Holy Week 2011 — I impulsively, spontaneously, and irrationally book a flight to Cebu at around midnight of Holy Tuesday, at the insistent invitation of a Cebuano friend who spends his Holy Week with family in Bantayan every year. I packed my bags soon after, took a nap for a few hours, and went to the airport the very next day to catch that flight.
After a night in the city (which curiously reminded me of Mandaluyong), it was a three-hour drive to the northern pier, and a 30-45 minute ride on a Fastcraft or its less-high-tech cousin vessell, and voila, found myself staring, mesmerized by Bantayan Island’s insanely clear blue waters, even on the wharf side. There were “shark” kids (a beach island’s version of begging kids), all donning goggles, all wading in the water, watching and waiting for tourists to throw coins into the water. They would race each other to get to the coins. It was like a live adaptation of the Marilou Diaz-Abaya film, Muro-Ami.
In a few words: Bantayan Island rocked my socks.
We arrived at Kota Beach Resort at around noon. It was paradise at the very first sight! A long and wide stretch of flesh-white sand, peppered with crushed shells and corals (a hazard to run barefoot in), and the clearest, bluest water of the noon-tide variety greeted us. I instantly fell in love. There is a huge sandbar that appears during the transition between the tides, in the distance, and it is a beautiful thing to sit there and gaze at the horizon, far away from the hustle and bustle of the mainly quiet resort. The beach is a gentle slope, where children and adults can safely wade.
In the afternoon, the water starts to recede, and recede it does. Shallow pools form in the sand, and the stretch of sand seems to go on forever. You can walk on until the resort looks as big as your thumb and still the water is shallow. Occasionally, you stumble across the big, orange, brown-studded starfish variety which is pretty amazing, as I’ve yet to find colorful species in any of the beaches of Luzon.
At night, there is nothing lovelier than enjoying a beer under the moon and the stars, and the sound of the waves crashing near your feet. Bantayan nights are incredibly still and silent. It is an avenue for reflection, and drunken musings. This is not the place to go to for parties, as they have been banned by the local government during Holy Week. There was a time when beach parties were common, but not anymore. That decision seems to me a good one.
For about Php1,500 per boat, we went on an island-hopping tour. The most important stop is Virgin Island, where, as the name suggests, there is absolutely nothing there save for a sari-sari store and a few picnic tables where families eat pre-prepared food. I’m not sure if this feature is there throughout the year. I suspect it is only because it is Holy Week, and therefore considered a “super peak” season for tourists. The sand here is even finer than Bantayan’s main island, though a huge area is unshaded by trees so the sand gets painfully hot at noon.
Snorkeling and fish-feeding was a beautiful experience in the Fish Sanctuary. The water was unbelievably calm, save for the danger of a few jellyfish (a friend and I were unfortunately stung). the variety of fish is awesome, and there are some live corals that are worth staring at. The sea urchins are gigantic, but luckily the bottom is a long way off and I couldn’t walk the bed even if I had tried to.
My favorite thing to do during snorkeling is scaring myself shitless by looking one minute at the pretty fish below me, then looking straight at the horizon of the ocean next. A feeling of smallness, unlike any other, envelops me, and it’s almost dizzying enough that I have to swim as fast as I can to the boat and hold on. The vastness of the ocean is still something i have to come to terms with. But I don’t let it stop me from enjoying what it can show me, in a degree appropriate to my insignificant, minuscule size. Nature is considerate.
Holy Week is a big event on this island. The whole town comes together on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday for the procession of the Stations of the Cross, which is a pretty big procession for such a small island. From what I gather, this is because old families often try to outdo one another’s floats. There are gigantic floats, which depict stages in the life of Christ. The procession goes around the town proper a couple of times, everyone holding a candle and a prayer, the kids often wearing angel costumes. There are salu-salos in the homes of major families immediately after.
Bantayan is the only place in the world with a Vatican exemption from fasting during Holy Week, because it is a fishing-and-poultry village (that according to the locals, produces the best/biggest eggs in all of Cebu). So yes, meat is allowed here. In fact, I ate almost exclusively nothing but the barbecue outside the resort, with the insanely cheap pusô rice (Php3.00 for a child’s fist-size of rice wrapped in leaves).
The locals seemed to be tourist-neutral, meanining they aren’t particularly excited about tourists, although they will not shy from scamming one or two. A curious thing as well is that there is no ice on the island. All ice come from mainland Cebu, so if you plan to bring a cooler of your drinks, bring your own ice, as it (and various other basic goods) can get pricey in the island.
Another weird thing: THERE ARE HORDES OF KIDS HERE. At least, it seemed that way to me. The ratio of kids (aged 1-4) seems to be at 1:3 kid-adults. I commented on this to a local, and he said that it is to be expected of a fishing village. The women are supposed to be doubly fertile from their fish diets. Until this day, I don’t know if that’s true, but it was remarkable to see hordes of kids running around in the town plaza. I hope they’ll take care of their island when their time comes, or that at the very least, they know how special their place is. <3
I spent a total of 8 days in Cebu that fateful April, and it’s a trip I will likely never forget. In my next posts, I could do a general overview of my experience of Cebu City itself, but i hope you enjoyed this little feature on Bantayan Island. I will come back here, no matter what, to be able to write a better feature next time that does justice to this piece of untarnished paradise.
In memory of Tito Lito Ybañez. Thank you for having me in your beautiful homeland and opening my eyes for a glimpse of paradise. Rest assured that this wonderful experience has given birth to a better person. Until the next time we see each other, perhaps in the face of our creator.