I remember talking to a random boatman in Lobo. Average-looking in all respects, he was kind and respectful, although he spoke with the rough accent Batangas has become famous for. He was a bit on the quiet side, but after a few hundred meters into the sea, he became more confident on sharing the standard touristy tidbits he had probably shared a million times. The waves carried us from corals, to sampaloks, to Mount Tibig, to puzzling admonishments. “Do not trek Banoi.” “Do not wear olive or khaki pants.” “The mountains have water that you can drink.” “Just pay the tricycle drivers 120 pesos, they will rip you off if you ask them how much the fare is.” “The solar panels in the lighthouse had been stolen many times.”
To this string of sentences, I added a question. “Are there NPAs in the mountains?” I was referring to the New People’s Army, a Maoist rebel group which refused to die. Just last week, over 10 militants belonging to this group were killed by the army in a neighboring town. The NPA, along with the other militant and civic groups, are branded as enemies of the state, and are being relentlessly hunted down by the current regime. For urban folks with much to spend, the NPA was a nuisance. For businesses that thrived on extracting everything they could from the interior, they were a menace.
“Yes, but they will not hurt you if you don’t hurt them, if you let them be.” There was a serious, uncomfortable pause. Just like the waves hitting the beach, the line separating land from water, the line separating an enemy from a friend, was always in flux. Where the other stood was as clear as the habagat sky.
Thankfully, my snorkeling friends filled the gap my awkward question has created. Their jests broke the dark monotony that spread beneath the mid-morning sun. “Sayang yung pera mo, tara, ang daming isda dito!” I distracted myself with my boyfriend’s phone – I love the sea, but I can’t swim, and I’m afraid of wading into deep water, even if with a life vest on. My choice of vacation, much like this paradise called Lobo, was a paradox.
“You can still look at the fishes and corals with this glass box.” The boatman set a viewing box on the water on the left side of the boat. It was improvised, but it served its purpose. Though with a bluish tinge, I could see vividly the corals and fishes swimming obliviously below. “The seas here are clean, much cleaner than the others according to the students who visited our place a week ago. If you try, maybe you can see a clownfish too.” The way he said “clownfish” was provincial, but I had to commend him for not calling it “Nemo.”
When it was about time to return, he commented on the roads leading to the town. “How was the zigzag road?” The boatman was more cheerful now. “Good thing you didn’t try that road top-load. One sharp curve, and ubos ang birthday!”
“I know! That would have been my last ride if I did,” I said laughingly. “I got tired counting the curves there. They were just too many. But the view is OK, so I think it was still a good experience. There are other roads leading to Lobo, right? One through Ilijan and another one from Laiya?”
“Yes,” the boatman replied. “Private cars pass through the seaside road in Ilijan. It is easier to take than the zigzag road. The Laiya road is still under construction, though. Parts of it are still dirt. It may open soon. We advise visitors to take the Ilijan road back to Batangas City to prevent their children from throwing up since the zigzag road is too stressing for the kids. It is a bit longer, but the view is better.”
“Too bad the jeeps don’t use those roads for their route.” Although I loved the verdant lush on both sides of the zigzag road connecting Lobo with the rest of Batangas, I hated the thought of using the zigzag road back to Batangas City. My body was unaccustomed to the 45-minute bumpy grind. “Good thing the government built alternatives, though.”
“Hindi naman para sa amin yan. Ang lahat ng yun, hindi naman para sa amin.”
The new road, it wasn’t for them. That moment, I knew. He wore as simply as most people in this place, his shirt faded by the sun, the sea, and probably cheap detergent too. His accent was undeniable. But I always had this feeling that he was knowledgeable in ways uncommon to his rural neighborhood. He was nice, but he wasn’t as obsequious as many small town people are when dealing with tourists from Manila. He wasn’t as doting as the resort attendants were to the lone Caucasian backpacker which they charged full board. Thankfully, he wasn’t as indifferent to us as he seemed to be to the previous batch of Marine Sanctuary visitors. There is a need. There is a demand. But there is also resentment.
“Hindi para sa atin, kuya. Nag-jeep nga lang kami eh.” The new road was not for me as well.
“Oo nga naman.” We laughed. After all, although we were sitting on the opposite sides of the boat, we were all on one sea, heading towards the same direction. It became clearer to me who he was, and maybe he realized that I was a bit different from all the people who chartered his boat that day. His face, burnt by the fickle Batangas sun, lightened a bit. Here is someone who understood, who thought.
He untied the boat from a buoy. They had been forbidden to use anchors as these destroy the submarine gardens, so the boatmen use the buoys the municipal government placed to keep their boats in place for a 1000-peso 1-hour swim. Just like everything the government provides, it comes at a fee. I wondered. Of the amount we will pay the boatman, how much of it will really be his? I glanced at his lanky frame: Not much.
My friends came aboard, and the propeller revved up. I tried to shut the sound of the machine to drink in this place’s beauty. The thousand shades of blue. The white corals and gray stones. The deep greens. The metallic fish. The unnatural beige of a rest house. The red rays of the Divine Mercy. There’s a lot of reasons to visit Lobo again, but I might not come back.
“Maganda ang bayan ninyo. Yung mga puno, yung dagat, yung mga bato, sa inyo yan. Dapat sa para sa inyo yan.”
“Oo,” was his short reply. He looked towards the sea, impassively. He long knew what they owned, but reality required surrendering even private thoughts to the whims of the dynasts, big businesses, mining companies, 80s celebrities, even overnight vacationers like me. The fishes of the Isla Verde Passage, beautiful with a GoPro camera and a 1,500-peso snorkel set, retreated from the suffering of those who can only take scraps of “development.” The shiny new beachfront mansions and the struggling beach resorts, which try so hard to entice tourists used to the golden sands of Nasugbu, Calatagan, Laiya, or Puerto Galera, all hid the dampas and kubos dotting the mountainside. There was a different world a few meters away from the main road, a world of thorny bushes and venomous snakes, a world we would rather not be or see, a world where the games of power are played with brutal nakedness. For the people of this sleepy town, the seas unite, and the roads divide. For some, that strip of concrete meant freedom from work. For some, it meant work itself. And for a few, that meant the death of an ideal and a way of life. The road gives, and the road also takes, and of what it gives and takes, we cannot easily choose.
The path to inequality and iniquity is paved. I took the road, and I paid my toll.
“My mom has a place near the plaza. She sells minatamis na kamias and other sweets. Tell her you met me, she might give you a discount for your pasalubong. Mag-iingat ka pauwi,” he told me when it was time to part ways. But I knew that I had never been to a much safer place. As the flame of enlightenment flickers towards its ignoble end in the capital, a fire of discontent and indignity is slowly spreading half a day’s worth of travel from the metropolis. I’m not sure which side will win in my lifetime, but my heart already knows where it should go. I cast a sad smile. I was born in the city, but my home is where I could shed the pretense of urbanity and embrace humanity in its simplest form.
Maybe, next time, I could ask for his name.