in between islands Travel

Songs of courage and second chances on Guimaras Island

It was like finding a compass while crossing a wild and inhospitable terrain.

When I wake up, too early, the moon is a low sliver glowing fierce red at the edges, a fingernail moon, hovering just above the horizon. A small banca, an outrigger canoe, glides into the wake of light perpendicular to where I am on shore, and I can hardly spot the craft as, a moment later, it is swallowed by the thick darkness.

I love these hours before dawn on the islands. In the dark and silence before the sun rises and before people stir, the senses other than sight kick in, more acutely. I catch a whiff of the old fire from the Chinese fishing operation next door; they were burning trash again. I hear the difference in the waves as the tide recedes. There is a swish and brush of waves rushing to the shoreline whereas a moment ago there was quieter splashing as the calmer tides lapped at the sand.

Trouble, Yvon’s and Libor’s Doberman, has been sitting nearby where I can pat her head and rub under her neck. She has sensed unfriendly movement in the shadows and she howls and growls warning. I hear men’s voices; they are early, preparing the steroid-infused fish food for the fish farms near the waters of nearby other islands. Here at the beach house, the hosts don’t serve farmed fish.

Panay and Guimaras Islands were first on my list in this voyage in between islands because of a memory. When I was five or six, my father ran a research station out of Guimaras. The research was on strategies for developing the local fish—the milkfish or locally named bangus. When we made our way to the station, we had to cross Guimaras strait by small outrigger.

A large passenger-only pumpboat in Guimaras, Iloilo Philippines
A large pumpboat serving the Guimaras-Iloilo route. Some smaller, private ones only seat 8 people.

On one of those crossings, the sky roiled with dark, heavy clouds and the wind had whined steadily. We left the beach any way, piled into the outrigger with my dad near the motor in front of Wilson who steered the outrigger motor, my mom in the front, and my little brother and I snugly between them. I was sitting closest to my dad, my small body almost disappearing into the life jacket I wore, which was a size too big.

The waves slapped against the hull as we set out. Midway through the crossing, it started to rain, and there was no canopy above us; it would weigh the boat down too much and create resistance to the wind, making the crossing slower and more difficult.

The craft climbed the growing waves and after a large swell, its nose would dive, and the body of the boat smacked hard down on the wave’s trough. The wind started to howl, and the sheets of cold rain stung as it pelted our faces.

We were all quiet. My mother silently handed me my windbreaker. I put it on, over my already-wet clothes, and watched her put a jacket on my little brother, his face pale in the dark air of the storm.

Banca or small outrigger at Alobijod Cove, Guimaras Island.
A banca or small outrigger for two passengers, at Alobijod Cove, Guimaras.

I was scared. I was cold inside the windbreaker, and the relentless piercing rain had begun to hurt my cheeks and forehead. I turned to my dad and saw his face stoic and calm as he looked back at me.

Then, he said, “Sing, little one. Sing for me some of the songs you know.”

When my mother was pregnant with my brother, I woke up early when I heard my dad awaken. I’d come out of my room in pajamas and he would hoist me on his shoulders as we went downstairs. When he carried me on his shoulders down the stairs, I would launch into a song, a marching song that had nationalistic lyrics. “Mabuhay, mabuhay….” Accompanied by the soldier’s song my dad and I would descend into the ground floor of our house, marching through the dining area into the kitchen. He would set me on a chair he placed close to the stove and he’d make my mother pancakes so she could have breakfast in bed.

I remember the comforting smells of sweet, fluffy buttermilk pancakes wafting around our house and the smell of jam and butter as he set the bed tray over my mom’s knees and my dad said, “Breakfast, honey.” I remember the way my parents talked to each other, smiles in their voices and on their faces, over my mother’s breakfast, which she so enjoyed.

This is the memory that comes to me as I remember the storm. Finding the memories feels like finding a compass in the middle of crossing a wild and inhospitable terrain with no visible aids to steer my way through.

In the storm that threatened our crossing of Guimaras strait, my father asked me to sing. I started out with our marching song, our warrior’s song, its cadence a recollection of battle and victory, bravery and bravado. My small voice rose above the screech of wind and the lashing of rain. I sang as loudly as I could, until I barely heard the thud of the outrigger craft’s sides being pummeled with the waves.

Guisi beach, Guimaras Island, Guimaras straight, aquamarine and clear clean beach in Philippines
Beautiful waters off Guisi, Guimaras Straight.

I sang nonstop until we had made it to the other side, the landing on the beach  eliciting a cry of relief from Wilson, the man who had been steering our boat through the storm. My dad picked me up, my mother carried my brother, and we shambled through the wet sand to the long house at the research station, no longer minding that we were soaked.

I have a hunch that this voyage has more gifts. Like my search for a memory in Guimaras, I have found a song of courage to traverse the storms and find the elusive peace that I seek inside. The gifts of memory that Guimaras island gives me reach beyond those of a child who sang through a stormy crossing. I remember the smells and sounds of love from my parents.

And I have new memories from the island. Stories of courage and transformation from Yvon and Libor, stories of brave choices from the guy we shall call Dave, and the couple I met most recently, Wally and Aileen, have stories of their own—of love, loyalty, perseverance and friendship.

A faint theme rises like the opening notes of a symphony from their stories. Everyone has taken their second chance, from lives in broken systems and collateral damage of broken beliefs, and made of their lives a quest to find delight in the world, once more.

As morning light breaks over the horizon, and the moon retires to another side of the world, the sea is calm again as small breezes skate over its surface, making brief shadows in the paths of water meeting land.

Today there is good, here and now, in between islands.

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