Backpacker on Remote Island of the Philippines — Finds Community of Locals, Learns to Spearfish

Siquijor Island, south of Cebu, is home to diverse marine life.

Photo by Louie Martinez on Unsplash

South of Cebu, in the Philippines, sits a small-ish island. There are shy of 100,000 friendly islanders who are as inviting as any there to welcome you.

The island of Siquijor has only recently been discovered by the western world. In part because of its reputation of being haunted.

In turn, the islanders are learning how to profit from the influx of visitors. Maybe that’s why they are as hospitable as they are. Or, maybe, it’s Filipino nature.

The island is Instagram-famous but very few could locate it on a map. Despite only received electricity two decades ago and paved roads when the first tourists came, it has beautiful coral reefs, jungle waterfalls, and viral-worthy traditional dishes.

I took a particular liking to the waterfalls. There are thirteen of them on the island, to be exact. My favorite was the first one I visited, Lugnason Falls.

At each of these waterfalls, a crew of local boys and young men sit at the designated parking areas. They wait for tourists to show up.

While their job is to keep the area around the falls clean, they also escort tourists on the trail to each waterfall. It’s a duty paid for by the Filipino government.

You’ll find them swimming around the pools in the early mornings. Clearing bamboo and leaves that make the area less photogenic.

They’re the ones that sweep the path to the falls, making sure everyone stays safe. Then, they like to show tourists a few different ways to have fun.

That’s how I met Sherwin.

Sherwin was a twenty-year-old man with tattoos down his arm and sliding up his neck. He looked intimidating with a cigarette between his teeth and another behind his ear.

He spoke English well enough to tell me about his two daughters as we climbed down to the falls. One was four-years-old, the other was four months old. He shared his past life in Cebu City; the “big city” as he called it.

I like being in Siquijor, though, where I was raised. The people are normal here,” he said when I asked him where he preferred to live. “In Cebu, it’s too expensive. You must go to the store if you want vegetables and they’re not fresh. Three days old, sometimes.

Where do you get vegetables here?” I asked.

Oh, simple. We just ask our neighbor to take from his field. Free.

Did you prefer Siquijor before the tourists arrived?” I asked. He had been living in Cebu five years ago when the influx arrived. When he returned to Siquijor, it was a whole new island.

We like the tourists here. We can make more friends from all over the world. But it’s louder now. With the road, I can’t sleep. There are always motorbikes at night. It was quieter without bikes,” he explained.

How’d everyone get around without motorbikes?” I asked. The island is too big to walk.

The island had jeeps that picked us up.

How many jeeps?” I asked.

Don’t know. Five or six,” he answered. It didn’t seem adequate to provide transportation for the whole island, but what did I know.

Before I knew it, we were already at the falls. Sherwin grabbed a rope and quickly swung out over the water, continuing to hold onto the rope until he swung back to the rock we were standing on.

Palm trees surrounded the scene and the canopy opened up to a sky full of white, fluffy clouds over the pool. The water was a magic turquoise color that I can’t explain. Lugnason Falls towered over us ten meters high and clapped the pool a thousand times a second.

I couldn’t help but smile like a little kid at a playground. This was my own playground. It was paradise.

We spent an hour jumping from different vantage points and flinging ourselves from the rope into the pool. We climbed rocks and he even showed me a few hidden caves behind the falls.

I trusted Sherwin blindly in a few instances where he told me to jump without thinking. I’d leap off the cliffs from ten meters into unknown depths.

He spent his whole childhood in those waters. He knew every inch of that playground like the back of his hand.

It was a grand time, so much so I told him I wanted to come back the next day. He told me it was not his “duty” to be at the falls the next day. I assumed it wasn’t his shift.

But I will be spearfishing. You can come with me,” he said.

Spearfishing! I accepted the offer so fast I made Sherwin jump.

You can meet me at nine o’clock in the morning,” Sherwin said.

Here?” I asked.

No, not here. Actually, I will take you there now. To the meeting spot,” he said. “Can I ride with you?

I nodded and he got on the back of my bike. I took him to the meeting spot which was coincidentally his home. The clever guy worked a ride home on me.

Done working already?” I asked. It was ten o’clock in the morning.

Yes, I’ve made my money today,” he said with a smile.

I only gave him the equivalent of two dollars. There were no other tourists visiting the falls that morning. A salary without a college education in the Philippines is about four dollars a day — and that’s ten hours of work.

I’d walk away with two dollars after an hour of jumping into paradise waterfalls if I were him, too.

The next morning, I was up early to make the forty-five-minute drive to meet Sherwin. I showed up at nine o’clock in the morning outside his village.

I am usually skeptical about these kinds of arrangements. Forty-five minutes is a long way to travel without a way of communicating with Sherwin.

But that’s the way the island operates — as they did in the olden days. It’s a timeless approach that I found endearing if only for the week I was there.

In the morning, Sherwin wasn’t where we agreed. Luckily, one of his friends was.

Are you looking for Sherwin?” the guy asked. He hopped on my bike and took me to where Sherwin was. To my surprise, there was a crew of Filipinos waiting for me. They already had all the equipment for the day, including pots and pans and silverware.

Sherwin told me we’d cook the fish straight away, along with five pounds of rice and a lemongrass soup that was special to their village.

This was shaping up to be a full day with the crew. The oldest being a thirty-year-old, Cain, made it a point to tell me he was a virgin within the first thirty seconds of knowing him. The youngest was a thin nine-year-old kid, Prince, who ate more kinilaw and “soap” (soup) than everyone.

We piled onto a gang of bikes and zoomed through a neighboring village to the beach where it seems they had a routine for these barbecue outings.

How often do you guys come to the beach for this kind of feast?” I asked, thinking it was as special for them as it was for me.

Whenever we are not working at the falls,” one of the guys said.

How often is that?” I asked.

Every other day,” Sherwin said. I guess this was pretty routine to them, after all.

They each had a duty as soon as we arrived and they knew their role without discussion. Today, though, Sherwin was responsible for taking me spearfishing which was a bit of an anomaly.

Normally, they have more success with the net and nobody uses the speargun, Sherwin explained. But since I was experiencing this with them, Sherwin offered to take me on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

While we fished with the speargun, others still fished with the net. Some others started the fire we’d use to cook our catch. Prince prepared the lemongrass soup with a bundle of lemongrass he pulled from the tree, half an onion, and fresh ginger.

The remaining guys worked on piecing together the kinilaw ingredients, cooking the rice over a beach fire, and running to various shops looking for the freshest coconut wine — which, despite being ten o’clock in the morning, they said goes excellent with the kinilaw. And it certainly did.

Sherwin tossed me a pair of hand-carved wooden goggles. The piece between the two eyes was made of chicken wire. I was just as impressed by the craftsmanship as I was about the authenticity of what was happening.

We walked slowly over the rocks at low-tide. Gradually, it got deep enough to tread and before I knew it, we were diving under.

The waters were magical. Underneath was littered with sea life.

Coral, fish of every color, giant bright blue starfish — I even chased a few blue-striped sea snakes for several minutes. Clownfish straight out of a Disney movie swam from their anemone homes.

I couldn’t get enough of what my eyes were seeing. As much fun as I was having, I was still focused on Sherwin’s techniques as he speared our first few fish of the day.

His friends had told me he was one of the best in the village with a speargun. I quickly saw why.

He finessed his way around varying levels of the seafloor until he found a place to perch. He had some kind of lungs. While I came up for air three times, he stayed in sniper position on the seafloor.

One minute, two, three. He must’ve staked a spot in the seafloor’s sand for four or five minutes.

When he aimed the gun, he held it steady against his stomach. This helped him keep centered even in commanding currents.

He moved slow and gracefully through the water and had the buoyancy of a fish. I was a complete amateur when compared to him.

After he speared four or five, he handed me the fishing line. I was instructed how to string the collection of fish together as we hunted more.

He strung them through their gills and out their mouth. The collection was already quite impressive. Some of the fish looked too beautiful to eat, but we were going to eat them regardless.

Some, frankly, looked inedible with ugly faces and sharp spikes on the scales. I’d never seen such exotic fish up close. They were still flapping their tails even with a hole from the spear running right through them.

I knew their fate, but felt bad and kept them underwater. Hopefully, they lived their final moments semi-peacefully.

With little instruction besides “don’t point the spear in the air ever”, Sherwin handed over the gun. I took another deep breath and dove under.

I studied how Sherwin had done it before me and tried to imitate it. Not surprisingly, Sherwin made it look much easier than it actually was.

I took a few shots without much luck. In addition to being steadier with the gun, Sherwin also had better instincts about where the fish were hidden in the corals.

I realized it was much more fun to watch Sherwin (not to mention more effective). I took a few more shots with no luck and let Sherwin do his thing the rest of the morning.

All-in-all, we speared twenty different species of fish of varying sizes. I took my job of holding our prey seriously. Even that got difficult with each fish Sherwin knocked down. Don’t believe me? — Try swimming underwater with twenty fish in your hand. You’d be surprised.

Our session ended after a tanker pulled into the bay. We were dealing with oil in the water for the last fifteen minutes of the dive.

I was surprised how much the oil affected the water temperature. Almost immediately, I began to shiver as we swam through the clear jelly-like substance that oil looks like in the ocean. I didn’t know what it was at first. When we surfaced, I asked Sherwin.

I can’t see anything down there anymore. What is this jelly? It’s making everything cloudy and cold,” I said. Sherwin didn’t say anything and only pointed to a large cargo ship anchored at the other side of the beach.

Oil,” he said with a shake of the head. He was disappointed with the way our session ended and so was I, but it was a successful catch nonetheless.

It’s bragging rights for Sherwin if he could match the catch his friends got with the net. Fortunately, they had a lot better luck and got a couple of big fish that would make our barbecue more hearty.

We pooled the fish together and, again, everyone knew their duty for the preparation.

Some scaled the fish. Sherwin carved the guts out. Some helped clean the net of all the seaweed. The rest assisted in grilling the fish over the fire.

I hopped around from job to job since no one was going to ask me to help them.

They weren’t operating a Michelin restaurant, that’s for sure. Nothing was clean. This wasn’t a sanitary workstation.

A hard morning of work was all worth it in the end. We feasted on plentiful exotic fish, kinilaw of the sour variety, five pounds of cooked rice which sat in the sand on two giant banana leaves picked from trees in the jungle, two pots full of lemongrass soup, and, of course, they made me take the lion’s share of coconut wine. It was bitter.

They invited me to a cockfight later in the afternoon, but I had another commitment. One of the guys won at the cockfight and they picked me up to hit the local bar in the night. He wouldn’t stop buying the rounds. Filipinos are so generous.

It was a wonderful day. A unique experience I won’t soon forget.

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