Hurdles, Humanity, and the Happy Island

Monday, February 27, 2017

what to do in catanduanes

January had eked out a sweet, addictive dose of adventure for me and Dennis. For five of its days, we embarked on a trip that gave more than it took. We rented a scooter and on it, we traced Catanduanes Island’s periphery, veering into its folds here and there. But this right here is neither an ode to nor an idyll of the island’s landscapes and scenes – these will come later. If anything, this is an “In Memoriam”

Our journey was not without problems. In fact, in retrospect, our journey was nothing but. On the morning of our second day, back from Bote Cove in Bato, we crashed. I was driving. I blame it partly on the scooter. Its brakes were faulty with just the front ones working at the time. Fortunately, a good Samaritan took us to the nearest health center, sticking with us until he was sure that we were alright. And while we were still essentially in one piece, grisly wounds and dappled bruises had been sustained, encumbering us with bloody gauzes and the sterile scent of iodopovidone the rest of our trip.
bato catanduanes
After our accident
That same day, halfway through San Andres, our ride sputtered to a stop. Its engine refused to work. Under a high noon sun, Dennis and I took turns dragging the scooter to a machine shop a couple of kilometers back. It took almost an hour of tinkering before the mechanic finally figured out what was wrong. It was the air filter, drenched in grease and impeding the ignition. With a function as debatable as that of the human appendix, it was deemed better removed. A good choice, for immediately the engine hummed a steady note again. The brakes were also fixed. 

On the third day, our supposed circumnavigation was halted. We were in Pandan. Our scooter could not go through the thigh-deep murk the road-widening in the area had been producing. And so we backtracked to the better half of Caramoran, through a secondary road that would take us to Panganiban. It wasn’t long before the “shortcut” revealed itself to be essentially a mountain pass. All rock and mud, flanked with tall hardwoods and soaring crags. Even before it started to reek of burned rubber, it was clear our ride wasn’t made for such a terrain. But we had no choice. Up rutted inclines and through knee-high sludge, we alternated riding and walking the scooter. We had to push on or we’d lose daylight. Better stuck in the highway than in the wild, we agreed.

Farther through this rugged road, we came upon a concrete bridge. This did not make sense to me as the path beyond it was still unpaved. But I was too tired and overwhelmed to question its presence. That course, after all, kept leading us to places that felt like a secret. We passed by tractors gouging out mountains to make new paths, causing the land to bleed and the soil muddy. My heart ached at the sight of felled trees. Talking about Erdrich’s "Tracks" and Leo’s "The Revenant" was the only thing that kept us sane. 
what to do in catanduanes

When the dirt slowly transformed into cement, I almost cried. We were now riding across a stretch of winding, freshly paved road. It slithered with the mountains, reminding us of the Cordilleras. Laborers paused from their tasks and gave us curious looks. Whether it was because of our mucky scooter or me driving or both, we were too happy to care. Plying that new road felt like a blessing. We figured we were one of the firsts to do so. We then spotted a roadside waterfall – which was plenty in these parts – and stopped to wash our grimy faces and mud-caked feet. The splash of cold water renewed me, and I thought: paved roads are gifts often overlooked.
what to do in viga catanduanes
Stopping by the Mangrove bridge in Panganiban
Proud and relieved that our scooter held on despite the abuse, we were in high spirits. From there, our problems mellowed down to where to get food and the question of getting everything done in time. Not until after our last destination were we hurled at with another obstacle.

We just came from Binurong Point in Baras. It was already dark when I noticed an unusual swaying in our ride. The kind that bothers. The kind that spells disaster. I asked Dennis to pull over so I could check. The back tire shrunk as soon as I squeezed it.

“Oh no,” I whispered, resisting the urge to curl up into a ball. 

Two men walked by and asked us what was wrong. I told them. They led us farther up. And with a whirlwind, the scooter was propped, its back tire taken apart to reveal a gaping hole in its interior tube. Dennis and the men discussed what to do. I folded on a makeshift bench of wooden plank proffered by the residents of that sitio. For a moment, I let myself be transported out of our dire situation, choosing to focus instead on the details of the setting. 

It appeared that the entire sitio was huddling around us. Kids, mothers, men. They were all there, giving suggestions and voicing out concerns. It was then that I noticed that there was no electricity. The only light was the bluish glare from mobile phones. I remembered seeing it on the news a week before: the island getting ravaged by a typhoon – the first it encountered in almost a decade – uprooting trees and power lines alike. This sitio’s electricity hasn’t been restored yet, and there we were causing a stir. I felt like an imposition.

I was starting to collapse from the inside when I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. The looming form of a man stood behind me.

Lika muna. Kain muna kayo,” he insisted. 

We followed him to his house, leaving the rest of the sitio still a-gather. He led us to their dining area and had us seated. In front of us were four pieces of fried chicken and a bowl of steaming rice.

’Di pa siguro kayo kumakain ano?

Hindi pa nga po,” Dennis admitted.

The man, who we later find out was a baranggay kagawad, chuckled. He asked us where we’re from, what we do, and why we were there in the island. We told him everything. The words just came flooding out. He looked at us with amusement and an understandable hint of disbelief, but after a while he seemed satisfied and told us to eat.

"Pasensya na po sa abala," I said.

"Kasama sa buhay ang abala," he told me. "Malay mo, 'pag kami naman ang napunta sa lugar ninyo, matulungan niyo naman kami."

We ate quietly. And in that quiet, my tears threatened to spill. Everything we’ve been through during this trip came in swells. I fought to keep steady. My wounds throbbed and ached. I tried to stretch my leg. It made me squirm. I remembered all the delays. The time wasted; how we weren’t able to visit as many places as planned. But at that moment, as I ate fried chicken in the flickering yellow candlelight, all these seem to lose its weight. Our monument of misfortunes started to shrink, overcame by the shrine to all the goodness we’ve encountered. Here we were, strangers to this sitio; practically a bother to them. But here they were, dropping everything so they could help us fix a flat tire, feeding us and caring for us without much question. It was amazing how these people still had the capacity to be generous. I was humbled and grateful.

After an hour or so, we were fetched from the councilor’s home, told that our ride was ready to go. The interior tube was too damaged to be patched. They had to ride to the nearest town to look for a spare, but there was none available. So they modified a tube that was a size too big. It was the best that they could do, they told us. We couldn’t thank them enough.
baras catanduanes
The men who took care of us
Joyful from this encounter, Dennis and I rode back to Virac, but the incompatible tube did not last long. There was a hiss. Our heart sank. 

“No, no, no, no,” prayed Dennis, but it was all in vain. Once again, we found ourselves with a flat tire.

This time, there was no community to help us. No kind people willing to drop everything to fix our tire. We were on the highway and none wanted to lend us a hand. No hotel would send a car to pick us up. No vehicle would even slow down to check on us. Our luck had ran out, I thought. I was out of ideas, and I couldn’t get past the fact that our flight was the next day. I was nearing my limit. 

Suddenly, a motorcycle emerged from the fork on the other side of the road. Dennis waved to him. Thank god it stopped and the man riding it inquired on our situation. Dennis did the talking. I guess he sensed I could barely keep myself together. We were then promised help. The man told us to wait.

We watched him disappear back to the street. I slumped on the cold ground, starting to think what a good idea it was to lay there and sleep. I jolted back to my senses when I caught the faint screech of an engine. Moments later, we were loading our scooter on the back railings of a tricycle. We surrendered and took the rest of the trip back to Virac as mere passengers to a three-wheel.

The next day, the day of our flight back, we woke up mightily early to have the scooter put together and cleaned. We then had our breakfast before returning our ride to the priest who had lent it to us. He was kind enough to drive us to the airport. And just when we thought we were fine, we were confronted with another setback. We arrived late, with just 20 minutes before boarding. We’d forgotten to check in online and the airline personnel refused to accommodate us. He instead told us to sit out back. He said that our boarding was now up to the pilot. 

“When will it end?” I moped. At that point, I had enough of it. I was ready to go off, but I knew it would do us no good. So we did what we were told. We waited. 

In waiting, I realized I didn’t care what happened next. My mind stopped formulating Plan Bs. I was done. Over it. In my head, I was yelling “Fuck it! Fuck you!” Exhaustion was taking its toll, making it impossible to remember the bright side. All I wanted was to be angry and violent. 

An announcement then rang in the air. People started to fall in line and Dennis and I were left sitting in a far corner. When the line dwindled, the airline personnel approached us and told us to pay the airport tax. We’d been allowed to board! I almost did a cartwheel out of relief. The prospect of violence faded and a room for optimism and happy recall opened up. 

On the plane, I felt like laughing like a madman from the grandness of it all. I only used to dream of experiences like this; of stories so unlikely and extraordinary, they almost sound like fiction – even to the one telling it. What a ride that was! Surreal. Beautiful. Cathartic.

We came to Catanduanes unaware of how hell-bent it was on leaving a mark. And leave a mark, it sure did.

Storytime is a series of  stories about my most memorable travel experiences. Read more here.

You Might Also Like