I am not sure if my travel companions sensed my relief as we boarded M/BCA Seahorse Express at the boulevard in Surigao City.
We were then headed to San Jose, the capital municipality of Dinagat in Southern Philippines. These cluster of mineral-rich islands used to be part of Surigao del Norte. In 2006, it became an independent province by virtue of RA 9355. Four years later, this status was nullified by the Supreme Court but in 2012, the high court reversed itself and upheld the constitutionality of its original ruling.
Another ‘last minute’ trip
You see everything about this Dinagat trip was planned and realized at the ‘last minute.’ My friends and I finalized the itinerary in just one week or so. What made it more excruciatingly memorable was when I realized I left our tickets at my apartment, 2 freaking hours before our boat’s scheduled departure.
“What if I can’t find the tickets? Can I charm our way past the inspectors? Will this Dinagat trip be shelved once more?” I tried hard not to entertain these questions as my habal-habal driver and I wove through Cebu’s afternoon rush hour traffic.
Needless to say that it was one of the longest 2 hours of my life. But to make the long story short – I was able to retrieve the boat tickets on my desk, rode the same motorbike on my way to the port and caught up with my smirking friends.
That is why compared to yesterday’s Jack Bauer-esque moment, I was visibly zen while we waited for more passengers to board the Seahorse. We were also amused by the wares peddled by various vendors. In a span of an hour or so, we saw quail eggs, corn, bread, fruits, bottled water, peanuts, towels, hammocks, headphones, doughnuts, boxes of pizza, Php20 balloons, bootleg DVDs, SD cards and powerbanks paraded around the motorized outrigger boat.
The LCD TV was turned on as soon as we left Surigao’s boulevard. They didn’t air the NBA game we hoped for but showed instead Undisputed, a movie about prison fights in Russia. It’s not the best action film in the universe, but I somehow managed to sit through it because there was nothing else to do.
I would have wanted though to strike a casual conversation with the ladies seated beside me. They had distinct rings, similar to those worn by almost every other passenger on board. To the outside world, they are called the ‘singsingan.’ They are members of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association, a non-profit and non-sectarian organization founded by their ‘Divine Master’ Ruben Ecleo Sr. in Dinagat.
Our boat then docked at San Jose a few minutes after the movie credits rolled. There were a handful of eager habal-habal drivers waiting at the wooden port but we chose a trike which could transport the three of us to Bahay Turista Mini-Chalet, our home for the next few days.
Although we have an island hopping tour planned the following morning, we were not really sure what to do at San Jose that afternoon. It was good we stayed at Bahay Turista as it also houses the Dinagat Provincial Tourism and Culture Office. The government staffs were helpful and patient with our inquiries.
Around San Jose
Since Mark, our Dinagat contact, was not yet around, it was Marvin who accompanied around San Jose. Our first stop was the Islander Castle, the private residence of Gov. Glenda Ecleo, the wife of the PBMA founder. It was built in 2007 and is reported to cost Php 350 million.
Visitors could only enter the property at an allowed distance. We were consoled however with the beautiful view of Stingray Islet (aptly named because it is shaped like one) and Lalaking Bukid (male mountain), which is said to be Prinsipe Gat.
Legend has it that there was once two royalties, Prinsipe Gat and Princess Dina, who eloped away from their kingdom somewhere in Mindanao. Their escape coincided with the sudden appearance of 2 islands – one was shaped like a sleeping man and the other was of a pregnant lady. This was how the province of Dinagat got its name.
We proceeded to the PBMA Founder’s Shrine next. This is where the remains of Reuben Ecleo Sr., the founder of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association, are entombed. Security was very tight in the compound. We had to leave our cameras and mobile phones by their visitor center as photography was not allowed. Everyone must also be in their white shirts and the ladies were required to wear skirts.
I wish I knew more about this organization – their supposed healing powers, the various symbols around the vicinity and the reason why many people all over Mindanao (at least the handful of locals I’ve met), migrated here at one point in their lives. But even our guide politely begged off as he can’t disclose what they are not allowed to share.
Our final stop that afternoon was the palm-fringed and surprisingly deserted Sta. Cruz Beach. By this time, Prinsipe Gat’s silhouette was more prominent with the sun slowly setting over the horizon.
Someone in our group quipped that the Lalaking Bukid was featured in the Life of Pi. Unfortunately, I could only remember the beautiful ambiguity of the film’s ending. I managed to suspend my disbelief though and said that I’ll watch the movie again to check it out.
“How do you see Dinagat five or ten years from now?” I asked our habal-habal drivers and our guide while we walked back to their parked motorbikes.
“We’d like Dinagat to be more prosperous and San Jose to be a city by then,” one of them replied.
I thought long about that reply because the sad irony is that despite Dinagat’s natural resources, it remains to be one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines.
Getting to cityhood from just being a 4th class municipality will definitely be a long, uphill climb, just like the winding road network around San Jose. There are undoubtedly a lot of changes that should be set in these parts. But I sincerely hope all these will happen sooner than thought.
How to get to Dinagat
Dinagat is located off the northeastern coast in Mindanao and can be reached by taking a public bangka (motorized outrigger boats) stationed by the boulevard at Surigao City. Fare is Php100 and travel time is approximately 1 hour.
You can reach Surigao by taking a commercial flight from Cebu or Manila. Alternatively, you can also take an overnight boat trip from Cebu.