July 2012. My friend Romel and I set out early to go to the island of Hilabaan in Dolores, Eastern Samar. Between these places is a 30-minute ride on a boat that carried about 50 people and goods that included cases and cases of Red Horse Beer, gallons of mineral water, and plastic bottles of a local coconut wine called tuba. The cargo was loaded in the middle of the boat, leaving people to occupy the sides.
A cacophony of sounds filled the boat. Children crying. Mothers trying to pacify their children. Porters carrying cases of beer, asking people to get out of the way. Ladies asking the porters where the latter put their stuff.
The short, sun-tanned, and mustachioed captain was wearing a buri hat, sleeveless shirt, a pair of shorts, and well-worn slippers. He shouted from behind, asking if everyone’s already on board.
“We’re still waiting for _____,” said one of the women at the bow. Apparently, her companion was still buying something from the market near the port. So we waited for him for what felt like an eternity, as the crew began raising the tarpaulin roof over our heads. It was midday and we were baking under the sun, so everyone welcomed the makeshift roof with relief. At least if we were going to wait longer, we wouldn’t run the risk of getting skin cancer.
The 9:00 AM departure became 9:30 AM, when the guy finally finished his business at the market. One of the crewmembers kick started the engine and it came to life with a low growl. The boat began to move forward and sliced its way along the sea. The water transitioned from transparent to an opaque green as we went further. Hilabaan here we come.
I was seated on one side of the boat, which the tarpaulin roof failed to cover completely. A woman carrying a baby in front of me offered her umbrella. I opened it, and — as if on cue — everyone on my row opened theirs as well.
The sound of the engine drowned everyone’s conversations, but even that was no match to a guy’s cellphone that played cheesy Filipino songs on loop. The songs fell out of place in the chaos that was the boat.
Several hundred meters from the port, things began to settle. The crewmen took their places on the outriggers of the boat. Two of them pulled out plastics from their pockets, which contained a seed, mixed it with apog (crushed limestone), tobacco, and wrapped it with leaves called dapon. They then popped the concoction called mamá into their mouths and began to chew it.
To my right, a woman carrying her baby pulled up her shirt, plucked out her left breast from her brassiere, and began feeding her baby. I tried to look away from embarrassment, but then thought that’s how things work there: everything’s matter of fact. You feed babies with your boobs, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. You call spade a spade.
In Hilabaan, our party grew from two to about eight. We then took another boat to Tikling, an island connected by a concrete bridge to the island of Linao, both of which are part of Dolores.
Lunch in Tikling.
By mid-afternoon, most of the folks I traveled with were either drunk or are well on their way to getting there. I was, meanwhile, nowhere near that. After a hearty lunch of fresh, gritty, sandy seashells, and three shots of brandy, I just wanted to have my regular dose of siesta.
I retreated to a nearby cottage along with two friends, and slept on a narrow plank of wood that served as a bench. When I woke up, I found myself alone with a newfound friend.
She’s one of the kids we traveled with from Hilabaan. I couldn’t remember how the conversation began, but it was mostly about her life on the island.
She was 14, an athlete, and was in third year high school. She was a runner and a swimmer, and her team back in Hilabaan began their training everyday before daybreak. Instead of a tartan track pro athletes are used to, they ran on sand on the uneven seashore. And in place of Olympic-sized pools, their swimming team trained in the sea. Speedos weren’t her training wear — she swam with her jogging pants and t-shirt.
They trained thrice a day, first before going to school, second around lunchtime, and finally before sunset. She’s always tired by the time she got home, she told me.
Her birthday’s on December 13. It broke my heart a little when she said that her parents never threw her a birthday party in her 14 years. Maybe it was too close to Christmas already, I offered her an explanation. She just smiled. She didn’t sound sad or bitter.
I don’t recall how our conversation ended. All I remember was that when we returned to our friends, there was a force of gravity from that conversation that pulled me so hard, I was back on earth again.
We returned to Hilabaan in the afternoon. Later that night, I slept on a straw mat on a hard concrete floor, happy where I was under a blanket of stars. Wakefulness made way for sleep. And for one night, I felt enlightened. I felt for one night, like a Bodhisattva, if I could call myself that.