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Seafood in the mountains

Written on: Tuesday November 18th, 2008

Leaving Angeles I was unsure what I wanted to do next.  I felt as if I did not have a good experience in Philippines, but was not completely convinced that I wanted to stay longer in search of a better place.  I decided to go back to Manila for the night, do some research on ticket prices to Palau, Yap and Hong Kong, and choose my next location. 

Checking into the same hotel I had last week, I strolled around the familiar grounds researching my options.  Ticket prices were too high to Palau and Yap, which left HK.  Deciding to mull it over for a while rather than book the flight now, I grabbed some dinner then went for a beer.  It wasn't long before a few locals invited me to share a beer with them.  One of the girls in the group said that she was from a provence in the south of Philippines; she was going there tomorrow to visit her family for a few days and invited me along.  I debated for some time on whether or not this would be a wise thing to do, but in the end I concluded that is was: when else would I have a chance to go to rural Philippines and live amongst them as a guest.

So the next morning we departed via first class bus, cautiously optimistic for the thirty two hour journey that stood between our current location and her home.  Bus rides differ from place to place, and sadly, there is no sure way to predict when you will have a good experience or a not-so-good experience.  Fortunately, this bus was less than half full, had A/C and was playing adequate American music from the 70s and 80s...what better way to pass the time, I thought.  But it wasn't long before I was freezing cold, and despite all my persuasions, I could not talk the driver into turning the air conditioning to a lower setting.  Literally, people were bundled in jackets and blankets...and it was 91F outside!  One guy even brought out the duct tape to block the A/C vents, an idea quickly duplicated by most of the rest of us.  The radio, it turned out, had a single volume option: ridiculously loud.  Now, I remember an old heavy metal tune by Kick Axe that was entitled, "If It's Too Loud, You're Too Old".  This song actually crossed my mind as I silently cursed the driver for being so ignorant to the desires of the passengers...after all, amenities like this are supposed to make a ride MORE comfortable, not less.  In the end, I opted to discreetly turn down the volume a couple notches every time the bus stopped and we got out...and yes, I did wonder if I had in fact become too old for some of the things I used to enjoy so much.

The ride progressed and eventaully the surroundings became very rural, with rice fields taking over the majoty of the landscape.  We arrived to the town of Biliran tired and in the dark.  As we were getting off the bus and gathering our luggage, some guy tried to grab it.  I thought, no, we can take it; I'm not paying a porter fee.  It wasn't until after I forcefully grabbed it from him and put it back on the ground that I learned he was the brother of my friend, who came to help us carry the stuff to their house.  Oops...not a great first impression. 

The house in town was rented by my friend, Roselyn, for use by her entire family.  It was constructed and owned by her aunt and uncle. They had another house up in the mountains, approximately a 45 minute walk from here.  This house was very simple; the entire place was about 15'x20', with a kitchen, common room and sleeping area.  The bathroom was an outhouse shared by the entire community, and the shower was a bucket of water with a scoop, located outside the house in the mud.  Yet with all this rusticness, it still felt nice.  Upon our arrival, much of Roselyn's extended family came to say hello.  It was quite interesting to me, as out of the twenty people in this small home, only one of her brothers and one of her aunties could speak English...so there was a lot of smiling and hand gesturing on both sides in an effort to communicate.  The cure to this communication problem proved to be beer.  We decided to get something to drink and share with the family.  Before long there was a more festive mood, and the food began to arrive: appetizers consisted of rice and 'shells'.  Now, shells is the generic term that they used for oysters, scallops and mussles...all of which were harvested by hand out of the nearby sea earlier in the day by her brothers.  We cracked open a shell, ate the goodies inside and followed it down with a hand scoop of rice out of the common bowl.  It was a most enjoyable evening...I poured the beer, the ladies prepared food while chatting in the kitchen, and karaoke was sung by all who dared to take the microphone (not me).  Eventually our final course of hand caught shrimp arrived, and we dined til our bellies were full.  Everybody said goodnight and I pulled up some floor, anxious to finally get some sleep after such a long two days.

The next day everybody woke early to start the day.  Coffee was served and I struggled to 'shower' outside in my clothes while half the community strolled by.  Roselyn took me through the little town to get a few supplies before we headed to the mountain home.  Her brothers and sister went ahead of us to prepare for the day, leaving just her folks and us to hike together up the paths to their home.  The scenery was magnificent: tall palm trees swaying in the breeze, mango and papaya trees intermixed with starfruit and banana trees.  It was tropical and bountiful.  Eventually we arrived to the river, crossed it and continued the remaining five minutes through the rice fields to their modest home.  This structure was a bit bigger than the place in town, as it needed to house her folks and all five siblings.  It was strange to think about Roselyn growing up here...on this rice farm.  She had told me stories about getting up at 3:00am, stealing a freshly laid egg from the hen's basket, cooking it and proceeding to the fields, where she planted rice until it was time to go to school.  What a difference from the life that I know.  So unusual and yet so interesting.

With everybody at the house, her father took off with one of her brothers to scout out the river...apparently we were going to hunt for shrimp today.  In the meantime, we decided to make a delicious coconut drink.  Now, I've had hundreds of coconuts throughout my journeys...even climbed a couple dozen treess to get them myself and break them open to taste the sweet nectar inside, but nothing prepared me for the upcoming experience.  When asked if I wanted climb the tree with her brother to get the coconuts, I said 'sure, I've done it before and can help him.'  It wasn't until I saw that the trees to be climbed were a minimum of 60 feet high that I decided to pass and let her bro do the challenging part. :)  He was impressive, scaling the tree with ease, machete cautiously tucked into his belt.  Arriving at the top, he cut down about a dozen coconuts before descending with the same confidence.  On the ground, we gathered the coconuts and started collecting the juice.  A picther was filled about half full with coconut juice, with the meat of two coconuts tossed into the mix.  Powdered milk and sugar were then added, along with enough ice to fill the pitcher.  I gotta write, I was a little skeptical as I watched it being mixed, but the end result was magnificent!  So tasty!  I just wish I would have known about this drink when we were sailing...we had so many coconuts and were getting bored with them; this drink would have brought some much needed variety onto the boat.

After the refreshment we headed to the river, where the kids played, the women washed clothes and the men gathered shrimp for lunch.  It was difficult to fathom at first...six men walking down the river with plastic bags in hand.  We scoured the river bottom for shrimp, and when one was located, we snatched it up barehanded and tossed it into the bag.  I was not nearly as good as the others at spotting the shrimp, but I did manage to grab thirty or forty of the three hundred total shrimp we collected in the three hours of searching.  After walking back through the rice fields for about a mile, we made it to the rest of the group, started a fire to cook the rice and shrimp and cut banana leaves for use as serving plates. It was a brilliant meal of never-ending shrimp.  Clean up was easy as everything was washed in the river. 

After lunch we meandered back to town, picking fruit off the trees along the way.  Two of her brothers stayed at the farm to work the rice fields and move the water buffalos to a new grazing location, but the rest of us prepared for dinner.  We bought some pork and vegetables, and her mother made a wonderful soup as her brother barbequed the meat.  It was another tasty meal and fun evening in rural Philippines.

The next day was another day of gathering our own food, only this time it was in the ocean.  Roselyn, her folks and I piled into a small canoe and attempt to fish with hand held fishing line wrapped around a plastic bottle.  It wasn't long until we got snagged, lost our hooks and had to return to shore.  We regrouped and set out again, this time just her father, her cousin and me.  We dived for shells and managed to gather about 60 oysters, scallops and mussels.  It was difficult, as the viz was crap...only about six inches, which meant that we had to dive to the bottom and peer around just above the ocean floor until we found a piece of rock/old reef that was small enough to carry to the surface.  Once we made it back to the surface, we handed the shell-covered piece of reef to her father inside the canoe.  He proceeded to hack off all the shells from the rocks with his machete, and dump the rocks back into the sea after they were harvested.  It was fairly exhausting work, but incredibly fun!  We finished up and brought our prizes back to Roselyn's cousin's house, where the feast was prepared.  There were at least thirty people enjoying the food and drink, which changed from brandy mixed with pineapple juice, to beer, to coconut wine (mixed with cola).  It was a festive day and good fun was had by all.  On the way back to her house, there were some kids playing basketball.  Of course I had to join in for a while, and despite embibing for the better part of the afternoon, my shot was on.  Eventually I had enough and we headed back to the house, where I was finally convinced to sing a couple karaoke songs with the rest of the family.

The next morning we woke at 5am to catch the early bus back to Manila.  This bus was a bit different than the one we took the other day..it was not air conditioned, and it was packed...not a seat open; in fact, several people and lots of luggage blocked the center aisle from front to back.  Plus, I had the oh-so good fortune to sit next to an 80-something farmer who not only smelled of farm, but also chain smoked for the entire thirty hour trip to the city.  Oh yes, since the bus isn't air conditioned, I learned, smoking is allowed.  Needless to say, it was an extremely challenging ride.   :)


From Br Joe B on Dec 3rd, 2008

Now that's an adventure! Talk about a lucky happenstance to visit.

From Dad on Dec 3rd, 2008

What a cool time! Your descriptions of everything are great, but if you had some photos to share, that would be fantastic. If it was me in you shoes, (bare feet?), I think I would have opted to stay there!!

From Mom on Dec 4th, 2008

I don't know what you were complaining about....according to the pics, your bus was a "757". It's funny, after talking to Roselyn on the phone, that is exactly how I pictured her. What a wonderfully warm, loving family they seem to be. I am so glad you got to spend time with them. The photos are great! Stay safe.

From Steve M on Dec 6th, 2008

I think i saw some bare feet somewhere in these pics. Thanks for sharing, its nice to see what you're up to! What an adventure! This is my first glimpse into the Philippines... it looks amazing.

From Lorene on Nov 25th, 2011

None can doubt the vaercity of this article.