“Bakit nga ba natin ‘to ginagawa uli?” (Why are we doing this again?)
The question makes us laugh as the habal-habal makes its way across bumpy and dusty roads, causing us to bounce up and down. We squirm in our seats to try and find a good position for our already sore bottoms, but there’s hardly any space as there are five of us on the motorcycle seat: the driver, Ate Tess and her wide-eyed baby, me, and then Guido. Jeric, our other companion, is in a similar situation but on another habal-habal right behind us.
We’ve been on the road for over an hour now – we had just arrived by bus from Trenta and were en route to Loreto, where we’d ride a boat to get to the marshlands. The day before, we had spent seven hours on a bus from Davao and a couple more hours on the motorcycle as we sped from one destination to another. We had put together our itinerary hastily, and forgotten to allot time for rest.
The other habal-habal overtakes us, and over the roar of the engine, I shout the question at Jeric just as it passes by. He laughs, then shakes his head and shrugs.
All throughout the trip, we poked fun at our decisions and the situations we got ourselves into – riding a motorcycle in a sudden downpour; catching a bus at 4AM; waking up early the next day to catch another bus; riding a teeny tiny boat that would capsize at the slightest movement; settling in a different room for the third time in three days; and so on and so forth. The question of Why Are We Doing This would never be so serious as to have us pack our bags and head for home. It was always in jest, to keep ourselves in good spirits as we moved from one place to another. And anyway, we’d always be presented with an excellent answer upon arrival at our destinations.
The journey brought us to enchanted places filled with magic and lore, the kinds of places you’d come across in fairytales and epics. If someone had told me last year that I’d be traveling to a mystical river or to the marshlands where the largest crocodile in the world had been found, I’d have thought him absurd. But then it did happen.
In the municipality of Hinatuan, we laid eyes on the Enchanted River, famous for its clear blue waters and unfathomable depths. We came at an inopportune time, however, because at noon, the place had already filled with noisy and rowdy tourists. It was a little underwhelming as, having seen it in photos and documentaries, I expected the place to be quiet and mystical (my friend tells me that the best time to go there is in the morning so you can have the river all to yourself). Nevertheless, the water was a cause for wonder as the surface gleamed and glowed like sapphire. I made a mental note to come back and enjoy it in its full glory, when there were fewer or no people around. We enjoyed a short swim around the river and then headed for the majestic Tinuy-an Falls.
After traveling for another five or six hours, we arrived at the marshlands of Agusan, where we experienced the hospitality of Ate Tess, our guide and a current resident, and Kuya Boyet, the elder of Barangay Panlabuan, where we stayed for the night. After forcing our way through a barricade of water hyacinths (apparently a big hassle for the folks there), we settled into a floating house and listened to our hosts’ stories. They told us about the rituals and practices of the Manobo tribe, and the challenges in keeping them alive. “If we lose our traditions, then we will also lose hope!” Kuya Boyet exclaimed.
They also spoke of their passion for serving their barangay, and the problems they encountered in doing so. Kuya Boyet even recalled a time when they had grown so dedicated to their work that their partners, who felt neglected, threatened to leave them. “There are so many obstacles,” Tess said in Tagalog. “It is painful. But we thought, if we don’t take charge, then who will?” We nodded and listened until the light faded and darkness slowly engulfed the marshlands.
It was close to midnight when we happened to look out the window and found a sky dusted with stars. We tiptoed out of our rooms, passing snoring doctors and nurses (they were there for a medical mission), and lay on the porch. I have never seen a night sky as clear as that one, and to add to the moment, we caught sight of the bright green streaks of falling stars.Early the next day, we got on a small boat with Ate Tess and Kuya Boyet, and went around the marsh to do some birdwatching. At one point, we got off and stepped into a bank so that Ate Tess could show us a lake where her father used to go fishing. “This is Lake Gawa-Gawa,” she said in Tagalog. “My father would come here at night with a light fixed to his head and then come home with a boat filled with fishes!” She had a serene smile on her face as she gazed at the lake.
Suddenly, Guido spotted something in the water and pointed it out. Our guide quickly surged into the water, an expression of delight lighting up her face as she came to the spot where Guido had seen the silver scales of a fish. Knee-deep in lake water, she reached down with two hands and felt around. But the fish kept slipping from her grasp, so she called Kuya Boyet, who was exploring the other side of the lake, to help her. He came running, bolo in hand, a wide grin on his face, which made him look like a kid opening presents on Christmas day. When he got there, he held up the knife and brought it down swiftly. Then he plunged in one hand and triumphantly raised a huge tilapia to the claps and cheers of Ate Tess. We watched them from the edge of the lake and thought them the happiest people on earth.
Not five minutes later, Ate Tess spotted another tilapia and called on Kuya Boyet to catch it as well. It didn’t take long before they emerged from the lake their prizes. Ate Tess couldn’t contain her glee. She told us that it was a good omen and she continuously expressed her thanks to the Lord for providing us with such a feast. On the way back, Kuya Boyet collected heaps of kangkong and piled them at the back of the boat – Ate Tess told us that she would serve tilapia and crispy kangkong for breakfast.
That same morning, we made our way back to land and waved goodbye to Ate Tess. The adventure was short-lived, but we knew at least, that we would always have something and someone to come back to. By the time we arrived in Davao, all we wanted to do was lie down and close our eyes. Our backs and bottoms were sore from the long motorcycle, bus, and boat rides – seriously, we spent more time on the road than in the destinations themselves – but experiencing the magic of these places and its people made it all worth the effort.