When a relative came home from Manila, my pasalubong (souvenir) was a box of Pan de Manila coffee. Although the box art showed what I would assume to be an idealized rendition of old Manila, it reminded me of a different place, Bantayan Island. My mother was born and raised there, but I’d only been there twice.
Unfortunately, I went there in the early 90s, before the age of digital cameras, smartphones and indiscriminate photography. In my time, film was expensive. We did not have spare shots for selfies, sceneries and food. Photos had to be two in one, beautiful scenery with loved ones posing awkwardly in front of it.
It is partly because of my lack of presentable photos that I’ve decided to use images here that are older than me. I feel there is no mismatch though. At the time I was there, I felt I had stepped back in time, making my experience seem much older than it was.
Cebu to Bantayan
Every trip to the island starts with an hour and a half drive from Cebu City to Hagnaya where travelers can take a lancha (small motorized boat) to Sta. Fe, a ride that’ll take another hour and a half. My mother says, summer is the best time to go. The cooler months during the rainy season are for those who want to experience a gut-wrenching carnival ride at sea.
The island is divided into three municipalities, Sta. Fe, Madridejos and Bantayan. We have relatives in all three. An uncle once joked that the island is so small, that most people are related to each other in varying degrees, so that marrying a fellow islander is risking marrying a relative.
A Glimpse of the Past
My great grandmother lived in Binaobao, thirty minutes away from Sta. Fe. She was still alive and well when we first visited, and I wish I had the courage to talk to her then. She could have told me stories of a time long past, but I was too shy. All I could do was to stare in awe at her and her seemingly ancient house.
Her house looked a lot like the ones on my coffee box. The second floor was made of wood and had sliding Capiz shell windows. The first floor had been remodeled but retained its old feel with its wide wooden doors secured by a thick bar of wood. During the day, the doors were wide open. A table was set right by the door jamb and filled with an assortment of items for sale.
The interior of the house was dark, but surprisingly cool. Most of what I saw inside I no longer remember, except for the house’s wooden posts made of tree trunks in their original form and the huge clay pots filled with water at the back.
One more truly unforgettable facet of Bantayan is its food. Because it is a stone’s throw away from the sea, my relatives’ tables were always teeming with its bounties; crabs, fish, shells, squid, shrimp and guso (seaweed); cooked simply and with little flair, demonstrating the superiority of nature’s flavors.
The seafood of course, is usually consumed during the main meals of the day, except in one. I remember waking up at dawn on my first day to a table laden with suman (rice cake) and sikwate (chocolate drink). We thought we were being served breakfast, only to be told later that it was painit, a dawn meal taken before the morning mass. Breakfast didn’t start until 7 or 8.
Holiest of Weeks
Bantayan Island has always been a popular Holy Week destination. It has gained even more attention in recent years because of the continued circulation of the story about an old Papal exemption allowing residents to eat meat even on a Good Friday. Catholics in other parts of the country abstain.
My mother has always been adamant though. Many seniors, she says, remain true to their tradition, that is, abstaining from meat every Friday of Lent. In my case, I wouldn’t want to eat meat anyway in the presence of all that seafood.
Over and above the question of food, the people of Bantayan have remained steadfast to Catholic traditions observed elsewhere, but with noticeably more intensity. According to my mother, the yearly procession in Binaobao may vary from year to year in minor details but remain true to its majestic, awe-inspiring form.
Every year, intricately decked carrozas (carriages) depicting the people and events surrounding Christ’s life and death are driven through the main street leading to the church. Most memorable for me were the Mater Dolorosa (Our Lady of Sorrows) and the Santo Entierro, Christ, supine and encased in blindingly clear glass.
Even more impressive were the people I witnessed during my visit, praying and walking solemnly in between each carroza. Devotees from all walks of life, carrying lit candles, rippled through the streets in soft burning waves. I remember the heat rising up, touching my cheek as I looked down from one of my great grandmother’s windows.
White Sands, Blue Waters
My mother has two enduring rules on Good Friday shortly before and after 3:00 p.m., the time Christ is believed to have died on the cross. First, we must keep silent up until the end of Black Saturday. Second, we must not bathe. Naturally, she imposed these while we were in her hometown. The silence part I can easily understand, but the reason for the gross temporary restraining order obtained by the bathroom against all of us eludes me.
We therefore invariably ended up at the beach on Easter Sunday, when both rules were no longer in effect, to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection with a much needed bath. In other places I’d been, I know it is customary for many families to bathe in the sea on Easter. Even if it weren’t that day however, it is a must to visit one of Bantayan’s beaches before leaving. Pure white sands and calm blue waters restore serenity.