“Welcome to Atlantis,” Manang Auring, a local manggagamot, said as her oily hands enveloped my proffered hand. Like many in her field, she believes that the numerous islands off the bay of Pangasinan, more popularly known as the Hundred Islands, are “pieces of the beauteous island, which drifted until they found their way here,” she said, all purplish gum when she smiled. “This is where we source our powers.”
And then she started massaging the side of the tummy of an old man lying on a mat, slowly pushing deeper until blood started trickling from an invisible wound. There was a deafening silence, ironically emphasized by the strong blowing of the wind that rocked the wooden windows, and was finally broken by a sigh from Manang Auring as she produced what looked like pebbles, which were supposedly stones from the kidney of her patient. Not a moment too soon, the old man sat straight, expressed his gratitude for the help, and then left.
While the experience was new to me, it was common in the area – we were in Pangasinan, after all, where many of the Filipino faith healers (no matter where they may be in the Philippines or overseas) are said to have originated. No wonder the flocking of those in search of the miraculous in the area – for healing of incurable illnesses, for the creation of love where there is none, or for the simple finding of peace of mind. Local legend has it that this is where the pieces of the famed Atlantis drifted when the mysterious island sunk eons ago, supposedly bringing with it its magic. The claim sounds implausible somehow, until one visits the islands.
Only a few minutes by motorized bangka are the first few of the islands that, in truth, total over 100 (though so-called Hundred Islands only because it has a poetic rhyme to it). Many of these have high rocky cliffs thickly covered by vegetation and are thus often seemingly inaccessible – though many are attracted to the islands exactly because of this. Over the years, more and more visit to bravely climb the cliffs that seem to endlessly continue under the blue waters, or to make new treks from one side to another of one of the largely undiscovered islands, or to spelunk for the first time its enigmatic caves. Closely passing by the islands, however, never fails to bring about strange, even spine tingling, feelings, as if someone you cannot see is staring at you intently, waiting for your next step before they decide to act.
“Those are the spirits,” Mang Ambo, our guide, said in a hushed voice (so as not to disturb them). As if on cue, we passed through what seemed like a tunnel, though really a meeting of two cliffs overhead, forming what looked like a darkened cathedral – a rare formation since the islands are often separated. And yet, many snorkel around the islands, which are seemingly attached underwater by coral formations supporting a rich marine life (like the rare giant clam shells). When the seas are calm, the few who have dived around some of the islands mentioned the peculiar rock formations underwater that hide peculiar sea creatures, seemingly reflecting the eerie atmosphere evoked by the islands. Because when there, it doesn’t seem implausible seeing merpeople peeking through rock formations before diving in the deep seas when spotted. The place just has that feel, hardly explainable.
EVERY ISLAND, A WORLD
Amazingly, the seeming awe inspired by the group of islands as a whole is the one things that is similar in all the islands, which differ from each other – both by nature’s designs, and by man’s manipulations.
At one, you can follow paths leading to the peak to get a 360˚ view of the whole place – not that there’s much to see, but the blue waters broken by islands that seemed to have been dropped from the sky like big rocks. In another, the white sanded shore stretches then curves to stretch and then curve once more to form a semi-circle, the middle only sparsely vegetated so that it looks more like an underwater rock exposed during low tide than an actual island – just perfect for swimming. Still in another are small communities that have fishnets surrounding islands to breed fish – perfect for meals in yet another island that now has nipa huts for such activities.
While snorkeling, trying to make out what the deep gulfs between islands hide by clinging on to a rope attached from one island to another , the silence is occasionally broken by gunshots, immediately followed by the flocking of wild ducks trying to escape hunters that venture the islands where they nest. For a while, the sky darkened as the fathered creatures sought refuge in the other islands, feathers fluttering on the waters that, suddenly (and even more interestingly), gave way to monkeys that started to swim. It was weird, looking at creatures deemed afraid of water as their heads protruded while trying to stay afloat. Then, when on dry land, they shook themselves before disappearing in the woods, like miniature Bigfoots.
Truly, here, wonders never cease.
After a luscious meal of freshly-caught tilapia, coupled by salted egg sharing a bowl full of freshly sliced ripe tomatoes, with grilled pusit and shrimps thrown, a quick dive in the water stirs the consciousness, though also adding to the mystery, as one swims with jellyfish that seasonally abound in the area, floating like torn fabrics.
These are playthings of mermaids who hide in the islands, Mang Ambo said. And I almost believed him, trying not to swim too far from the islands in case the mysterious stories were true.
In the end, though, whether one believes or not does not matter. Back on the mainland, Manang Auring said, “Maniwala ka o hindi, andiyan ‘yan.” And maybe, just maybe, she’s telling the truth, since you won’t escape the mystical when in the Hundred Islands of Pangasinan.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Along EDSA, catch a bus going to Alaminos via Kamiling. From there, catch a pedicab to Lucap, where the motorized bangkas to take you to the islands are docked.
*First published in Outrage Magazine in December 2007; reprinted with permission.