it was the whitest beach i had ever seen, and the finest sand i had ever stepped on. it was a tropical paradise removed from the rest of civilization, three hours from the nearest provincial town: mindoro on the northeast, and palawan’s calamian group of islands on the southwest.
i would’ve gone ahead and went snorkeling, but something had to be done: lunch. although kuya mar had volunteered to do it, i had to temporarily halt the call of the deep to make sure we’d be nourished for that day, so i prepared the adobo. i left very precise instructions with kuya mar and then proceeded to hit the water. the park rangers spoke of a “drop off” where the shallow water suddenly goes deep, and where marine life is abundant. as i made my way there, i noticed that my companions were already returning to the beach. they had at least 15 minutes lead time, and were already turning back from the dark drop-off that scared them a little. since i didn’t want to go snorkeling alone (i have an incomprehensible fear of the water -- i always think i’ll be gobbled up by some shark), i also went back, content with the stories they had about the amazing explosion of colors there. snorkeling is top-notch here since visibility is almost incomparable. of course i haven’t been to tubbataha, hence the use of “almost”.
after great snorkeling, we quickly ate the lunch we had prepared and then proceeded to visit the lagoon. there was a sign that the bamboo bridges going through the mangrove forests was under repair. it wasn’t under repair, really, but impassable in parts. but such obstacles never scared us mountaineers. turns out later that there was a new way to the lagoon from the ranger station. we also visited the lighthouse, which gave a nice unimpeded view of the entire island: the green crowns of its mangrove forests, the spikes of karst formations, the chunk of rock in the distance, and even the slice of green farther yonder. thanks to my DENR connections, the usual fees were waived, and by 3pm, we were already sailing back to pandan island, towing a smaller banca behind. after about 30 minutes, its motor was finally fixed, and we went a little faster.
the vast open sea is quite a wonder to behold, particularly in a vessel as small as the one we were in. the trip was long and not exactly smooth, with small waves crashing in every now and again. but if one keeps his eyes peeled, then it’s possible to see some of nature’s surprises, such as the cabal of seagulls congregating over a specific spot in the water, the collective jump of small fishes, causing what appears to be a splash of small sprinkles, and even some undesirable trash here and there. but what really gripped us was this. i was at the banca’s fore, looking out for pandan island, when all of a sudden, there was this faintly green, and even pale shape moving under our boat. i pointed at it, thinking it must’ve been trash, or grease, or a huge piece of cloth floating near the surface, when, 5 seconds later, it breached the surface, revealing a blowhole, a smooth, shiny black back, and an not-so-intimidating dorsal fin. it was a whale! suddenly, flashes of donsol came back, and the size of the creature must’ve equalled our banca. we were hoping it’d show up again, but you know, whales -- and i’m assuming it must’ve been a pilot whale -- are really shy. we sure kept our eyes open after that, hoping there’d be more sightings.
eventually, we reached pandan before sunset. dinner was excellent, and after a while, we took our alcohol to the beach. sandflies and mosquitoes were as abundant as the stars and our laughter, and we all retired that night very tired yet wishing we had more time. the following morning, we all skipped breakfast and managed to still squeeze in a jungle trek and even snorkeling around the island’s reefs, before leaving at 9am. when we saw our bill, i was really quite shocked. good thing was that they allowed us to pay for half of it in manila, something i have yet to do!
we went back to sablayan, and after crooning some songs on public videokes, we were on a rickety bus to abra de ilog. i don’t trust these buses, and it was almost certain that something would happen. sure enough, we had flat tires on the way. yes, two tires burst. that’s how bad the roads are. one must really go through penitence to reach paradise. despite the delays, we still managed to make it for the 4pm RORO trip. there was a lounge on the ship, and we cornered the videoke machine for the entire 2 hours. there were others there who wanted to sing, but unfortunately for them, we had a lot of 5 peso coins, and an advanced list of songs too!
we reached batangas a little hoarse. dinner was at rose (sister of grace). after cris dropped marga off at evangelista, we all bade goodbye to the fun luxury weekend we spent at 2 surprise destinations. it was already very late on monday when i arrived home. and i hadn’t packed for my trip to puerto princesa city the following day! but that’s another story.