I’m walking along a rocky shore with Sir Boyet, gazing at the boulders painted gold by the late afternoon sun. A pair of high school teens in festival costume pretend they don’t notice and try to pass us by on their way to the covered basketball court for their dress rehearsal. Sir Boyet asks them in Tagalog what time the festival starts the following day. As he talks, the teens exchange confused glances first with each other, before turning to Sir Boyet. Dili kami kabalo, they say. They don’t understand. They laugh as they walk away. We laugh, too.
The happiness of Camiguinons is contagious. We’ve encountered it a lot of times since we’ve arrived this morning. Our host, Teddy, shrugs potential hiccups in schedule like they’re some sort of normal details in the trip. Our jeep driver just smiles when we offer him food or drink. The sister of one of our co-teachers warmly opens her eatery (10 pesos for a meal!) for us like we’re long lost relatives as well. The coordinator of the dance for tomorrow’s festival cheerfully saves a space for us at the basketball court, perhaps partly because with my DSLR and Sir Boyet’s authoritative aura, he thinks we’re a production crew for a documentary.
Now I’m realizing this cheerfulness is the manifestation of the island’s easygoing nature and a mitigation for whatever shortcoming the locals think they have. Life here is basic. Pretty much the whole province is rural and even the capital, Mambajao, is decidedly sleepy. The highways, narrow compared to those in other cities, are reminiscent of streets in Metro Manila during the Holy Week, with the only activities a couple of tricycles and jeeps every now and then. These would have made the province neatly tucked in, well, the unexciting side. But obviously this doesn’t jive with our experience so far. The main reason I’m here is I’m spending the first four days of the semester break with some of my co-teachers. Plus, I’ve heard about Camiguin’s beaches, volcanoes and forests, and I figured it’s about time I experience the island firsthand.
Camiguin is the second smallest province in the Philippines (only Batanes is more undersized), but it’s rich in attractions. We’ve set base at My Hiding Place just a few kilometers off Mambajao, near the strip of private resorts and where much of the action in the island takes place. We will then travel the island’s perimeter to explore the interiors, before venturing off the coast to see some pristine island beaches. All along, we’ll take as much as we can of the island’s traditional life, mainly by watching the Lanzones Festival from the sidelines.
No sooner than we have finished our lunch than we’re riding the jeep to our first taste of the island’s attractions. The Katibawasan Falls at the central part of the Mambajao municipality is a few minutes ride from the capital but it feels like a world into its own. The 250-feet waterfall drops into a cold pool ringed by verdant surroundings. A couple and a group of what I guess are their relatives unexpectedly sashay into the place for a prenuptial photo shoot. Teddy surmises they’re guests of the Paras Beach Resort, about a 10-minute walk from My Hiding Place. With their all-white attire, the place turns into a virtual fantasy movie set.
The sun is yet to come out of the horizon, but our group is up early for a morning session by the beach. We pass by the basketball court. The group practicing here yesterday is gathering once more for their final practice before they set out around the island for the parade, which will consist of different groups from schools around Camiguin. This, I learn, is yet another source of pride for these people who are deeply in love with their hometown. “Whoever wins will represent the island for a contest in Bacolod,” Teddy says. “The cash prize isn’t that large. For these guys, it’s really about the honor they will give to our province.”
The choreographer barks instructions and boys start pounding at the bass drums. Like clockwork, everybody starts portraying through their motions and cardboard cutouts the legend of the lanzones, a fruit that looks like brownish grapes with sweet flesh inside. Frankly I don’t know what the story is about and no one I’ve talked to on the island can tell me. The waitress at a restaurant I ordered takeout from can only offer an embarrassed shrug. What I can get, though, is that a fairy was the reason for the fruit’s sweet taste and the locals are eternally grateful for this gift.
The dance is interrupted by the choreographer who shouts angrily at a boy at the back of the formation for failing to lift his cardboard in time for the next sequence. The choreographer says something in the local dialect and the crowd of onlookers break into laughter. “What did he say?” Ate Cel asks the woman beside her. “Para raw siyang sinukang tae,” the woman answered. The choreographer was mad and scolded the boy for acting like a poop that was puked out. Somehow, the crowd’s reaction is funnier than the joke, but hearing the laughter, it hits me – Camguinon happiness is spontaneous. It doesn’t take much to make the island’s residents happy and I envy them for it.
Two hours later we roar into the northwestern part of the island. Whereas the northern part of Camiguin retains some sort of modernity, outside of Mambajao, the vibe is starting to feel more and more provincial. We stop by at the walkway to the Old Volcano, which is a terrible misnomer, since the mountain is the youngest of all the seven found in the island. The trail, which features life-size white statues depicting the fourteen Stations of the Cross, is relatively easy and rewards bush walkers on top with a wonderful view of the island and a kind of fulfillment of having relived the crucifixion and resurrection scenes while burning off breakfast’s surplus of carbohydrates.
A few kilometers to the south and we see perhaps the most famous image of Camiguin, the Sunken Cemetery. A large cross marks the graveyard that was submerged when the Old Volcano erupted in 1871. We linger at the cross itself being entertained and directed by the guides while they take our pictures using forced perspective technique. “Perfect,” one of them constantly exclaims after each shot. He says it a lot to the point that we have adopted the word as a catchphrase every time something positive happens on this trip — which is often. At this point I ponder the impact the island has on me. I don’t come across a single cynic person here. And perhaps it’s safe to say that I’m not going to get ripped off as it would have been eventually in some other places. Sir Rommel once tried to buy a packet of instant coffee, which he was told costs 35 pesos. He paid 50 pesos, but was given a change of 25 pesos. Sir Rommel gave the extra ten back and the vendor took it – reluctantly.
So how did a simple weekend trip to Camiguin become a touching lifetime experience? I have a theory that there’s a special connection between the inhabitants and the island itself that extends to every visitor who ventures beyond the obvious sites. We visit most of the attractions – the White Island, the Mantigue Island, the Sto. Niño Cold Springs, the Ardent Hot Springs, the Bura Soda Pool, the Giant Clam Sanctuary — but at the end of the day it’s the interactions with the locals that linger. It generates a feeling of being at home even if much of what consists your comfort zone is removed.
My answer comes during our last evening, when a blackout plunges the whole island into darkness. Camiguin’s electricity, which is supplied underwater by Misamis Oriental, can be occasionally erratic, and this is one of those times. With only the flimsy flames of candles and flashlights as our light, our group decides to pass the time by visiting the local perya (fair), where we would also eat our dinner and buy some souvenirs. A road is closed for a parade but the police lets our jeep in anyway, not because we bribed him (Camiguin has an impressive zero crime rate), but because he feels it would be better if we guests have a chance to join the happenings up close. We thank him for it and at that moment, we feel we’re no longer tourists. As I peel my last piece of lanzones, I know a part of us have become one with the island.