(Given the recent oil spill in the Guimaras Straits, people may be shying away from visiting Guimaras. Don't. Isla Naburot, this island paradise has not been affected. Go and enjoy this wonderful jewel. This article was published in the April 7, 2002 issue of Philippine Starweek Magazine)
By John L. Silva
I had heard about Isla Naburot many times in the past. It’s different, they’d say. No electricity, not even a pesky sounding generator. Just kerosene lamps at night. The cottages recycled from old wooden floors. Really not much to do there. But the food, ah the food, is great, they’d all say.
I had a conference in nearby Iloilo City so that was the time to do it. After my speech and a round of courteous chit-chat after, I snuck out with a hotel car ordering the driver to head for the pier to catch the resort’s waiting outrigger.
I was leaving a city about to get into its yearly carnival called Dinagyang. Tens of thousands of competing high school kids face painted and dressed in aborigine wear but actually looking more Hollywood African, about to dance down the street with tens of thousands of revelers in attendance. It’s a major tourist draw but it wasn’t my thing.
I boarded the sleek green and white pumpboat called Isla and it chugged its way at 15 kph towards the large rocky island of Guimaras. Forty five lulling minutes later, the boat having skirted the island turned in the direction of a curious looking hillside house on little Naburot Island adjoining Guimaras.
I alighted onto a skinny bamboo pier, ascended a mound past the curious house. On closer view, the structure was a pastiche of old boards, old bricks, old doors, old windows all having been part of other houses long ago. My baggage carrier led me to the other side of the island, facing a lagoon and Guimaras across, to a hut mounted on tall concrete pillars jutting out over the water.
Perched on top amidst mature trees there was a breeze, intense at times, whiffing at intervals, but always enough to rustle the leaves and induce thoughts of siesta. Anne Saldana, the statuesque manager of the island and head chef had other plans for me. She had lunch waiting and after dropping my weekend bag, changing to my shorts, and combing my wind strewn hair, I descended my treehouse to walk a sandy beach front to one of the open cabanas where a place setting on a picnic table bench waited.
A thick yellow soup with Malunggay leaves and Kalabasa in coconut soup was first served by a native woman in a malong. It was divine. Just the right welcoming soup. Then came the grilled Blue Marlin, Torta Talong, (mashed eggplant dipped in egg batter), and grilled squid stuffed with onions and tomatoes. Each was delicious and just as I thought the delectable caravan over, the barbecued pork, in juicy succulence, made an appearance. I begged the malonged lady to make that the last dish and she enigmatically smiled.
Anne shuffled by to see how I was doing. I sat there, a satiated Cheshire cat dazed by what I’d just devoured. Since there was no electricity, she apologized for the all-grilled menu. No problema , I assured her. Love that additional carbon zing.
Fresh sliced mangos appeared for dessert. They were from Guimaras and known throughout the land for their sweetness. Mango experts from the other islands may poo-poo this claim. But as each sweet spoonful melted in my mouth, I became unshaken with my assertion.
How hard to rise from the picnic table. I not only looked silly with contentment but harbored the secret anticipation of having dinner that evening and a full round of meals the next day. Wandering to my tree house, I thought about other rustic hide-away resorts I’d been too. The others had a slew of activities, from aerobics to soap-carving. Fine dining would not be one of them. I reasoned to myself that good chefs would rather ensconce themselves in a well-appointed city kitchen than under a thatched roof, sharing the Oregano with hungry Geckos. But here, in this remote five-hectare isle, was incredibly scrumptuous dining.
I mentally noted to chat at length with the wizard chef as I crumpled on a floor mattress in my balcony where the breeze was strongest and caressing. It took little effort melting into sleep.
Afternoon siestas are always, upon waking, accompanied with a stupor, taking awhile to get into the swing of things. This siesta had none of that. I was, throughout my sleep, lulled hearing the gurgle of ocean entering the lagoon and the singing of hundreds of colorful birds flying and swooping in tandem or in all different directions. When my eyes opened, those soothing, cheerful sounds continued, assuring me that a troubled world had not blown itself up.
It was an hour before sunset so I walked back to the western side of the island where I first alighted, there where the curious house stood.
As the sun slowly descended, I pored over the inside of the house, examining the material that formed it. Two open windows were once upright door frames. Curved planks on the roof sill once the side of boats. Bannisters in a past life were the spokes of cartwheels. Brick sidings embossed with the names of old Iloilo families – Javellana, Javelosa, Jalandoni – onced sheathed mansions. Old thick poles of the sturdiest Narra once propped churches. The transluscent shell windows once slid on grooves of another era.
I sat on weathered tile steps, probably saved from a 1920’s kitchen that had recently gone linoleum, and watched an egg-yolk sun slide into the sea, the nearby Iloilo coastline more pronounced and turning vermillion.
I returned to my tree house to find little kerosene lamps on the pathway and several more on the stair landing for me to take upstairs. From my arm chair on the balcony, I could see similar lamps lighting pathways to cottages nearby. Beyond, past the lagoon and the open sea is the faint outline of a town with electric lights. The distant fluorescent and the twinkling yellow flames on our island was a study in contrast. No, there would be no CNN glare here, no humming airconditioner, no hotmail adverts promising enlarged penises.
A low sounding bell announced dinner. Back at the cabana, I feasted, under a gas lamp, on soup half full with striped nylon shells. It was perfectly tangy with lots of chunky ginger. Sauteed deep sea shrimps and a grilled Maya-Maya followed with a bountiful side dish of sauteed vegies.
The brilliant red shrimps were simply to die for. Anne explains these were not aqua cultured but caught right out there, her hand pointing in the direction of the dark sea. In the past decade, we’ve all been weaned on farmed prawns that when we taste the real thing, we’re astonished over its sweetness. All this time, our palates had gotten accustomed to shrimp tasting like, heavens, processed crabsticks!
Anne pauses at my table to check on her visiting food taster. I had exhausted exclamatory remarks given at lunch so I settled on a thoughtful explanation on the flavor nuances between ocean and fenced shrimp. I was stumped for words so Anne gave me a nurse’s pat ordering me to continue eating while the food was warm.
With a final lick of a Guimaras mango, I bade my good nights attempting still to let Anne know she was a marvelous cook. But, self-effacing that she is, shooed me in the direction of my cottage.
The sandy pathway glimmered in the dark and, at first, I looked around me to see where the light was coming from. I raised my head and found a nearly full moon lighting the whole evening sky in milky dark blue. I was awestruck, remembering a passage from the Hindu text, the Upanishad, “When before the beauty of a sunset or a mountain, you pause and exclaim ‘Ah,’ you are participating in divinity.”
Trance-like, I ascended my cottage stairs never leaving my eyes from the divine moon. I laid down on the balcony mattress transfixed on this beguiling orb in the sky, laced with a thousand blinking stars. Fragments of revelations drifted through me. Chinese intellectuals a millennium ago, inspired by the same moon, composing love poems in their courtyards. Intrepid Polynesian ancestors in their outriggers sailing at night in the limitless ocean, lit by a moonbeam and guided by stars.
There is not a single disruption or distraction tonight. The cell phone long buried in my weekend bag. The ivory moon with its speckled face, is center stage tonight and nothing, not a thing else really matters. The mosquito net had been lowered and tucked on all the sides of my bed while I was at dinner. I took one longing look at it and watched it billow in the breeze. I made a futile attempt to rise from my mattress and drag myself to bed. It never happened. I woke the next morning still on the mattress, my sunlit face still in the direction of the absent moon.
Intoxicated with one whole night of fresh evening breeze, I couldn’t get myself up and about as I normally do. There was no morning paper. And why should I want to read the world’s woes while in paradise? I rolled on the mattress to one side looking out onto the lagoon at low tide. I struggled to identify trees and shrubs and passing flocks of long billed birds but was rendered inutile. I rolled to lie on my back and stared at low buxomy clouds glide effortlessly across the sky. I rolled to the other side to contemplate on my tree house’s thatched inner roof and its meticulous binding. All visual curiosities but my vegged out brain provided no details.
I remember Anne telling me the night before that breakfast was whenever I pleased. I wanted the pleasing that instant so I made all effort to be vertical, look a bit more presentable than Robinson Crusoe and ambled downstairs to the cabana. By the time I was seated, aromatic coffee appeared. And after a second wakening sip, a platter of sliced mangoes and papaya was laid in front of me. Just as I had about contented myself with the fruit, the crispy deep-fried Lapu-Lapu, the sauteed shrimp in garlic, the sunny side up eggs, the little Longanissa balls, and garlic rice appeared. They know how to anticipate, I mentally noted. The sign of a well-run resort.
There was nothing to quibble about breakfast except to happily worry that if this repast was this good and plentiful, an awesome lunch and dinner were again in the cards. I had to earn the right to eat well so I decided to trudge all the island’s pathways to burn the calories. The first pathway was to a very tall wooden house containing a decent library, much of it left behind by travelers. For some people, reading meant-to-read books during a holiday is their vacation scenario. I take along a book for the long flights and for quiet reading just before bedtime. But my book remained uncracked and the dog-eared paperbacks in front of me seemed unappealing in a visual paradise. I left the tall house and climbed steep steps to an empty cottage at the very top of the island with a commanding view of both the western sea and the lagoon. A lone freighter, grey wisp from its funnel, inched along the horizon. Two muscled fishermen in an outrigger nearer the island were lowering their net. The breeze carried their sigh for a sizeable catch. With a brilliant sky and enervating clouds creeping across, it was a perfect moment to be brain dead and be simply pleased with following a ship’s course, or stare at a bobbing outrigger nearby. Marking time is futile in these parts as I gaze at the sea, freighter long passed, fisherman rowed away, hoping to spot a whale spout or the splash of dolphins. A clanging revives me. It’s the distant bell announcing lunch is served.
There is a party of visitors joining for lunch so there is much activity in the cabanas and I discreetly line up for the array of dishes on the long wooden serving table. A coconut soup with mongo beans, a free range chicken stuffed with lemon grass, sauteed slender legged crabs, numerous grilled Pompano slathered in butter, enormous looking shrimp and an assortment of sauteed vegetables with a bowl of bagoong dip. I loaded up on my favorites and sat at a distance but not far enough to escape the oohs and aahs and smacking lips punctuate the midday heat. Anne didn’t forget me: A large platter of shucked oysters were served to me first and I selfishly, quietly, pulled the platter inches to me. A signal to all that these oysters were not for communal consumption.
My daily fare in workday Manila would be a main entree with veggie on the side and nothing more. But here I was checking if the oysters went with piece of chicken thigh and a dab of rice in my mouth. If the crab meat went well with the bagoong. Or the Pompano dipped in the soup. The combinations were endless and the taste results dizzying in variety. The sensation was such a maelstrom in my tastebuds that I caught myself eyes closed, toes curled and buried in the white sand, moaning in gustatory ecstasy. Was this feast as good as sex or has advanced age altered my desires? I struggled to rise from the bench and praise the food gods and shuffle off to my tree house and a waiting wind-stirred hammock.
There was the coming dinner and the breakfast the next morning before I would leave. My notes meticulously cite the dishes, with annotations in a hurried scribble. The Grouper tasting of almonds. The fish Sinigang worthy of the Sikatuna Award. The crispiest squid rings known to gourmand kind. The barbecue chicken slathered in a secret marinade tempting one to hostage the chef until she squealed. The list continues with such superlatives and it should just please the reader that every meal was as consistently sensual as the last. There is, yes there is, a limit to the litany of praises before pagan idolatry sets in.
I am about to leave my tree house to head for the bamboo pier to board the outrigger that would take me back to “civilization.” I am morose, foul tempered, and indignant. Life’s so rude with nary a thought that I should suffer being banished from this isle of eating pleasure. Yes, the breakfast was again a delicious smothering of the palate, probably the usual sop thrown to a condemned man. Anne is at pier side giving me a hug while I purse my lips and mumble something about returning. It was hard to believe the engine started, hard to believe the once formidable island would become a speck behind me.
As I rued my fate in the salt sprayed air I opened a straw bag that Anne handed me. Sunlight poured out of the bag as the yellowest of mangoes sparkled. My funky disposition receded. I took one and there, in the middle of the bouncing sea, I slowly peeled it naked and plunged my yearning mouth on its pointed nipple working my way down its silky flesh, saliva and juices splattering all over the boat. I laughed aloud, my lips and face smeared with yellow lipstick. There will be a next time I vowed to myself, to the invisible stars above, to the hidden moon, the officious sun and all the food gods.
And that’s just what I did, barely a month later, returning to this paradise, up in my treehouse to write these last few lines. I’m back once again and dining with a vengeance. Not much to do. But ah! the food’s great.
John L. Silva is Senior Consultant to the National Museum.
Isla Naburot may be reached by flying to Iloilo Airport (55 minutes). Isla Naburot’s van will fetch and transfer you to their pumpboat for the 50-minute ride to the resort. For reservations and further information, call 033-321-1654 or 033-321-089.