ABOUT FIVE MINUTES out of Buenavista’s center, and the houses have already given way to the jungle. The highway first runs flat through rice fields and wide grasslands before slowly turning into an inclined road as it snakes through the mountainsides. The tricycle I’m on easily takes on the smooth course, and as it zooms on with me riding behind the driver with two other passengers and two more in the sidecar, the winds whip my face. I can even taste the ocean. A recurring Marinduque experience I’m beginning to love.
I’m on my way to the foot of Mount Malindig to meet Pastor Francis, his family and a couple of his coworkers. Their group went for a climb to Marinduque’s highest peak – I was supposed to join but I couldn’t find a jeep that would take me from Boac to Buenavista in time – and are on their way down. I’m set to meet them at the Sihi Bible Camp near the trek’s starting point.
The tricycle pushes on through some of the quaintest and picturesque views in the country. This is an area where a tricycle can drive by for minutes without passing through any house, where people are very much in touch with nature, and entertainment is sitting on a porch telling the latest details about the neighbors. This is a place where the quietude is as typical to the locals as the noise of city traffic is to me.
Just a few minutes ago, I was standing in the midst of a seaside village, where people are busy preparing for the day, and now the concrete yet simple houses with Malindig looming in the distance are now replaced by coconut trees, about a few meters high, which tower over the occasional nipa huts beside the road. It’s a journey of a dozen or so kilometers, and into the bottom of the Philippines’ “heart.”
SINCE MOVING HERE two years ago, Pastor Francis has been working with the Norwegian Missionary Alliance Philippines (NMA), a non-profit organization that provides assistance in developing countries. The NMA has been helping children go to school through sponshorship programs – volunteers would donate money, which would be given to the students themselves. But recently it piloted a community development program in Marinduque, particularly here in Buenavista, in which a community-based approach is undertaken, and aid is provided indirectly and with a larger scope in mind, such as building classrooms and training of teachers.
Pastor Francis is heading the NMA’s church partnership. That means he seeks cooperation among church leaders in the province to implement the organization’s programs. Buenavista is such a small town that people are familiar with each other and working together is easier. “I actually know the parish priest,” Pastor Francis says. “He and the Aglipayan leader regularly provide assistance.”
One of his projects involve educating farmers, who are often shortchanged by distributors, especially those in Lucena, Quezon. “We teach these farmers how to pool their resources so they can effectively distribute their products,” he says. “We also teach them how to process their products, like making peanut butter, so they can increase their profits.”
ALIGHTING FROM THE TRICYCLE and seeing the slightly worn-out sign of the Sihi Bible Camp at the start of a narrow dirt road branching off the main highway, I am suddenly aware of God’s presence that I have been feeling since first arriving in Boac. Four goats grazing lazily just inside the open gate greet me. The church – a green, humble-looking wooden structure – stands at the campsite’s far end. A brown dog is tied to one of the window bars, and sensing my presence, starts barking. Other than me, the place seems empty. I walk around, looking at the wide expanse of grasses that sprawls until the edge of the hill the site is on.
In the distance, the mountainsides dotted with palm trees stand out against the blue sky. Further out, the peak of Malindig peeks out. The mountain is a dormant volcano, but is a popular hiking destination, especially for locals. It’s a protected area with a host of endemic wildlife and wild orchids calling it home.
I sit in the shade of a dilapidated shed and wait for about half an hour before I see Pastor Francis and his company approaching the campsite. I walk hurriedly towrads them, then exchange greetings and introductions. As the late morning turns into noon, we enter the church and one of the woman in the group begins preparing the food. I learn that she’s Ate Rosy, the wife of Pastor Adriano “Adi” Punzalan, the church pastor – who was also one of those who climbed this morning. “I hope you like fish,” Ate Rosy tells me with a chuckle, twisting the cap of a large bottle of soda just enough to let it fizz but not completely opening it. “Because that’s what we prepared.”
“Oh, Ate Rosy, you shouldn’t worry about Jay,” Pastor Francis says. “He eats anything.”
“That’s true,” I say.
I take my seat at the table and Pastor Francis offers me a plate with fish on it. “Try this,” he says. “It’s Pastor Adi’s specialty. It’s called tinigang – it’s grilled fish. It’s usually grilled for an hour, but with Pastor Adi, it takes four hours.”
Pastor Adi, who sits across the table, eating pansit sotanghon, looks at Pastor Francis. “Yeah, and they pay me for them to cook. I tell them it’s my talent fee.”
The lunch goes on, and the simple dishes feel special in this remote location.
IT’S ANOTHER BEAUTIFUL DRIVE after lunch back to town, where Pastor Francis and his family lives, and he invites me to his house. It’s actually a rented unit in a compound opposite where he works and Malindig can be seen in the distant horizon. We eat halo-halo bought from a roadside stall, while he takes out a ukelele and plays Justin Bieber’s “Sorry.”
“This is where we live now,” he tells me as I leave the house a few minutes later. “It’s a simple town with a simple life. There’s not much to do here.”
“Actually I love this place,” I tell him. “It’s something I look forward to – the quiet, the solitude, and the chance to recover your sanity.”
Before I ride a jeep back to Boac, I first explore the seaside. The majestic outline of Malindig backdrops the row of crudely built houses and boats by the rocky beach. A couple of kids are running through the waves and another one is picking up pebbles. I spend a few moments taking in the view before returning to the jeep terminal. As I walk away, the sound of the waves become softer, but the memory of this provincial life will take much longer to dissipate.