Cruising the Philippines Part 1: Banton Island

Cruising the Philippines Part 1: Banton Island

Excerpt from the book Bound for Distant Seas by James Baldwin

In the center of the Philippines, in the Sibuyan Sea, is a seemingly endless collection of islands, stretching like green stepping stones in every direction. Within this group, and far from the reach of Islamic terrorists on islands to the south, is the well-known resort island of Boracay. A steady stream of tourists, as well as a few cruising yachts, are attracted to its kilometers-long sugary white beaches, water sports and lively beachside discos. Though the party life on Boracay lured me back for a few days whenever I passed through the area during our travels in the 1990s, I spent most of my time cruising the Philippines more remote and lesser known islands.

A day-sail to the north of Boracay, and a world apart, is the island of Banton, a place of perfect tranquility where island life went on mostly undisturbed by the modern world.

 

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Emilio Mingo greets us on our return to Banton Island.

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A fisherman on the new road encircling Banton.

I anchored within a protected bight on the west coast of Banton. My chart indicated a settlement here named Mainit, but there was no sign of a village on the shoreline of rocks, sand, and palm trees. In Filipino, mainit means “hot.” The curious name itself was enough reason to bring me in for a visit. From the coast of this four-mile-wide island, I gazed upwards at a sea of coconut palms rising in a green wave up the half-mile-high slopes. By the time I had my main anchor down and then set a second anchor by dinghy, two men had paddled their banca out to greet me. Emilio Mingo and his son-in-law Winnie de los Santos stepped aboard and welcomed me to the island. The men told me that they were both farmers and fishermen and that they represented the only two families now living at Mainit. Though the unschooled Emilio only spoke Asi, one of the Visayan dialects limited to Banton and a few small neighboring islands, we became instant friends. Winnie spoke Filipino and a smattering of English, so his inquisitive father-in-law kept him busy as translator. “Where is your wife or crew?” Emilio asked in amazement after a quick scan of the empty boat. When I replied that I was sailing alone as I had done many times before, he smiled and put his hand on my shoulder in admiration, or sympathy, or a little of both, then invited me to come home with them for dinner.

Enchanted Springs, Black Fairies

Stepping ashore I immediately understood why the village had been named “Hot.” Emilio and Winnie laughed as my bare feet danced across the burning mix of gravel and sand at the water’s edge. The bottoms of their feet had built up thick calluses from years of walking barefoot, and they were nearly immune to the hot pebbles, although I did notice they too spent no more time than necessary on the super-heated stones. Winnie explained that the underground volcanic thermal heating there was most evident during low tide and that the pebbles were only pleasantly warm when covered by water at high tide. At low tide the locals sometimes dug a hole near the sea’s edge to place fish or vegetables to cook in a natural earth oven. Thankfully, a dozen steps farther up the beach, the ground temperature returned to normal.

When I asked where I could get fresh water to fill my tank, they scooped out a shallow hole in the gravel near the high tide mark. The hole quickly filled with delicious, mineral-laden spring water that I later scooped out by the cupful to fill my water jugs. “It’s an enchanted spring,” Winnie told me. “It moves around underground and seeps up through the sand in different locations each season.” He went on to explain that in the dry season the spring inexplicably runs more strongly, but in the rainy season it often becomes weak and sometimes even goes dry.

 

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Red lines indicate some of our passages through the Philippines. Banton Island is near the center of the archipelago between Luzon and Mindanao. Detailed map at right.

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Camouflaged within the tree canopy and boulders above the beach was the nipa house of Emilio’s family. His wife served us a dinner of rice, grilled fish, baked pumpkin, and bibinka―a delicious sticky cake made from grated cassava roots and coconut cream. Emilio’s plot of land was so full of rocks that he used the larger ones for furniture in his dirt-floored house of woven split bamboo walls capped by a grass roof. We sat on these stones around the wooden dinner table while a group of children, temporarily banished from the house, stared and giggled at me through the glassless open window.

By the soft light of an oil lamp, we exchanged stories as we sipped fresh tuba that only a few hours earlier had been flowing sap collected from the top of a coconut tree next to their house. Along with the oddities of the hot beach and the spring that disappeared and reappeared, Emilio told me about the mischievous “black fairies” living in the mountains. According to Emilio, they take the shape of a chimp-sized monkey, which is three times the size of the real monkeys who inhabit the forests of Banton. A local farmer said he had shot and wounded a black fairy with his rifle. A few days later the man took ill and died, supposedly from the vague but lethal symptoms of black magic. The previous year, Emilio claimed, an old woman had been abducted by one of these fairies from her home and was never heard from again. The fairies are also blamed for casting a spell on a young married couple who climbed into a canoe one calm, moonlit night, paddled out to sea, and never returned. The mental image of that couple paddling off into the night haunted me. Were they seeking a new island in order to live away from disagreeable in-laws or under an intoxicating fatal spell?

When Emilio had married, the traditional courting ritual on Banton called for the man to declare his intentions by singing a love song called the pamentana outside the girl’s window. Like characters in an opera, the girl would signal her acceptance of him by lingering in the window. Later, the boy’s parents brought gifts for the girl’s family, and then the elders made plans for the marriage. The pamentana had gone away on Banton, although marriage still begins with a romantic courtship and then becomes a firm alliance between families.

My new friends gave me a ripe papaya and a bunch of bananas to bring back to my boat. The next morning, Winnie paddled out to join me for breakfast. I served up my favorite thick cornmeal pancakes. In place of syrup, I mashed the papaya and a banana into a jam, spread it over the pancake, and topped it with the fresh powder I grated from cinnamon tree bark and a hard, marble-sized nutmeg seed. As we ate in the cockpit, two teenaged boys in their banca joined us. Alongside them swam another young man. When I lowered the rope ladder and asked him to come on board, he bypassed the ladder, gripped the toe rail with his hands, and pulled himself up on deck. His legs were twisted and wasted, probably from polio. We don’t often see polio victims in the Western world because since the late 1950s nearly all of our children have been vaccinated against this crippling disease. But even at a cost of pennies per dose, the vaccine has yet to reach all of the world’s children.

The crippled teenager introduced himself as Boi. His friends later told me that Boi was too proud and independent to let them carry him and that crutches don’t work on the sandy, stone-filled soil. His withered legs were a useless encumbrance to him on land, where he dragged himself along the uneven ground with excruciating effort. But in the water he had freedom of movement and an escape from a the brutal world of gravity that tested his endurance at every turn. His friends claimed he was one of the best divers and spear fishermen among them. I made a gift to Boi of my spare goggles and snorkel to replace his leaky, homemade, wood-framed diving glasses. In return, Boi offered to stay to watch over my boat while Winnie and I went on a foot tour of the island. I gave Boi a pancake and a glass of water, rigged an awning over the boom for some shade, and then departed with Winnie in his banca.

We stopped at Winnie’s house where I gave his wife some antibiotic capsules from my medical kit for an infected cut on their daughter’s leg that had turned into a tropical ulcer. She opened the capsule and poured some of the powder onto the girl’s wound instead of having her swallow the entire capsule as I had expected. This was a common technique in poor communities. The people had learned that by applying small amounts of the powder directly to the wound, they could cure the infection with two capsules rather than needing to buy larger amounts for a week of oral treatment. It also made sense not to poison your entire body with drugs when a topical treatment could do the job as effectively. In the future, I employed their method on my own minor wounds, and it seemed to work better than the prepared antibiotic ointments.

The Long Stone Road

Behind their house, Winnie led me to a narrow road of hand-laid stones, the tops of which had been laboriously chiseled flat. The intricately constructed stone road circled the perimeter of the island, connecting the villages and making travel by foot much easier than walking the muddy footpaths that lead up into the interior mountains. Various heights of rock fill kept the grade of the road remarkably level as the land dipped and rose under it. Around each bend in the road were reminders of the rural lifestyle. People worked quietly in their tropical gardens or gathered piles of coconuts that had fallen throughout the forest during the previous night. Stone-sided fire pits for smoke-drying coconuts were everywhere, indicating that copra (dried coconut meat) was the island’s chief export. In the sparse patches of soil between the weatherworn boulders, we passed crops of tobacco, banana, tomatoes, and taro. The name Banton, which means “stony,” was an apt description of the entire island.

In a hidden interior valley on the western side of the island we entered the settlement of Tungonan. The village was set among mango, banana, breadfruit, and papaya trees, all competing for sunlight with towering coconut palms. Men had notched footholds into the bark of the trees with their machetes for easy climbing. I watched a man climb the tree as quickly as a monkey. He pulled himself between the fronds and onto the top where he retrieved a plastic jug that a day earlier he had tied to the cut-away stump of the tree’s central flower stem. He hung the half-filled jug to a hook on his belt and descended to the ground. Winnie took a swig of the white liquid and pronounced it “very good.” Gathering tuba required a skillful climber, and it was dangerous work. Many climbers had been killed or crippled when they grasped a palm frond that unexpectedly came loose and sent them plummeting to the ground.

At Tungonan we were stopped outside a high school by a teacher who brought us in to watch the students rehearse Romeo and Juliet. Next, we stopped at the sari-sari store where the woman who owned the store was weighing a baby in a basket hung under a scale normally used for weighing rice and flour. When I asked if babies were being sold by the kilo, the woman laughed and said, “No, we’re measuring them to check for malnutrition.” Mothers lifted the bigger children so that they could hang from the scale by their hands, while the storeowner, serving as a volunteer health worker, recorded their weight in her logbook. She then measured the children’s height. “Filipinos like to be tall,” she said. “Once a year at midnight on a full moon some parents stretch their children to make them grow. They call it tubo [grow].”

We left Tungonan to walk along the island’s north shore where a narrow ribbon of concrete was gradually being laid over the old stone road. There was no assigned construction team for the project. Instead, each village had volunteers work on the section of road passing through their land. This ongoing project had kept many of the islanders employed for several years as they gathered and sorted small stones and sand from the seashore and leveled the road with pickaxes and shovels. A person was paid five pesos for each 50-kg bag of uniformly sorted stones he could fill and carry to the work site. At their slow pace, it seemed it would take another generation before the entire road was finished. The pace of work was slow and haphazard because there was no one in charge. There was no rush to complete the project, and why should there be? When the road was finished it would only attract the curse of motorized vehicles: something the small island community needed no more than they needed the invasion of a tourist industry that would turn them from self-sufficient stewards of the land to resentful stewards of demanding, credit-card-clutching tourists. On a beach along this north shore, some enterprising person had built a few nipa hut-style cottages to attract tourists to Banton. The scene reminded me of the uneasy choice between financial poverty and cultural destruction that faces so many island communities. A small island and its culture are fragile. A few cottages or a single guesthouse is bearable, but an influx of large numbers of tourists will unwittingly destroy the very thing they seek to discover. My hope is that communities such as Banton will choose to keep their lands out of the grasping hands of developers. I had to admit that I too was in some ways a tourist. But I carried my hotel and restaurant with me on my boat and sought to minimize my impact on the places I passed through instead of transforming them.

Defending Paradise: Pirates, Stones, and Church Bells

On the island’s east coast is the main town of Banton. Here in 1663 the Spanish built a church and a fort out of limestone blocks to protect themselves and the local population from Moro pirates and slavers from the south who had repeatedly raided this peaceful isle. Like Puerto Galera on Mindoro Island, Banton was directly on the route of the Spanish galleons, sailing across the Pacific and through the San Bernardino Straits to Manila. The galleons could stop here for fresh provisions and anchor under the safety of the fort’s cannon. Parts of the original fort and its cannon were still visible through the encroaching forest that had entwined the ruins with vines and tree roots. During the American colonial period the settlement was renamed Jones to honor a U.S. senator who pushed for voting rights for Filipinos. When the idea of Filipinos voting in American elections disappeared with independence in 1946, the town of Jones renamed itself Banton.

 

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Aerial photo of Banton Town courtesy Ish Fabicon

The people of Banton refer to their home as the “isle of peace and freedom.” But there was a time when they defended it against invaders by hurling baskets of stones down from the cliffs. During the three years of Japanese occupation in WWII, to encourage obedience, many islanders had been summarily executed for minor offenses. Towards the end of the war their chance for revenge came when American planes sank a convoy of Japanese ships passing near the island. About 100 survivors reached Banton only to find the islanders waiting to greet their former masters with their baskets loaded with stones. The unarmed Japanese soldiers who had survived the initial barrage of stones retreated to the municipal hall. An angry mob surrounded them, pulling them out one by one and stoned them to death on the spot. Not one man was spared. I stepped into the same wooden building where the massacre had taken place and met the man who served as the island’s postmaster, mayor, and sole policeman. Next to the mayor was an older man who proudly admitted to me that he had participated in the stoning, a scene unimaginable to me in a place of such serene and affable people. The kindnesses that nature had bestowed on the island were matched by the kindnesses its people had bestowed on me. But like the typhoons that occasionally sweep over the island, these amiable people are capable of rising up in fury when threatened.

The mayor informed me that the year before my visit to Banton, the island had again been invaded by pirates, for the first time since the Moros raids of centuries ago. The bandits in their bancas descended on the defenseless island from Luzon like a band of marauding Vikings. Brandishing rifles and machetes, the pirates entered the town, terrorizing the inhabitants and stealing whatever valuables they could lay their hands on. Since that incident, the islanders had organized their own coast guard with volunteers who rotated standing guard throughout the night. If a suspicious boat should arrive, the watchman would signal its arrival by ringing the church bells continuously. Another volunteer would run to nearby villages like Paul Revere warning of a British invasion. Hearing the alarm, the men of the island were then required to meet on shore to repel the invaders, while the women and children sought refuge hiding in the bonduk (mountains). Thankfully, bandits did not return and Banton’s watch keepers have since returned to their beds.

Banton’s connection to the outside world was via the weekly ferry from Lucena City and a monthly ferry from Manila. Few outsiders landed there because there was no hotel in town, though according to the mayor a guesthouse would soon be opened. The only other link with the outside world was the telegraph office where I watched a telegram being sent to Manila via short-wave radio by a woman tapping out the “dits” and “dahs” of Morse code on a wired brass key.

Mountain Gardens and Dynamite

On the way back from Banton town, we detoured to climb a steep, forested path to the top of Mt. Ampongo, the island’s highest peak. We walked along the rolling ridgeline between Ampongo and the slightly lower Mt. Chaktak, which overlooked the anchorage at Mainit. On a narrow plain between these two peaks the fertile volcanic soil allowed some hardworking farmers to produce gardens of cassava and sweet potatoes. For two pesos I purchased two kilos of cassava roots direct from the lone farmer up here to use to make my own bibinka cakes in Atom’s galley. Beyond the cultivated fields, Winnie and I took turns cutting through the chest-high kunai grass so that we could make our way towards the edge of the cliff for a better view. Throughout much of the Philippines, this nearly impenetrable kunai grass had taken over the deforested lands, choking gardens and blocking any possible reforestation. We stepped as close to the edge as possible and looked nearly straight down at Atom as she lay securely in the anchorage. The blue waters stretching to the horizon were punctuated by islands like a necklace of green jade stones―Marinduque, the Tres Ryes (Three Kings), the Dos Hermanos (Two Brothers), Mindoro, Maestro de Campo, Bantoncillio, Simara, and Tablas.

 

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Family of Winnie de los Santos.

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Fishermen with a catch of squid at Bantoncillio.

 

The day after touring Banton on foot, I exercised my arms by paddling my kayak around the island in a single long day. It was easy to slide through the calm waters on the island’s leeward side, but it became a slow and tough slog to get through the choppy seas of the windward coast. There the turbulence of waves reflecting back from the bold rocky shoreline threatened to turn me upside down the moment I lost focus on maintaining my precarious balance. Once back in calmer waters, I was able to stop and rest my aching arms and back several times at isolated beaches set between the long stretches of boulders-strewn shores.

During these days Winnie was building himself a new outrigger sailing canoe. At night he was often out fishing beyond the anchorage with his father-in-law. I accompanied Winnie one day in his new sailing banca for the eight-mile round trip to Bantoncillo Island. With a fair wind behind us, our banca cut through the waters effortlessly. We hauled the boat up onto the perfect white-powder beach on the small, uninhabited islet, and I snorkeled among the shimmering coral reefs stocked with aquarium-sized tropical fishes. Winnie hunted the deeper waters for bigger fish with his sling spear. A couple more bancas approached, and Winnie waved me back to the beach just in time to avoid having my eardrums pierced by the thunderous explosions of dynamite sending up geysers in the waters in front of us. Fishing by dynamite was a serious problem in much of the Philippines because its overuse was killing the ecosystems of the reefs the fishermen depended on for long-term sustenance. But these men had hungry growing families waiting at home. Their thoughts were necessarily of food for the day at hand.

Halfway back to Banton, the fitful wind went calm, and I pointed out to Winnie what was obvious to him as well, that a contrary current was carrying us away from the island. Winnie handed me one of his paddles. Under a burning hot sun we rhythmically stabbed at the water with our short wooden paddles until reaching the beach at Banton two hours later.

Mother at the Loom, Children Flown Away

In search of more vegetables to bring on my upcoming trip to Sibuyan Island, one day I walked up a stony path leading to the village of Tan-Ag in the island’s interior. A local woman who looked to be in her sixties was alone in the garden beside her house. For 50 pesos she cut enough green vegetables and cabbages from their stems to fill my bag. Through the open doorway of her little nipa hut I stared at an ancient wooden loom loaded with woven cloth. Seeing my interest, she and a younger neighbor woman gave me a demonstration. Using the foot treadle and quick, deft motions of her hands, she wove buri palm and abaca fibers into a roll of stiff cloth. Once a month she completed a roll of fabric that she carried to town for delivery to some Manila fabric merchant. In return she earned 500 pesos ($20 U.S.), which she said was enough to buy the few necessities she needed that couldn’t be produced locally. Her husband, the loom’s builder, had recently died and had been laid to rest in the island’s cemetery. Her children had gone away years ago to live in Manila. Once each year one or another of them made a brief return visit to Tan-Ag. She reminded me of the other lonely old woman Mei and I had met in the abandoned Hong Kong fishing village. Both of these women had outlived their husbands and had watched their children go off to the city for a better education and jobs. It was a common theme in the countryside. Everywhere in the rural Philippines, I saw older people and children but not as many young adults. The adults I encountered either had never left their homes because of a legal or emotional need to keep the property that had been handed down by their parent’s parents or had returned after failing to find a better life in the soul-crushing city. They came home to die and be buried in the soil of their ancestors. As I wondered if there was a way to bring some of the benefits of city life back to the country instead of enticing the young to abandon the old homesteads, I penned a verse:

          Oh woman, where are your sons and daughters?
          Flown away to peck at the bitter fruits of the city.
          Will they fly home one day to bury you
          And mourn the loss of youth’s bountiful orchards?

Over the next three years, during my travels through Southeast Asia, I returned three more times to see my friends on Banton. On my final visit there, Emilio took me to a spot on his property on the hill above the anchorage. The palm trees framed Atom at anchor below us. “We will help you build a house here so you will have a place to live the next time you come back with your boat,” Emilio generously offered. Banton was weaving itself into my soul. It was no longer just another island layover to me. That isle under the swaying palms embodied the essence of peace, grace, and discovery I had dreamed of as I wandered the world. I found it there in the richness of poverty and the benevolence of a tranquil people. Where nature is kind, people are kind. A hot, harsh desert may inflame the temper, but a small island community, pleasant climate, and abundant resources make for warm-hearted people.

As I raised anchor to leave this enchanted island, Winnie and his wife paddled out in their banca to hand me a basket of cassava cakes and bananas. “Come back soon―you have many friends here,” they called, as our sails filled and carried us out to sea.