Saturday, January 12, 2013

Biri Island, and it's on the rocks

By Mike McIlvain

BIRI ISLAND, N. Samar – All I said was, ‘maybe it is a spirit, not really a cat.’ A short while later I fell against some rocks in a tide pool, looking at scratches that resembled marks of two, three, four, and five claws than anything from any rocks I had ever seen.

But, the rock formations of Biri Island are unlike the rocks most of us have ever seen with their swirling, multi-colored sediment, leaping up to resemble their distant cousin waves only a few steps away. Rose, black, brown, and grey mix with the grassy tops of these formations in ways that would enchant Disney’s imagineers. Biri would also fit for the location of any Planet of the Apes sequels with its other world-type appearance.

Biri is the main island in a group surrounded by the storied San Bernardino Strait, between the Philippines’ main island of Luzon and Samar in the Visayas region.

It was here that incoming little brown wooden Manila galleons from the Americas would clean up, or sweep the decks before heading to nearby Capul Island for re-supply prior to sailing to Manila. It was also here on the northern end of the island where centuries ago one had the best vantage point to see the white sails of those little brown wooden ships disappear gradually on their way to what is now Acapulco, Mexico.

Those ships were so important to Spain and so many of its servants that their return was often cause for celebration. It was also worth celebrating because it did not always happen, and often it was just one ship working the route. Not everyone made it back to the Philippines.

“Many, became victims of the vicissitudes of the far-flung enterprise, losing fortune or life to shipwreck or other hardships of the crossing. The proliferation of beggars, widows and orphans attested to the risks of the trade,” said an online article by the Maritime Museum Association of San Diego.

A large part of the first rock formations one comes to on Biri could have been a strong warning sign about safety beyond the San Bernardino Strait. A naturally-formed large lion’s head appears to jut out of the rocks where this rather ordinary looking house cat came suddenly, and loudly, meowing for food from picnicking visitors.

That cat announced itself from atop the formation, bounding down in a minute to mooch a fish head while striking a lion head-like pose. It was then I made my comment about its link to the spirit world.

Fortunately, my favorite 6-year-old did not hear what daddy said a little while later when falling face first into that tide pool. My wife and I were avoiding a long rope-looking creature when I lost my footing, and tasted the Pacific for the first time in years.

The Biri rock formations offer an ancient stone face which prompts caution and respect. Also, my wife had learned that someone had died while working on a half-completed foot bridge to the rock formation, which will someday get visitors over the slippery rocks. That someday will be a good day for the otherwise dusty town on Biri.

Convenience stores here emphasize convenience, offering friendly service to customers still sitting on their motorcycle in the several mom and pop stores. Eyes switch back-and-forth between the stores and to the noise from the always popular pickup basketball games in the nearby background.

Motorcycle seat eyesight also can’t avoid the busy water traffic. Small, multi-colored outrigger fishing boats roam the strait where galleons once sailed, so fish is plentiful and usually available all day, or quickly after the groups of boats return.

Such boats helped provide human scale, and color, in the numerous photos taken where we stayed in a house sitting on the short strait separating Biri and the much smaller Salvacion Island. It was an estimated 200 meters across to Salvacion where one man could shout to others from Biri. But, at 5:45 p.m. in late July the sun hits right on the top of Mayon Volcano, continuing in one ray onto the little strait, painting the many boats in silhouette, and unfamiliar shades of their many colors.

Schoolchildren returning from classes on Biri fueled most of the constant back-and-forth sunray-enhanced sights with fishing boats crossing their path on the strait. In all the places I have ever been, I could not remember shooting so many photos where I was staying. Photos usually involve a short trip. Many were shot just a few steps right out the back door.

Small rock crabs, and colorful fish entertain the youngest guests, and older kids, as well here where visitors can cook meals themselves or leave it to staffers.

The three-room house is very homey, too, with an old dog to eat leftover table scrapes, a few mice to provide visual distraction as you watch the one television channel available, which shuts off at midnight with everything else electrical. Showering is the standard throw-it-on-yourself one finds in the islands and much of Southeast Asia.

Biri Island is not an average trip. It is a crafted place with more than the eye can see, but it starts with the eye. I could revisit Biri and be happy to stay there more than a few days that next


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