After the narrow Airbus A320 of budget airlines and the even narrower seats and non-existent leg room, the economy class of PAL’s Airbus 330 (YES!!!!) seemed like first-class. Wide seats, lots of leg room, and 2-seat configuration on the sides. Pure bliss! It was enought to make me want to ditch budget airlines altogether. Making it even better was not having a seat-mate and because the plane was nearly half-empty, acrosss me was an entire middle row begging for occupancy! As soon as the plane had cleared take-off and the seat-belt sign had gone out, I skedaddled to the empty row, pulled-up the arm rests, inflated my pillow, and promptly lied down and fell asleep.
I woke-up about a half-way into the flight to GenSan with my snacks of packaged biscuits and peanuts on the tray table. As the plane started its initial approach, I munched them down, asked for a glass of water from the smiley and nice flight attendant, and tried to go back to sleep again. I loved this flight!
Touchdown was smooth and the weather was fair. The small arrivals area was crammed as we crowded on the conveyor belt waiting for our luggage. I had brought my large Vietnam-made (you know what that means) Lowe Alpine 75+15 backpack as I knew I was gonna bring home some musical instruments. That meant having to wait for my luggage with the rest of the sweating crowd. Unfortunately, mine was one of the last to come out.
As soon as I exited, I was swarmed with touts offering transpo to the city center. The moto driver with a Php 150 ride to the Yellow Bus Line terminal edged out the cab driver who was offering Php 350. Getting on a waiting multi-cab was a lot cheaper at just Php 50 but that meant waiting for it to fill-up with passengers. Anyway, I kinda missed hopping on the back of a moto.
The driver was engaging enough and pointed out certain places of interests such as Pacquiao’s house (big but looked quite ordinary) and the fish port.
At the Yellow Bus Terminal, a Marbel-bound a/c bus was ready to depart in a couple of minutes. My backpack went in the luggage compartment and I boarded the clean and comfortable bus and snagged a nice window seat (again!) in the middle of the bus. It soon filled-up and we left at around 10:30am.
Marbel or Koronadal as it is officially known is just an hour away. I woke-up from my nap just as the bus pulled-in at the Marbel bus station. Yellow Bus Line or YBL as the local refer it seems to be the major bus company here. It’s what Victory Liner is to Baguio. The moto driver had told me earlier that there was van going straight to Lake Sebu which was a better option to getting on the YBL to Surallah, thirty minutes away, then a 15-minute van ride to Lake Sebu. On inquiry, I was told by the security guard that the vans were on another terminal and I had to take a trike there. It was just a couple of hundreds of meters and cost Php me 10.
Whether it would have been faster if I had taken the Surallah-Lake Sebu route, I don’t know. But it seemed like forever before the van finally took off. When I arrived at the van terminal, a white L300 sat waiting there. The seats beside the driver had already been reserved by two girls. A big guy in a red sport shirt emblazoned with an embroidered logo was seated on the first passenger seat row. He told me to just sit beside him as it was cooler there. He was all sweaty but I did realize that the row also had the widest leg room. I asked him to reserve the seat for me and went to the store just behind the van. My backpack went to the small luggage space behind the last row of seats. On my count, there were five passengers already. It was going to be a long wait knowing that rural vans won’t leave without it overflowing with passengers.
Someone came along shouting, “lechon!” She was selling lechon in small plastic packages at Php 50 per pack. I was tempted to buy one but figured it might not taste good or worst, might upset my stomach. The van beside ours had already filled-up and was getting ready to leave for Maitum. There was nothing to do but watch the world go by and wait.
I was digging into a pack of Oishi Baconnetes and sipping a bottle of Sprite when the barker motioned to me what we were ready to go. I had been waiting to close for an hour already. It was almost 12 noon and a couple of more passengers had boarded. The open windows let in some breeze as we made our way along the sealed highway. People got on and off the van as it also functioned like a jeepney ferrying passengers to nearby stops along the main road. At Surallah, we passed by the newish and modern-looking bus station where some kind of toll fee was paid by the driver to a small wooden booth by the side of the road. By the time we started climbing the curving roads to Lake Sebu, there were just about four of us including my seat mate. The weather had grown noticeably cooler and flat dusty plains gave way to rolling hills. The lake soon came into view and signboards of the resorts dotted the highway. The van dropped us at Poblacion which was the center of town.
Don’t wanna make punta
to Punta Isla
My stomach was grumbling so I hopped on a moto and sped to Punta Isla for late lunch. I had heard a lot about this place— that the food was good, that you could eat by the lake, and that it was the only lake-side accommodation. From the main road, we turned left to a stoney unpaved road, passed the T’boli Museuam and the COWHED shop, until we reached the end of the line. Cars lined the small parking area and as soon as I entered the open-air restaurant on the left , I knew I had entered into a tourist trap.
Perusing the menu, it was clear that I was going to have tilapia during my entire stay at Lake Sebu. Servings were for four people as each dish was about a kilo of tilapia. That meant having to eat the entire 1 kilo of tilapia chicharon all by my lonesome self with no one to share it and the cost (Php 190) with. “You can have the rest wrapped to eat later,” the helpful waitress suggested.
While waiting for lunch, I went down to the floating restaurants. Though picturesque, it quite frankly smelled like one big giant fishpond. A fishpond full of tilapia. What would have otherwise been a quiet tranquil lake was marred by the sight of so many fish pens. It was really really ugly.
Punta Isla itself was ugly. This was one resort that really stuck-out like a sore thumb. I was sure glad I wasn’t staying there. Concrete hulking structures, noisy tourists, and a general look and feel of tackiness and wanton crass commercialism. The only thing interesting was a small zip line that carried stuff in a basket from the kitchen to the lake. A couple of T’boli girls were in full regalia seated at a bench probably waiting for their dance number for the mandatory cultural show to the guests.
Lunch was ready by the time I returned to my table with a view of the lake. More local tourists had come in and the place was threatening to have the look and sound of Tagaytay on weekends. I was expecting a videoke to start blasting soon.
The serving was really plentiful as a kilo of tilapia was equal to two big fishes. I nearly chocked with all that deep-fried tilapia meat. The meat had been filleted and cut into bite-sized pieces which were deep fried to a crisp. It was really good though especially the bones which were cooked intact. As Colonel Sanders would say: it was finger lickin’ good.
I made a quick look-see at the souvenir shop which was selling a kulintang set for Php 15,000 and a used Dream Weavers documentary VHS for Php 550. I was tempted to buy the latter but since it was a used copy, I wasn’t sure if it was gonna play. I wished the CCP would re-issue it as I lost my copy.
Out of Punta Isla on board another moto and on to Green Box pharmacy. Maria, whom I had contacted through the internet, had texted me that I was to stay at the guesthouse at Green Box just opposite her house. Her tribal house had fallen in disrepair and could not accommodate me so she booked me there instead. The arrangement suited me.
Living in the Green Box
The Green Box pharmacy was on the side of the road overlooking a small patch of greenery, a cluster of huts, and of course, the lake.
It looked really neat and tidy. Aside from medicines, there was a whole lot of other stuff being sold such as junk food, canned and bottled drinks, instant noodles, and other things you might suddenly need such as a pink headband or a plastic bracelet with letters you can arrange to form a message.
The attached open dining area was very breezy and looked like an inviting place to just lounge around.
A short flight of steep stairs by the side of the dining area led to the four small guest rooms that faced a slope. A few meters away was the common bathroom. The place had barely been open a month and a lot of things still needed work. The bathroom wasn’t tiled yet and construction stuff littered the slope.
My room was very clean though and smelled of fresh paint. It was large and had a queen-sized bed and a night stand. The staff, led by Elmer, who also stays in one of the rooms were very accommodating. I was to learn later on that they were quite worried about my arrival as they were totally unprepared to accept anyone. Maria, who also goes by her T’boli name of Oyog, had been unable to accept me in her homestay as her tribal house needed repairing. Fortunately, there was Green Box and she managed to persuade them to accept me their very first guest!
The room was Php 550/night which included breakfast. Since I had brought my stash of cereal drinks, I asked if I could just convert my breakfasts to dinners to which they agreed. They asked me what I wanted to have for that evening. I couldn’t think of anything to request. They said I could ask for anything as long as it was in their capacity to cook it. After all that fish for lunch, the only thing I could think of was vegetables. I took-up their suggestion of pakbet.
Across the road and up a small hill was Maria’s office and house opposite of which was SIKAT, the school of indigenous knowledge for T’boli children. I had found Maria through the internet and learned that she was a cultural worker and ran homestays. I knew she was going to be a minefield of information and could lead me to what I wanted to see and do. No, the zipline wasn’t in my bucket list though I had a mild interest to see the famous waterfalls. What I wanted most was to meet musicians and dancers and experience the culture. Taling to her and seeing pictures of her and even a plaque showing her participation in a Smithsonian festival, I knew I had met the right person.
Hear the ringing of the bells . . .
It was mid-afternoon so there was still time for a boat ride across the lake to the biggest island from where we could go all the way up and see the sun set. We headed down the road and to a small pathway to a small slew of huts by the lake’s edge. It had began to rain by then and we sought refuge in a small house. It was obvious that there would be no boating. When the rain stopped, we headed instead to some houses to see some beadwork being done. The T’boli were master bead makers and it had become a home industry to them to created beaded necklaces and belts to be sold to the tourist market.
We walked past some rows of houses and on to a small cluster of huts where a family of brass casters lived. Work was over for the day and they were just lounging around with a few kids playing. About a dozen newly casted bells sat on the ground waiting for the tiny bell inside to be attached. I bought one for Php 150 and they promptly went to work cleaning the bell while a woman started hacking off the newly-casted small bells. It was hard work watching her as she set about hamming the clumps of small bells so they could all be separated from each other. The small bells cost Php 5.00 each while the bigger one was Php 15.
A couple of minutes later, my newly-made bell was ready all shining and gleaming. Maria, whom I shall now refer to as Oyog, said that their family came from a far-off village that was famous for brass casting. My bell was really nice and light and had a pure ringing sound compared to the bells I bought a decade back in Aldevinco in Davao. Edgar Allan Poe would be proud of the sound of the bells.
We were going back the next day at 6 in the morning which was the time they work on their casting.
There wasn’t much to do after dinner. I was all alone and the two girls who were running the pharmacy had gone home. Only Elmer and I were left so we just sat around and told stories. I had a really nice vibe about the place even with its minor inconveniences.
There was nothing really remarkable about this day. I admit I was a bit disappointed with Lake Sebu as I envisioned a really tranquil lake where you could just by the shore and do nothing. But the sight of all those tilapia cages totally shattered any illusion. Add to that the blast of the videoke from the lakeside restaurants.
But I had come to Lake Sebu more for the T’boli people and their culture. Though it became obvious as soon as I got off the van at Poblacion that it wasn’t really going to be easy to find it. The T’boli look no different from you and me. Their colorful wear and accessories are reserved for important occasions or when going to church (Yes! They’re either Catholic or Christian nowadays).