WHEN IT COMES TO TOURIST destinations and vacation getaways we tend to look far and ignore what’s in our immediate periphery. Perhaps we hate so much our life’s miserable daily grind in Metro Manila that we want to go as far away from the city as possible.
Until February 2008 I have never been to 100 Islands although it is just about 200 kilometers from Metro Manila and only require land travel. I actually have had maybe about half a dozen missed opportunities to visit the place in the past 20 years. While completing my Engineering degree in SLU in Baguio City, for instance, I had at least three foiled plans to go and visit the place. Back in 2000-2003 I’ve also been invited at least twice by my very good friend from Germany, Herr Karl Hummitszch, to literally spend a weekend in one of the islands. Oh, Karl loves 100 Islands and he must have visited the place maybe a dozen times in the two decades that he has been doing business in the Philippines. But for me, somehow some circumstances always get in the way until I simply stopped in even including 100 Islands among the places I resolve to visit.
Until December 2007.
I was just over my first six months in my new job as CIO of Delbros, Inc. in December 2007 and I was in the process of establishing a deeper and more meaningful bond with my small IT group. I broached the idea of an informal team-building activity. What I had in mind was nothing serious. I just wanted a group outing and spend some time and do some activities outside of the office with the team. To make sure that it will happen we decided on the venue and we even set a couple of tentative dates then and there. A consensus has been reached and a decision made. We resolved that we will go to 100 Islands in February 2008.
Some members of the group have already been to 100 Islands. In fact, two of them, Ford (OrdoÒez) and Medel (Castro), have been there at least twice already. I was quite worried of the fact that the group may have agreed to doing our “team-building” activity in 100 Islands just for my sake. But my worry turned out to be unfounded because everyone in the group was genuinely excited with the idea, including the 100 Island “veterans.” Now, if people are excited to re-visit a place they’ve been to before then there must be something really special with the place. After all, there are not so many tourist destinations that one would want to go back to with the same if not even more fervor than the first time he/she has visited the place. I was to find out for myself how good 100 Islands is soon enough.
February 24, 2008. Five of us in our small group of eight met at our office in Port Area (near South Harbor), Manila. With me in my car were Mark (Obra) and Ely (Otalla). With Ford in the other car was Mike (Vargas). Our 2-vehicle convoy was supposed to leave Delbros at 3:30 AM and pick up the other three members of the group along the way in Tayuman and in EDSA.
We started off a bit late (I arrived late). We left Delbros shortly after 4:00 AM, stopped twice — first for a gas fill and then for tire pressure check — then off we went to pick up Edmond (Deus) and Jason (Gongon) in Tayuman, and finally Medel in EDSA near Balintawak. It was almost 5:00 AM when we entered NLEX although it was still quite dark. I love driving in NLEX during the early hours of the morning. We were at the end of NLEX in Sta. Ines in just about 45 minutes, inclusive of a coffee break at the Shell service station in Bocaue.
Our trip leader has been Ford. Being from Agoo, La Union, he knows the Manila-Ilocos highway very well. I was more than happy to just tail Ford, until I realized how fast he drives. It’s not really his driving speed that I had trouble with. I drive quite fast myself. It’s the way he expertly and bravely passes vehicles in front of us. I could hardly keep up with him. After our 100 Islands caper I gave him the moniker, “Ang Mananahi” (The Weaver) as an apt description of the way he weaves through vehicles in the highway.
I’ve heard and read about the “alternate” or “bypass” road going to the northwestern provinces including Baguio but up until our February 24 trip I have not yet tried that route. Instead of going to the left at Sta. Ines we went to the other direction toward Concepcion, Tarlac. Even at 5:00 o’clock AM when the volume of traffic is probably but a fraction of the usual daytime volume I can swear that we still managed to save a good deal of time by taking that route. Had I known about this bypass route earlier I would have always used it in all my previous trips to that part of the country.
Sunrise was just breaking when we reached Tarlac City. Ford led me to yet another route that would bypass the city proper, including the public market where tricycles and jeepneys abound even early in the morning. By 6:30 AM we were already outside Tarlac City well on our way to the province of Pangasinan, where the famed 100 Islands lie just at the outer left rim of Lingayen Gulf.
I’ve long taught myself that there is no reason why the journey can’t be as much fun as the destination. We can choose to focus on the promise of the destination and let the beauty of the surrounding pass in a blur during the journey, or we can opt to enjoy every minute of the journey and let it build up the anticipation for the destination.To be honest, it is quite difficult to enjoy the journey when you sorely lack sleep, you are the one driving, and you got up at 3:00 AM. Add to it the fact that I was having a hard time keeping up with Ang Mananahi.
But we managed to have some fun during the journey. Right after leaving Tarlac City in the Tarlac-Pangasinan highway we passed by a long stretch of road lined with Mahogany trees on both sides. The people in the lead car decided to stop for our caper’s first official photo. Of all places we stopped right across a big piggery and within seconds of alighting from our vehicles we realized that we have taken a bad spot for stopping by. The odor was repugnant. We took some group photos as fast as we could and hurriedly left the place. Several minutes since and we could still smell the pigs’ dung among ourselves. The odor must have seeped into our shirts! We were all laughing so hard that within minutes my sleepiness was gone.
The Tarlac-Pangasinan Highway makes for a very nice drive, especially early in the morning. There are long stretches of roads with hardly any houses in either side. There is greenery everywhere. We were having a very relaxed and refreshing drive and before I knew it we were already in Mangatarem, Pangasinan.
One disadvantage of being in the trailing end of a convoy is that the driver (that is, I) tends to not pay attention on the road and the general direction the convoy is taking. I just kept on following the lead vehicle, not for a second worrying whether we were going to the right direction or not. Ford knows the place very well so there was no reason for me to doubt that where we were going was where we were supposed to go. Although I am sure that I can already manage to go to 100 Islands without a lead vehicle to follow, right now I really can’t recall the major forks and turns that we took. I think we took a turn in as many as three major intersections since we left Tarlac City.
Our last major turn (we turned left, I think) was somewhere after the town of Bugallon. We made our second roadside photo stop along that stretch. At the left side of the road not too far away beyond the rice fields is a minor mountain range. We took photos with the mountains at our back. It was about 7:30 AM although it felt as though it was just 6:00 AM because there were still very few other vehicles on the road.
Mark had been to 100 Islands once before and he explained to me that Alaminos, the hometown of 100 Islands, is just beyond the mountain range ahead and that we will be traversing said mountain range within a few minutes.
Right after crossing the mountain range I saw the sea to the right, about a hundred meters from the road. 100 Islands is still to the west a few kilometers away and still not visible from where we were at the moment. I later figured out that we were on the leftmost rim of Lingayen Gulf.
We had our last roadside photo stop at a rather nondescript place where a couple of native cows were lazily munching their vegetarian breakfast. It turned out that the place brought back fond memories for Ford and Medel. In their earlier caper to 100 Islands just about a year ago they also stopped by this exact spot. Between the road and the sea lies the “ruins” of what was probably a rice barn. We took wacky photos on top of the “ruins” as well as in the concrete breakwater dike which also looks like a “ruin.” As we have hoped, the photos eventually turned out to be great.
In the middle of our breakwater photo-shoot Ford got a call from Manang Helen (DiÒo), our hostess in 100 Islands. She was already expecting us and where the hell were we?
The arrangements for our 100 Islands caper have all been done over SMS. Manang Helen’s mobile number is 0910.636.30.69, and if you are planning to visit 100 Islands any time in the future you will realize that having her mobile number stored in your cellphone will save you a lot of time, effort, money, and maybe even trouble (you’ll find out why in a while).
During their first trip to 100 Islands Ford and Medel providentially met Manang Helen, a very congenial middle-aged lady who has a very keen business sense. They were looking for available hotel rooms in Alaminos for accommodation but none were available They asked around for alternative accommodations and they were led to Manang Helen, who owns a house that is available for a few days’ rent.
Manang Helen also operates a 24-hour convenience store where she also serves meals right at the entrance to 100 Islands.
A year since our 100 Islands veterans met Manang Helen, she has grown much richer. A second house-for-rent was being constructed behind the original one. She also now operates 2 bancas. Her business model of a full-service, better-than-hotel accommodation is proving itself to be a real winner.
We rented Manang Helen’s house which is within a hundred meters from the marina. It has two bedrooms, a spacious living room, a clean T&B and a kitchen with a gas stove and a fridge. The best part about this accommodation arrangement is that we have the house all to ourselves. There is even ample and safe parking space for our vehicles.
Unlike in hotels where we were probably prohibited to bring in our own food and beverage, we were free to bring in anything into Manang Helen’s house-for-rent. But being all guys we knew better than to cook our own meals. We just brought with us lots of snacks and even lots more of beer and ice (we actually bought our beer and ice in Alaminos town proper). Cooking our own meals would have been too cumbersome and time consuming so we decided to let Manang Helen take care of it for us. Besides, all of us were quite unsure whether we would want to eat the meals prepared by ourselves knowing very well that we would have been too drunk most of the time.
A hearty breakfast was already waiting for us at Manang Helen’s convenience store and restaurant.
It was about 10:30 AM when we prepared to tour the “islands.” Another advantage of doing business with Manang Helen is that we naturally hired one of her boats and got a handsome discount in the process. One thing very good about 100 Islands is that the Marina closely regulates the businesses that depend on the tourists drawn in by the islands. The banca operators can not over-price because the Marina sets the standard rates. But instead of the regular P1,500 day rate set by the Marina, Manang Helen gave us one of her bancas with her best bancero for only P1,300. She also instructed her bancero to just allow us to use the banca’s regulation life vests should we want to use them later when we swim around some of the islands. Other bancas would have charged extra for the use of the life vests apart from emergency situations.
From the marina I found it quite difficult to make out how the islands look like. But as soon as we approached the very first of the islands I was awestruck. 100 Islands is definitely a natural wonder, a unique geological formation like nothing I have seen before. I am not quite sure about it but I think it is quite safe to assume that it is one of a kind anywhere in the world.Most of the islands, it turned out, are inhabitable… at least for humans. These are essentially rock protrusions with neither a beach nor a flat enough surface from which to build a small marina. We were told by our bancero that some islands are inhabited by monkeys, some by bayawak, (monitor lizards), and the like.
Quite a few of the islands have short stretch of beaches and these are where the tourists usually flock. Typical activities on these beaches are swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and of course, babe watching.
On the day we went to the islands I estimated the mix of local and foreign visitors to be about 60:40. The visitors are chiefly Koreans and Japanese, with a sprinkling of some Americans and Europeans.
The first island we stopped by is called Governor’s Island. It has a small cave and a hilltop view of the islands. In retrospect I must now say that this island is a “must stop” since it provides a perfect venue for picture taking. Taking our poses at the view deck, our cameras’ viewfinders clearly captured quite a number of the islands on the background.
We then went to Quezon Island. This is where the center of activities is. We rented a table. We were to do several activities on and around this island and we were also to eat lunch and drink lots of beers in this place. Donning our life vests and snorkeling gears (sans flippers) we set out for our first “team building” task: snorkel around the island. The island’s perimeter is probably around 500 meters. Halfway through our perimeter snorkel a bold idea emerged.
At the back of this island is another island about quarter a kilometer away. It has a very small beach, perhaps no more than 10 meters wide. But like the old high-sea lore about sirens hypnotizing mariners into their watery graves with their irresistibly sweet songs, we all of a sudden all decided to cross the 250-300 meters of approximately 30-foot deep sea that separates Quezon Island and this other island with a tiny beach.
It was a bold and totally foolish caper even after we have successfully pulled it off. Of the eight of us, only three can really swim and none is certified in lifesaving or deep water rescue. If something went wrong, and something could have easily went wrong, our 100 Hundred Adventure could have been a 100 Island Tragedy.
But as it happened, we did manage to pull it off. And boy, what a high it has been. For me personally, my elation was boundless considering that I couldn’t swim and I’ve always struggled with this deficiency all my life. For all of us, this single feat has done wonders for our morale and may have single-handedly accomplished what we went to 100 Islands for. We now all share a special bond as a team, an esprit de corps that can only emanate from a shared extraordinary experience.
But our 100 Island Adventure did not end with that remarkable island-to-island crossing. The adventure was just starting at that point.
Exhausted and thrilled from our bold adventure, we had a sumptuous lunch of grilled liempo, thanks to our bancero who was busy cooking our food while we were crossing into the other island. The beer never tasted that good!After lunch we snorkeled at Quezon Island’s beach for a while. There were quite a number of people in the beach ñ swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, sunbathing. Our eyes feasted on the nice views around, particularly some of the Korean girls whose white skins seemed almost like they were glowing.
And then one of us suggested that we swim to a diving platform at the back of the island. The platform, which is approximately five by five meters, is in the same area where we were before lunch when we did the island-to-island crossing. It is actually about halfway between the two islands.
Emboldened by our earlier success we all felt that going to the platform should be a piece of cake. After all, it is just half the distance we swam just more than an hour ago.
We saw about half a dozen people on top of the platform when we started toward it. A group of ladies, I think there were four of them, decided to go along with us. Still giddy from our earlier success we even offered to guide them and to look out for them as we all proceeded to the platform.
Then it hit us. Swimming to the platform wasn’t as easy as it was when we swam to the other island which was twice the distance! There were several factors we failed to consider. First, that time of day there was a marked increase in water current in that part of the sea. Second, we had lunch and consumed several bottles of beer less than two hours ago so we were much heavier and therefore more sluggish. Third, although we didn’t seem to notice it because it was probably masked by our elation we were actually already too tired to attempt even half of the distance we swam earlier.
I for one was breathing laboriously halfway to the platform. No matter how strong I kicked my legs and paddled my arms, it felt like I was not moving forward. Reaching the platform seemed to take forever. The group of ladies who went with us slowly passed me by, one by one. And I was too tired to even feel embarrassed about it.
I was the last to arrive at the platform. Dog tired, it took me several attempts before I managed to pull myself up on top. Once on top, I laid down there all exhausted. There was only one thing on my mind: How in hell would I manage to swim back from that God-forsaken platform? Why did I ever agree to go along with that foolhardy plan?
After what seemed like forever I finally regained some strength and managed to sit. All of a sudden I felt a rush of panic. My left thigh and leg were covered with blood ñ my own blood. There were two slices each about one and one-half inch long on my left thigh right on top of my knee. And yet strangely I didn’t feel anything. My exhaustion and having been soaked in seawater over an extended period must have numbed my senses. I must have gotten the wounds during one of my failed attempts to pull myself up onto the platform. I recall having grazed my left foot on the edge of the platform but didn’t give it any thought at that time.
The wounds have since developed into keloids so they are now a permanent body mark. It must have been the bacteria from the sea creatures that cling on to the platform. They may be an unsightly blemish in my rather flawless thigh but I don’t mind them that much. I actually consider them battle scars ñ a souvenir from, and evidence of, my extraordinary feat in 100 Islands on that fateful February day.
We spent the remaining time in the afternoon in what is known as Papaya Island. It has a nice and long enough beach and there were nobody to share the island with when we got there. We snorkeled some and then did mostly silly stuff. Of course we made it a point to document our childish antics with our digicams and videocams. That was a perfect opportunity for each and every one of us to be kids again. It was a liberating experience.
We were scheduled to get really drunk in the evening. After all, we had a huge cooler still full of ice-cold beer. But with the beating our body endured that day and after overeating yet again at Manang Helen’s restaurant, we no longer had the energy to deal with the beer. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Too weak.And so the following morning, having been recharged enough from our snore-ful slumber, we decided to deal with the beer after all. It would have been a pity if we had to return the bottles still unopened.
After lunch we prepped our vehicles for the drive back to Manila. We settled our account with Manang Helen and bade her goodbye. Our 100 Island Adventure was behind us. We shifted our focus on the challenges ahead ñ the distance to travel, the traffic to deal with, etc. As for me, I braced myself for the prospect of having to keep up with the Ang Mananahi once again.
The drive back to Manila was much faster than we originally thought. The sun was just about to set when we reached EDSA. By 6:30 PM I was already home.
Even before leaving Alaminos, Pangasinan I already knew that I will visit 100 Islands again soon. Probably with my family the next time. And then perhaps with some of my friends. And who knows, in maybe about a year I may be going to 100 Islands again with the same group I went with the first time. Then we can re-live our adventures, and probably add a few more equally foolish ones. #