A LONE NIPA HUT stands on a sweltering clearing, then the man by the fence greets the two men walking through the nearby trail. The man and the older of the two passersby momentarily converse in a deep southern Tagalog accent before going about their respective businesses.
The scene is unfolding in the trails I’m walking on this late morning with my local guide, Berlito Manlabas. I’m well on my way to the rainforests of Mount Talao near the village of Taguion in Gasan. I had first been in the town center a couple of days back, exploring the town center a bit before continuing on to Buenavista to meet with Pastor Francis. But now that I’ve firmly established myself in Boac, I’ve decided to explore Gasan further and decided to base my itinerary on the signpost near the municipal hall.
But just a short trip to the Talao Caves? Not exactly.
THIS TREK IS NOT ACTUALLY PLANNED. I was simply exploring the town center to pass the morning when I saw the sign: Talao Caves, 6 kilometers. I assumed that the caves were just a short tricycle ride away. Of course, I expected a climb – the sort where you scale 300 or so steps from the road. What I didn’t anticipate was that the distance written on the sign turned out to be just for the village at the start of the trek. Reaching the caves themselves requires hiking at least half an hour – according to local villagers’ estimates, but for an unassuming urban dweller’s pace, two hours is already quick – passing through steep ascents, narrow trails lined with tall grasses and scary-looking flora, and rugged jungles with large and sharp rocks.
I began the journey on a tricycle from the town center and headed eastward to the village of Tiguion, about a fifteen-minute ride passing through bumpy dirt roads and steep mountainsides. The tricycle dropped me where the road just ends. I walked on and spotted a couple of nipa huts, where a man was busy filling a drum with water flowing from a well. His wife was tending to their children playing behind him. He saw me and was curious.
I told him I’m on my way to the Talao Caves, and right on cue, Berlito arrived from his garden with his wife. It turned out that the man I wastalking to is Berlito’s younger brother and he asked his kuya whether he can take me to the caves. After a display of reluctance, Berlito agreed and we were soon on our way up the mountain.
So now I’m here. I’m sweating profusely and trying hard to catch my breath. I signal for Berlito to pause for a while. I drop my backpack and just sit on the dirt while appreciating the view before me – mountain ranges and the surrounding ocean in the distance.
“I was not really expecting to be trekking like this,” I tell Berlito, who just chuckles.
The trek seems to go onward indefinitely until we come to the first cave. The Talao Caves are actually a series of caves in the middle of a rain forest and accessible through a number of mountain trails. I decide not to enter – actually I don’t have any flashlight, so even if I want to, I cannot – and proceed immediately to the cave’s exit. We find a couple of men sitting by the mouth and learn that another group has actually trekked just an hour before us and they are exploring the cave. Berlito and I wait for them and I use the opportunity to rest once more.
When the group emerges from the cave, Berlito and I join their party and we simultaneously trek to the next two caves, the second of which is the largest and filled with bats flying around. By the third cave, one woman from the group suggests the obvious. “Let’s get back down. We’re exhausted.”
ARRIVING AT THE FIRST CLEARING I saw earlier, the group enters the nipa hut while Berlito and I wait outside. It turns out that one of the women in the other group – the wife of the Parents and Teachers’ Association head of the nearby elementary school – owns the house and organized the climb with other public school teachers. She invites Berlito and I inside for a drink and lunch.
I duck inside the house to have a plate of Filipino-style spaghetti – which I realize is popular in Marinduque – and some rice cakes. Nothing replenishes dwindling energy faster than a load of carbohydrates. Outside, Berlito and other men are having palm wine (tuba). They invite me to join. I take a shot of the liquor, which tastes like a sourer beer. I instantly feel a little woozy.
“Taste some of our fried dinosaur,” one of the men urges me, drawing laughter from his companions. He’s referring to the fried monitor lizard (bayawak) they’re having along with grilled fish and salted peanuts. I take a piece.
“Just like chicken, right?” another man asks and I agree. Actually, the way it’s cooked makes it taste like adobo, only with less meat and more bones. The men offer me more but I decline and have another plate of spaghetti instead before retreating to the living room for a short nap.
Clearly I feel welcomed here, an unexpected visitor in the midst of a tight-knit community. Life here is very basic, with no electricity and no accessible means to modern amenities, but the social bond is strong and everyone is treated like family.
GASAN, a third-class municipality just south of Boac, is a popular destination mainly due to its proximity to the provincial capital. But most travelers bypass the town center for the Tres Reyes Islands – named Melchor, Gaspar and Baltazar after the three biblical kings – off the coast of Barangay Pinggan.
Nonetheless, Gasan is packed with crowds during the Moriones festival. During Good Friday, according to Pastor Francis, the town comes alive with the parade of giant Moriones effigies. “It’s a wonderful sight, maybe better than the parades in Boac,” he says. “It’s just that Boac is the capital so people tend to concentrate there.”
But on this afternoon, walking around the town once more after arriving from my trek, it feels like I have the town to myself. I stroll past the Guingona Park, a wooden footbridge that resembles the Brooklyn Bridge and the seaside boulevard. The laughter of children playing in the ocean is audible. The sea breeze is inviting me to just sit and wait for the sunset. Too bad, the last jeep to Boac will be arriving soon.