Living in an archipelagic country, to me lighthouses were more like decorations, relics from the colonial past. I was awed by them and took pictures like any other tourist, and yet the wistfulness stayed. Last year I met a man at a gathering of young local leaders who said he was a mayor of an island I had never heard of. I had to Google it: Capul.
The thirty-something mayor, whose name is Sid Bandal, said his island had heritage to boast of, primarily a church built out of corals by the Jesuits during Spanish times. But that wasn’t new; there are churches of such kind all over the country. His people, he said, spoke a language distinct from the rest of the country’s ethno-linguistic groups. It wasn’t even close to Waray, the language on the mainland of Samar to which the island belongs as a region in the Eastern Visayas. It may be a tad closer to Hiligaynon, but its tone was drawn from faraway south, from the Muslim islands.
And then he said the magic word: lighthouse! They’ve got one too.
Could I Stay There?
He gave it a thought, close to saying yes, because he wasn’t sure the Coast Guard that was in charge would allow it. A couple of days then? Just give me this chance.
We arrived late in March this year, the beginning of summer. There are two ways of getting to Capul. You either fly into Catarman in Samar (where flights are exorbitant because they come only once or twice a week) or into the city of Legazpi, the hub of the Bicol region. We chose the latter, lucky to have booked a promo fare. The mayor’s tourism officer, Pamela, met us at the airport for an early start. It was a three-hour ride to the port of Matnog in the province of Sorsogon at the edge of Luzon before hopping on to the Visayas.
Reaching Capul took only 40 minutes by boat, a wooden outrigger, which made a detour to another island municipality that was supposed to be famous for its pink sand. When we got there, I didn’t see anything pink about the beach except for the cottages (which were more like gazebos for people to have their picnic) rented out at a pretty steep price of 500 pesos for local visitors. There was lechon, and the children frolicked, forgetting about the pink sand.
So, by the time we arrived on Capul, it was already dark when we made our way to the lighthouse nine kilometers from the poblacion, where the Spanish church stood across the basketball court in front of the city hall. At the lighthouse, there was the caretaker who turned on the power generator so we could sleep with the air-conditioning on. We also had two coast guards to watch over us.
I didn’t get a sense of wonder until the next morning, when the caretaker’s wife called us for breakfast. We slept in one of the rooms in the pavilion, waking up to a dream come true. The walls were pure white, the high ceiling suspending a plain but modern chandelier, and the French windows faced the San Bernardino Strait. The room was absolutely bare save for the cushions on the floor for our lodging. This was better than I expected.
The first thing the caretaker asked was whether we had felt something unusual. We were so dead tired nothing could have stirred us. Over heaps of fried rice and eggs sunny-side up, he launched us into ghost stories. I couldn’t care less. The tower of the lighthouse was there before us and I was content that it stood proud under a blue morning sky. It looked new; in fact, everything around us was bright. It was the right time to be here, just soon after the entire complex was renovated to the tune of 40 million pesos funded by the National Historical Commission.
From the top, a park rolled down to the cliff, dotted with European style street lamps on the edges. It had a prominent talisay tree with a circular bench where one could capture a phone signal. This was where the locals would come for a stroll or dance the zumba, paying an entrance fee of ten pesos per person. The caretaker unlocked the tower, leading us 49 feet up – where the new LED light turns on automatically at nightfall, powered by solar energy.
The lighthouse represents a turning point in our colonial history, built first by the Spanish in the late nineteenth century and then completed by the Americans when they took over the islands. It was so strategic that ships from the Galleon Trade made their way here to collect fresh spring water; and today foreign commercial vessels and even warships take the route in or out of the country. The caretaker’s wife swore she saw a submarine for the first time in her life, thinking at first that it was a whale.
At night, I had to say goodbye to solitude when the caretaker invited his buddies for a drinking spree that went with videoke. I took my first crack at making a fool of myself reciting/singing “Against All Odds,” and I wasn’t even drunk on the cheap wine available at the general store in town.
The place came to life in the evenings thanks to diesel donated for the generator. I couldn’t understand why, if the government had millions to fix it up and had solar panels around except the pavilions which were likely going to be used. Without the generator, there was no running water and without that we couldn’t bathe. So, we had to walk a kilometer down the trail to the hamlet to use the bathroom in the caretaker’s house.
To get around the island, we could bike if we could rent one, but the mayor gave us the service of a habal-habal driver who took us around in his motorcycle, riding pillion all three of us: Andrea the photographer, me in the middle, and Pamela behind me. They said it was the mayor, having served three terms, who started building the circumferential road that in some parts were like roller coasters because of the hilly terrain. The island’s mode of transport to the coastal villages is the motorcycle, that’s about it. There are no ports, just landing sites at the beach.
We hung around by the church having halo-halo made by the street-side eatery. The Jesuits had come this way to build the very first church on this island in the 16th century, which was later burned by the invading Moros, and rebuilt by the Franciscans. Today’s parish priest is young and celebrates mass in Waray, which the island people could understand; but no outsider could understand the original language of the Abaknon, as the people of Capul are called. The church is the pride of the island, which also cost 40 million pesos to restore and be rid of the dark sediments from the coral stones. It came out beige-white, with a stained glass mosaic of saints.
Photographs from the Internet made such a big fuss about the pink beach, but not far from the lighthouse was a quiet, empty paradise of white sand that we had to our privacy one Saturday morning. If we had our way, we could have stayed there the whole day, but Pamela wanted to show us the cove that was the hangout for teenagers, and the “resort” closer to town that was more accessible to the locals and where they played volleyball by the late afternoon when the heat dissipated.
By day’s end, we were initiated to the Bañadero, the gush of spring water for bathing, washing, drinking. We had to have our bath before heading up to the lighthouse. The children weren’t quite used to seeing strangers bath in bikinis. A little girl watched me with curiosity, as if I were doing something different from her regular ritual. Not far away on the shore folks were chopping open coconuts, offering us the fresh juice and the soft white flesh that was exactly what you needed after swimming in the sea.
On our last day, we met young students from the Samar mainland looking for encantado tales at the office of Inabaknon Heritage Society, which is the closest thing the island has to a library beside the school. Capul was originally named Abak, after a king from Balabac in the Sulu Sea who settled on the island with his followers. That’s what makes Capul different from other places; its language is studied by American missionaries of the Summer Institute of Linguistics.
We could have stayed longer to listen to stories, more of them, that won’t fit into a weekend stay. They said we should come back. I said I would do that if the lighthouse beckoned.
If you’d like to visit Capul island, your best bet is to call Pamela Bayabay, the tourism officer and all-around staff of the mayor. She can arrange tours for you. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at +63-956-6582233.
Criselda Yabes is the author of "Below the Crying Mountain" set in the rebellion of the 1970s in the south. It won the UP Centennial Literary Prize in 2008 and was nominated for the Man Asian Prize in 2010. She is currently based in Manila.
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