01-Jan-2005 -- “I’m cool!” yelled Catherine in response to Angelito, the ‘bancero’ (driver) of the five-meter banca boat, asking her not to stay at the stern but instead to come and sit a bit further behind. And cool she sure quickly became. As we were leaving the small channel behind and getting to sea heading for the confluence, the first wave struck and rocked the long and slender boat and the salty water splashed into the boat and drenched her. Despite the outriggers, bancas are not particularly stable at the best of times, and even less so in high seas. We still had more or less three nautical miles to go and the waves were coming fast. Catherine quickly retreated as advised and sat next to Emily on the bottom of the boat. Angelito handed them two sheets of repugnant fish-stinking plastic for protection. At this point they realized it had not necessarily been such a good idea to follow me into this adventure.
The two girls were both French expats working in Laos: Catherine for Unesco in Luang Prabang and Emilie for the French embassy in Vientiane. We had met for the first time three days before at Alona Beach on Panglao Island that is connected by a causeway to Bohol, one of the cleanest islands in the country with a treasure trove of natural and man-made wonders. I had flown the day before Christmas from Japan via Hong Kong to spend two weeks in the Philippines. I had already visited the archipelago about half a dozen times before, but it is always a pleasure to come back to this country which is probably one of my favorites in South-East Asia. The people are very friendly, the food is good and there are over 7000 remarkably diverse islands to choose from. This time I was coming mostly for scuba diving, although I had in mind that I wouldn’t be too far away from the unvisited confluence N10 E124.
The three of us considered ourselves lucky as we had all thought about spending our winter vacation in places a bit further west such as Sri Lanka, Penang, the western coast of Thailand or North Sumatra before finally deciding at the last minute to go to the Philippines. I was staying at one of my friends’ parents-in-law’s house in Cebu city when the tsunami slammed into Indian Ocean shorelines on Dec. 26, killing more than 150,000 people. Many of our conversations so far had been about this tragedy.
We had also talked about what to do in the days to come and I had mentioned the fact that I’d like to visit a confluence off the northern coast of Bohol. The project at first sounded a bit weird to the girls but they finally agreed that we would give it a try. We had had plenty of other ideas for places to visit, but so far they had been getting up at lunchtime everyday and lacked the energy to go anywhere, so just hung around along the beach. On Dec. 30, for instance, we were supposed to leave early to go to the Chocolate Hills, a range of more than 1,200 cone-shaped mounds which are green in the rainy season and brown (like chocolate) in the dry, but again they forgot to wake up before noon (although they got up before I did to go there a few days later).
The next day was the last day of 2004 and I made up my mind that I would begin the New Year by visiting the confluence N10 E124. I rented three trial motorbikes and told the girls that by 9:00 the next morning we’d be on the road. The point was just over 70 km from Alona Beach; a two to three hour ride.
None of us remembered too well at what time we went to bed on the 31st. As a matter of fact it wasn’t New Year’s Eve any longer when I went to sleep as the sun was slowly rising behind the horizon on the first day of 2005. But I do remember that I got up at 7:30 with a terrible headache. After breakfast I tried to wake them up. They woke up all right, but getting ready was another matter. At 11:00 I almost had to put them on the motorbikes myself and we finally left for the confluence two hours behind schedule. Emilie didn’t get on her bike but instead got on mine and went for a nap almost immediately using my back as a pillow.
The day was nice and we had a lovely ride along the coast stopping here and there to take pictures or just for a break. It was past two o’clock when we passed Tubigon and I turned my GPS on shortly after as we were nearing the confluence. At this point the road was turning inland and we stopped to find a way to get back to the coast. Two Filipino men on a motorbike came out from nowhere and asked us what we were looking for. “A boat”, I told them, “a boat to go to sea and take pictures”.
Less than five minutes later one of the two guys came back alone and asked us to follow him. We did and after a few hundred meters he stopped near a group of men who were celebrating New Year with lots of rum and much fun. Our guide got off his motorbike, put his hand on one of the men’s shoulder and told us that he’d be the one to take us to sea. The second man was completely unaware of that fact and looked up at the sky for some kind of answers at what was going on. Angelito Balorio – as he told us his name later on – had no time to get any answers from above as he was swiftly pushed to get on our guide’s motorbike; and down toward the sea we all went together.
The small banca boat was quickly ready, and Catherine, Emilie, Angelito, his son and I got on board and went down the narrow waterway leading to the sea. After getting soaked by the first wave, Catherine, as well as Emilie, became less talkative and began to worry. The boat got wedged on the shoal twice within the first hundred meters at sea and the boy had to pull it out.
I had told Angelito which route I wanted to follow and it looked like we were going to hit the confluence straight on, but halfway to the point near a half submerged island Angelito slightly changed course to starboard. I told him to get back to the previous cape but he warned us that because of the shallow water, the low tide and the waves, we couldn’t maintain that course. I kept insisting that he goes port but he carried on the same direction. Finally I stood up, pointed left, and told him to go around the island. His son, who spoke better English, then said that if we went that way “we could not survive”. Hearing that catastrophic phrase the girls couldn’t help but burst into laughter. The worries disappeared and the tension lessened. I told Angelito to reduce the speed and to go very slowly and carefully to port. He did and fifteen minutes later we crossed the confluence within fifty meters.
I snapped a few pictures and we came back slowly and safely to the tiny harbor squeezed between mangroves and rice paddies where a group of small children had been guarding our motorbikes while patiently waiting for us to return. Catherine and Emilie, who had been dragging their feet for the entire morning, were now pushing me to hurry up to go back to Alona Beach before nightfall. We didn’t. Along the way we stopped in a village to watch some cockfights. And at sunset we took a break near an old Spanish church where a mass was being held. I entered the colonial building filled with worshippers, sat on a bench, looked up at the faded Latin and Spanish holy words painted on the ceiling, and made a small request for Heaven to make some room for welcoming all the tsunami’s victims, and to help the relatives and survivors in their grief. When I came out of the church the firmament westward was highlighted in blood.