Friday, November 7, 2014

Limasawa: The Most Underrated Island in the Philippines

one of the pebbly beaches in San Bernardo
As a rule I don’t start a story with the hackneyed ‘ask a question’ style. Most experienced readers abandon a story at the sight of the question mark on the first two lines of a write-up. But I see no better way to start this story other than a probing question. But as I have already given you this prelude, I have already saved my rule.

Limasawa! What comes to your mind when you hear the name? Most of us would think of the first Catholic mass in the Philippines. After that, nada! Some of us don’t even know where Limasawa is. I, for one, never knew that it was just south of the province where I grew up until my history professor taught us to put emphasis on the root saysay in Kasaysayan. Sadly, the DECS (now DepEd) of my time was more interested in feeding us with plenty of trivia instead of the saysay of each story in history. As long as I could verbalize a fact, that was enough. I never bothered to investigate where Limasawa is. And that is the reason why Limasawa had remained trivial, unlocatable and uninteresting for me for a very long time. And if you try, you’ll find out that Limasawa has also remained uninteresting to most travel bloggers in the country. But I don’t blog. I tell stories. So here is the story of a place which made me stay longer than I had stayed in any other travel destination.


Chapter 1: Aboard Magellan’s Galleon

In my quest to travel beyond blogs, I included Limasawa in my Leyte-360 itinerary. My research proved to be insufficient while I was aboard the big boat from Padre Burgos. When I asked the conductor how much the fare was, he asked me where I was going. When I said ‘Limasawa’, it was the ultimate betrayal that I wasn’t from there. And this caught the attention of the other passengers. They had found an impostor trying hard to blend in among them. As it turned out, the boat docks only at one port but your fare depends on which coast you’re going to after you alight. During the Amihan season the boats dock at the western port in Brgy Triana. At other times, they dock at the eastern Lugsongan port. When you’re going to the west coast of the island and the boat docks in the east, you pay ten pesos less than those who are staying where the boat docks and vice versa. Interesting, isn’t it?! This is the first time I’ve seen a citizen-oriented model of equitable economic transaction. Now, how do we know who really is going to which coast? Well, Limasawans just count on everybody’s honesty. A cynic would say that this honesty could have been necessitated by the small population and size of the island but the fact that the conductor still asks the question ‘Where are you going?’ indicates that some people don’t know everybody else there. I would still give the locals credit for honesty.

So no matter how hard I concealed myself among the passengers, my ignorance easily gave away my camouflage.  And I was instantly the center of my neighbors’ attention. In my laughter-filled conversation with them, I got my basic geography, sociology and economics lessons concerning Limasawa. I learned that there are six barangays in the place; how much I would pay for a tricycle ride from one point to another in the island; what time the electricity goes out and comes back on; and where I could pitch a tent or hang a hammock.  I also learned that in spite of the fact that the island is believed to be the cradle of Catholicism in the Philippines, there are about ten major religions there. I also noticed that their language is close to Boholano where the phoneme j replaces the Cebuano y when sandwiched between two vowels. For the first time, the locals were not selling their place to me. They were more concerned about my safe stay in their place than the change I can effect in their livelihood. I didn’t hear anything about the first mass or a good dive site or a lovely beach resort. And for the first time, I felt good being the center of attention. For in that time, I felt like I was the ignorant newcomer who needed instruction and guidance on the way of living in the place that would take me in instead of being the civilized Magellan who would come, see and conquer a backward community!

Chapter 2: When Magellan Circumnavigated the Earth, He Never Sought Help from Google

When the boat docked at Triana port, I took the potpot and one of the women I was talking with on the boat specifically instructed the potpot driver to drop me off in front of the RHU where I had planned to camp. The woman just wanted to let me have the itinerary I put together with the help of Googled information. When I got to my planned camp site, which was just beside the LGU complex, I searched for the tourism office but it had already closed. So I just logged in at the police station. The only policeman stationed there at that time was very accommodating. I unpacked my bag in the station and he allowed me to wash up in the restroom of the empty jail! The town has had zero crime rate for years.  And just like the locals I interacted with on the boat, the officer was concerned about my comfort and security during the evening. He told me that the closest sari-sari store would close soon. He advised me to buy water there because he noticed that the only water I got filled only half of my water bottle. He told me that the water available in public places was from artesian wells. When I got to the store, I asked for two 1-liter bottlefuls of purified water. But the owner suggested that I buy their cheaper packed ‘ice water’ (one peso apiece) instead. She reassured me that it was safe for drinking. People will naturally help you to be practical there. Wastefulness is a vice they can’t stand.
the beach front where I had planned to camp
Next to the PNP station was the gymnasium. While I was preparing my dinner on one of the benches, a guy passed by. His name is Danny Tumamak and he works as a maintenance guy at the municipal hall. He had heard of my arrival from somebody. A stranger’s arrival is very quick news among the locals there. He had expected that I would spend the night at the Limasawa Guest House in the LGU complex. When he entered the gymnasium on his bicycle, his first question was ‘O dire ra diay ka matulog?!’(You sure you wanna sleep here?)  It was actually not a question. It was an order to do otherwise.  He already had the whole plan in his mind. Unlike the officer who reinforced my spirit of adventurism to camp by the shore, Danny made the choice for me because he knew that a stranger doesn’t know the right choice when in Limasawa. It was not my security that he was worried about. It was the unthinkable state of spending the night in total darkness and solitude in spite of being in the center of town. The lights would go out at one in the morning. When I told him that darkness was not really a problem for me because I had already spent some nights alone on a mountain, he walked me to the corner of the open gymnasium and he shined his flashlight on the tombs right behind the PNP station. It was the cemetery of Brgy Bulihan! So I had to say goodbye to my little adventure. But not without a trade! If adventure’s gone, fun should replace it. So I requested Danny to find a still open store and buy some liquor while I had my dinner. While I packed my stuff after dinner, some police officers arrived at the gymnasium one by one on motorbikes. Danny did the introduction for me. Their smiles reassured me that I was welcome. Each of them would persuade me to just spend the night at the police station but Danny already had the plan set so I declined politely.
behind the gymnasium and PNP station is the cemetery
Chapter 3: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer who Turned out to be Pigafetta

When I got to Danny’s house, his wife whom he had informed of my stay had already prepared my beddings in their receiving area. She was very accommodating and attentive to all that I would need. When she noticed that I was laying my clothes on the folding bed, she promptly handed me some hangers and attempted to hang my moist towel outside. When I got my stuff set, the little socials began. Danny gave me 90% of the information every stranger in Limasawa has to know—from the Limasawan version of the story of Magellan, to the Limasawa banana that was once exported to Singapore. He told me how the Habagat and Amihan seasons play a role in the lives of the islanders and how anapog (probably sandstone) has supported life in Limasawa.  From time to time, I would hear the voice of his wife from the bedroom correcting him on some inaccurate pieces of information. After all, she’s a native of Limasawa. She could not completely trust Danny (who grew up in Maasin) to do the profiling of her homeland. So she stayed awake listening to our conversation. When we got to the part where we had to speak about ourselves more, Danny confessed that he used to be the most notorious thief in Maasin. And he proudly detailed his Tom Sawyerish mischiefs as one would relate his fond memories of youth. To name one, he was able to get past the security of the EVRAA meet in Maasin back in 2005 by posing as an athlete and eventually loot away the branded uniforms of the official athletes…‘pati katong target board sa archery nga perting bug-ata!’ (including the heavy archer’s target) he added with a burst of laughter. He was not proud that he sustained a living in spite of the town’s horror story where he was the main character, and the rejection of the people he loved. What he is proud of is that he was able to change! He was able to leave his past at the port of Padre Burgos and start a new life in Limasawa. In his own words he was just waiting for the right woman in the right island to change him. ‘Paghilom diha’  (Shut up!) was the voice from the bedroom that sealed the subject off. When we finished off the bottle of Tanduay, it was almost time for the Limasawa diesel power plant to turn off the electricity of the whole island. Danny offered to show me the darkness that I initially planned to spend my night in. We went around the town and like a modern-day Pigafetta, he told me the history of each structure in the town. He explained why each barangay public market has remained unused through the years. He told me why abandoned resorts and houses remain unlooted by the townspeople. He also showed me some churches of different sects which were just adjacent to each other. Then when we went a few meters past the diesel power plant, the lights went out. On our way back to his house, we stopped by the area where I had planned to set up my bivvy. I could hear the rushing of the waves to the shore and feel the chill of the Amihan. He told me of the nights he spent there when he would sulk and not sleep at the home of his older brother (from Limasawa’s engineering office). He said the breeze would comfort him and the darkness would let him sleep his troubles away. He considers the place as a refuge for the grieving and hurting. And since I was not, I didn’t have to spend the night there.
The Tumamaks: the family that took me in

When I awoke the following day, Danny had already left for work. His wife told me more about their family. She told me that Danny built their house all by himself because they had no money to pay for labor. And I was amazed by this achievement. I’ve always dreamed of designing and building a house with my own two hands. A man should be able to build a house before he dies!

As I packed my bag, she kept persuading me to stay at their house until I left Limasawa. But aside from the fact that I didn’t wanna be an inconvenience to them, I really wanted to sleep on the beach so I had to leave.

Chapter 4: God Put Bohol, Camiguin and Batanes in Southern Leyte

When I left the Tumamaks, I went to the municipal hall and inquired about accommodations. The Limasawa Guest House has two rooms and is close to the shore where I had planned to camp. But the rate (P400/night) was now twice what I had seen on the Internet. So I considered other options and their first recommendation was Dakdak Beach Resort in Brgy. Lugsongan.
It was a cloudy day at Dakdak Beach Resort
The main villa
 The beach resort was grander than I thought. The villa was the type that would intimidate a traveler on a budget. When I got there, a couple was sweeping the beachfront. They were the owners of the resort. The woman talked to me with an unwelcoming face giving me curt answers to my inquiries. In the end she allowed me to use one of the beachfront cottages for a hundred pesos a night. In no time, I unpacked, washed up and did my laundry. Before lunch I was already on my hammock listening to some music and reading a pocketbook. It was a pleasantly cloudy day! The beach was similar to Panglao. Only, there was no crowd. The tube swing might tickle the playful traveler but I was more interested in the fixed bamboo platforms on the water. To get to these platforms you’ll have to be on a raft which you have to haul to and from any of the three fishing and ‘diving’ platforms off the shore.
on one of the fishing platforms
As my open itinerary depended on my satisfaction of the place, I didn’t have to hurry to take a dip. So, in the afternoon, I walked to the nearby barangay, Magallanes to see more of Limasawa’s heritage. Magallanes, the southern tip of Limasawa, is the site where the commemorative first mass cross was planted. When I got to the top of the hill, the surprise was actually not the cross but the picturesque pasture—the view deck to the southern seas and the islands of Bohol and Camiguin, and Surigao—a campsite whose beauty is rivaled only by the Windows campsite of Mt Lanaya in Cebu. 
200 grams of dried shark meat for 50 pesos

on this spot you can see Surigao, Camiguin and Bohol
On my way back to Dakdak, I bought 200 grams of dried iho and lahos (two species of shark) which I enjoyed for dinner, complemented by another pride of Limasawa—the organic banana.  The evening sounds were not as soothing as I had hoped. The wind was very strong and the waves rushed to the shore in a thundering roar! With a little help from my sleeping bag, my sleep in the open cottage was nevertheless deep and comfortable. 
the only alarm clock that I didn't hate
I woke up to the sight and warmth of a beautiful sunrise—my perfect alarm clock! In that place and with that view, coffee never tasted better! It was a pleasant Saturday and it was the perfect time to slash off some love handles. Staying in Carigara for more than two weeks and generously fed by my mother, I had gained a gut. So after breakfast, I told Nay Nocring, the owner, that I would stay one more night in Dakdak. Then I hit the road and headed for the northern tip of the island. As I passed by Brgys. Bulihan, Triana, San Bernardo and finally San Agustin, I saw more of the place and of the people. The unexploited beauty of the island’s beaches and cliffs and the warmth of the people made me think that Limasawa is Camiguin, Bohol and Batanes rolled into one! I reached the northern tip before noon. The turquoise waters and the imposing rock formations of this part of the island will mesmerize any island traveler. And with much bitterness, I restrained myself from jumping into the water.
Believe me! It was not easy to keep myself from taking a plunge into the turquoise waters of San Agustin
the clear waters of San Bernardo
And because it was not a school day, it was difficult to catch a ride back to the center of town. I was in a hurry to catch the lunch which I had pre-ordered at a carinderia in the morning.  Luckily one guy pointed me to the house of a habalhabal driver. The driver happened to be a fisherman before he was able to buy a motorcycle. He told me of the fish oil processing in Brgy Magallanes and how oddly you wouldn’t get burnt even if you dipped your finger into the boiling fish oil. That easily gave me my destination for the afternoon. When I got to the carinderia, the daughter of the owner was very apologetic that they were not serving food that day because they don’t expect customers on a Saturday. She said they only cooked buwad nga bangsi (dried flying fish) for their own consumption. I love salty foods. In fact, I used to munch on salt when I was a kid. So I asked if I could have some of the buwad for lunch instead. She stopped and stared at me in disbelief of what she heard. And as if thinking things were not clear to me yet, she explained that having buwad nga bangsi was next to having nothing for a meal. I told her I didn’t care as long as it was salty and edible. Her mother was speedier than her return and she brought along a dish of buwad nga bangsi and some adobong kankong. The daughter, apparently still shy to offer bangsi to a stranger, carried a plate of rice. 

Ever seen flying fish? Well, I ate some!
As I enjoyed my lunch, I shared stories with the girl. And she was happy that there were still some pieces of information that Danny and all the other locals had missed to tell me. She felt victorious that she was the bearer of the information that in February, an international cruise ship is going to dock in Limasawa. But she sounded defeated when she told me that I had to impractically rent a boat to see the bat sanctuary at the cliff of Magallanes. After lunch, she animatedly refused the payment that I repeatedly offered. Then I walked back to Dakdak. It was time to go fishing and take a dip!

Chapter 5: The Colonizers Should Have Searched for Fish instead of Spices

As I lost my hook set when my outrigger boat sank in Canigao a few days before, I was left with only one big hook. Expectedly, the fish would nibble on the bait but never get hooked. It was frustrating so I just anchored my fishing rod onto one of the beams of the fishing platform and…I jumped into the water! Of course I still can’t jump into the water thanks to my perforated eardrum which has banned submersion into all bodies of water in my itineraries. So from the raft, I slowly immersed my body into the clear waters of Dakdak beach and started swimming with my ears plugged and my head above the water.  Swimming, which used to be my sport in the university, has now become my agony. It is neck-breaking to keep swimming with your head upright. But the surprise and the consolation of the day was, as I was swimming around the raft, another head bobbed up a few feet away. So I hurried up the fishing platform and confirmed what I thought I had just seen—a green sea turtle! It was one of the few moments when you quickly brush off the impulsive idea of fetching your camera just to take a snapshot of a great sight because you wanna enjoy the spectacle all to yourself from start to finish. It was our short meet-and-greet yet it was overwhelming. I never thought I could see a sea turtle in the wild. In surprise and doubt, Nay Nocring told me later in the evening that, just like the whale sharks, sea turtles do visit the area regularly but just not this season. When I had enough of the beach, I left my fishing rod anchored to the platform and I washed up. The sea turtle spectacle almost made me forget about the iho fishing in Magallanes.

Lahos (a shark species): a good source of squalene
I got to Magallanes just in time for the iho fishermen to return to shore. They set sail as early as three in the morning and return around four in the afternoon after lingering in the waters near Camiguin where there is an abundance of iho and lahos. I was lucky to be able to witness how fish oil is made—from the time the fishermen touch the shore to the time where the squalene is extracted from the shark liver by boiling. The coolest part was when I got a taste of squalene fresh from the kawa before it gets encapsulated in soft gels. That capped my adventure-filled stay in Limasawa. It was time to face the bitter part of the journey—my last night in Limasawa.
a bucketful of shark liver
fish oil fresh from the kawa


Chapter 6: It must have been Hard for the Spaniards to Leave Limasawa

It was during the sumptuous dinner that Nay Nocring served when I learned more about the Limasawan hospitality. Over the tasty adobong pusit and buwad nga bangsi (by request) I had a pleasant conversation with the couple. Nay Nocring explained why she had been unfriendly and unwelcoming when I was inquiring the previous day. She said she doesn’t normally accept guests who were not referred to her by previous guests or whom she had not had communication beforehand. Fortunately Danny came by that day to bring my fishing rod which I had forgotten at the police station. Danny, who is familiar to many Limasawans, briefed Nay Nocring about me. Only then did she become fully accommodating. And it is not that she is distrustful of everyone. She says she just wants to ensure the safety and comfort of her other guests (in case some other guests come by). She also noted that when one of the two rooms in the villa has been booked, she doesn’t have the other room occupied by other guests. She is afraid that one guest might steal something from the other. Theft is not common in Limasawa but she knows it is common in places where other people come from. She doesn’t want her property to be stained by this despicable misdeed. Our conversation went from this to how the property was established and even to the politics in the island. Reluctant as we all were to say goodnight, I had an early boat trip the following day so I headed to my open cottage to spend my last night in Limasawa.

Family: the Limasawan definition of Hospitality

And so my initial plan to stay for just one night was stretched to three nights which is the longest time I stayed in a travel destination. And I thought to myself, if one doesn’t have time, then he doesn’t have the right to travel to Limasawa! Travelling is not just about gathering information to share on a blog for the next travelers. Travelling is first and foremost for the traveler himself. One could say he has traveled the place not just because he has set foot on it but because he has learned and healed. I learn not at the tourism office but through immersion: by living the lives of the locals and sharing stories with them. I heal when I get to read a book or when I get to shave off my mustache or swing on my hammock thinking of nothing in particular and just amuse myself with the lively shuffle of streaks of light piercing their way through the canopy of coconut leaves above.
And just like the anapog that can hold groundwater but is tough and sturdy when dry, the Limasawans welcome visitors just like they welcomed the Spaniards. And when the visitors leave, their honesty and warmth remain intact and uninfluenced by the visitors they take in.


saying goodbye to this 'bedroom' was a struggle
While the veracity of the claim for the first Catholic mass in the country has been challenged Limasawans still believe it was held in their island. And this is the truth as far as they are concerned. Perhaps it is this pressure on their identity that has necessitated each Limasawan to know their place like the back of their hand. This sense of identity is also the reason why they don’t occupy or loot out the abandoned resorts and houses. And it is also this same sense of identity that has removed any aloofness among them when focused on by the traveler’s lens. It is as if they’re crying out ‘This is us! We are not a piece of trivia. This is Limasawa!’ 
this cross commemorates the first Catholic mass in the country--which is now the last thing I will think of when I hear 'Limasawa'

sailing away from the most underrated island in the country as mainland Leyte beckons far ahead

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