Cruising the Philippines Part 1: Banton Island
By James Baldwin
In the center of the Philippines, in the Sibuyan Sea, is a seemingly endless collection of islands, stretching like stepping stones in every direction. Within this group, and far from the reach of Islamic terrorists on islands to the south, is the well-known resort island of Boracay. A steady stream of tourists, as well as a few cruising yachts, are attracted to its kilometers-long sugary white beaches, water sports and lively beachside discos. Though the party life on Boracay lured me back for a few days whenever I passed through the area, I spent most of my time cruising the Philippines more remote and lesser known islands.
Emilio Mingo greets us on our return to Banton Island.
A fisherman on the new road encircling Banton.
A day-sail to the north of Boracay, and a world apart, is the island of Banton, a place of perfect tranquillity where island life goes on undisturbed by the modern world. The island is barely five kilometers across and nearly one kilometer high with slopes thickly carpeted by coconut palms. This volcanic island is relatively young in the geological sense and has many places where geothermal activity is evident.
We found the best anchorage during the northeast monsoon, from October through April, is on the west coast off the village of Mainit. In the local dialect, mainit means "hot" an apt description because at low tide the gravelly beach at waters edge becomes so hot you cannot stand on it. It was only after stepping out of my dinghy barefoot did I understand why I had seen the fishermen hopping around so quickly when launching their canoes from this beach. Fortunately, the beach cools down somewhat at high tide. Another mystery at Mainit is the freshwater spring that runs strong during the dry season, then inexplicably stops after heavy rains. At times the spring mysteriously reappears by popping up through the sand in the middle of the beach. The locals explain it with the name enchanted spring.
So few yachts find their way to Banton that those who do are assured of receiving an enthusiastic welcome from the local inhabitants. Soon after dropping anchor we were met by the fishermen Emilio Mingo and his son-in-law Winnie de los Santos, who came out by canoe to welcome us to Banton. Though Emilio only spoke Filipino, I spoke enough of that language that we became instant friends. Winnie spoke a smattering of English as well and he became our translator when needed as we took Winnie up on his offer to guide us on a foot tour of the island.
The name Banton means stony - another appropriate description. Circling the island along the coast is an intricate, hand-laid stone block road, connecting the villages and making travel by foot much easier than the muddy footpaths that lead up into the interior. Around each bend in the road are reminders of the rural lifestyle. People work quietly in their tropical gardens or gather piles of coconuts that have fallen during the previous night. Stone-sided fire pits for drying coconuts are everywhere. Copra, or dried coconut meat, remains the islands main industry.
With Winnie we entered Tanag village in a hidden interior valley where we watched local women weave buri palm and abaca fibers into rolls of stiff cloth on ancient hand-operated machines. Surrounding the village are mango, banana, breadfruit and papaya trees, all competing for sunlight with towering coconut palms notched for easy climbing.
Along the north shore, a narrow ribbon of concrete is gradually being laid over the old stone road. This project has kept many of the islanders employed for several years as they gather and sort small stones and sand from the seashore and level the road. A man is paid five pesos (15 cents) for each 50kg bag of uniformly sorted stones he can fill and carry to the work site. At this slow pace, it may take another generation before the entire road is finished. No one seems too worried about it, and why should they be? When the road is finished it will only attract the curse of motorized vehicles: something a small island community does not need any more than it needs the invasion of a tourist industry.
On the east coast of the island is the main town of Banton. Settlers who came in canoes from the larger island of Luzon to the north established it some 500 years ago. The Spanish built a church and a fort in 1663 to protect themselves and the local population from Moro pirates and slavers who made raids from their home islands to the south. During the American colonial period the settlement was renamed Jones after a senator who pushed for voting rights for Filipinos. The name Jones did not last much longer than the voting rights proposal and now the town is once again simply called Banton.
Centuries ago, Banton Island was directly on the route of the Spanish galleons, sailing from Manila to pass through the San Bernardino Straits and into the Pacific. For 300 years these unhandy ships, over-loaded with silks and spices from China, would struggle through the Sibuyan Sea on the first leg of their voyage to Mexico. If all went well they would return at the end of the year with a valuable load of Mexican silver pesos to repay the Chinese merchants resident in Manila. Many fell prey along the way to pirates, typhoons or shipwreck. It was easy to imagine a galleon stopping here to reprovision, anchoring under the safety of the forts cannon. Parts of the original fort and its cannon are still visible today through the encroaching forest.
The people of Banton refer to their home as the isle of peace and freedom. But there was a time when they would defend the island against invaders by hurling baskets of stones down from the cliffs. During the three years of Japanese occupation in World War II, to encourage obedience many islanders had been summarily executed for minor offences. Towards the end of the war came their chance for revenge when American planes sank a convoy of Japanese ships near the island. About 100 survivors reached Banton only to find the islanders waiting to greet their former masters with their baskets of stones. The unarmed Japanese soldiers retreated to the municipal hall where an angry mob surrounded them, pulled them out one by one and stoned them to death. Not one person was spared. Today the same wooden building where the massacre took place serves as the post office, mayors office and police station. Some of the older people we met here admitted proudly that they had participated in the stoning, but I could hardly imagine a scene like that among today's peaceful population.
Family of Winnie de los Santos.
Fishermen with a catch of squid at Bantoncillio.
Visitors can reach Banton on the monthly ferry from Manila, although few outsiders come because there is no hotel on the island yet. According to the mayor, a guesthouse will soon be opened. The only other connection with the outside world is the telegraph office where telegrams are still sent to Manila by Morse code. If you want to escape the mad goings on of the outside world, yet be among friends, this is the place to be.
On the way back from Banton town, we detoured to the top of the islands highest peak, called Mt. Ampongo, and the slightly lower Mt. Chaktak that overlooks the anchorage at Mainit. At the tops of these two peaks the volcanic soil is fertile and some hardworking farmers tend gardens of cassava and sweet potatoes. The islands combination of rugged scenery, welcoming people and extensive network of footpaths, makes this a perfect place for hiking.
Back at the house of Emilio in Mainit village, his wife served us a dinner of rice, fish, baked pumpkin and bibinka a delicious cake made from grated cassava roots and coconut cream. Emilios plot of land is so full of rocks that he uses the larger ones for furniture in his floorless house of bamboo and grass. We sat on these stones around the dinner table while his eight daughters stared and giggled at us through the open window.
When Emilio had married, the traditional courting ritual on Banton called for the man to declare his intentions by singing a love song called the pamentana outside the girls window. The girl would signal her acceptance of him by lingering in the window. Later the boys parents would bring gifts for the girls family and plans for the marriage would be made. The pamentana is rarely heard now, although marriage is still very much an alliance between families.
Aside from the oddities of the hot beach and the spring that disappears and reappears, Emilio told us there are also black fairies living in the mountains. Last year, he claimed, an old woman was abducted from her home and never heard of again. The fairies are also blamed for casting a spell on a young married couple who climbed into a canoe one calm, moonlit night, paddled out to sea and never returned.
When Winnie wasn't acting as our guide he was building canoes or night fishing with his father-in-law. We accompanied Winnie one day in his outrigger sailing canoe for the eight-mile roundtrip to Bantoncillo, a small, uninhabited islet where there is good diving and fishing around the reefs. There was little current here, so when the wind failed we were able to complete the trip easily by paddling the last couple of miles.
Typhoon season was creeping up on us and we would soon leave these enchanted islands to be on our way across the South China Sea to Hong Kong. As we raised anchor to leave Banton, Winnie and his wife-came out to give us a basket of cassava cakes and bananas. Come back soon, you have many friends here, they called, as our sails filled and carried us out to sea. Over the next two years, I did return twice again to Banton and was pleased to see my old friends and an island at peace.