I usually research on the basics of the place I’m visiting before getting there, but when my Tita Fe and her husband, Tito Apin, invited me to visit his hometown in Talim Island, I decided to leave everything up to them. Without any information other than Mt. Tagapo, I found myself immersing in this little-known island with a fresh pair of eyes. It was like watching a film without reading the reviews or spoilers until after the movie.
I met Tita Fe and Tito Apin at Calamba Pretel (port) in Laguna at 9 a.m. on September 25. They hired a private boat to take me to Barangay Habagatan, one of the many barangays (barrios) in Talim Island. En route I spotted Parañaque City across the lake, signaling that modern Manila isn’t too far away. The weather was cloudy with scattered rains.
As we got nearer the island, we treaded through thicker hoards of water lilies and I spotted fisher folk—some standing by the shore and others on boats—preparing their baits. We arrived at a port that said, “Welcome to Brgy. Habagatan, Sitio Macambong.” When Tita Fe saw me looking at the colorful decorations, she said, “The fiesta is next week.”
The first thing I noticed about the island is that everybody knows everybody. I would hear the neighbors asking my companions who I was. “People know immediately if someone isn’t from around here,” Tito Apin explained. “But don’t worry; people here are kind.”
I got to know the residents of Brgy. Habagatan through Tito Apin’s clan of cousins, nephews, and nieces. He grew up there, but was stationed in the United States after joining the military in the ’80s. He raised his family in California, but when he entered his mid-60s, he decided to return to his late parents’ home in Talim Island to rebuild their house. He and Tita Fe still work and reside in the US, but they visit Talim Island a few weeks a year. Relatives take turns tending to the couple’s garden during the months they are abroad. Tito Apin is the last living sibling in his family.
The phone signal was intermittent, the same with Tita Fe’s pocket Wi-Fi. It was a refreshing break from to be cut off from social networking. I spent my afternoons exploring the garden surrounding Tito Apin’s single-storey house. I would pick a dalandan (Philippine orange, a citrus fruit with a green peel even when ripe) straight from the tree and squeeze fresh juice for myself.
Getting around the barangay was a workout because the paths were mostly uphill. “It doesn’t flood here,” said Ate Baby (“ate” is Filipino term to address an older sister), one of Tito Apin’s cousins, a schoolteacher in Talim. The times it rained, I watched as rainwater slid down the canals and into the lake.
“Ma’am, who is she?” one of Ate Baby’s students asked while we walked down the street. “My daughter!” she joked. “No, really?” the student pried. I laughed. I soon found out that the townsfolk had nicknamed me, Barbie Doll.
When I was looking at the view of Laguna De Bay from an elevated home, three things immediately stood out—1. Fishing boats made mostly of bamboo that’s abundant in the island, 2. Water lilies, which Baby describes as “more of a weed than anything,” and 3. The communal humble vibe of the people.
Every 5 a.m. fishermen start gathering fresh catch of mostly tilapia, which will be sold in the markets around Rizal and Laguna. Once in a while you’ll spot individuals grabbing tilapia by hand or by net, and then trading them to friends around the island. While eating my lunch of fried tilapia that a friendly neighbor gave us, Tito Apin’s cousins came by to help with the cooking.
There’s a lack of facilities around Talim, like a hospital or medical center, so people turn to each other for help. “What happens when someone needs an emergency doctor?” I asked Tito Apin. “They have to ride a boat and take the person to the hospital in Calamba.” My private boat ride took 30 minutes from Calamba Pretel to Talim, and it costs ₱1,500 (about US $33) to rent a boat the whole day. For public ferries, you pay about ₱40 (88c) per ride, and a boat comes by every hour.
“The government is proposing to build a reclaimed road or bridge to connect Talim to the mainland. What do you think?” Tita Fe asked me. I started imagining the fumes from daily trucks and buses coming in and out of the island, how 7-Elevens would sprout at every corner, and how the zero crime rate and slow-paced life would quickly change.
Economically there are benefits (perhaps mostly for the already rich, out-of-town investors), but through years of traveling around the Philippines, I watched as once-elusive islands (Hello, Boracay!) succumbed to the pressures of tourism, only to make us realize too late that we should have left it untainted.
“Many people here are against it,” Tita Fe said. “Even me, I feel that we should keep the island the way it is.” She said that there are many other things the government can do to improve the island, like building the church, sending regular medical missions, or putting up a health center, but to build a bridge might do more harm than good.
After my first weekend in Talim, I went back the next weekend for the town fiesta. The weather was sunny and people were busy preparing for the Sunday festivities. Trumpets blared from the other block where the marching band rehearsed. People draped colorful banderitas (flags) on the streets, and toy vendors had arrived from out of town.
The parade started on Sunday at 1 p.m. I watched in awe as dancers of all age groups and marching bands from different barangays blared their music, carried statues of their patron saint, and danced up and down the streets, in boats around the lake, and then back uphill to the church until 7 p.m.
“So when are you coming back?” the Celones clan asked me when the parade dispersed come dinnertime. “Next year!” I said. I was still reeling from the excitement of the day’s activities. “I’ll bring boxes of chocolates for the pagoda.” During the pagoda spectacle, people tossed goodies—such as candies, fruits, and packs of junk food—to children and other boat passengers. I got a plastic full of rambutan (a native Asian fruit that’s a close relative of the lychee) from a boat of teenagers.
The morning after the fiesta, I waved goodbye to the Celones clan and the people of Brgy. Habagatan. Hours later I was back in my bedroom, on my MacBook, and finally Googling for more info I may have missed about Talim Island. My heart dropped at the first article that appeared on my search feed.
A 2009 GMAreport covered Talim Island after Typhoon Ondoy (international name Ketsana) ravaged the island, flooding most of its lower barangays. I couldn’t believe the dismal descriptions and photos of this island that was my home for two weekends. A more recent article by Rappler showed Talim Island years after it recovered from Ondoy, but with the same reference that many other journalists used when they wrote about Talim—that of Nunal Sa Tubig (a speck or mole in the water), a 1976 film directed by the late Ishmael Bernal.
The movie shows a dystopian vision of Laguna De Bay, where an island (scenes were shot in Talim) is getting polluted by nearby industries. Characters are torn between preserving the island’s idyllic traditional lifestyle and succumbing to modernity that’s also destroying their natural resources.
While the articles hinted that its people are itching to leave the island, this supposed speck in the water, the Talim I got to know isn’t caught in a misfortune. Its people find a balance of tranquility that has pervaded the island for decades, while choosing which aspects of modernity to incorporate into their lifestyle. The residents take a boat to Calamba or Binangonan to shop at the malls or markets for supplies that they can’t get at the island. Their kids go to high school and/or college in Calamba, Manila, or other cities in the Philippines.
Like Tito Apin, many residents who have found a more financially rewarding life elsewhere still come back to Talim Island—to rebuild their old homes, reconnect with loved ones, and do what they do best, which is to help each other. There’s still a lot of room for progress, but it’s best to leave the decisions not to politicians living in mansions hours from the island or shady corporations looking to expand their business, but to the people who know and love the island best—its residents.