Finally! Finally Bantayan! A place I could not visit during my three months journey across the Philippines but which I always longed to see. The beckoning stories of a magical and authentic island getaway still rang in my ears as I received the invitation to join some of Cebu’s finest bloggers and writers for a tour of this Filipino gem. It would be a jam-packed itinerary, a mix of sightseeing, couch sessions with local politicians and officials, networking and a also charitable work. However, what I found during this eventful journey was a place not only impressing by its sheer beauty and its authentic charm but also by being a perfect example of the renowned Filipino resiliency. Bantayan, a mosaic paradise.
The discovery of paradise
Standing on the upper deck and blinking into the bright reflections of the tropical sun, we anxiously awaited the landing of our ferry in the port of Santa Fé. Santa Fé is just one of the islands three municipalities but where the port and most of the tourism resorts and night life are located. More in the centre you will find Bantayan (town), boasting with its unique and authentic flair. Madridejos, located in the far North of the island, is not only famous for its fishing but also for the islands best sunsets.
After our arrival, we toured big parts of the island, dropping people off at different resorts and checking out the area at the same time. What I discovered was an island featuring glistening white beaches, lined by lush green flora and towering coconut trees and with the seductively cerulean waters of the Visayan Sea gently caressing its shores. One of the fellow bloggers on this trip, Johnn Mendoza of focalglass.com, said: “When people talked to me about Boracay, I would scoff and say, ‘Wala ra na sa Bantayan!’ (That’s nothing compared to Bantayan!)”. And although I have never been to Boracay, I cannot imagine it being more beautiful than this little piece of heaven.
Apart from its seductive white beaches, the island has a lot more in its treasure box. Resorts surrounded by dense jungle, the strangely beautiful tidal flats during sunset,traditional fishermen preparing their nets, old coral formations lining parts of the shoreline or caves filled with fresh water to bathe in. There is so much more to this place it than one would expect at first sight.
Bantayanon resiliency after typhoon Yolanda
Bantayan Island was struck hard by the recent super typhoon, which fortunately did not claim many lives but left behind utmost devastation. To learn about how the island and its people coped with this and the status quo of the restructuring and rehabilitation efforts was one goal of the trip. Guidance was given by the honorable Sir Vince Escario, consultant to the mayor of Bantayan and eloquent and rigorous advocate of the islands interest. He told us about how the local government together with NGOs and foreign governments acted quickly in launching first aid measures followed by restoration and relocation projects.
A good example is the Gawad Kalinga housing-project (GK Village), some 300 houses on an 8 has area, which was set up to give victims of the typhoon a new home away from the impact zone. Although not yet finished and fully occupied, the settlement was just bustling with activity. Despite all the hardship these people went through, there was a sense of lightheartedness in the air, that only Filipinos seem to possess. The Bantayanons are a perfect example of this phenomenon, given perfect proof by the many children of the village.
As I handed them a pack of simple Filipino balloons and blow bubbles, they weren’t to be stopped. Worry-free laughter and cheering instantly filled the air while the kids tried to beat each other at making the biggest bubble. They seemed to have arrived and accepted their new homes and to be ready to move on. And as kids are supposed to be our future, I think this was a great sign and just inspiring to witness.
We also wanted to support this noble cause personally and helped some of the villagers with building more houses. Everyone got dirty and sweaty, painting walls, shoveling cement, carrying rocks and heavy sacks of dirt. Working alongside these tough and resilient people while joking with them was a one of a kind experience. I am aware that the difference we made that day, if at all, was only a tiny one. Others have accomplished way more and deserve the highest respect for that. But I can say it was a truly rewarding experience which put some of the things we worry about back into perspective.
Other measures that were taken in the wake of typhoon Yolanda were providing the local communities with new and sustainable sources of income. One great example was the women’s group which was taught how to recycle used plastic rice bags. But not the average recycling that you may think of, no, they weave those rice bags into unique and beautiful bags and pursesto be sold to tourists.
Another Bantayan livelihood project is candle making. 27 women who were affected by the typhoon are now producing 10kg of candles per day and they do it all manually. What an effort.
All those projects are aimed at bettering people’s lives, providing them with new income opportunities and improving the island’s overall social situation. Every little step counts and from what I have heard and now seen in person, Bantayan is on the forefront on charitable groundwork like this. A pioneering example and maybe also an alternative for other communities.
Authenticity, flair and local charm
Santa Fé town can be bustling at times, making for a great party at night complete with bars, live music and videoke. Whereas this is nice to have, it doesn’t take much to get away from it all and experience the islands true and authentic character. As you drive across the countryside, you will pass by traditional settlements, see abandoned bankas in the middle of nowhere, fishermen preparing their nets or the locals shooting hoops on makeshift basketball courts.
The town of Bantayan is a great starting point if you are after a truly authentic experience. You can visit the traditional market which sells so called dry and wet goods or play basketball in under the floodlights of the court right smack in the center of town. A one of a kind event however is a traditional “Bayle”, a sort of party in the street where people come together to play games, party, drink and have a merry good time. Kindergarten children or grandparents, everybody joins in. We were lucky enough to take part in such an event and even my Filipino friends considered this something typical Filipino with a long tradition. So if you have the chance, try to attend one of the islands Bayles or Fiestas, it is sure worth it.
Another typical Filipino pastime which you can observe in Bantayan is cockfighting. Critically discussed in Europe, it is yet an important facette of Filipino culture. And that’s exactly why I find it very fascinating. In the local cockpit one can almost conduct a social study. The breeders petting their little heros and talking to them, some are even said to treat them better than their wives, the energetic comparing and haggling over prices, the torrential soundscape which arises as the betting for a fight begins and the bookies who miraculously seem to bring order into this anarchical chaos. No matter what one might think of cockfighting, it is sure fascinating to witness. And Bantayan is a great place to get a taste of it.
During a dinner with local government officials, Vince Escario whose family is tied to the history of Bantayan like no other, made a very interesting statement, “The local government’s plan is not to turn Bantayan into a small Boracay”. I find this concept very appealing and salute to this. In the end, authenticity, flair and local charm make a place special. Let’s hope that Bantayan Island won’t change too much and will stay as special as it is for a long time to come.
Last thoughts …
I am grateful to have been part of this one of a kind experience and to document the beauty of this underestimated gem alongside a bunch of great people. What we found was a mosaic little paradise which somehow seems like the Philippines seen through a magnifying glass. At the same time the island features an atmosphere which just makes you feel in tune with world and everything around you. It soothes you, calms you down and gives you the serenity which often seems to get lost in the hustle and bustle of big city living.
The official claim for marketing tourism on the island is “Bantayan beckons”, and I can say it really does. It’s an intriguing place and after all the destinations in the Philippines I have visited, a true highlight of the archipelago. As sad as I was to leave this small paradise behind, I didn’t want to say goodbye as I knew I will return some day. So until next time and I hope you will stay as you are.
The #iBLOGforBANTAYAN ECO-VOLUNTOURISM Event was organized and sponsored by The Philippine Information Agency (PIA) in coordination with the Pilippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR-7), the Local Government Unit of Bantayan, and the Cebu Blogging Community (CBC).