Poetry, Songs, and the Eleven Islands

Monday, October 29, 2018

onse islas zamboanga city
(Photo courtesy of Kat of Tara Let's Anywhere, sorry I had to cut out your watermark. Please forgive me. Labyu!)

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

“If you were the sea,” I muttered, almost absentmindedly, as I slid off the prow of the pump boat, onto the island called Bisaya-Bisaya.

That morning in early October was like a borrowed summer day: the sun out; the sky a cloudless, faultless blue. As soon as the engine sputtered to a halt, the lull of waves and sea breeze took to playing in the background. I shielded my eyes, not from the sun, but from the sparkling, powdery shore that stretched on either side of where I stood – so white and reflective it was hard to look at without squinting. I then ambled to my companions who were heading toward the grove of coconut trees, away from the harsh mid-morning glare. Just before the trees began were masts of colorful vinta sails – a reminder that we were, indeed, still in the vibrant city of Zamboanga. We then found an array of wooden cottages, on which we deposited our things. Rid of bags, I turned on my heel and finally faced the sea.

A sheet of blues and greens glimmered before me, as if winking, teasing me to come near. It was so immense, punctuated here and there with a smattering of craggy islets.

I didn’t realize I was holding my breath.

“I would be a ripple in your waters,” I sighed, finishing the first line of an ode I wrote years ago.

This was just one of the eleven islands that make up Onse Islas, and here I was, already reciting poetry.

I really shouldn’t have been surprised in retrospect. Opened for tourism just last July, this cluster of mostly uninhabited islands had yet to suffer the brunt of human presence and, thus, is relatively rawer and more pristine compared to the country’s more known destinations. It offered a scene so rich with natural beauty that one couldn't help but be inspired.
white sand beach in zamboanga city

Conversely, what surprised me even more – pleasantly, one should note –  than my sudden poetic turn was how the local government handled, and is handling, everything. From the moment intrepid wanderers had “discovered” the islands, brandishing their find on social media, things had been bound to get complicated. The secret was out, and Zamboanga City had to make a choice: the usual and oft disastrous path of “let’s take it as it comes” or the less trodden albeit preferable road of “let’s take a moment and think this through.”

Evidently, the city took the latter. Over a year prior to officially opening it for tourism, the islands had been temporarily cordoned off to allow surrounding communities, specifically the villages of Panubigan and Dita, to prepare. Frontliners like local guides and boatmen had been trained and organized. Regulations had been set in place not just to maintain peace and order but to ensure that the islands would not succumb to the same fate as most tourist destinations. These include a by-reservation-only policy, mandatory pre-tour briefing, no-guide/no-tour order, a carrying capacity – the maximum number of tourists allowed per day – of 200 guests, and, perhaps most importantly, the decision to highlight the culture of the Sama Banguingui – a Moro ethnolinguistic group that resides, among other places, in the vicinity of Onse Islas. This last provision had warranted the inclusion of rules like discouraging bringing and cooking of pork in the islands as well as not accepting guests during Fridays.

Fortunately for me, it wasn’t a Friday, and I no longer care for pork (I can’t believe it either, shut up).

Huraida, one of the local guides who accompanied us on this visit was of the Sama Banguingui. That day, she was wearing a coral pink gossamer hijab, and a matching shirt over which she wore a navy blue cardigan. Slender and agile, she shepherded us not towards the inviting water but across the wave-cut platforms on one side of Bisaya-Bisaya. We walked along sea cliffs peppered with holes and gaps. On rutted coastal benches, we stepped gingerly; the percussion of hitting waves making us occasionally jump. Here, the gradient of teal and cerulean was even more pronounced, and, more than ever, I wanted to be a ripple in the water.
beaches in zamboanga

To prevent myself from prematurely hurtling into the sea, or launching into another poetic episode (not that there’s anything wrong with either), I asked Huraida about the island’s name.
onse islas tour guide
Screenshot from Isa Does Once Islas Vlog

“There were fishermen,” she said, smiling, as we made our way back to the sandy shore.

“Each wanted to have their own designated fishing ground. They got into arguments and when they finally settled, the fisherman who got to fish in this side was a Bisaya. So: Bisaya-Bisaya.

“Because of that incident,” she added. “Bisaya-Bisaya also came to mean ‘kanya-kanya’ (to separate).”

I nodded.

Perhaps because of trudging under the near-noon sun, after that conversation, a sudden hunger pang took hold of me. Good thing that fresh buko and boiled yellow corn awaited us on our return to the cottages. I munched on two cobs and, upon the goading of Glen and Isa, slid another one in my bag – just in case. After we finished our snacks, Kara complained of a headache resulting into Glen passing her a menthol balm that reminded me of grandmothers (#aysorry). Meanwhile, the rest of my companions went in the water. I, on the other hand, found myself in a discussion with Errold about the zero-waste lifestyle. As we watched the others wade and kayak (yes, there were kayaks), we got into the pros and cons of bamboo and metal straws – we are intellectuals that way. By the time we were done and I decided I’d join in on the waterfun, it was announced we’ll be heading to another island.

I groaned, but grabbed my things nonetheless.

Halfway through the shore, however, Errold decided we had time to see the nearby natural pool – apparently just a short walk from where we were. And so off we went.

We found ourselves standing before another sea cliff in just a few minutes. At its foot, set amidst a wave-cut platform, was a basin of crystalline water. A natural infinity pool, it looked like candy, good enough to eat. When Potpot ordered us to get in for a drone shot, I immediately pulled my pants off (as one does) and obliged.
once islas zamboanga
Photo courtesy of Glen of Escape Manila

Next thing I knew, we were on the boat again, cleaving through the shimmering sapphire sheet. We passed by the island of Buh-Buh, one of the few inhabited islands of Onse Islas, distinguishable by the mosque a few steps from its shores.
eleven islands of onse islas

We docked in Sirommon a little later, and here, I resolved to get in the water, but was told we needed to first go on a trek towards our lunch. Talk about Cariño Brutal. Shrugging, I dashed towards Huraida who was waiting by the trailhead. The path, thankfully, was short and gentle albeit brimming with amor seco. It led us to the other side of the island where a long table was set up; the smell of cooking mingling with the scent of brine. I glanced at the table and gasped in delight: there were lanzones.

I grabbed a handful and skulked at the nearby wooden gazebo. I must’ve looked like Mundungus Fletcher taking stock of his pilfered things. But I was happy – I’ve been bugging Errold for some lanzones.

Not long after, I was joined by Ace and Mike. And here we discussed mushroom burgers, where I get my protein, Delicas, and how to go about our vagabonding ways. Isa arrived shortly, clutching her own bunch of lanzones which she shared with me. Good friends, see.

Our lunch was served in no time. A spread of seafood – fish, squid, crab, and clams – graced the wooden tabletop. It looked really delicious and I was sincerely happy for my companions. I, meanwhile, settled on some seaweed, the spare corn from earlier, and a hefty serving of rice – all doused in that magical mixture of soy sauce and dayap (local lime).

After another helping of lanzones, I rushed back to the side we came, determined to soak in some sea. On the way down the trail, I recalled Huraida’s story about how Sirommon got its name.

There was once a foreigner named Oster (?) who found himself in the island’s shores. He happened upon a group of local fishermen whom he proceeded to ask what the place was called. Unfamiliar with his language, the men thought he was asking what they were doing, so they motioned to the expanse before them, and Oster went, “Oh, the sea.” Unsatisfied, he pressed on and the fishermen supposed he was looking for a place to stay, so they led him inside a small hut, and Oster went “OK. Room.” Dusk came, soon followed by darkness, and still curious about the island’s name, he approached the men and asked again. It was dark in the island, for there was neither flame nor bulb, so the fishermen believed he was asking for light.  They pointed at the great big silver orb above, and Oster went, “Sure, the moon.” With only those three words to go on, he decided to compound them: Searoommoon. This evolved through the years and eventually became the more local-sounding Sirommon.

The locals took kindly to this baptism and welcomed Oster to their folds. Soon, he grew close to a village woman and they both fell in love. Marriage was in the talks, but, for some reason that was not clear to me, Oster had to leave. And so the woman waited and waited, every day, by the shores of Sirommon. She started bringing an empty washbasin, beating it with her hands like a signal drum, perhaps hoping that the sound would carry to Oster and lead him back to her.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about this story. It makes for a good, fascinating tale, no doubt; but it irked me a bit to know that yet another foreigner got to name a place – a beautiful one, I must add – in my country, and then went on to leave a broken heart in his wake.

At any rate, I put on some reef-friendly sunscreen then grabbed my camera. Striding past the cottages and the vinta sails like the ones in Bisaya-Bisaya, I noticed that wispy clouds now swirled in the vault of blue, as if an artist had decided to stroke in some white paint on what once was nothing but an azure canvas. Underneath it, the sparkling sands and the clear waters were put in sharper relief.  A sandbar stood out of the cobalt and teal, snaking its way to the horizon.
sandbar in mindanao
Photo courtesy of Glen of Escape Manila

I hang back to take it all in, and, perhaps prompted by the village woman’s heartbreak, the words came rushing unbidden:

If you were the Sea,
I would be a ripple in your waters.
It matters not how impermanent,
How ephemeral,
For one brief moment of Oneness
With your mysteries would suffice
Than if you were the Sea,
And I were the Sky;
Infinite, yes, but never truly one –
Forever parallel.

I smiled in spite of myself. It’s been a long time since words sprung up to me like that, as easily as breathing. They weren’t impromptu, mind you  – I wrote them six, eight years ago – but they were a comfort regardless. For in the last six months, I thought my relationship with words had forever ended. I thought I’d put it down, never to be picked up again. And yet here we were. Back. And I couldn’t ask for a more fitting welcome.

The sight of Kara’s head, bobbing a couple of meters away, brought me out of my reverie. Somehow, I was now on the sandbar.

“How’s the water?” I called to Kara.

“Very warm,” she replied, an amused expression on her face.

I snorted. 

I paused to look around and saw peach and orange seastars scattered along the banks. A bit farther, Ace and Potpot were wading near the shoal. Glen appeared before long, and, like me, was fiddling with his camera. 

A little later, Isa, Christian, Mike, and Kat joined us; Princess and Phil happily snapping photos not too far. In the next hour, I would be going up the island of Baung-Baung before taking a final dip in its cooler waters, but those few minutes in the sandbar were my favorite. Just before the tides rose, returning this strip of sand underneath, we made the most of the warm waters of Sirommon; taking in the scene, enjoying each other’s company. And in the midst of this all, as if to emphasize the beauty of the moment, Geowulf’s Saltwater played softly in my head:

Come to the ocean
Even when you’re broken.

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