Bicol is my father’s childhood region. It is coconut country. It is sili country. It is an alchemy of flavors, with dishes of smoky coconut milk laced with birdseye chilis. But while I dreamt of laing and pinanggat and chili-rich Bicol Express, my father dreamt of swimming next to the world’s largest fish known to haunt the waters off Donsol. So our family did it all, spending a week retracing hometowns, tracking the butanding, and tasting some of the Philippine's best food along the way.
Daet. My father grew up in the town of Daet among the movie reels and folding seats of his family's business and the first theaters in town, the Cine Sol and Venus Theater. While the theaters no longer stand, Daet's somber coastline comes alive with surfers and fishermen with their nets cast wide to the sea. I remember that town in snapshots - dinner with my first and second cousins at the beachside restaurant, Kusina Ni Angel, the heavy nighttime rains, a golden afternoon where an old man passed by on his bicycle, his hands clutching heart-shaped gabi (taro) leaves like a quivering edible bouquet.
Okra reigns supreme at Kusina Ni Angel.
Apuao Island. It seems there is always one more island dubbed "the next Boracay" after that tiny and overdeveloped slice of heaven, blessed (or cursed?) by powder-fine white sand. Apuao was eyed by developers as a potential tourist mecca to rival Boracay, but the foreign-built resort was abandoned and its private airstrip overgrown and now grazed upon by a dozen or so cattle and sheep.
With just 700 residents, Apuao is still its own world and home to a rare silence. There are no cars, no tricycles, no jeepneys, and little electricity, just the wash of ocean waves and put-put of bangkas occasionally coming and going. Drinking water is collected from a neighbor island. I don't think I even heard a single karaoke bar in the village.
We stayed in a home where a feisty 92-year-old-lola and a handful of local women prepared meals from the land and sea - simple and delicious boiled kamote, malunggay with fresh crabs, native chicken and green papaya tinola, and tiny clams so fresh the living creatures squirted water in my eyes before they were turned into soup.
My first time seeing kamote, or cassava root, before harvest.
The Road to Donsol. There is no use stopping for Doritos or Coca-Cola when an abundance of small vendors selling fresh delicacies line the road. We passed by steaming hot boiled corn, yellow watermelons, pili nuts, salted eggs, jackfruit and lanzones...I fell in love with Belle's stall of fresh puto (steamed rice cakes) just outside the entrance to the town of Guinobatan. And lucky for us, our family friends in Legaspi city run a spot called Colonial Cafe and invited us in to sample their innovative take on Bicol's bold flavors, building off a palette of pili nuts, hot sili, coconut, and malunggay.
Donsol. The beautiful, sleepy town of Donsol now has throngs of curious whaleshark pilgrims come from all over the world, filling the tiny roads with blundering SUVs and the waves with butanding-sighting boats. We first made it to the "interaction center," where we watched videos on how to safely meet with the gentle fish, then jumped onto a bangka headed into deeper waters.
It was like searching for unicorns. Nothing was sighted for over 3 hours. We began to take naps. Then a spotter called out that a whaleshark was approaching. And then another. And then another. I'm sorry to say all the eco-tourism precautions were thrown out the window - 6 people per fish quickly grew into 15 people leaping wildly into the water - but yes, being in the presence of a big-as-a-bus fish was breathtaking.
How to talk about a creature that is a living superlative? I remember watery silence and how my entire range of vision became the silver blue, wildly patterned back of a fish. I remember feeling the most subtle current cross my skin as we came close enough to touch (but I wouldn't touch). The tiny eyes and wide, stretching mouth. The long silver fish flanking its gills. When the butanding returned to depths to deep for us to follow, we all surfaced, gasping in 4 different languages about what we had just witnessed and all unable to describe it. Maybe my dad's smile can.