The Islands of the Giants

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Cabugao Gamay of the Las Islas de Gigantes Island Chain

The waves crashed over the sides of the pump boat slapping us in the face and splashing our clothes with seawater. We weren’t given life vests before we began what was supposed to be a ninety-minute journey, but several dangled right overhead. My hands itched to grab one. I looked up again, trying to reassure myself that I could probably cover the distance from seat to life vest in seconds once the boat started to sink. If I couldn’t, at least I was sitting with the only one of my travel buddies who could swim for survival. She was a triathlete. Our three other friends, all non-swimmers, were spread throughout the small boat, squeezed in with other strangers.

From the corner of my eye, the old man sitting to my left glanced at me again. He had looked with interest from the moment I brought out a huge trash bag to cover my backpack when we set out to sea.

This time he leaned over and with the calmest voice said, “Don’t worry, miss. These guys know what they’re doing.”

“How do you know?” I shot back.

With a smile, he answered, “See that man at the wheel? Watch how he slows down with every oncoming wave. The way he instructs his men to manipulate the outriggers. Also, he isn’t plowing in a straight line.” He pointed. “That is where we are going.”

He pointed to an island jutting out of the horizon to our left. The boat wasn’t turned in that direction. Instead, we were going right.

Strange. There was open ocean everywhere with only the occasional fishing boat for company, no threat at all of running into anything. He continued. “This tells me the captain is very familiar with the way the currents work around here. We have very crazy currents and the biggest waves even without a storm.”

We? I looked sideways to see him clearly. I assumed he was a tourist. With his pale skin, shock of white hair and grandfatherly vibe, he had that quiet air of command that belonged in a boardroom. He could easily be mistaken for a retired CEO rather than a local of these isolated islands in the outer edges of Iloilo Province in Central Philippines. My friends and I were on vacation, heading off to the group of islands called Las Islas de Gigantes.

“You live here, Sir?” I asked.

“I was born and raised here, but I worked as a captain of an oil tanker in the Middle East for many years. I’m now retired. I live in Iloilo City with my wife and our grandchildren, but I still come here from time to time just to check on our old house.”

I was in luck. Locals always have the best stories. “Can you tell me more about these islands, Sir? From what I’ve read online these islands were named after a giant.”

“Ah yes, Las Islas de Gigantes. Spanish for The Islands of the Giants. Not only do our islands look like the body parts of a giant but its bones were found in a cave at Gigantes Norte, the largest in the chain, right where we’re going.”

“Bones!”

“Yes, bones. Skeletal remains. I remember the femur being as big as the whole of my leg.”

“You saw them yourself, Sir?”

“Oh yes, we used to play at Bakwitan Cave when we were young.”

“Where are the bones now?”

“An outsider somehow learned about the presence of the bones. Academics came to study them. Some from the University of the Philippines, so they said. Then before we knew it, the bones were gone. Someone stole it. That was in the seventies.”

“That’s too bad. I would have wanted to see giant bones myself.”

“If you visit Bakwitan Cave then you’ll still be able to see impressions of the bones on the stone. But it wasn’t just about giant bones.”

The old man proceeded to tell the story of a time before World War II, as told to him by his grandparents, when villagers had access to a store of silverware and old dresses in Bakwitan Cave where the giant bones had been found. It was said that when a bride who had no money needed a wedding dress, she only had to go to the cave and go through the chest of dresses. If she needed utensils for the party, she could also borrow the silverware. The condition was that everything had to be returned for someone else to make use of. If they didn’t, the legend was that the bride and her family would forever be cursed.

“Wait,” I said. “Who were they borrowing from?”

“No one.”

“But who would curse them if they didn’t return the items?”

“We don’t know. Who knows? The spirits of the cave or maybe the giants’ spirits.”

“The villagers believed that?”

“You have to understand these were the olden days. People were more superstitious then. They still are now. But modernity is creeping in. Little by little, the old stories are being labeled as myths. Figments of the imagination, the young would say.”

“Well, I think it’s a lovely story, Sir. Maybe rooted in reality, somehow?”

His eyes turned wistful. “I believe it. My grandparents believed it.”

“Times have really changed, haven’t they?”

“Oh yes, very much. There was a time I would travel home and there weren’t tourists on these boats, only locals.”

“What do you think happened?”

“Tourism. Some popular show featured Las Islas in 2016 and now tourists like you are coming more and more to these islands. Perhaps tourism is a good thing; at least Gigantes Norte has electricity now, for example.”

It was true. I had never heard of Las Islas de Gigantes until January of this year. We are the Philippines, an archipelago of 7000 plus islands, and our best coastlines are world famous such as that of Boracay, Coron, and Cebu. There are so many islands to choose from, it’s inevitable some have remained undiscovered. At the time I was researching on Gigantes for our trip, reviews as late as January 2018 told of electricity being rotated for a few hours at a time. All other islands in the chain had none. During our visit in March, electricity had finally come 24/7.

The old man talked some more about his life. The trip took all of two hours because of the towering waves that continued to drench us. By the time we reached the port in Gigantes Norte, all the passengers were wet. But safe. I didn’t notice the passage of time either for which I was grateful. If the old man hadn’t distracted me, I would have been a nervous wreck all throughout the trip.

Tomorrow I talk about our stay at Las Islas de Gigantes (see Islands of the Giants Part 2). My friends and I have been to many other islands in the archipelago, but for the first time in our lives, we had to contend with the isolation. That and the beauty of the Islands of the Giants.

Stay tuned! Follow me for more of these stories.

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