There were three choices to cross from Bantayan Island, off the North coast of Cebu Island, to Negros Island.
The first choice was the six- or eight-seater Juan Air propeller plane to Cebu’s Mactan airport. From the airport, I could take a cab to the Cebu South Bus Terminal, ride the bus across the ferry to Tampi, on Negros, and get off at the bus terminal in Dumaguete City.
The second choice was from Hignaya Port on Santa Fe, Bantayan (about 1 hour), then Ceres bus to Cebu City North Bus Terminal (4 hours minus waiting). From there I could ride a taxi to the South Bus Terminal and on to the ferry at Tampi (5-6 hours) cross on the ferry for about an hour, then take a jeepney ride to Dumaguete (around one hour).
The third choice was an unplanned crossing: Banca ferry to Cadiz (3 hours minus waiting), then a bus or buses to Dumaguete (9 hours give or take).
The first choice didn’t attract: I have an aversion to tiny planes. I think of the Big Bad Wolf of wind currents up in the air, ready to sneeze on the small Little Piggy’s aircraft, valiantly purring along with its tiny propellers.
I quickly crossed that out.
The second choice was a long way, considering the Hignaya-Cebu bus terminus was the North Bus Terminal and I’d have to double back to the South Bus Terminal to take the Ceres to Tampi. Having to return to Cebu Island to travel the coast and cross a few kilometers to the next island was unappealing. Abraham Lincoln’s words rang in my head, “Walk slowly, but not backwards.”
So I decided on the third and spontaneous choice.
I had read in the LP guide about the ‘banca ferry’ to Cadiz from Bantayan port, but the phrase conjured images of flimsy little outriggers where I would definitely find three hours a nervous ride.
That morning during breakfast, Lorraine at the Sunshine Beach Resort clarified that it was a large outrigger, that could seat around 90 people.
The destination, Cadiz, was a town in Negros Occidental of which I had no prior knowledge.
It seemed like a great alternative. A shortcut. The route—ferry, bus—seemed straightforward enough. Having relied on Ceres Liner buses from Kalibo to Iloilo and from Cebu City to Hignaya, I found them pleasant with somewhat comfortable seats. They would also be frequent enough that I felt that there would be some bus serving the Negros National Highway route. By the time I finished breakfast, I had decided to take the unfamiliar route to Negros Island.
The importance of Ryan
The man who was a friend before I learned his name got on the jeepney to Bantayan. He got on the mini-jeepney near the airstrip, which serves as the Bantayan airport. The man whose name I didn’t know until later got on in front of an apartment that looked like it was comfortable.
He seemed friendly so I asked him if he had information about apartments in Bantayan. He told me he had business on the island and he sometimes stayed for a week, sometimes a month. In some of the apartments on Bantayan, a studio with ensuite bathroom with fan cost an affordable PHP7000 for a month’s stay.
“Are you going on the ferry to Cadiz?” he asked me.
“Yes, although I need to keep going from Cadiz, to Dumaguete.”
He said, “You can take a bus from Cadiz. I’ll take you to the Ceres bus terminal.” He added, “I have a car in the Cadiz port.”
At this point, we had not exchanged names yet, only smiles and our opinions about how beautiful and laid-back Bantayan island seemed to be, how lovely the people.
It should have piqued my anxiety that a man I just struck a conversation with on public transport would offer me a ride to a bus terminal for the heck of it. But his face was open, his body language relaxed, and I had no reason to suspect he would be some kind of evil scammer that just happened to be going the same direction as I was. (Please note this was before I started meditation lessons and learned that at times when I was unenlightened, I easily fell into the trap of mild paranoia.)
Once at Bantayan port, the habal-habal left us at the start of the long wharf. Ryan, whom at this point I still didn’t know was called that, said he’d take a motorbike taxi and I told him I’d walk.
The tide was low, the exposed sand overgrown in many places with algae, fishing boats stranded and looking forlorn as they rested on a tilt, waiting for the water to become buoyant again. At this point, the overgrown algae looking slimy against the coral and rocks of the exposed undersea surface made me think I should write a post titled
What Happens to Dead Seas? Strike that.
The ferry passengers waited in a tent, standing around or sitting on the benches with their bags and backpacks. An elderly man wearing a porter’s shirt approached me and asked if I wanted help with my bag. Unsure, I shook my head and said thanks, but no thanks. I thought, it’s a cabin bag, it’s light. I can carry it onto a banca.
Except the banca we were supposed to go on was about a kilometer away, where the water was deep enough for it to stay upright. I remember the hostel owner Lorraine had warned me the ferry to Cadiz only left at high tide.
I had no idea how long we had to wait or how we were going to get people and stuff on to the ferry. As yet unenlightened about the tendency of brains to imagine bad futures, I was contemplating not negotiating the slippery coral of the non-path to the banca below the wharf balancing a cabin bag with 360-degree wheels.
As I thought about what bad things could happen to me and my bag full of electronics, I spotted the man whom I didn’t know was called Ryan giving his bag and backpack to the porter who’d approached me. The porter set the bags down on bench near a broken path leading to the water. Peering down at the path to the water, I saw jagged coral rock, slippery in the surfaces that had been smoothed over by waves.
I rolled my cabin bag to the bench and told the porter, “You can take care of my bag. That man—“ I pointed to the bag of the man whom I did not know was called Ryan—“I kind of know him.”
“Oh, Ryan!” The porter smiled, thereupon informing me of the nice guy’s name. “His father is my best friend! I also know his brothers and his sister.” He took my bag and rolled it close to Ryan’s bag. “I’ll take care,” he said with a wide smile.
A moment later, the porter beckoned me to line up where a couple of savvy local passengers were already lined up and giving their tickets to the ferry fare collector.
We walked down steps, which were really sharp and jagged coral rock. I was so happy I wore sneakers and not flipflops. We climbed onto a flat sampan. A man rowed us two meters in the sampan to another craft, a hollow boat with a motor, which we boarded and rode standing up close together just before the point of rude contact. This last one would motor us to the banca ferry, which would take us to Cadiz.
Ryan was the last to get on the motorized ferry-to-the-ferry. He stood on the stern with his hands in his jeans, comfortable as the craft putt-putted to our banca.
I had got on first, and as soon as we reached the banca ferry, I quickly figured out why Ryan had been last to board the ferry-to-the-ferry. He got to board the actual ferry first and got first pick of his seat, beside the stairs leading up to the captain’s cockpit.
I found him again once I boarded. She who boards first will get off last is the gold nugget is something I have willed my shrunken hippocampus to burn into my memory.
Once we were underway, and everyone had their life vest, passengers settled into their seats. A young woman peddled peanuts, chicken barbecue, rice cakes, instant noodles and Coca Cola to passengers. A few people promptly started their naps.
Ryan nudged me like we were buddies, and said, “Let’s go up.”
I followed him up the steps to the upper deck, which was the cockpit where the quarter master and crew drove the banca. We came in, and everyone knew Ryan. Apparently we don’t introduce each other, so I nodded to everybody and smiled. The quarter master and the other crew member were busy turning on the engine and all those things needed to drive the boat. Two lounging deck chairs with cushions were part of the cockpit furniture. Ryan placed his bag on one and gestured for me to take the other one.
Ryan took a nap. I read Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour on my deck chair on the ferry, all the way to Cadiz.
When we docked at Cadiz, we were the ones to get off first (because I followed Ryan’s lead, y’all. My hippocampus had warmed up). Following Ryan there was a woman and her young son, myself, and one of the crew hands of the ferry. We walked to the port authorities office, Ryan unlocked his truck, and we piled in to his vehicle.
Dropping me off at the Ceres bus terminal, Ryan got off to unload my cabin bag and shake my hand. He said, Good luck. I thanked him, and he gave me his elevator speech. His business is CCTV sales and installation and solar panels. He serves the 40 hotels in Bantayan, and he is there once a month.
The importance of Ryan was not in his job. It was in his genuine friendliness and helpful nature. What I learned from Ryan is that building a relationship was way more important than pitching your business. After the time I’ve spent in Ryan’s presence I am ready to buy a bunch of solar panels for whatever property I might come to possess in these islands.
I understood why everyone knew Ryan, and like each person who called him by name, I will most likely remember him long after this crossing from Bantayan to Negros.
The bus rides with hints of life in the hippocampus
In Cadiz the bus conductor told me there was no direct bus from Cadiz to Dumaguete. Only Cadiz to Escalante. “You can probably get a bus from Escalante to San Carlos,” he said. So I got on, no idea of the geographical distance or where the town called Escalante was in relation to Cadiz.
Settled into a seat on the second row, I heard a rooster crow. The man in front of me with slick backed hair and dark, movie-star sized sunglasses held a bag on his lap from which the crow had come.
The driver laughed. In what little I understood of the dialect, the rooster’s name was Michael Jackson and he was going on a bus trip to a cockfight in a town that was not Escalante.
The towns clicked by in between sugar cane fields. The rooster kept time. And we reached Escalante over two hours later.
At the bus stop in Escalante, there were several buses going to San Carlos, none to Dumaguete. I had time to refill my water bottle from the bubble (10PHP per liter) before the bus filled up and I hopped on.
In case I forget: The conductor on this second bus was a key person in my cluelessness.
We reached San Carlos about another hour after boarding in Escalante. The San Carlos bus terminal was bigger, with lots of bus bays and signs saying where the buses were headed. I spotted a bus labeled Dumaguete, empty and with the bus doors shut. I asked someone with the Ceres uniform when the bus would leave, and he said 3.30pm. No longer wearing a watch, I checked the time with another waiting passenger and found I had a whole 30 minutes to do whatever I wanted before the bus left. I bought another bottle of water and went to the toilet.
Feeling much better, I wandered around the stalls selling snacks, trying to find the special mango-infused flat cakes I had tasted in Guimaras in case I could buy a packet as a snack. I had no idea how long the bus ride to Dumaguete would be, and I read every single packet of piaya being sold to see if they came from Guimaras.
It was when a voice called out across the dirt lot of the depot, “Ma’am! Dumaguete bus!” that I woke up from the intent search for Guimaras desserts and realized the bus to Dumaguete was about to leave.
The conductor had seen my daydream walk from stall to stall and been vigilant enough to alert me.
Spending the night in a bus depot would have really sucked. I blew the man a kiss and waved to him. He grinned back.
The bus to Dumaguete rolled on. And on. And on.
Sugarcane fields. Sugarcane fields. Sugarcane fields.
The bus picked up every single person who was waiting (for it, I’m sure) every hundred meters and dropped off passengers every other hundred.
The open windows let in clouds of red dust as we rolled on. And on. And on.
I stopped running my hands through my hair because it was already off my face, stiff and sticking out.
My phone ran out of battery, so I couldn’t keep time. I started to entertain myself with a seminar for my hippocampus, shriveled as it was, trying to pump it up by memorizing the names of barangays (a unit of 100 families the Philippines uses to organize governance in the archipelago) and towns we passed, like those games of getting-to-know-you where you have to say all the names of people sitting in the circle.
In the town of Guihulngan, we had a longer stop, and I was witness to a lady who had the videoke (a video version of karaoke popular in the Philippines) on in her living room, and the door to her living room opened so she could, from her stance right beside the street, belt out an Air Supply ballad. “Two less lonely people in the word, and we’re gonna be fine….” Before the bus lurched forward.
On and on.
It got dark.
Students got on. Students got off.
It got darker.
When I started to smell the stale, sweet-trash smell of harvested sugarcane and saw the sign BAIS, I rejoiced. Bais is not far from Dumaguete.
We lurched on. I felt the bus speeding up after Bais. Maybe it was because it had been about 6 hours since we left San Carlos. Maybe it was because there were only about a dozen passengers left on board. It was a welcome change to the start-stop-start-stop syncopation we had followed for the long dusty trip.
At least on the home stretch, passing Sibulan town and nearing the Dumaguete airport, we could no longer see dust because it was pitch dark.
When the bright lights of the City Mall greeted the bus, I was almost drunk with anticipation of arrival. I was also quite thirsty because knowing I had almost no chance to pee on the long bus ride, I had only wet my lips from the tantalizing liter bottle of water wedged between me and the bus wall. Knowing arrival was at hand, I unscrewed the water bottle and poured the water dramatically into my mouth. I am sure there were streaks where my aim failed, running down the dust that coated my chin.
I had arrived.
*Bahala na is a Filipino phrase meaning “Never mind” or “It’s OK.” Very useful after long bus rides.