PARADISE, said the old man to his friend, is in Davao. Davao del Norte’s Christ the King Cathedral—which he claimed cost P70 billion, the biggest of its kind in the Philippines—is the sole determiner of a paradise.
His neighbor cocked his head, as if by doing so, the old man’s words would funnel their way down to his head without any unnecessary sifting. I expected him to contradict his friend, but he did not; rather he shifted the conversation to Satan and declared we owe the cursed angel big. Without Satan, he said, we would not be here on earth.
We, humans—his speech almost convinced me—are the beauty in sin, the beauty out of sin, consequential as it may be.
We were aboard Reginsky Express— the only lantsa I knew that promised Wi-Fi, which was, as expected, an empty promise—the kind our politicians use come election season. It was barely nine in the morning, the sunlight creating sleepy slanting lights and shadows inside the almost empty lantsa docked in Surigao City. Outside, men carried sacks of cement and placed them on both sides of the boat. Seated to the old men’s right was a Manileño, whose misplacement was most pronounced in his language. Leaning against the lantsa’s wall, he sighed his words out into the phone: “anong ikayayaman ko dito, probinsya dito. Nakakalungkot nga, eh. Nakakabingi ang katahimikan sa hapon. Pagdating ng hapon, akoy nalulungkot. Walang hawak-hawak na baso. Kailangan lang talaga, kaya heto nagtitiis.” His voice captured the rhythm of the waves, unhurried, taking their time in reaching the shore—a stark contrast to the familiar sea of the Surigaonon dialect swimming around us in the lantsa: a mix of the slightly crass Cebuano and the Boholano’s jaja sounds. The Manileño must be exaggerating about his life in Dinagat, a place that not once, but twice belonged to Surigao del Norte’s clout of islands and the place of the Ecleos—the spiritual and political dynasty in the island province. But he looked worn out, tired, too tired to make a pass at insincerity. The wrinkles on his forehead were as permanent as the gaps between his teeth.
They, the fellow early bird passengers to San Jose, claimed ownership of their waiting hours with talk of paradise and lonely afternoons, while I kept on shifting in my seat, eavesdropping, sleepy and smelling like a mixture of the ship’s cot, sea, and sweat.
Finding the island’s pastoral silence deafening sounded legitimate to someone like a Manileño or perhaps a Cebuana, whose lives are wrapped in cosmopolitan noise. And what he said was somehow true. The thing about Dinagat, Jose—a Surigaonon guiding Tristann, a shoe designer from Manila—said, is that there are no cigarettes sold anywhere. No karaoke. No drinking in front of the house. No smoking in public.
It is a place of nos. But there was a catch, Jose added, while the cigarette smoke escaped from his mouth and ascended to the dusky horizon, you could buy cigs from the pharmacy.
I was stooped on the grassy part of the Sta. Cruz shore, trying to frame the coconut silhouettes in the picture, while Tristann was here and about, taking photos as well. Leaning against the coconut trunk, Jose and Mark—the young man who took it as his job to tour me around—discussed the things that could be found in San Jose. More so, the things that could not be found.
While riding in the early evening on a motorcycle back to San Jose, Mark said that all night life can be found in Sta. Cruz, the place of kahilayan. I chuckled upon hearing the word he used and asked if he did not find it offensive.
“No. Lingaw-lingaw ra may pasabot ana, di ba?”
I doubted our Cebuano. I doubted mine. I doubted his. Perhaps this is one of those many moments where my kind of Bisaya differs from the Dinagatnon or Surigaonon kind.
From the moving motorbike, everything looked deceptively peaceful. For a moment, we took shelter from the rain in a basketball court where kids played. Except for the game and the men across News MPC Station who were deepening a brook, everything looked languid.
“Unya, mangadto tag karaoke,” Mark promised. Maybe he thought that the island’s slowness made me restless. Perhaps he thought that I—who writes about places and people, who lives in Cebu City—must experience, must be longing for a night life, characteristics that natives from big cities like Cebu are known for.
So off we went to La Isla de Videoke, located in the middle of a residential area somewhere in Sta. Cruz. Judging from its façade, the bar looked like a studio apartment stripped of its furniture. There were only four tables arranged inside; and amusingly, for its small size, there was a fire exit behind the bar attendant. In case of emergency, it was easier to head out from the main door.
It was a small crowd. All young. A group of three occupied the other table. Mark, his cousin, and the other group crooned Ed Sheeran, Max Surban, Jimmy Bondoc. The kind of songs that make the Filipinos Filipino. The kind of songs that make us who we are. Wistful. Romantic. Sad. Humorous.
We remain humorous.
They—Mark, his cousin, and another young Dinagatnon—must have felt the restlessness too, though a different monster from mine. They, after all, have lived all their years on the island and must be used to silence, that they eventually got fed up with it.
They, at some point, must see the island as a trap. Limiting. Choking.
That night, Mark sang “Bilog ang buwan, ilabas nyo na ang kalokohan,” twice. His voice carried the weight of a restless soul; the song the weight of promised mischievousness nearly impossible in the paradise of nos.
“We are called langitnon.”
It must be the roads, Mark joked, these roads that always go up and down, a reflection of the island province’s rolling hills.
In San Jose, there is an obvious absence of tricycles and trisikads; their machines cannot handle the steep, narrow inclines meant for habal-habal.
The people in Dinagat are called langitnon, and Mark perfectly knows why, in the same manner that I knew words like cult and parricide long before I learned the existence of many island groups in the Visayas and Mindanao, long before I started feeding the monster named restlessness with meaty, sometimes fatty, slabs of temporal wanderings.
Not so fabulous tails
Some places are twinned with names. Sometimes, the name overpowers the place; the place is subdued, becomes a dependent clause, or a footnote, unnecessary yet it is always there, tailing the name. Ecleo. Dinagat.
Some years ago, the name Ecleo lingered on TV, lingered in newspapers—he who was, (and the hiding is) the supreme master of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association (PBMA).
During his arrest in San Jose in 2012, around 2000 followers, some armed, barricaded the White Castle—the renowned Ecleo mansion. Mark’s dad, a policeman, set aside his faith and performed his duty. The moment Ecleo Jr. surrendered and was handcuffed, Mark said, the earth suddenly shook. Always taking things with a grain of salt, I uttered my incredulity with a single syllable, “nu?”
“PBMA is not a cult. It is an association,” Mark volunteered the information. I was reluctant to ask him about it. I might hit a raw nerve. It was too early a topic for two strangers whose sensibilities take the shapes of driving me to White Castle, a place I did not even know then.
“Basin ganahan ka mo-observe sa prayer meeting sa PBMA unya. Open man na for everyone,” he suggested. I have been warned about this solo trip. I might come back to Cebu a convert, teased a friend, as if I devoted myself to a religion in the first place.
Ever curious, I said yes.
“Naa kay puting dress or shirt ba kaha?” he asked.
I did bring a white shirt and told him so. He pulled over by the gate of the White Castle and told me that a part of the mansion was once open to the public; but Mom Gwen—the widow of Ruben Sr., the late supreme master of PBMA—has been ill these days and needs quietude.
The size and grandness of White Castle offended the horizon. The mansion—too big, too fortress-like—consumed a big chunk of the sky. In an interview I watched online, the province’s matriarch called the mansion “katas ng Dinagat Island.”
Chromite was booming then, and she had three mineral production sharing agreements. She sounded—looked— happy. And proud.
Perception and reality
White Castle—with its big W and C found its way to the sanctity of proper nouns—is the vantage point of San Jose and the millions-worth main house of the Ecleos. From above, the shanties and shacks on the coast could not be seen. From the boat, the little dwellings by the sea staggered, as if the mansion—towering above them—was too heavy a load.
It was almost four in the afternoon, the golden hour for photographers. The light however—which was supposed to be always beautiful—was too sharp for the eyes; the photos of Turtle Island and the surrounding ranges turned out dispiriting, horrid, dishonest.
Annoyance crept in; the man who relentlessly cut the abundant shrubs before me remained unperturbed by my presence. The rest—Jose, Tristann, and Mark—were waiting for me.
Giving up is easier. I put my camera down, framed the place with my own eyes, and walked towards the group.
In one of my solitary walks on San Jose’s hilly roads, I saw a line of mothers queuing before Pantawid or 4Ps, a government the poorest of the poor. The Dinagat Group of Islands—known for its rich minerals that drew mining companies to its soil, which left Mt. Redundo in Loreto with many scars and holes, which threatened the fragile existence of a bonsai forest—is one of the most impoverished provinces in the country.
Some mothers acted too gingerly, like the machine that spewed out a few bills was God. Some whose nervousness got the better of them asked the bank’s security guard to insert their card in the slot and key in the pin. After the guard handed them their pesos, some excitedly pushed a five or ten-peso coin in to the guard’s hand, his reward for helping them out.
I found the scene heartwarming.
Next to Landbank is the newly painted DTI. And attached to DTI’s right wall was a shack. A well-lived, peopled shack.
It was a hot midday. While the mothers walked their way down to the market, their wallets not as empty, their confidence padded, I walked my way up, trying to find the San Jose, the Dinagat that cannot be found from riding a motorbike.
Before their weeded-out gardens, the women with soiled hands talked about the plants they wanted to grow. The choices were not that many. And judging from the plants in the neighborhood, they only had olasiman, pasaw, and bloodleaf to choose from. A certain uniformity should be achieved. The PBMA leaders would parade around later that week, and the residents were instructed to beautify their yards. Perhaps it would be a delight for the officials to see a uniform garden separating the small houses from the narrow streets. But a gardener myself, I knew one week was not enough for these plants. To achieve the desired—desirable—thickness, olasiman and bloodleaf need at least three weeks, pasaw up to two months.
This act of obedience, this act of collective beautification of their yards appeals to me, metaphors for everyone’s faith—they tried to be united, they tried to make their faith unwavering, flowering.
On the following day, at exactly two-thirty in the morning, the loudness of the nearby bell rattled me from my slumber. It bore the frantic sound of an emergency, as if the whole island was being besieged by pirates. I told Mark about it when he picked me up from Bahay Turista later that morning at eight. It is a signal for all PBMA members to pray. Even the head of the tourism office, Mark said, has his own alarm clock on his table.
“Adto ta sa prayer meeting unyang hapon ha?” he asked. Or he asked in a way that sounded more like a statement. Together with Tristann and Jose, our itinerary for that morning was to visit some beaches and trek to Bababu Lake.
“Sure. Nganong di. Pero ang akong white shirt naay statement nakasuwat.”
“Drink. Drunk. Hungover.”
*Jona Branzuela Bering is a writer and photographer from Cebu, Philippines. When she is not traveling, she gardens, teaches, and becomes a slave to her four cats. Follow her travels on Instagram @travelingjona. For more travel narratives, tips, and photos, log on to backpackingwithabookcom. You can also e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.