Topping all my fears now is my recent boat ride in the Pacific Ocean destination Biri Island. If you’re familiar with Scream the painting I was like it then though nobody would’ve guessed it from my calm exterior.
A few minutes after ten in the morning, all seven of us had gotten inside the boat. Earlier, in Catarman, my group arriving from Manila met up with our host agency and area Project teams. I was to brief everybody with the field plan.
As soon as my group went through the agency’s doors and customary handshakes dispensed with, the first thing the most senior person told me was I had to be really brief as we had a boat to catch. I gave him a half smile. This is one thing I like about foreigners. They’re direct. Works for me because I’m also straightforward.
Speed wasn’t the real challenge that morning however. It was having four nationalities around the table. A statement from me was interpreted in two or three different ways to which everybody reacted at once. I should’ve brought a gavel to pound the table with. Order! Order!
Talking louder than everybody had been the solution. Everybody clammed up then. Somewhere through my talk though the same most senior person cut in as politely as he could: we needed to go and could resume once on the island. My “let’s go then!” was unnecessary in the ensuing commotion of bodies and limbs that took hold of backpacks into which were dumped laptops, papers, and what else from the table.
Next thing I knew we were on the road, a convoy to the port town of Lavezares, forty five minutes from Catarman. There, our boat had been waiting. My group had been informed much earlier that there was only one trip a day to and from the Island thus the need to stay the night. (This engagement differed from the others before in that here I lost all sense of direction. My group had been shuffled in and out of service vehicles at different pick up points; brought into the areas and once we’ve completed activities there, serviced back to where we were billeted. That happened day after day. In between these road travel were sea and plane rides. It seemed that we were always moving yet not knowing which direction. When field work was done, I needed a couple of days rest in order to get back my bearing. It had been like a very bad case of jet lag.)
Inside the boat, I took the seat close to fore. When the rest were seated, we were told to put on our agency-issued life vests. Seeing that it’s of class A design and material the kind that floats an elephant, and comfy too, the vest actually eased my fear of sea travel which had shot up after seeing the size of our transport. I had assumed ‘boat’ was larger than this one.
The boat was eased out of the dock and then the engine was fired up. I realized that the sound of a boat’s engine is like having a Fokker plane’s engine pressed to your ears! So that was why the head of our host agency had on muffler earphones! Good thing that my vest’ collar came up to my ears. It muffled the sound. But talking was out of the question.
We hadn’t gone far from the port when I noticed the changes. The wind was blowing strongly and the waters were choppy. The country according to PAGASA was feeling the effects of the habagat. Apparently, the Ocean was our gauge. But thank God for the relatively bright weather.
Then I saw this:
I saw that waters surrounding the statues were noticeably brown and, horror of horrors, churning toward the base of the statues. The area was like a funnel. If hell was anywhere nearby it was right in that area, I thought. Could the currents reach our boat and suck us in? I looked down the hull of the boat to calm myself. But we passed the area without anything happening to us.
Soon we were in the open Pacific Ocean. There, the winds angrily whipped our hair and made our boat rise and fall in sync with the undulating waters. And with that, my heart and gut as well. The engine was further stowed.
Two things kept me from giving in to my fear: first, the sight of my companions. They looked like this was nothing to them. If they could do that, I thought, I could too. Second, I realized seeing how far out in the Ocean we were that our trip was like life ie. the only way is always forward and when having a difficult time to counter it with one’s full strength. The thought soothed me and took my focus off the Ocean awhile.
Then we came to the craziest part of the Ocean. We had reached the portion where the Pacific Ocean meets San Bernardino Strait. At this point, the waters churned as what I saw happening around the base of the statues. My grip on my side of the boat became deathlike. I felt the engine shift to utilize our combined dead weight to anchor the boat as it dove right into the swirling waters. The boat was rocked here and there. Water sprayed us. To keep myself from having an attack of nerves, I looked down the boat once more.
Just when I thought the boat won’t anymore hold together against the roiling waters, the movement eased. I looked up. We had made it through the most dangerous part of our trip and were approaching calmer inland waters.
Toward evening on the same day, we paid the Mayor a courtesy call at his residence. We found him in his workshop, sculpting. The Mayor is a sculptor! What an interesting combination! He led us into the main house where we saw among others his sculptures of eagles and the bust of Pope Francis even!
I learned that the statue I’d seen is that of Nuestra Señora de Salvacion (“Santa”), all of 18 feet, depicted as saving a man from the raging waters. The work had been commissioned to the Mayor in 2005 by lawyer Ramon Cuyco of Lavezares upon suggestion of the town’s former parish priest. Accordingly, the statue especially guides boats plying the Lavezares-Biri-Lavezares route. It is believed that it has tamed the constantly turbulent waters of San Bernardino Strait and since it’s installation there was hardly any mishap along the route. That was a good take away thought.
At the municipal hall, just before we visited the Mayor, I learned from an agency head that unlike commercially-built boats the locally-made ones are made of materials designed to float. Another assurance.
Turned out, I needed the assurances because on our return to the mainland the following morning, the ride proved rougher despite leaving early than when we came in. For the entire trip back, we had put up the tarp on one side of the boat to keep ourselves from getting soaked from the Ocean water spraying us. I kept my eyes closed behind my shades.
Then I felt my seatmate touch my arm. He made sign language that our captain and his assistant were just kids (teenagers). I replied that though kids they’re experts as the Ocean is their life. Remember the young local boy who went fishing near the rock formation? He nodded. I looked at his face. He looked assured. I was too. By my own pep talk. Ha ha.
This ends my postcards series on Biri. Next: series on Bulusan.