[COLUMN] Mining memories of Mindoro

(Continued from last week’s issue…)

Papa was proud of being a Naujeno even when he lived in the US after retirement. While living in Glendale, California in his eighties, he always looked forward to dressing to the nines in a tuxedo, and tripping the light fantastic whirling about on the dance floor with my mother or his daughters for the Naujeno Annual Ball in some posh Los Angeles hotel, half a world away from the place he loved.

He may have wanted to reconnect with a few remaining old timers, people he had common ties with while growing up. But mostly during his last years, he was simply happy and content being home. If he had the chance however, he would have wanted to visit the place where he grew up —just one more time— before sudden death at 87 years old, on a cold and dreary winter’s day overtook him.

I went in his stead some time ago. It is something I had planned on doing, as a quiet tribute. For my part, I wanted to understand how such a place shaped who he is and what moved him to sail the seven seas for 40 years as a ship captain, hauling logs and cars and tons of containers from port to port— from Siberia to South Africa, from Pusan to Peru— bringing with him my mother’s keepsake, a small image of the Nuestra Senora de Antipolo, before the wanderlust gave out at retirement. He would have been surprised with the changes in his old hometown.

Gone are the slow, ponderous boats that seemed more like floating coffins decades ago. Gone is the mixture of smells—of sweat, salt spray, gasoline and livestock —which would make me throw up when the swells were big. Of course, it didn’t help that I made it worse.

Progress has caught up with the place somewhat. Now, for half the length of a Disney movie, you can get there from Batangas pier, which has bus routes coming from Plaza Lawton and Cubao. The Aboitiz-owned Super Cat hydrofoil boats with air conditioned theater style seating ply the shark-infested, tricky waters between the two ports of Batangas City and Calapan City. These boats have made it easier to island hop.

Fast, efficient and affordable, the sleek boats skim the surface in no time flat, particularly during good weather when these can run with the tide. These have become a boon to Mindoro that now connects Luzon to the Visayas region by sea and land, via buses that ran in tandem regularly plying the length of the Mindoro highway corridor.

Many islanders own cellphones and are nimble with their fingers as they go about texting through their days. There are cellphone towers in the middle of ricefields. My resident cousin, Andy who acted as our tour guide, says that most would rather forego food than have to go without a load of prepaid minutes.

Periodically as you drive along the highway, and in the towns, you will see modest-sized homes with Italianate designs sticking out from among thatched huts in the middle of rice paddies. Andy says that such progress is due to the fact that someone from that household is probably working as a domestic help somewhere in Europe. The euros are what keep the local economy afloat somewhat. Perhaps, particularly more so, during this drawn-out scourge of the Covid pandemic, money from distant lands prove to be a Godsend.

We spent a day to visit White Beach at Puerto Galera, famous worldwide for their dive sites and its calm, protected waters and its coffee colored sand, a distant second to the pristine white sands of Boracay.

We stopped by Tamaraw Falls at San Teodoro, an intense gusher that day because of the recent rains. On the approach to Puerto Galera from Calapan, the ride takes you to a scenic, elevated zigzag route carved from the land exposing prized Mindoro white marble on the mountainside and above lush banana plantations, showing the sea in all its glory.

At the beach are the usual trappings of Philippine tourism: persistent, persuasive peddlers of pearl and coral rings, earrings and necklace, skilled masseuses offering their services, restaurants, money changers, banana boat rides, souvenir shops, tattoo shops, dive shops and big outrigger boats spewing out tourists directly from Batangas City pier.

In pre- pandemic days, all the room rates of the smattering of hotels and honky tonk joints spike during Holy Week and the summer months. Puerto Galera was all business—crass and hard-nosed in those days. But with international tourism being shellacked and sidelined these days, things may have changed.

The islanders may have to go back to the sea for their daily sustenance. When the pandemic scourge leaves us for good, take the time to check out this place before it gets much too commercial again for one’s tastes. Whether you like it or not, this is a much needed pause. See it while nature is still at the helm of this vanishing beauty.

If we had the luxury of another day, we would have spent it in little-known Lake Naujan and see the place where the most delicious species of fish I have tasted in my life, that goes by the exotic names of banak and banglis are now nearly extinct or hard to come by, I am told. They say the reason for its unique taste is the moss the fish used to feed on. The moss is gone and so are the fish, an ecological balance gone awry, perhaps because of neglect and lack of foresight. We need a naturalist hero here to save the fish that is unique to this environment.

December isn’t the best time to go to Mindoro. Nature, in a grouchy mood, throws a hissy fit around this time. The seas are choppy. Rain clouds hover about, casting a pall of unwelcoming soupy gray skies but I was determined to go, in fair or foul weather. No self-respecting captain’s daughter should do less. The rivers are swollen overrunning their banks and Naujan, which never had floods before, is consistently subject to flooding because of some man-made diversion of the waterways. Trust man to mess with nature the wrong way and lose big time.

During the first night, the wind howled, the waves crested and the sea, all but roared in our ears. The fish weren’t biting and the fishermen, pulling in their nets, have practically nothing, save some flotsam and jetsam and detritus from an ill-tempered sea, to show for all their efforts – just slim pickings of espada fish to tide themselves over for the day.

Still, they look to the sea for sustenance and they know, it will be good again. Thankfully, the rains held off and a bit of sun sneaked out as a grudging welcome the following day and the day after that and all was well.

Two dolphins swimming and jumping alongside the Super Cat on the day we sailed for Calapan City from Batangas City under a slight drizzle, must have been good signs.

On our last night, I stood outside on the shore beneath a velvet sky, clear of clouds and peppered with the brightest stars and watched the long, slow, rhythmic procession of tiny pinprick points of light from distant ships passing by the island headed for unknown destinations, like luminous rosary beads glowing in the darkness. The call of the sea is strong in this place. With a knowing nod, I headed back to the cottage finally understanding why my father chose the life he lived.

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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.
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Nota Bene: Monette Adeva Maglaya is SVP of Asian Journal Publications, Inc. To send comments, e-mail monette.maglaya@asianjournalinc.

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