Marinduque: The Heart of the Philippines
I walked through a rusty gate and stepped down the rocks onto the chalk-white shore. Two bleating goats, white as the sand, scurried by. Down the bay I could see children making playhouses of bangkas – outrigger canoes that are ubiquitous in the Philippines.
“Helloooo!” they yelled at me, laughing and radiating with the geniality I’d come to associate with Filipino island folk.
In the distance, the cylindrical rim of the island’s tallest volcano, Mount Malindig served as the backcloth to nature’s soft theatre. Notwithstanding the fishing boat bearing the designation No Woman, No Cry, there were few suggestions of a human world in my viewfinder.
Behind the treeline I came upon a line of makeshift shacks and ordered a coconut. If I’d had the skill, I might have picked one myself. After quenching my thirst, I endeavoured to explore Poctoy White Beach, a coastal strip of Torrijos municipality developed for tourism. It proved a humble affair. There were two ragtag eateries, a few thatch beach huts, and a bar hawking Red Horse beer.
Over drinks I befriended some locals and we made merry until well after sunset. I was, apparently, the only tourist in town, which delighted me. If travel is about escape, I had eluded the world familiar to me. Stumbling to bed beneath a canopy of dazzling stars, I felt a sincere sense of emancipation
The next day I asked Swiss expat Hans Peter, who’d rented me a beachside bungalow, why, indeed how Marinduque could maintain such affordable exclusivity? Where were the Holiday Inns? Why weren’t the locals hawking made-in-China sunhats?
“You have to understand the mentality here,” he explained. “Traditionally Europeans were forced to think about the future: How to feed themselves through the winter. This cultivated a certain work ethic. But the biggest concern for someone in Marinduque has always been what if a coconut falls on your head.”
For Hans, a self-confessed throwback from the 1960’s peace-and-love generation, nature’s bounty has nurtured a mentality of laudable lassitude.
“If you’re hungry you just throw your rod across the water,” he said. “That’s why it’s nice here. People aren’t caught-up in the corporate-industrial saga.”
But other island expats I met deplored the lack of development on the island.
“Marinduque could be so much more,” complained long-term German expat Bernd Lahm. “They built an airport, then nobody operates it!”
This meant getting to Marinduque involved travel in the true sense of the word – a coach from the decrepit bus depot beneath a bridge in Manila through deplorable traffic along the shanty-lined highway to the nondescript port of Lucena, from where a ferry takes a further three hours to get to the island.
When I made landfall it was already dark and having no idea where to go, I boarded a jeepeney – a World War Two American jeep converted into a colourful bus – and set off along hilly roads into the unknown.
After a well-deserved night’s sleep in the charming Boac Hotel, morning shed light on my whereabouts. Boac was the perfect antidote to the noise and congestion of Manila. The most obvious site to check out was the domineering Boac Cathedral, a reminder of Spain’s long dominion here. Construction began in 1580 and according to a tourist sign “the architecture comprised a unique fusion of the baroque style and local building materials”.
Built on a mound, it also affords a panorama of the land and I saw that Marinduque’s administrative centre was more or less a riverside market town comprising some attractive wooden buildings, hemmed in by an ocean of palm trees.
I enquired as to where I might find a good lunch and was directed to Barbarossa Pub some forty minutes down the West Coast. I boarded a jeepeney bound for the enticing destination of Buenavista. Hauling my backpack down a street I was soon accosted by a passing SUV. “What are you looking for?” boomed a voice.
“It’s moved location, hop in, I’ll take you.”
It turned out that I’d serendipitously run into the ex-pub owner Bernd Lahm. Barbarossa was now operated by his son Bernhard Lahm. Over a hearty lunch I chatted with the young patron, whose mixed Filipino-German heritage gave me a unique view of life on Marinduque.
“I lived and worked in Germany for awhile, but came back. Nobody bothers you and it’s cheap, you can live minimally but still well.” His only concern belonged to the heavens. “The last big typhoon brought 163 kilometre-per-hour winds that tore some roofs off buildings.”
I asked Lahm where I might stay in order to climb Mount Malindig. It would appear fortune favoured the ill-prepared in Marinduque.
“My father lives near the mountain!”
A phone call and a motorcycle rider later, I was reunited with Bernd Lahm who was enjoying coffee on his veranda with fellow German exile Hans Minute. I negotiated to stay in Lahm’s vacant caretaker cottage from where I could conveniently explore the island’s volcanic southern periphery.
“There’s also a sulphur hot springs in the foothills,” Lahm noted, so I added a steamy dip to my Marinduque bucket list.
They were keen to hear my impressions of the place they called home. I admitted to being quite taken by how relaxed the people were, yet how wild and undulating the nature seemed in contrast.
“You know they call Marinduque ‘the heart of the Philippines’,” Minute explained. “The island is shaped like a heart and is the exact geographic centre of the Philippine archipelago.”
The following day, Lahm negotiated with the local Barangay Captain for two villagers to guide me up Mount Malindig. I had always wanted to peer into the smoldering mouth of a volcano, despite the fact that one of the guides believed a giant anaconda lived inside. But I never met with the mouth of the snake, or for that matter, the volcano. After several hours trekking the grass became too thick to make any serious progress and we were forced to turn back. Fortunately, this left time for a late afternoon spa in the volcanic spring, the sulphur water rejuvenating me before the final leg of my journey up the east coast.
I strolled around the bustling jungle outpost of Santa Cruz, with its teeming market, a few Spanish colonial buildings and some pleasant cafés. But the attraction lay offshore, namely the Santa Cruz Islands.
We motored out of a lagoon, past the Paland Sandbar – a stretch of coral sands that appears at low tide – through the cobalt waters to Maniwaya Island, a palm tree-lined islet that appeared so flawless as to have been conceivably photo-shopped by an anxious brochure editor.
“What time do you go back to Marinduque?” I asked the captain, as I stepped onto the jetty.
“What!” I was trapped in paradise. Admittedly, I’ve been stuck in far worse places.
It took less than 20 minutes to cross the island on foot. In its forested interior I found buffalo pulling wooden ploughs, fisherman lounging in hammocks, and a young girl washing her hair in water from a well. There were few signs of 21st century civilization, reminding me that the best journeys don’t just take you to a different place, but a different time as well.
When I emerged from the trees I encountered a family of kindly Filipino holidaymakers eating lunch on the beach.
“We’ve hired a private boat if you’d like to catch a ride back to Marinduque with us,” suggested Nette Antonino before offering me some coconut meat and bananas.
After a slow lunch we bordered the bangka. Chaperoned by flying fish we headed towards Mompong, the most remote of the Santa Cruz Islands. My newly made acquaintances wanted to see the distinctive ungab sedimentary rock that has created a natural bridge.
Under the stone arch we splashed about in the warm water, posing for photos like old friends reunited, proving once again how effortlessly kind everyday Filipinos are.
As my new companions boarded the vessel I lay on my back like driftwood and let the tide wash me towards the shore. And I swear in the turn of the waves I heard the gentle beat of the heart of the Philippines.