Babuyan Islands, 1993

In 1993, I joined a medical mission to the Babuyan Islands group, which is the second northern-most island group in the Philippines. The islands had no airport, so the only means to get there was via a 10 meter lampitaw (a large two-outrigger boat) over rough seas for 10 hours, from the mainland Luzon. Since such trips too difficult to make on a regular basis, the locals would receive little medical attention.

One of the islands we went to is Babuyan Claro. Beautiful place but very difficult to go to. They have no port and the shore consist of big boulders which makes docking impossible. When you disembark from the lampitaw, because of the strong current, you are made to board a raft made of plastic pipes tied together two or three persons at a time and you are carried ashore pass the big boulders. The people of the island have their own dialect known as curog, certified as a distinct dialect by the Institute of Linguistics, Inc. and the National Linguistics Institute. The dialect is a blend of Ivatan and Taiwanese with sprinkling of Ibanag and Itawes.

Donating chess sets to the local youth group
Donating chess sets to the local youth group

In this photograph, I am giving chessboard sets to the local youth group of Barangay Dilam, with the local school principal and a government official flanking us.

People always joke about this picture, because it looks like I just came out of the jungle and the young man is donating to me

Sunset in the Babuyan Islands, after snorkeling at the nearby reefs
Sunset in the Babuyan Islands, after snorkeling at the nearby reefs

During our free periods, we would go out and swim and snorkel at the beach. Since there is no tourism in the area, the beaches and coral reefs were pristine. The economy was very slow, as compared to the mainland. I could buy a kilo of lobster for 30 pesos, while they would cost 300 to 500 pesos in Manila.

Hauling a cart with a yoke for a carabao
Hauling a cart with a yoke for a carabao

It was the first time the locals saw a 6 ft tall (183 cm) man, decked with a necklace of boar’s teeth and bangles on the arms (from my other travels among the other local ethnic groups), and it scared them. They thought that I was a Moro warrior, from the island of Mindanao. The local official who sponsored the medical mission, joked that I was more effective than his bodyguards, because no one would approach him when I was around. Since he couldn’t ask me to change how I looked, the only way the locals would not be frightened of me was if they thought I was a doctor. So the official told the rest of the medical team and staff to treat me like a doctor, which I in turn had to assist in the surgeries, to make the ruse believable.

A local welcomes us with the soothing music of the harp
A local welcomes us with the soothing music of the harp

On our first day at Barangay Centro, the whole team was serenaded by a local girl playing the harp. Since the harp isn’t anymore a popular instrument among folk players, this is quite a treat. In this photograph, I am not bored, it is a staff member was calling my attention.

Standing on Camiguin Island, with Fuga Island in the background
Standing on Camiguin Island, with Fuga Island in the background

Although I enjoyed our travels through three of the islands, there was one particular island that we could not approach, even when we were with the local congressman. That is Fuga Island, which privately owned, and rumored to be controlled by a local crime lord, with ties to the Chinese Tongs. Drug smuggling, human trafficking, etc. No one can get close, and then the local fishermen tell stories of armed men on speedboats shooting at them if they get too near to the island.

Dawn at the Babuyan Islands, getting ready to set sail to the next island
Dawn at the Babuyan Islands, getting ready to set sail to the next island

The best time to travel to the Babuyan Islands would be between April and May, when the waves are at their lowest, which is 30 to 90 cm on any given day.

The long trips at sea could have gotten boring, if it wasn't for this rowdy bunch of men
The long trips at sea could have gotten boring, if it wasn’t for this rowdy bunch of men

Since the trip between the mainland to the nearest island was around 8 hours, we had to find ways to entertain ourselves (at least those in the boat who we no sea sick). So some of the boat’s crew started to catch dorado fish, and quickly cut them for the freshest kinilaw and sashimi

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