ON the outcrop in front of Babas Cove—a little place on the fringe of Basilisa—was the tomb of Commander Bata, a “cult leader,” to quote Survic, from Gingoog City, who was gunned down by the police and was killed during the encounter in Surigao City. Babas Cove was the camp, or the venue for the cult’s rituals then. In the cove’s garden, where dwarf coconut trees grow, was the grave of Lake Bababu’s original caretaker, Peter Langit.

But Survic, the late Langit’s son, had a different name in mind, to which he likened their situation.

“Our house is like Marwan’s,” he professed with a mocking twist on his lips. His comparison was timelier—Marwan was hot in the news earlier this year. His statement made me look at the shacks in the rocky enclave. Their house’s walls were made of sulirap—woven langkay, fragile, and too thin to fend off the cold at night, such walls were too thin to protect Marwan himself, who was found dead inside his hut after an intense encounter with the authorities.

In the Langit’s house, bullets of sunlight passed through the holes, highlighting the threadbare clothes hanging everywhere, highlighting the dismal state of the caretakers’ house of the supposed sacred lake.

Survic, the prodigal son who left his family many years ago, sounded cynical, yet proud of their situation. His deceased father was assigned by Ecleo Sr., the Divine Master, as the caretaker of Bababu Lake. He said Ecleo Sr., who frequented the lake, told his father that the water has healing powers. Following the footsteps of their leader, Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association (PBMA)’s members often visit and take a dip in the water.

Survic was my guide, while Ric, his thin older brother, was guiding Jose and Tristann. Mark decided to stay on the beach, talking with their mother, whose maiden name would amuse any Bisaya speaker: Dementia Manaog, later changed to Dementia Manaog-Langit.

Comfortable in the wilderness, I did not have any problem with the route. Tristann, an urbanite all throughout, lagged behind with Jose and Ric. The family’s two dogs kept running back and forth, tracking Tristann’s and our group. To make himself of some use, Survic ushered me through the plans for the property instead.

“Gitan-aw na nis investor.” He touched a leaf, stopped walking, while waiting for me to finish shooting a trabunko—a reject kind of spider, a childhood memento resting on a web.

“Nindot himuon ni nga retirement property,” he added and pointed to his left.

Calculating the vastness of the land was impossible from where we were. All I could see was a path surrounded by silent trees, whose leaves were sometimes ruffled by the passing wind. But Survic was thinking of noises, of tractors flattening some parts of their land, of tall buildings, of fancy beach cottages, of more people visiting Lake Bababu and the beach, of more technical divers exploring the cave that connects Lake Bababu to Surigao Strait. Under a public-private business venture named Bababu Ecotourism Adventure Park, there is a likely possibility for the plans to push through.

“Kon mahitabo na ang imong mga pangagpas, mawa ang beauty sa inyong lugar.” I could not stop myself from saying. But who was I to say, really? Dinagat has a lot of unpeopled beaches claimed by elegantly tall coconut trees, beaches that bear funny names like Otinan in Lalaking Bukid, names that may anger the righteous. Many coasts, except for the one in San Jose, resembled Boracay in the ’80s, a beauty unadulterated by consumerism and mass tourism.

“Mao ba? Ipabilin na lang nga in-ani?” he asked.

In-ani. Like this.

I thought of their houses. I thought of my own poverty. I thought of the langkay tied upside down on the coconut trees surrounding their father’s grave, its tip pointing to a drum to collect the rainwater—his family’s ration of freshwater. I could tell Survic wanted to have a better life for him and his family, a better house, a life that would not depend on the occasional tourists like us dropping by, a life that would not depend on rainwater collected in the drum.

But I also thought of how tourism, once mismanaged, can turn into an ugly beast of unregulated resort buildings, of waste mismanagement, of undisciplined, unethical party lovers.

Elusive fish

So I did not really have the answer to his question and just kept on shooting whatever there was to shoot until we saw a swath of waterskin peeking through the branches and trunks, a kind of signal—awkward as it may have been—to stop the talk on progress and better lives.

“Duol na ta,” he said.

The lake was not a long walk from the cove to begin with; it was an easy 30-minute trek for someone who grew up with mountains and trees.

I noticed though, after my two cents on the proposed project in Lake Bababu, Survic’s enthusiasm lessened. Perhaps he did not see my opinion coming, perhaps he found it ironic: I who supposedly promoted the beauty and attractions of the places I had visited, detested the idea of development. And by attraction, what he had in mind, perhaps, was the generic, homogeneous comfort and convenience every tourist deserves and must get. He must be baffled. He must find me baffling.

We reached the lake wrapped in our individual, personal, almost indifferent, silence. He sat on the protruding rock. I stood by the log lying slantingly in the water. I instantly admired the white granite wall—a landmark I recognized in photos. Not even a minute passed, I saw a group of six big mamsa gliding by the lake’s edges. It was odd, surreal to see ocean fish in a lake. I did not have the same emotion when I swam with the saltwater fish in Hinatuan River, one of the first places I visited on my first solo backpacking trip to Mindanao two years ago.

That single moment broke the awkward silence between me and Survic.

“Hala, swerte ka, tagsa ra na sila magpakita.” There was excitement in his voice. When the other group arrived, he shared the news to his older brother.

“Sa buotan ra og kasing-kasing na sila magpakita,” Ric, and soon the rest of the family in Babas Cove, proclaimed. I wondered if the answer was orchestrated. Would I fancy calling myself—the often cynical, doubtful, ever-questioning self—goodhearted?

Or should I take the sighting as a sign that they, the fragile creatures, are with me on my ecological stand. But my experience was nothing compared to their father’s: the late Peter saw a barracuda as big as a coconut trunk, shooting up in the air before disappearing back into the lake’s depths, leaving a domino of ripples graduating towards the edges. Their father, Ric recalled, though he was the caretaker, was never comfortable around the lake.

Market talk

Survic remained seated on the rock. While Tristann, finding the trek grueling and his pants’ thigh seam ripped, decided to rest before facing the route again. Jose accompanied his guest. But Ric did not wait for long, removed his worn out shirt, and dove into the water. I followed his lead and tasted the brackish water. We sat on the log, talking about the quotidian seasons passing through the lake.

In August, the habagat season, the wind pushes the seawater into the lake, making the bottom salty and the surface fresh. In February, the water gradually gets fresher and fresher, the perfect time to submerge their tawa for a possible catch.

Looking at Ric rubbing his fisherman’s palms against his skin, I could tell that he was more learned about their place. Survic was gone for far too long, that he was still finding his way back home.

***

On early evenings, some kids paced around the market, looking up at the ceiling with an elastic band stretched between their thumb and pointer. The spiders in the middle of recreating their homes would sometimes hit the floor or the tiled tables without any sound. Quite an interesting scene, I would say, as interesting as the San Jose Public Market itself.

On the left, outside Bahay Turista, was the view of the market standing regal, an unlikely adjective for a public market, at the edge of the sea. The market’s design reminded me of a place I have never been to: Rajasthan.Out of this admiration, I walked down the road by the cliff and headed to the market every morning and late afternoon. Along the way, I would say “hi” to a spoiled cat in the carenderia, check the displays in ukay-ukay stores, and once, I had an extension wire customized at a hardware store. Little routines signalling that I have adapted in places I would soon leave as soon as I arrived.

Up close, there was nothing grand about the market. There was nothing grand about its past either; rather there was something fishy about its history. The hiding Ecleo Jr., aside from his wife’s murder, was also convicted of corruption charges in relation to the public market’s overpriced construction. But this was beyond me.

Local markets are my personal destinations; these places are the testament of the living and the real—real people making an honest trade every day.

Past the fish section was the kapehan, the corner facing Bahay Turista, the place where I silently sipped my instant black coffee in the company of locals. I would often catch myself staring at someone else’s hand grabbing a plastic bag of bread or dipping a piece of bread into an overly sweet coffee with milk, or looking at the inn where I stayed perched on the hill. “Who owes money to whom? How much does a kilo of tulingan cost? Do you think it will rain soon?” are the variations of the conversations among locals.

I wonder how varied, how similar, or how different the local scene must be in other parts of this 81st island province in our country.

Subjective lens

While standing at the edge of the unfinished Capitol building in Barangay 40 (named so because it costs P40 to get there), Mark said that we could only see 2% of the whole of Dinagat. Before us were peninsulas and islands saturated, drowning in the afternoon light.

Despite its big size, the number of tourists trickle. Perhaps, Survic had a point all along; the lack of the in-demand generic comfort and convenience, and I may add, the cult rumors, can be unsettling to the nerves. Admittedly, the lack of accommodation, the so-called traveler-unfriendliness of Dinagat, was what attracted me: the little inconveniences make me feel that indeed, this place is still honest to itself.

On our way up to the Capitol, Mark joked about the state of their roads, which connect mountain barangays and other municipalities.

“Our roads are very luxurious,” he said.

“How so?”

“Lukso-lukso.” He got me with that one.

Mark was my primary lens in seeing his own island province, fully knowing that his ways of seeing his own place, my ways of seeing his ways, my ways of seeing his place, can be unreliable over time: if a traveler’s tale changes as fast as the place does, the local’s narrative varies from one person to the next.

In Babas Cove, upon learning Survic’s vagabond ways—losing contact with his family, working as a construction worker or fisherman—Mark remarked how travel and its ways have changed since then.

“Sa una, when you travel you have this, this, and this,” Mark said, pointing to his temple, eyes, and heart.

There was a camera beside me. I was taking down notes on my phone. Tristann traveled around with a trusted guide and took a lot of photos on his iPhone. But despite these gadgets’ presence, the ways of traveling—its core and heart —have not changed much.

I sat there with the rest, looking at the limestone, cyan sea, and sky, thinking how these elements could differ from one another, yet blend well together; thinking of the kinilaw recipe Mark taught me the other night: to remove the stench of the fresh bulinaw¸rinse it with vinegar.

*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 backpackingwithabook@gmail.com.