Our flight from Silay-Bacolod, Negros Island, was preparing for take off to Saragao City, on northern Mindanao Island, Philippines, when we got the second text on our cell phone, “My cousin Ding-Ding will meet you at the Gateway Hotel.” The first text had been, “a cousin has reserved the Gateway Hotel for you in Saragao City.” We knew we were in for hospitality and would go along for the adventure. Sure enough, the next morning a middle aged woman walked into the Gateway Hotel lobby and swept us away in a motorized tricycle to the Dinagat Island ferry. Shirley, nicknamed Ding-Ding, had caught the ferry from her home town of Loreto, Dinagat Island at 4:30 am that morning and made the four hour crossing to Saragao City just to collect Michael and me. We stopped by a market on the way to the ferry dock to buy fruit--mangoes my favorite!- for the four hour trip back. The ferry boat was a long wooden double outrigger with a diesel engine. Two covered compartments for 180 passengers were lined with wooden slat benches. Open windows providing natural air conditioning on each side of the ferry could be closed against sea spray by sliding wooden boards closed. Cargo of steel rebar, and other construction material was loaded onto the side outside boards. Two massive logs, the length of the ferry, were braced to opposite sides as outriggers to stabilize the boat in rougher water. Our crossing was smooth across passages and along steep rocks that plunged into the sea on the edge of various islands that we passed on the way to Dinagat Island.
Arriving in Loreto, Fely, Shirley’s cousin, met us with a foot pedaled tricycle for our luggage. A short trip into town, we were taken to the Tourist Guest House, next door to Shirley’s mom’s house, where a room had been reserved. All of this generous treatment came about from Nonoy Cacayan, our friend in Davao City who had made the arrangements with his friends Shirley and Fely when he found out by email that before coming to visit him, we wanted to spend some time on Siargao Island. He thought we would like a detour to Dinagat Island and initiated the actions of Shirley and Fely.
For the next four days Shirley and Fely were constant companions, striving to make sure we were comfortable, fed and that we saw different parts of Dinagat Island. One night we stayed in a municipal guest house at Black Beach, 16 kilometers down the rocky coast road from Loreto. The beach is well known on Dinagat for a landing of Mac Arthur’s troops in 1944, before the more famous landing in Leyete, to begin driving the Japanese occupiers from the Philippines. Two habal-habals-motorcycle taxis- took all four of us, plus Charne, a young man motor cycle driver who also stayed with us. Standing on the beach, with a coral reef just off shore for snorkeling fun, I tried to imagine the beach when the troop ships landed and anxious soldiers splashed through the surf to the palm treed shoreline alert for Japanese fire. Although they probably knew from Filipino guerilla fighters that the enemy was down the coastline several kilometers it must have been frightening to land on a strange island. Shirley said that all of Dinagat residents hid in the hills while the Japanese occupied the island and many became guerilla fighters willing to help the Americans when Mac Arthur fulfilled his famous promise of “I shall return,” following the disaster at Corregidor.
Lunch and dinner miraculously arrived on other habal-habals, pre-arranged by Shirley. Fried fish, fired pork bits, lots of plain rice, a vegetable dish of carrots and ube, a purple root and tomatoes. Dinner was augmented by a two foot long dog-so fish that a local fisherman presented for sale to us. Women at the guest house cooked the dense white meat several ways, including a ceviche type of dish made with coconut vinegar and ginger. Delicious.
Some of our meals were taken in the house of Shirley’s mother, Carolina, a feisty widow who went to school for the first time when her children were also in grade school since she had been denied that right by parents who didn’t believe in educating girls. Her husband had constructed their home with beautiful mahogany plank floors. The nipa (palm thatched) roof covered one large room partitioned off into two bedrooms, the rest of the open area a kitchen, work room, washing and toilet area, sala and eating area. The focus of the sala was a constantly on TV that mesmerized various grandchildren and neighborhood children who dropped by. In her younger days, Carolina sewed clothes for income on her old foot pedal sewing machine standing in the work room. A rice farm where they used to live is rented out to another farmer that supplies her with a portion of their crop as payment. One evening she pulled out a small supply of precious “black rice” to treat us at dinner.
Fely wanted to show us her barangy, or neighborhood, of about 1,000 residents, where she is the kapitan. As an elected official, she has a budget of about 700,000 pesos to use for community needs. By habal-habal we traveled over a rocky dirt road up and over steep hills to the other side of Dinagat to Mabini, a barangy of the coastal town of Tubjon. Mabini is a farming community in the hills, surrounded by rice fields. The income of residents is from farming and copra, dried coconut. In addition to being kapitan, Fely is also the head of a peoples’ organization, Alagad kalambuan ug kingaiyahan Inc. or AKKI for short. She and Shirley are organizing 20 other women to hand make paper to sell, starting with stationary then moving into lamp shades. They will take a class this March on how to make paper and market it.
Fely took us first to her house in Mabini. Though simpler than Carolina’s, Fely’s house is also a gathering place for family. Fely’s wheel chair bound mother, an older aunt, nieces and nephews sat around in the sala, with the TV on. We chatted for awhile in broken English and Visayan, with some sentences translated for us. Laughter swelled when auntie’s was translated, “she thinks you have big noses.”
Fely took us to the high school that she started 5 years ago. The yellow concrete block compound sits on a cleared hill top on the outskirts of Mabini. The school site overlooks a hill side that AKKI attempted to replant with native trees sometime ago, but lost all work due to a forest fire. Their small hydro project built with the assistance of Yamog, Nonoy Cacayan’s organization, no longer works either, due to a drying up of the stream by an upstream chromium mine. Dinagat’s landscape is scraped in a large number of places by chromium and nickel mines, a sign of the corruption in the Philippine government with foreign companies extracting resources from outlying islands from Luzon that have little economic or political power. Still, Fely is not deterred in her attempts to make improvements for the people of Mabini. She left for Saragao City a day ahead of us for a class on refrigeration, since she applied for and won a small refrigeration system for Mabini farmers to store fish and vegetable products for sale. Her hope is that they can hold their products for better prices, in the fluctuating market. The refrigeration system was to be delivered to Mabini this week.
On our last day on Dinagat, we took habal-habals to Esperanza Spring, a fresh water swimming park owned by the Loreto Municipality. The water was clear and refreshing. At 3:30 am on the very last day in Loreto, we were outside Shirley’s house with our luggage ready for the ferry to take us back to Saragao City and onto Siarago Island where we plan a two week flop vacation. Shirley insisted on escorting us to Siarago Island. Then to surprise us, Fely, with another cousin met us at the Dinagat ferry for the transfer to the Siaragao Island ferry. Now we know the power of respect that Fely and Shirley have for Nonoy Cacayan, to respond valiantly to his request to take care of his friends Michael and Francie from Green Empowerment. It’s a really nice feeling, even if a little embarrassing for all the trouble that they went to in taking care of us.