Over the shimmering emerald expanse of Panay Gulf, Inampulugan, “Mother of All Islands”, uncoiled like a crocodile lugging three mountains on her back.
It was the biggest chunk broken off Guimaras, the Mango Country, tucked away to the Southeast of Iloilo City, amidst fishing grounds that yielded blue crabs for Japanese tables, squids, stingrays and groupers for the locals. Its mountains nurtured virgin forests. Bamboo, coconut and mangroves flourished on its sugar-white coasts.
My destination actually nestled between Inampulugan’s beaches and mountains, the 1,067 hectare Costa Aguada Island Resort. It was almost dusk when I got there after seven hours of travel by land, sea and air.
While there was light, I padded along the beach. Tiny tunnels pockmarked the white expanse, each with sand piled neatly to one side. I went down on my knees to play hide and seek with pale sand crabs.
When I straightened up, I startled a group of herons. They flapped up a higher perch among the bleached skeletons of half-submerged trees.
To the west stretched a forest of centuries-old gnarled mangroves that transforms itself to a sunken wilderness with each incoming tide. On its end stood a 5,000 square meter stone fortress – the holding pen of almost half a hundred endangered, two-year old, hawksbill turtles.
I walked on until I ran out of coral beaches and blundered in the midst of whispering bamboos. It felt like intruding in an enchanted throng in conference. In the windless, deepening darkness, I watched the bunched trunks nod and creak.
Up ahead, the mountain beckoned to me. I don’t have the luxury of much time, however. So, I asked the resort manager’s permission to do a night trek in the jungle.
A local told me they used to have “tamaraws” (wild buffalo) here once, but Costa Aguada’s owner had the beasts captured and relocated when they started goring islanders.
Native brown deer still dwell in the jungles. Monkeys feed on coconuts and wild fruits. Rare birds breed in the mangroves and marshes.
Reluctantly, the manager gave in to my wish, provided I bring along one security guard with a shotgun and a local familiar with the terrain.
Already, they had enough mishaps in full daylight. A male guest got lost for twenty-four hours and a foreign lady slipped and fell down the mountain path. Worse, folks feared malevolent spirits killed a couple of the resorts’ security guards in their sleep.
In Costa Aguada’s history, no one dared wander through the mountain after dark. But I didn’t know that when I began climbing behind the resort before midnight.
I scrambled over a steep path, past upturned boulders and fallen trees, seeking footholds on scree blanketed with leaves. Frogs, birds and cicadas scolded me as I bulldozed my way.
At the forest canopy, a young white-breasted sea eagle roused on his roost. My head lamp caught the coppery gleam of a python wrapped tight in the lower branches. Further ahead, a pregnant doe stood transfixed as I shone my light in her eyes. She bounded away when I advanced.
Yet, for the most part, the forest was silent. At the peak, I gazed out into the blackened expanse of the Panay Gulf lit only in places where fishermen’s boats plied its surface. A shooting star flashed and vanished. I gawked at the night sky, one of the clearest I ever saw.
I should have bivouacked in this forest, I thought. It was much cooler here than in my cottage. I could make myself a bed of twigs under a rock ledge or lie down beneath this breath taking canopy.
But it was getting closer to dawn now and my escorts need their sleep. On the way down, I came upon a tunnel gouged out of the rocks – a cave where the Japanese hid during the last World War. Only bats and snakes live there now. I was curious and would have explored its depths if my escorts have not dissuaded me.
We skirted past cracked coconuts, leftovers of monkeys who fed on the path, and winded up in the turtle park. The tide has ebbed, exposing the occupants of the enclosure, along with clumps of sea urchins bristling with foot-long spines.
Warily, my security guard escort shone his flashlight on the edges of the cove. Sometimes, poachers would sneak in during these wee hours.
Back in my room, I’ve barely closed my eyes when they summoned me for breakfast.
We set out for neighboring Nauway Island, home of some 200 fisher folk who supply seafood to the resort. The boats in the island seem to outnumber the huts. Mangy dogs, mostly skin and bones, fled from our path. Sunburnt children ogled at us though the men mending their nets barely gave us a glance.
Others are busy lashing baited crab creels on bamboo platforms, ready to set out to sea. A 74-year old villager still works his nets daily although one daughter is a teacher in Manila and another works as a bank manager in the U.S.
The island has an elementary school but no hospital or doctors. A midwife visits them weekly but in case of an emergency, they have to transport their sick to Pulupandan, 45-minutes sailing by “banca”.
I trotted after the Costa Aguada staff as they went from house to house, asking what the fishermen are selling for the day. Here, they have formed a cooperative but no official market. A representative of a Japanese buyer monitors the catch and the shipment. Because the islanders have no cold storage, they ship their blue crab harvest straight to the Pulupandan plant which processes the meat to flakes for export to Japan.
Yet I was saddened to see fisher folks tossing crabs bursting with eggs into the trays of rejects. They should have automatically returned the gravid females to the sea.
In another house, a woman waved us over to two ice boxes crammed with eagle rays. Our boatman hoisted up an almost 50-pound eagle ray so the photographers can snap some shots.
I seek out eagle rays during my dives. Once, I have fed shellfish to a giant ray who took my whole hand in his bone-crushing mouth. Now, I touched the edges of the ray’s wings, slimy and cold in death, his pure white underside gashed and bloodied.
Unfortunately, the fishermen are beginning to feel the pinch of the ocean’s depleting resources. Each year, they are hauling in progressively smaller catches, they admitted.
The day’s marketing over, we sailed off to Us-usan Island for lunch. In the dialect, “us-us” means to “slide” because its sand bridge literally “slides” into different shapes, depending on the season.
Us-usan’s caretaker, an 88-year old war veteran, watched us from under the shade of a coconut tree as we docked. The beach on the leeward side of the island is ideal for swimming. But my sleep debt was catching up with me.
I dozed in the shade before a lunch of grilled pork, prawns, crabs, grouper, stingray in coconut milk and rice wrapped in banana leaves.
Afterwards, we sailed back to Inampulugan for the island tour of Liog-Liog village, 2.5 kilometers from Costa Aguada.
I drove by Bamboo Beach, the school, the only spring of fresh water in the island and the coop house crammed with hand-crafted coconut shell cups, chimes, back scratchers, bamboo ladles, hand-woven baskets, coco soaps and coco vinegar.
On to the other side of the island, we passed The Rock, a hill of solid stone, and inspected the World War II Japanese Bunker – a lookout which the soldiers used to see all the ships and enemy tankers passing through Guimaras Strait.
Returning to the resort, we drove by the mini zoo, which holds African guinea fowls, a jungle rooster or “labuyo” caged with a couple of fat chickens and a number of bunnies who have tunnelled through the entire earthen floor of their cage. The zoo used to keep a python until the constrictor squeezed through the chicken coop and devoured the occupants.
A juvenile sea eagle, whose cage mate has escaped, blinked at me from his perch. A black wild cat dozed in the neighboring enclosure. His mate has also pulled a Huodini act on her keepers and fled into the mountains.
At the end of the tour, I visited the turtles once more. A three-flippered sub-adult swam alongside me as I trotted on the top of his rock wall, hoping for hand-outs. When I stopped, he stopped. When I resumed walking, he followed. At one point, he attempted to clamber over the barrier to join me.
By twilight, I was back in my room. The daughter of a local “hilot” kneaded my aching muscles. A teacher at the village school, also moonlighting as a masseuse, gave me a spa using cold coconut milk.
Outside, the voice of the sea lulled me. The bamboo forest whispered sleep. And willingly, I surrendered.