Cagbalete Island: Life with “Aling Baby”

Day 1 – Feb. 15, 2016 – (Monday): Gone to Cagbalete Island

I wiped away the sleep from my eyes at about 3:30 AM only to find Rona, my sister-in-law, already busy in the kitchen.  The night before, we had bought some “pan de sal” at a store adjacent to the place where we had intended to eat a version of the famous “Ilocos empanada“;  at the “Fariñas Ilocos Empanada located across the Mandaluyong city hall complex along Maysilo Street.

However, they had closed earlier than usual that day for general cleaning and so to appease my empanada craving, we bought instead “lechon manok” and “inihaw na liempo” (grilled chicken and pork belly respectively) from a small stall called “Mang Boks.

English: Map of Quezon showing the location of...
English: Map of Quezon showing the location of Mauban (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rona’s youngest son, Matthew – fondly called ‘Balong‘ and who suggested the place – and his wife, Johan (just two months married) together with one of my wife’s first cousins, Lelen, would be my companions to Cagbalete Island.

We hailed a taxicab that took us to the JAC Liner bus terminal in Kamias, Quezon City.  The bus fare was PHP 270  (USD 5.70) per and this first of only two daily direct trips to Mauban, Quezon supposedly would take about 4 hours.  It arrived more than an hour late after making numerous stops – loading and unloading passengers – after it exited the South Luzon expressway in Sto. Tomas, Batangas and meandered around the cities and towns – San Pablo, Tiaong, Candelaria, Sariaya, Lucena – that surround mystical Mount Banahaw.

Aboard bus on the way to Mauban, Quezon
On our way to Mauban, Quezon
Candelaria town hall -- in the province of Quezon
Taken from the bus – Candelaria Municipal Hall

Tricycles awaited passengers after they alighted from the bus.  We informed one of the tricycle drivers that we’re headed to the pier – to Cagbalete Island – and so we chose his ride as it was next on the queue anyway.  The young driver suggested that we pass by the public market so that we could buy some supplies that we may need on the island.

It turned out that we needed much more time in the market after not only we realized how unprepared we were for the trip but also we’re very hungry after the long bus ride that included an extended rest stop in Lucena Citys grand central bus terminal.

We offered the driver extra money if he would we willing to wait for us.  He agreed but reminded us again that there were only two ferry trips to the island every day and that the first one is due to leave in about an hour or so. I immediately looked for a place to eat while the rest did their shopping.

I found a restaurant that advertised “tapsilog(beef “tapa” –  beef marinated in vinegar, spices and garlic, then dried and fried – with a serving of fried rice (“sinangag”) and fried egg (“itlog“)) and placed two orders along with a serving of “bulalo” (beef soup). Balong and Johan arrived a few minutes later with two big jugs of water and cookies. They placed their orders while I bought a package of fish-flavored “kropek” (flour cracklings) from an elderly lady selling an assortment of snacks.

I looked up on the menu board again and noticed that the place also served a version of the province’s famous “pancit habhab.”  Also known aspancit Lukban” in honor of the town where it originated, the very distinct taste of the noodles is what it’s all about.  As soon as we cleaned up our plates, I placed three (3) more orders of the noodle dish for our dinner in case we could not easily find a place to eat in the island.   Lelen, meanwhile, looked for beer as well as some bread to go with the delectable ‘pancit’.

We loaded our goodies to the waiting tricycle and the driver took us first to a nondescript office of the local port authority where we registered our names and paid the island’s environmental protection fee of PHP 50 (USD 1.05) per.  Several PHP 10 paper tickets served as the receipt with the name of the place we intended to stay in the island scribbled on them.

Mauban port authority office
Paid environmental protection fee here
Back streets of Mauban, Quezon
Back streets of Mauban, Quezon

The oversized “bangka (canoe) with double bamboo outrigger was still busy loading some of its cargoes and passengers when we arrived at the port of Mauban at about 10:50 AM.  We registered our names again on a ledger that was passed around and paid the ferry fee of another PHP 50 (USD 1.05) per.  The boat did not leave until about 11:30.  I snapped away on my small Canon camera as the “M/B Neneng” slowly pulled away from the port of Mauban.

We got seated in pairs with a middle age woman together with a small girl sandwiched between us in the midsection of the boat.  I could immediately tell that they were locals returning to the island. As with the rest of the passengers, you could also easily tell who are the residents of Cagbalete Island.  Their sun-bronzed skin and low-key demeanor evoked in one a muted understanding of how life must be on the island.

Aling Baby's granddaughter
Natasha looks to the camera
Approaching the port of Sabang in Cagbalete Island
Nearing port of Sabang

The sticky feeling one gets in Manila’s dissipated as the overcast weather and cool northeast winds that locals call the “amihan” smacked our faces as the boat progressed east towards its destination.

We had to shout in each other’s faces to communicate as the boat’s diesel engine purred loudly behind and the skimpy vinyl covering held up by bamboo poles did not help the cause.

I hope all our gadgets and devices can hold their charge while we’re in the island,” I yelled to Matthew.

You will be able to charge your devices in the island,” the woman beside the little girl butted in her low voice.

I smiled to acknowledge her response and asked if she knew a place where we could stay in the island as we really hadn’t made any reservations yet.

Aling Baby offered her place for PHP 200 (USD 4.25) a night.  I agreed but thought that it was too low so asked her again if that was really the price she wanted and that we wanted to check out the house first and she just nodded.

We talked more about the details of her house as well as about how life is on the island but our conversation was cut short when we noticed that the boat’s engine had stopped.  It was almost 12 noon when she reminded me to remove my socks and foot orthosis before we disembarked.

The water at the tiny port of Sabang in Cagbalete Island was very shallow so we transferred to a smaller banca that brought us to the white sand lined banks of the island.  People milled around the port but Aling Baby whisked us to a small alley that led to a series of narrow but cemented passageways.  We passed-by several stores, a ‘barangay‘ (village) hall, a billiard parlor, a small chapel as well as a tiny stall that sold pan-grilled hamburgers.

A satellite dish protruded in front of the wood and bamboo house with thatched roof that sat right across an old, manual water pump locally called, a ‘poso.’  Adjacent to it was an elementary school along whose far end would be another narrow passageway that will ultimately lead you the other side of Cagbalete island.

Welcome sign in the port of Sabang in Cagbalete Island
Welcome to Cagbalete Island
A satellite dish sticks out of the house
Best way to get TV signal in Cagbalete island
Elementary school near Aling Baby's house
Nice elementary school for the villagers
A view within a view
A room with a view in Cagbalete Island

We checked the second level of the house where we’re suppose to spend two nights in the island and found the two rooms more than sufficient and so we told her that we all agreed to her offer.  She informed us that she has another house – without a bathroom – near the other and less populated side of the island.

Although all of us were so tired having started the day very early, adrenaline kicked into gear and we all got so excited to explore the island and tagged along with her.

Our room for a night in Cagbalete Island
Cagbalete Island: We slept soundly here
Lelen heads out to the east side of Cagbalete Island
Lelen leads the way to the other side of the island

The ‘other house’ turned out to be a nicer looking and more spacious bamboo hut.  However, we took a pass on it after we learned that we had to get our water from an old well.  And, no TV.

Fresh water inside a mossy well in Cagbalete Island
Deep water well near Aling Baby’s cottage
Aling Baby tags Mat & Johan along while Lelen takes five
Muddy portion on the way

We met a couple of tourists going the other way along the ‘cogon’ (wild grass) lined path and followed their tracks as we sidestepped a few puddles and muddied sections.  Except for a badly maintained vegetable field operated by municipal government in a cordoned-off area, there were hardly any other signs of agricultural activity in this part of the island.

The passageway ended at the back of one of the island’s many resorts named “Villa Noe,” where I eyed another visitor about to take her late lunch in the open restaurant. We marveled at the spectacular beauty and tranquility of the entire place and agreed that ‘this,’ indeed, is the Cagbalete Island that we saw in all those beautiful pictures on the web.

We took a lot of pictures, waded in the warm water and, finally, leisurely walked along the white sand coastline headed north as Aling Baby narrated facts as well as tales about Cagbalete island.

It could have taken us about an hour to walk all the way back to the main port so we agreed to take another boat ride when we chanced upon one immediately after we passed by a private resort.  Although fatigue had finally set upon all of us, we still immensely enjoyed the brief ride as not only it began to rain very hard but also the waves kept splashing water on us aboard the small ‘banca‘.

Aling Baby of Cagbalete Island
Aling Baby takes a break
The best form of transportation in Cagbalete Island
A ‘banca’ on the quiet waters of Cagbalete

We never realized how soaked we were until after we gave the boatman a token of PHP 100 (USD 2) – he did not ask us for money- and retraced our steps back to Aling Baby’s first house on our dripping wet clothes.

Back at the house, we took turns fetching water from the ‘poso‘ to shower.  We saw a series of clothesline immediately before the front door so we hanged all our wet belongings and then tried our best to make ourselves feel at home in the very cramped confines of the lower portion of the house.

The rain had turned into a drizzle by 2 in the afternoon when Balong and Johan decided to take a nap upstairs.  They would not come down until about 5:00 to eat some bread and the last of the ‘pancit habhab’ neatly stored inside a plastic container.  The restaurant in Mauban had placed them in three containers one of which I had given to Aling Baby before she left for her other house so as to give us some private time.  I had also given her PHP 200 (USD 4.25) so that she could “load up” on the satellite dish subscription – PHP 120 (USD 2.50) per month – in order for us to use the TV upstairs.

She left her two granddaughters in our care when the smaller one did not like to come with her to the other house.  The mother of the small girl, Natasha, had just left a month ago for Kuwait to work as a domestic help while the parents of the bigger girl both worked in Manila.

Both girls were easy to babysit as they played together until the bigger one got tired and decided to take a nap upstairs as well.  So we kept little Natasha preoccupied with her toys by giving her ‘kropek‘ pieces – which she had particularly come to love – whenever she gets bored.

So Lelen and I spent that rainy Monday afternoon in Cagbalete island drinking one of the two 1-liter San Miguel beer bottles that blended perfectly with the ‘pancit Lukban’, the bread and 3 pieces of ‘longaniza‘ (local sausages).  Being a fanatic of any famous regional ‘longaniza‘ in the country, I had espied the sausages in one of the ‘carinderias‘ (small stalls that sell already-prepared foods) on our way back to Aling Baby’s house.  I had requested Lelen to get a few pieces while he also looked for some ice for our already-warm beers.  All the while, I kept an eye on little Natasha while she played.

Throughout the time Balong and Johan had slept, there was no electricity.  Aling Baby had explained to us earlier that her house was hooked-up to one of the generators operated by the municipality and that power would come up only from 6 to 10 in the evening.

Natasha
We babysat her while Aling Baby prepared dinner
Our Tuesday night dinner
Huge squid that would be our lunch the next day

Aling Baby would return a few times to the house to show us the huge squid (medium-sized by her standards) that she had bought for PHP 60 (USD 1.27)  and asked how we liked them cooked.  Then to make sure if the TV now worked.  She also made sure that we’re hooked-up with the boatman, Sergio, who would take us on a tour of Cagbalete island tomorrow.

Day 2 – Feb. 16, 2016 – (Tuesday): Going Around Cagbalete Island

The effects of the sleeping tablet wore off and I was up at 4:30 only to find myself alone inside the mosquito net that Lelen and I shared. I strapped on my foot brace and gingerly scaled down the 3 steps of wood that made up the stairs and saw him already prepared for another day.

Power was still off inside the house and was partially dark outside but the lights were still on in the alley next to the house so that gave some illumination to the house while I prepared a cup of instant coffee.  Last night, before we slept, Aling Baby’s youngest daughter had brought a Thermos jug with hot water and cups for the purpose.

After the caffeine took its effect on me, the two of us decided to see the beachfront at first light and did not bother to wake up the newlyweds.  Again, along the way, some of the stores were already selling bread and cooked food and we found the ‘chicken adobo‘ inside a glass showcase simply too tempting.  It was PHP 30 (USD 1.76) per order and would go well with a few cups of hot rice at PHP 10 (USD 0.21) per. We took note of the place and reminded each other to remember to pick up a few orders on our way back from the beachfront.

We took many pictures of life in Cagbalete Island at early dawn: the fishermen tending their boats and fishing nets, an old lady propped on a concrete wall scanning the horizon, a few workers of the resort owned by the mayor of Mauban sprucing up their beachfront, a middle-aged person getting his therapy piling up white sand upon his legs and a few locals just walking along, preparing for the new day.

A colorful 'bangka' (canoe) in Cagbalete Island
Early morning in Cagbalete
A view of the western shore in Cagbalete Island
Not bad a place to have morning coffee
Dawn had just broken in Cagbalete Island
Floating luncheon area
The mainland of Mauban can be seen on a clear day in Cagbalate Island
Port of Sabang as viewed from the northern side

I wished I could have the best of both worlds as I admired and absorbed all the beautiful natural surroundings before me that I almost cried.  I had seen more beautiful ocean views in the Americas but had never relished wading in their cold waters.  Here, it was just too perfect.

We headed back to the house at 6:45 and found Matthew already having coffee and the light inside the house back on.  Lenlen went back to the ‘carinderia’ for the rice and ‘adobo‘ which we all had for breakfast along with the ‘adobong pusit‘ (stewed squid) that Aling Baby had prepared.

After breakfast, I informed Aling Baby that we were not going to spend the second night in the house because we wanted to experience the other side of the island but that we’re still going to pay her our agreed upon two night fee. We also told her that we might stay at “Villa Cleofas” as we had originally planned.  She offered to cook our meals for us so she gave her cell phone number on a piece of paper that I hastily shoved in back pocket of my swimming shorts.

While we waited for Sergio, a vendor dropped by selling big clams inside two plastic bags for PHP 20 (USD 0.43) per so we bought and handed them over to Aling Baby.

Sergio, – whom locals called “Momo” – arrived before 8:00.  We walked a much shorter route to the port where his ‘banca‘ – “Choktaw” – was moored.  He and his apprentice guide toured us through the various points of interest in the island namely:

  • the “Sandbar”  – a narrow piece of land covered in white sand that jutted out even at high tide where mangroves abound.  We saw several huts for rent but they were all empty that particular day.
Lelen & Mat enjoy the view at Yang-in sand bar in Cagbalete Island
At the sand bar
Newly sprouted mangrove at the sand bar in Cagbalete Island
Very, very young mangroves

the “Ilog” (River) – an area in the island where salt and fresh water meet. We counted 8 fiberglass fish pens in the area which, according to Sergio, could hold up to a 1000 ‘bangus‘ (milkfish) fry per breeding.  There would be three (3) breedings per season and a good harvest in a season could well pay off the initial start-up costs.

'Bangus' (milk fish) farming in Cagbalete Island
A fish farm at the ‘ilog’
Expanse where fresh and sea water meet ('ilog') in Cagbalete Island
The fish pens were empty when we visited
  • The Snorkel area – for almost an hour, we swam and snorkeled in this deeper area where corals and colorful fishes could be found.
Mat & Johan try out snorkeling in Cagbalate Island
Snorkeling is one of the best ways to enjoy the island
Johan and a colorful starfish -- Cagbalate Island
Johan shows off a colorful starfish
  • Bonsai Island”  not really an island but simply a portion of a reef that shows up during low tide.  There are two small mangrove patches interspersed with a few dead ones on the reef, hence, the name.  Situated directly across Villa Cleofas, it would not be presumptuous to assume that the owners could well have given the spot the name to add a little mystique -as well as to attract patrons- to Cagbalate.

Locals would always be delighted to tell you the story about the cargo ship, loaded with sacks of flour, that crashed into the reef and how the entire population of the island had fresh bread and pancakes for a very long period of time after the disaster.

It was almost 11:00 when Sergio dropped us off at Villa Cleofas so that we could check out the place.  We informed a woman inside the restaurant that we wanted to see the cottage we saw online that cost PHP 1500 (USD 32).  We passed by a group of tourists in two tents as she led us to the far end of the resort and showed us the 10 x 20 foot room with a single bed with a very thin mattress.

We decided to look for another place after she told us that we would also have to pay PHP 500 (USD 10.64) extra for the electricity -from 6 PM to 6  only- since we’re the only guests that would occupy a cottage that night.  Mat and Johan volunteered to check out the other resorts north of the island that included Villa Noe.

An hour had passed but the pair had not returned and so I asked Lelen to look after our things while I took leisurely walk along the white sands in the hope that I would encounter them along the way.  I walked past a camping-only resort, then an empty but fenced area before the nice bamboo & nipa made cottages and clean surroundings of “Joven’s Blue Sea Beach Resort” attracted my attention.

Although the resort was empty that day, I checked out the cottage that was being cleaned to see how it looked inside.  Impressed, I picked one –Sampaguita– that was located beside the bathrooms.  I informed Mat and Johan, who saw me while I negotiated with one of the resort’s attendants on their way back, that I had already agreed to the same cost of PHP 1500 for a night’s stay here — electricity included.

A view from Joven's Blue Beach Resort in Cagbalate Island
Joven’s resort
Our 'sampaguita' cottage while at Joven's Blue Beach Resort in Cagbalete Island
Our home away from home for 2 nights

We had a very late lunch of “pork liempo” with extra servings of rice (PHP 520 or USD 11) in the resort’s restaurant immediately after we had rested, showered and settled down in our new found home for the night.

Sergio and his apprentice showed up a few hours later and accompanied us to that much-hyped ‘Bonsai Island,’ which was very visible during low tide and which we found to be unimpressive at all.

They must have sensed our disappointment with ‘Bonsai Island’ so Sergio promised us that they would pick us up again at 6:00 the next morning to show us another ‘ilog‘ as we headed back to the resort.

It was already dark when we got back at Joven’s but our spirits were all buoyed up not only because the entire resort was all lighted up but also Aling Baby had brought us some food for dinner!  In our absence, she had dropped off the dish of “sotanghon” (vermicelli mixed with the clams that we had bought in the morning and sautéed in onions and slivers of ginger), rice, plastic spoons and the Thermos bottle.

After dinner, Mat and Johan put up the mosquito nets and were asleep by 10 while Lelen and I ordered four San Miguels (PHP 45 or USD 0.96 per) from the restaurant.  I lit up a mosquito coil and placed it under the bamboo table to fend off the buggers while we drank our beers until Len decided to call it a day after he had emptied his second bottle.

I did not sleep until 12:30 AM after I had written a few pages in my notebook what had  transpired that wonderful day in Cagbalete island.

Day 3 – Feb. 17, 2016 – (Wednesday): Leaving Cagbalete Island

Lelen was already out walking along the shore as I prepared my 3-in-1 coffee mix at 5:30.  The electricity would be out in half an hour but I wasn’t worried since I had charged all the batteries for the camera while I wrote on my notebook last night.

The newlywed woke up an hour later while Sergio and his buddy showed up at the resort after about another hour and brought along the 1.3 kilograms of ‘alimango’ (blue crab) as well as several pieces of smaller crabs local to the island that he had placed inside a big plastic water bottle.  I had ordered them last night and cost PHP 400 (USD 8.50) per kilo for the blue crab and PHP 100 (USD 2.13) for the small ones.  I also handed over the PHP 1500 (USD 32) boat fee that we owed him -and his apprentice- for yesterday’s island tour.

The morning was crisp and, while the sun had barely colored the horizon, there were a few wispy clouds as we headed south towards the ‘other ilog.’  We all glanced at the resort manager as she sat on a chair, cup of brew in hand, communing with nature as we passed by.

Mat, Johan and the apprentice boatman/guide
Casual stroll along the west side of Cagbalete island
Lelen enjoys his coffee amidst the beauty of Cagbalate Island
Lelen enjoys the natural beauty of Cagbalete island

Half a kilometer after we passed by Villa Cleofas, the shore inclined a bit and we noticed more vegetation in the area. Immediately after Sergio showed us the ‘hidden swimming pool’ (actually a swamp) where a lonesome carabao sat nearby, we came to a stop at a gap where a passageway of fresh water funnels out to the bay that seemed to split Cagbalete island into two.

Lush vegetation as we approach the 'other ilog'
We had Cagbalete island all to ourselves
Our apprentice guide playfully created this mound of sand at the 'other ilog' in Cagbalete Island
Cagbalete Island: Castle in the sand
'Hidden' swimming pool. Can you spot the carabao?
A carabao takes a break at this lagoon
The east side of the 'ilog' (river)
The other ‘ilog’ in Cagbalete Island

We explored the mangrove-lined banks for almost an hour and concluded that the area must be very popular to campers as we saw a few items that only visitors of Cagbalete island could have brought: empty bottles, cookie and candy wrappers, some shoes and a sandal missing their pair and an assortment of various colored nylon ropes left hanging on the bushes.

It was 9:00 when we headed back to Joven’s to prepare for our trip back home.  We opted to take the last boat ride to Sabang in order that we could the enjoy the lunch that Aling Baby had prepared for us.  Sergio had promised earlier to pick us up at exactly 12 noon.

Just like last night, all the way from her house near the well,  Aling Baby had brought all what we needed to make sure that we had a memorable brunch before we left Cagbalete Island.  She laid out a modest feast for us that included a big pot of steamed rice, the day’s catch, ‘timbungan‘ (goat fish), fried and presented on banana leaves as well as all ingredients to make a sumptuous dipping sauce.

Johan and Lelen dish out brunch
Cagbalete Island: Lunch at our cottage
Fried goat fish or 'timbungan'
Take me back to Cagbalete Island

Sergio arrived on time and amidst the din of the banca’s engine, all of us remained silent during the brief ride back to Sabang.

And back to where it all started.

Three Days in Cabuyao, Laguna: Life in the Philippine Countryside Series

Day 1 – Jan. 24, 2016 – (Sunday): The Call of Cabuyao, Laguna

Old habits are very hard to get rid of and two of mine are bicycling and swimming. These activities,  thankfully, had tempered the late effects of polio on my left leg- an affliction that I got when I was about 3 years old.

Laguna, particularly Barrio Pansol, had been my swimming locale of choice after I graduated from college and dropped-out of medical school.  My life was at a crossroad and I spent a great deal of time contemplating on the whys and what-ifs of life in the healing waters of Laguna Hot Springs.

Our van left Imus at about 10:30 AM on a cool yet another sunny day.  We traversed the newly-built connector roads between Cavite and Laguna, and so we were in Cabuyao in about an hour and a half, as we picked-up orders of “rellenong bangus” (grilled, stuffed milk fish) and “lechon manok” (roasted chicken) along the way.

New roads connect the province of Cavite with Laguna
From Dasmariñas, Cavite we used this new access road to Laguna
Jeepneys ply the national highway in Cabuyao, Laguna
We stopped to buy ‘Andok’s lechon manok’ (grilled chicken)

Cabuyao was once a sleepy town (now, a city) of Laguna that is about 27 miles southeast of Manila.  We used to cycle pass the town on our many cycling jaunts to Los Baños back during the days when the South Luzon Expressway, from Manila, went only as far as the municipality of Alabang and so we had to use the interiorly-located national highway to go further south.

Barrio Banay-Banay, Cabuyao is where my first cousin Carol and her husband, Arthur, found a second home after having spent most of their careers in Cavite.  The couple met at a company that dealt with industrial plastic products located along the national highway in Bacoor, Cavite.  After they got married, they had lived in nearby Imus but decided to move here after Arthur’s father passed away and left a self-made, bamboo hut on a piece of property located about half a mile east off the national highway.

We found Arthur roasting “pork liempo” (grilled, marinated pork belly) and “bangus” (grilled milk fish) on his improvised grill and also got accustomed to the incessant barking of their four (4) dogs – who are these people?

I had been to their place before – in late 2011 – and so I immediately noticed the changes. There was a new shed for the carport that Arthur had fabricated himself in his spare time using his rudimentary skills in the art of welding. They had also constructed an all-concrete, two-story structure with an open deck in the previously bare land at back of the bamboo hut.

Arthur and Carol's new car port shed
At Carol and Arthur’s place in Cabuyao, Laguna
Open roof deck - ideal for exercising the fighting cocks and drinking sprees
The couple’s simple roof deck in Cabuyao

Immediately after Carol arrived from the store, we began the impromptu luncheon party that consisted of what Arthur had prepared, our pick-up orders as well as a dish of “pinakbet” (an assortment of vegetables dressed in fermented shrimp or fish paste)  and “tinolang manok” (chicken soup with ginger and young papayas) that featured one of his native, organically grown chickens.

Carol’s father -my uncle-, Ricardo (fondly called, Kuya Ading) who is about to turn 95 in a few days, along with his care provider, Emma, also came for the visit as well as my three aunts —  Tita Yeyit, Ising and Nita. Rey, our driver, also acted as our unofficial tour guide as he had been to this same trip on several occasions in the past.

After lunch, the old soul in Kuya Ading easily got bored and requested the group to head back to Imus. I had informed Tita Yeyit several days before the trip that I would be staying in Cabuyao for a few days so that I could go and revisit my favorite resort in Barrio Pansol which was just a few kilometers south.

A few hours after the group departed, at about 3 PM, the trio of myself, Carol and Arthur went to the hot springs via the South Luzon expressway as traffic would be heavy along the national highway at that time of the day as the Arthur suggested.  We passed by the new and impressive city hall building complex  along the way and emerged at a less busy section of the national highway just a few kilometers from our destination.

Just like Cavite, several towns of Laguna that is close to Manila had seen a rapid phase in urbanization.  I felt nostalgic yet saddened to realize that some of the familiar spots that gave the place its rural appeal when I used to be here on my almost weekly swimming sorties several years ago had all but disappeared and were now replaced by concrete structures with commercial signs.

We parked the van on an empty lot that, in my honest recollection, used be a restaurant.  After we paid the entrance fee (PHP 80 or USD 1.70 per) and rented a dressing room (PHP 100 or USD 2), I was so excited to rediscover the place once again.  I immediately felt that I was on the same place as I had been more than two decades ago as I noted that nothing much had changed around the entire resort.

Back in the early 90s, I used to have long conversations with the late owner, Jesus Candelaria (or, Mang Jess as I used to call him), who had intimated to me how he had paid very little for the entire place that used to be a favorite spot of carabaos (Philippine water buffalos) to cool-off.  He had also informed me that most of his sons and daughters were living abroad and that his nieces were the ones that ran the place.

The marvelous waters flow from the north side of the slightly smaller than an Olympic-sized pool where several boulders – hidden by a wall – further filter them.  The water source is the legendary Mount Makiling and its still visible signs of volcanic activity in spite of it being declared as a dormant one.

We soaked in the healing waters for almost 5 hours, and stayed mostly in the area where the water comes out from the boulders and where there’s also a stainless-steel bench for the disabled hidden from view by the chest deep water.

The trip back to the house via the national highway was brief as it was almost 10 PM when we finally left the resort.  After we hanged our wet clothes and towels, showered and took a quick dinner of the leftovers from lunch, Arthur led me to the bamboo table and held up two liter bottles of San Miguel beer.

The beers, the greasy meat leftovers and good stories that reference the past are always the perfect ingredients for a good night sleep.  I was in bed at 12:30 am.

Day 2 – Jan. 25, 2016 – (Monday): A Surprise Visit to Barrio Mamatid

Still jet-lagged, I woke up at 4:30 AM and found Arthur already feeding his brood of animals – chickens, hens, roosters, fighting cocks, quail, ducks, geese, dogs, love birds and two pigs – and so I chatted with him for a while.

Like the typical Filipino male who lives in the province, Arthur is fighting cock aficionado.  He and his wife, Carol – a first cousin on my mother’s side – also operate a small store that primarily sells livestock feeds as well as other needs of the cockfight enthusiast, along the main highway that is about half a mile away from their house.

The open spaces adjacent to the newly-built house are where Arthur found his joys in life — his inner peace.  There, twice a day, he feeds all his farm animals with the same devotion and care a good father gives his children.

Awake before dawn, Arthur feeds his flock of chickens, ducks, hens, pigs, geese, dogs and quails.
Up before dawn, Arthur feeding his flock of animals
Carol and Arthur's room in the new house where I slept for two nights
My room in Cabuyao for 2 nights

At about 6:15, we had breakfast of “pan de sal,” fried eggs as well as the leftovers of fried ‘banguspork liempo’ and the ‘lechon manok’ from yesterday’s lunch party.

Two hours after Arthur left the house at around 6:45 aboard his Yamaha scooter, I decided to take a stroll around the surrounding areas and to look for a store where I can ‘load’ my cell phone.

In the Philippines, a mobile phone’s airtime is refilled with a wide array of ‘loads’ that span from one day to a year depending on your budget and need. ‘Loading’ kiosks had become a cottage industry in the entire islands as vendors get a small commission. I found a store right across the university funded by the city and opted for the 3-day “GOUNLI50.”  However, I found that most of the gimmicks pandered by all telecoms provider in country almost border on fraud.

Carol and I went to the store at about 11:30 aboard a ubiquitous ‘tricycle’.  It is the most common form of motorized transportation all over the country.  We ate lunch inside the store after I briefly chatted with Arthur’s elder brother who lives in a low-slung house located at the backmost part of the property owned by their family.

By 1:30 PM, and after we had attended to needs of store customers, Arthur and I boarded the trusty Yamaha scooter for the trip to Barrio Mamatid – about 6 kilometers southwest of Cabuyao.  We would be paying a visit to a coworker/friend of mine back in the early 80s when I worked in Saudi Arabia.

As fate would have it, I met Ernesto’s son, Ervin, by chance, in the healing waters of Laguna Hot Springs in Barrio Pansol last night.  We exchanged calls and text messages afterwards and decided that today would be the most opportune time for me and his father to see each other again after more than 30 years!

We spotted ‘Erning‘ (as Ernesto is more fondly called) sitting in his “pakwan” (watermelon) stall and yelled out his name. He immediately recognized me and we gave each other hugs like long-lost brothers. However, I felt the thug of that mixed feeling of joy and sadness after I saw him up close and realized that he had aged so much.

We were both in our 20s when we first met in that farm near an oasis in Al’Hair which was about 20 miles south of the capital, Riyadh.  Back then, the kingdom was a magnet for foreign contract workers as the country embarked on a massive modernization program that was funded by the world’s insatiable demand for oil.

Their house sits on a corner lot of about 500 square meters.  Part of the property had been turned into a computer rental place owned by one of his sons.  There were about 25 personal computers with LCD screens that operate on the same concept as jukeboxes of yester years  and called ‘PisoNet‘ (One Peso Internet).  Drop a peso into the slot and you can surf the net/use the PC for five (5) glorious minutes.

Ernesto handed me a few peso coins and I showed him some of our old pictures in Saudi Arabia that is on my website.  While at the computer shop,  I asked him if Laguna de Bay is nearby. He nodded and so the three of us walked the short distance of about 400 meters to the edge of the lake.

Ernesto and Bong near the edge of Laguna de Bay in Bo. Mamatid, Cabuyao, Laguna
Ernesto and Bong met in Bo. Mamatid — after 32 years
Bong and Arthur near the edge of Laguna de Bay in Bo. Mamatid, Cabuyao, Laguna
Bong and Arthur near Laguna Lake in Barrio Mamatid

Ernesto informed us that while fish can still be caught in the lake, the taste had been compromised and that you need to clean them very well as a result of urbanization on the fringes of the lake that had rendered the once clear waters to an almost light chocolate color.

All over the Philippines, much of the smaller towns that surround a big city had slowly lost their rural feel — all the farm lands had almost disappeared because of urban crawl.

Back inside the house, Ernesto served us “balut” (boiled 18-day fertilized duck eggs), slices of ‘pakwan and iced water while we reminisced our days in Saudi Arabia, about our families and, of course, local politics.

We bade our farewells to Erning and his wife at about 3 PM. We headed back to the house using the very same roads we took earlier.  We passed-by rice fields that were transformed into vegetable patches during the off-season, subdivisions, factories and small mounds of haphazardly-strewn garbage along the way.

Back at the house, I rested and showered away the heat while Arthur headed back to the store after he had fed his flock and had prepared a vegetable dish that featured “puso ng saging” (banana hearts or budding banana blossoms) . They arrived back from the store at about 6:30 PM and we had dinner of the same leftovers except for the vegetable dish with copious servings of white rice.

After dinner, Arthur hopped aboard his scooter to buy San Miguel beer in liter bottlesTonight, he informed me earlier, is one of those 2 days in a week where anyone of his friends would drop by their house and they would drink the night away.

He came back with three (3) bottles of the local brew and in the area adjacent to the car port where there is a set of low-slung table and two long benches all made of bamboo, we opened up the first bottle while we waited for his friend.  Arthur cracked opened all the balut’ that Erning had graciously allowed us to take home (together with a ‘pakwan’) to serve as our “pulutan” (appetizer).

We were halfway through the first bottle when his friend arrived in a nice-looking SUV.   He brought with him a plastic bag that contained an orange-colored fried dish called “okoy” (small shrimps with slivers of vegetables deep fried in batter).  Arthur had told me yesterday  that he is also the godfather of his friend’s – who’s an architect – older son and that on some occasions, both father and son would be present in their drinking sprees.

Having finished all three liters of beer by almost 11, I had to go to the bathroom thrice to relieve my bladder before I slept soundly way past the wee hours of the morning.

Day 3- Jan. 26, 2016 – (Tuesday): The Commute Back to Imus, Cavite

I woke up at 5:30 to prepare for the trip back to Imus, Cavite.  We had hotdogs, fried eggs and  big ‘pan de sals’ for breakfast that Carol had prepared earlier.  Afterwards, I took a few more pictures of their place before we left at about 8:00 that morning.

From their house,  Carol and I took a tricycle (PHP 10 or USD 0.21 per person) to their store where I bade farewell to Arthur. We hailed a ‘jeepney‘ to the bus terminal in Santa Rosa, where we waited for an air-conditioned van to fill-up passengers. For PHP 55 (USD 1.17), it took us to Pala-Pala, Cavite where we caught our final ride to Imus.

Arthur's trusty scooter
Arthur’s ride in the barrio
Two cute dogs man the gate
Two of the couple’s numerous pets

It was about an hour trip but travel time from Pala-Pala to Imus Toll Bridge (PHP 10.50 or USD 0.22) was about the same in spite of the shorter distance because of the traffic. Like Laguna, many a sleepy towns in Cavite, notably Imus,  had fallen victim to rapid urbanization that began in the early 80s.

I finally took another tricycle ride (solo for PHP 25 or USD 0.53, which I found to be an outrageous amount since the distance is just about 400 meters;  I should have just walked if not for my disability) back to the house. I was in Bayan Luma 3, Imus by 10:30.

Ate lunch of “chicken afritada” (chicken stewed in tomato sauce) and “menudo” (a variation of the Mexican version and not as soupy) at about 11:30 AM and took a hour nap afterwards on my Thermarest.

Ate Nene (wife of my aunt’s late first cousin, Rodolfo ‘Rudy’ del Rosario) dropped by at about 4 PM together with a husband and wife friend of hers. She was trying to sell a parcel of land owned by her late husband and brought with her a wood signage for the purpose.  The property is located at the back of my aunt’s house, some three houses away.

Tita Yeyit arrived from her shopping with Carol and Nelia in SM Bacoor by 7:00. And so, for dinner, I ate the piece of ‘Shakey’s‘ pizza that she had brought and slept at around 9 PM.