A journey is only as good as the company you travel with.
I first knew about Bucas Grande some eight years ago, and thought it might just be the most beautiful place in the Philippines. Its images online showed inviting turquoise waters around deserted island hills teeming with foliage. I remember too, quite distinctly, a picture of a woman wearing a blue bikini swimming among yellow jellyfishes. It looked so fantastic—paradise with a twist!—and I yearned to be there. Someday.
However, with my miniscule social circle, I never found a friend who wanted to go there—or, to be exact, someone who’s willing to pay to go there—even as the place grew in popularity to the point that there are now various tour packages featuring it. So when an old acquaintance posted on Facebook that he’s organizing a trip to Bucas Grande, I asked to be in immediately, never mind that I didn’t know anybody else coming.
And that was how I found myself, after-midnight on September 24, in a Hi-Ace van speeding along thrillingly curving backroads, in the company of some sixteen boisterous boys and girls in their early twenties, Spotify-ing a party mix even as up front our driver defiantly competed with Air Supply hits on his stereo.
Why must there always be Air Supply? I don’t think I have ever been in any long drive where Russell Hitchcock did not cry out that there he is, the one that you love, asking for another day, or that he’s back on his feet and eager to be what you wanted.
I was still lost in this revelry when our van stopped for restroom break and to buy some supplies at Bibingka City, a diner-cum-pasalubong center at New Sibunga. It was nice, as these places go (well-lit, fully stocked, the attendants not looking vaguely pissed at the patrons), but what I found most striking about it was that they weren’t charging customers for using the restroom. This to me was astounding. As far as I can recall, highway restroom are never free to use—I believe the current rate is two to five pesos for doing #1 and ten pesos for #2—so not being charged to pee was to me a delightful novelty.
I was still relishing this peculiarity when something caught my attention to remind me that I am, after all, still on a Philippine highway. It was a sign displaying the unique typography and passive-aggressive attitude of our public establishments. It read: “A-10-TION: Bawal MagLebang dire Ihi Lang pwede. Multa P500. TNX By. MGmt.”
Eddie, our driver, is chatty. I was his first passenger, and between Bajada and Panabo, where we picked up the rest of the group, I learned about his family, his work, religious affiliation, what food he likes, and that he might be a magical character.
“Kada mag-adto ko’g Surigao, mag-ulan dyud,” he said.
“Basig nataymingan lang bay,” I answered.
“Dili. Mag-ulan dyun. Tan-awa karon.” And indeed it was raining that night, the hardest rain in fact in the last few weeks.
This was fine by me, the pushy attitude and the incessant talk. I’ve since realized that if you take an anthropological point of view, strangers could be as wonderful a company as books or an MP3 player. They tell you tales of woes and joys, and they give interesting if usually unsolicited advice. Plus, if you listen long enough, they often give small tokens of appreciation—the fruitseller would give you an extra piece, karenderyas would give you a larger serving, the taho vendor would put extra syrup.
Another thing I learned about Eddie, as I sat up front gripping my seatbelt, is that he’s the sort of driver for whom traffic lights, check point barricades, and speed limits aren’t so much as rules as they are minor inconveniences. He overspeeds, circumvents intersections, takes chancy lane changes. Notably though, he always slows down when he sees a cat crossing the road.
We reached Surigao around 5:30AM, stopping at an overpriced eatery for breakfast, and I had my first good look at my companions. They were young and loud, and seemed especially unexcited that an outsider has joined their group. We introduced ourselves briefly, which was the most interaction I would have with most of them for the rest of the trip. (My friend—he who organized the whole trip—backed out at the last minute.)
We stayed at a resort called Green Cove, a little place at the tail end of the island that still doesn’t have electricity. Our itinerary showed that we would be leaving for Sohoton Cove at 10:00 in the morning. And so with more than an hour to wait, I went down a path to the other side of the island to have a look around. Below, I found a young man cleaning fish that were to be our lunch later. How wonderful, I thought, how self-sufficient people are in the province!
I was marveling at the quaintness of this when he told me that he just bought the fish at the market and that he was cleaning them here only because they’ve ran out of clean water at the kitchen. And thus I had my first epiphany for the trip: even as I thought myself a more cultivated kind of tourist, I had in fact taken the patronizing attitude all tourists have towards the locales—romanticizing their “simple” way of life, exoticizing the commonplace.
After a twenty-minute ride across choppy waters, we reached a registration center where we wait to transfer to smaller outrigger boats. While waiting, the group took turns taking photos in front of a tarpaulin backdrop featuring the attractions of the place. I stop myself from pointing that the surrounding scenery, in fact, makes for a much better background; instead, I make my own folly by purchasing two simple wood-carved keychains at eighty pesos apiece.
Sohoton is a 60-hectare national park with interspersed and branching islets, which make the whole cove like a maze. It was named so because to enter it you have to pass through (so-ot in Cebuano) a narrow opening that’s accessible only during low tide. Most of the place remains wild. So if you get lost in it, get caught in the high tide, or if darkness reaches you there, there’s a good chance you will never be found, not to mention dying.
The thing though is that the part of it that’s open to the public is just a fraction—at a guess, less than ten hectares—and not particularly mystifying so that it loses pretty much all sense of adventure. As the trips are guided and tourists are required to wear helmets and lifejackets, the biggest risk you run, really, is dropping your phone on the water as you take a selfie.
Still, the place looked virginal: the water was vibrant green and as beautiful as it is in pictures, the rocky islands were brimming with vegetation, and there was not a single trace of litter. And so I hoped that once the boat’s motor is turned off, we’d find ourselves in a natural tranquil splendor. Instead, at the first stop, Hagukan Cave, I find a fiesta of about 50 people: children splashing around, fat aunts giving impotent warnings, men with puffed chests stealing glances at nubile teens, old people genially having fun.
And that, I hate to report, was pretty much the scenery for the rest of the day.
Mind, the trip has other, different attractions, including—and I say this in all seriousness—a diving platform. Really, that’s it: just a plank of wood set on a rock was worth a stop. So was a sixteen-meter long, two-foot tall “cave”. This, to me, seemed uniquely Filipino: thinking every minor feature is worth recognition; variety prized over quality, the numbers creating a false impression of value.
After Sohoton Cove, we went to Sohoton Gamay (which featured another diving platform, and, everyone was happy to note, was recently visited by Anne Curtis) and Lake Tiktikan (whose muddy bank, I’m sorry to say, smelled awfully like sewer). There were no swimming with stingless jellyfishes, no woman in blue bikini.
At breakfast the next day, someone mentioned that it was such a pity that they forgot to bring their portable KTV. I thanked God for small favors and decided then and there that I wouldn’t join the day’s island hopping activity. Later, when I asked how it went, the reply was, “Init kaayo! Pero nice ang Club Tara!”, and I thought I didn’t miss much.
To pass the time, I ambled around the island. I was told that I could circle the very tip of it in less than an hour, so that’s what I did, though the most exciting thing I found was one red, hairy hermit crab and a curiously vibrant yellow thing that, upon closer inspection, was really just a leaf stuck on a rock.
Back at the resort, I chatted amiably with the caretakers, who spoke a mix of Cebuano, Surigaonun and Waray. There were entire stretches where I didn’t understand anything they were saying, but my oh’s and ah’s were enough to carry me along the conversation. They served me adobongsaang (spider conches) and plenty of rice, and seemed amused that a city-dweller like me knew how to eat with my fingers, which is, I guess, the reverse of my own previous patronizing attitude.
And then they mentioned that the stingless jellyfishes are really only abundant during the summer months—a fact that tour packages conveniently don’t mention—but that there might be some now at the nearby lagoon. I stopped eating and stared at them. The jellyfishes are actually within walking distance of where we were all along? In less than a minute, I was off.
The lagoon was about 500 meters from the resort, hidden by the curve of the land but easily reachable by following the shore. With just 10 minutes of walking, the area has already changed: now that it’s not as exposed to the Pacific, mosses grew on the jagged rocky path, the water has turned crystalline, and slowly, more life could be found—sea urchins, sea grass, 6-foot long sea slugs, and some sporadic corrals.
There was a small island in the middle of the water’s entryway to the lagoon, where two crows squawked and flew from treetop to treetop. Thrillingly, one side of the entryway was blocked by a cobblestone wall. Climbing over it, I found another land where I was met by the voice of Eddie Garcia.
Across the lagoon—perhaps 200 meters away—there was what looked like a rest house where inside was playing, by the scratchy sound of it, a 1970s film about some secret love affair, in full volume. It was fantastic. Instead of spoiling the place, it actually made it more surreal. Here, the water was a brighter blue, the corals more colorful, and fusiliers and Moorish idols darted in the water. There were no stingless jellyfishes, but what of it? In the background, Eddie was saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Please believe me, I’m sorry.”
I went to the water and just let my body float. For the first and only time that trip, I had what I didn’t know I came for—a world of my own.
Gabriel is a graduate of UP Mindanao’s Creative Writing Program. He currently works as a web content writer. He actually went back to Bucas Grande recently, and had a much better experience. This time, he came with his family.