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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

entry arrow1:27 PM | Tonton’s Tour Through the Mangroves

Fourth of Six Parts

[read part 1 here | part 2 here | part 3 here]

In the daylight, the scene of the dance looks remarkably different: the basketball court has returned to its concrete nothingness—no hint of the tinsels and the festive air that had occurred there only two nights before. Even the stage looks forlorn and jagged. Without the satin draperies that had given it a kind of kitschy elegance, it was merely a skeleton of unfinished hollow blocks laid on top of each other. Around the basketball court, one could now easily make out now the small, small village that comprised the whole barrio: only a few families huddled in nipa houses, all lined up as a kind of receiving end of the long dirt road that connected the place to the bigger community of the poblacion many kilometers off, all living off the river as fishermen and sometimes as guides for foreigners and other tourists wanting more than the usual sun and surf.

We had already met the young man the rest of the village called Nene—a strapping leech who was as dark as charcoal, who tried hard to speak to us in English, who tried hard to come off as somebody you could easily count on to make things happen for you while you dreamed up of things to do during a lazy week on a beach. He tried hard—but underneath all that affability, there was something hard and pushy in his deals and ideas that seemed slightly, if not menacing then desperate. You have no change for a karaoke session? he could say, for example. No worries. You can always come back tomorrow with the money. Come, let’s sing.

You want a case of beer for the bonfire? No worries. I’d get the case for you—and carry it all the way to the beach. How much is a bottle of beer? Thirty-five pesos. (The beer, we learn later on, actually cost only P30.)

You want a tour around the mangroves? No worries. I could take you the whole day for P1,300. (The resort, we actually knew much earlier on, gives the exact same tour—plus lunch—for P900.)

He had deals—all overpriced—for snorkeling, for exploring distant busays (waterfalls), for a paddle-ride in nearby mangroves, for massages. “Just tell me what you need,” he would say, “and I know how to get them just for you.”

But you could not fault him too much for his foxy sense of opportunity, because there was indeed money to be made—and so we knew only to humor him, but for the rest, we were on the lookout for more honest deals: and that was how we bumped into Jestoni—whose nickname was Tonton—a small teenager of effortless charm and lilting Hiligaynon, whose father was a local fisherman. We had caught him just in time during a small excursion to Gil Montilla, and he had given us the short bangka ride from Langub to the rest of Nauhang.

It was already almost late in the afternoon when we came back, past four o’clock, and Tonton was still by the riverbank waiting for us. “I’ve always wanted to explore this stretch of river,” Edwin tells him in passable Hiligaynon. “Can you take us down there?”

“Into the mangroves?” Tonton asked.

“Those are mangroves?”

“Yes—although that’s not the one most of the tourists go to. They only go to the mangroves on the other side of the cove.”

“Let’s go down this one,” we said. “How much do you charge ba, Ton?”

The boy demurred, as the shy ones always do—and Edwin set a reasonable price: P50 for an hour or so of exploration—and P100 if he paddled slowly. That was certainly better than waiting for the occasional (very meager) traffic to cross Nauhang to Langub for P5 per head.

What we had was a boat ride of utter loveliness—a cruise down a green, gentle, narrow river flanked on both sides by beautiful mangroves. There was a kind of poetry in their submergence—and more poetry in the way we were drowned by the sheer quiet of the adventure. Only the occasional hoot and twitter of distant birds told us there was such thing as sound in this world.

Tonton paddled slowly as we made our way deep into the river. The mangroves soon proved to be an intricate maze suitable only for the initiated. We turned one bend, only to arrive many slow moments later into forks in the flow. We turned towards one bend, and it led to more byways—and soon we all surrendered our bearings to our bangka paddler, who assured us, with a mischievous smile, that he knew this green world like the back of his hands. “I will take you to the very dead end, where the river stops,” he said, smiling.

At the end, we came into a natural pool bordered on all ends by coral rock and submerged palm trees. In the short distance, we could see the beginnings of a forest, and then the plummet of mountain rising high. “This is beautiful,” Edwin said.

I could only nod—it was indeed beautiful, and the play of the late afternoon light shimmering in the water gave it an even more distinct adjective that would be the death of any cynic: it was romantic. We spent the rest of the ride being silent, contemplating only the flow of the river, and the hushing sounds the water made as Tonton’s paddle struggled to give our small boat the kick and direction we needed to get back to where we originated—to the village.

(To be continued…)

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