Sitio Riroan, Bulusan, Sorsogon

Typical native hut along the coastal villages of Bulusan.

A native outrigger locally known as sibid.

Hard-earned nylon nets and a banca are essential assets for Vicente, a local fisherman.

“From Barack Obama and Xi Jinping to the heads of tiny Pacific island states, they took to the stage in Paris today to tell the world they would act. The rhetoric was lofty, planetary, grave.”

So says the emailed report re COP21 in my email box today, December 1, 2015 —  information given to readers of an environmental news publication that I subscribed to.

But for me the rhetoric whatever the tone is real. No need for me to look further. All I have to do is take a little walk along the sea shores of my hometown (photos).

All I have to do is listen to this fisherman’s unwavering faith in the sea. “ My catch is more than enough for me and my family. We sell those we can’t consume for our other needs. I have no problems with the days not good for fishing…these days happen only in less than a month for the duration of one year.”  How about during storms? Pause. “Ah.. the waters can reach up to there” (pointing to the shore less than five meters from where we were sitting). His hut is open to the elements. And one can imagine where this hut would end up if ever a category 5 typhoon will hit the area. God forbid!

For now, this thought I kept only to myself as I listen to the young fisherman sharing enthusiastically stories about the variety of his bountiful catch, enumerating the several names of local fish species abundant in our shores : turos, bungdo, angol, mamsa, marara etc. The local seabirds he named easily ( I was not able to catch the vernacular name) completely agreed  with their noise dominating the ocean sound while they feast on their catch. Vicente’s modest hut has this uninterrupted view of the Pacific Ocean standing at around 10 meters from the shore line.

I chimed in with the optimism but deep in me the conversation running in my mind were streaming in a different light. Anxiety. Fear. Prayers of protection. May the Great Spirit of the Seas preserve and protect his family and the rest of the families living in the long stretch of the coast of my hometown, Bulusan.

As I leave, I noticed and captured the look of the young fisherman wistfully looking far off to the sea. The look was a mixture of gratitude and hint of uncertainty.

Moments like these my mind reflects on Pope Francis’s  encyclical on climate change, the Laudato si’.

For me, Laudato si’ is a prayer. A prayer to action. A sacred call.

Laudato si’ is a call to protect the vulnerable that includes the fishermen living in places where their livelihood depends on.

For the ‘parapadagat’, the sea is their life.

May we be enlightened by these words lifted from the text of Laudato si’:

  1. Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. For example, changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children. There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellowmen and women upon which all civil society is founded.

More about Laudato si’:

Photos: Alma P. Gamil

Bulusan, Sorsogon, Philippines


Sunrise, Bulusan, January 8, 2016, 6:12 AM

Sunrise, Bulusan, January 8, 2016, 6:25 AM

Every morning there is a show. Tickets not included. All I have to do is to wake up early and head to the nearest shore.  Each show is distinct for each day. No performances are repeated with the best part reserved for the early risers.

And this morning the show is just as spectacular. Only the battered coconut trees show signs of the fury of typhoon Nona (international name Melor) that hit Bulusan three weeks ago.

Good morning, 2016!

Photographs by Alma P. Gamil
Bulusan, Sorsogon

“Strangeness is a necessary ingredient in beauty.”
― Charles Baudelaire

Boton flower bud

All I want these days is to imitate the ways of the Boton tree — specifically its wisdom of simply savoring the lightness and radiance of living.

But, alas, I have yet to learn the wisdom of the Boton.

Boton flowers are pink sunburst of unending summers. The buds of flowers confidently peeking from the branches open into burst of pink magic. The tips exquisitely adorned with bright yellow. The petals framing it in immaculate white. In its unopened state, the flowers are like mini hearts ready to explode into cheerful pink and white pompoms the bursting threads mimicking the rays of the sun.

Immensely radiant. Offering her beauty to the summer sun… and at night a feast for nocturnal birds and bats.

Its fruit is a box-like-heart that has a beak seemingly in a permanent grin that is pleasant and welcoming. A long thread-like tongue coming out from the beak adds up to its cheerful look. These fruits dangle happily out of the branches of the mother tree in twos or threes.

Colors indicate the maturity of the Boton fruits. Husk surrounds the seed. The fruit is perfectly designed to float and to travel to great distances.

Several villagers told me that it can heal (nakabolong) and it can kill (nakahilo). For this reason it is sometimes called as the fish poison tree. This duality is common for healing plants — poison and medicine.

Boton tree along the shore of Baluarte, Bulusan.

This impressive Boton tree along the beach of Baluarte is prolific unlike some Boton trees also growing near the coast. Its fruits littered the underneath canopy of the tree waiting for the ocean waves to fetch them to another shore or be a ready ‘ball’ toy for local village kids. The fruits are perfect floaters. It was enchanting seeing them calmly float near the water’s edge while the moon rises.

Boton fruits are perfect floaters.

It is clear that the elements conspire to the Boton’s lightness of being… reminding me to just flow and follow the rhythm of life. In this aspect the Boton tree is a master, I am the pupil.

In my present mid journey, I have a long way to go and much to learn. I just hope it is not yet too late. Intense lesson at high noon. Indeed, for me.

The Boton loves the smell of the sea.

Boton is a simple name for a fascinating tree that probably alludes to the stars from heaven. Star is ‘bituon’ in the vernacular.

Boton fruits calmly floating at sea after a seaside play with local kids.

*Barringtonia asiatica is the botanical name of Boton. All photos were taken from sitio Baluarte, Bulusan, Sorsogon.

Photographs by Alma P. Gamil
Bulusan, Sorsogon

Payág (Bulusan, 2015)

still strong at 96 to go to the poblacion.

The farmer’s sons stay with their lola (grandmother).

Payag is the classic native hut in Bulusan. It is a simple yet brilliant vernacular organic architecture by marrying form and function with the local materials available on site.

I was lucky to chance upon an almost finished payag along the road of Kabugawan in the village of San Bernardo. The pantaw, sirong and dapog can be seen from the road and the natural colors of the anahaw roofing and bamboo walls blend well with the surrounding greens of mostly coconut and pili trees.

The tukod of the window was being prepared by the time we passed by the area. The lone window is an awning type with the tukod as the device for opening and closing the single panel window.

“This is for my mother-in-law,” said the farmer cum hut builder pointing to the direction of an elderly woman sitting near a tree in the front yard. “She is 96 years old but still goes to the market in the poblacion” he added.  I stayed for a while sitting near the yard with two kids looking at me with innocent smiles.

When I told the local farmer how neat and cool is the workmanship of the hut… he replied that some passing tourists also said the same thing about the hut several days ago.  He said this with a smile and obviously amused that his hut was being noticed by visitors to their village. Although I stay in the poblacion, I am familiar with the village rural ways. I understood that for this farmer/carpenter, the form was just a consequence of the function.

Photographs by  Alma P. Gamil

Bulusan, Sorsogon, Philippines

Lessons with the color blue. Bulusan, 2015

One afternoon I heard the sea calmly taught me: That some thoughts are best relayed without words.That is the eloquence of silence. And I further asked : What is the eloquence of the heart? The sea answered with a blue silence.

Photograph by Alma P. Gamil

Bulusan, Sorsogon, Philippines

Equestrian image of St. James the Greater at the Parish Church of Bulusan during the fiesta celebrations.

Saint James the Greater is the patron saint of Bulusan. It is in his honor that the fiesta is being celebrated annually for the last 380 plus years in Bulusan town. Bulusan is composed of 24 barangays/villages. Each barangay has its own patron saint. Even some sitios (smaller unit than a barangay) have their own patron saints too. For the town fiesta in Bulusan, the barangays of the poblacion are customarily the ones hosting the fiesta of the patron saint.

Traditionally a novena is held before the fiesta. The novenario is the 9-day novena before the feast day of the patron saint. It is during these novena days that the village santos are brought to the parish church.

The gathering of saints is an event in itself– a practice in our town that I always look forward to witness annually. This is the only way I can personally see in one day all the santos/santas from outlying villages. I am from the poblacion and visiting these villages even for a local like me will take some time to complete. Bulusan is composed of coastal and mountain villages. Some outlying villages can only be reached by banca or a long hike.

Saint James the Greater, the Apostle image during the novenario procession in Bulusan.

The religious processions with the saints very much mirror Bulusan’s local village culture. Each individual saint carries a touch of the village and its people.

In sharp contrast with the DLC fiesta morning events and the nighttime revelries during the fiesta nights, these religious activities were sacred and solemn. Prayers and singing of hymns were done late in the afternoon processions after the holy mass for each novena day for nine days ending on the eve of the fiesta.

Afternoon procession after the novenario mass.

Each village have ancient hymns and prayers to their saint. Hymns vary. The lyrics are in the standard Bicol language. The melody too varies but most of the hymns are plaintive songs in the form of prayers to honor the specific saint.

In the recent fiesta processions, I learned that anyone is welcome in the singing and praying. There was no need to be perfect in the singing. You just follow. Imagine hearing hymns simultaneously rendered in one procession with some parishioners reciting the holy rosaries — the effect surprisingly was not a noisy one but a chant-like prayer. The loudest sound with a blaring speaker was at the end of the procession with the hymns for the patron saint drowning the sound of the other saint’s hymns. The refrain of the song became my mantra during the afternoon processions:

Patron Niamong Santiago,
Kami Ngani Sorogon mo…

Villagers from Capiricohan singing hymns to their saint.

Late afternoon procession passing along Dapdap road.

A boy stares into my camera during the procession.

A scene at the procession in Bulusan.

Scene at the church grounds during the pre-fiesta procession.

Village saints lined the entrance of the parish church for the procession. (Bulusan, July 24, 2015)

Saint James the Greater will always be the major attraction of the Bulusan fiesta with the entourage of around 25 villages saints.
Two carosas for Saint James the Greater were seen in the religious processions: One image as an apostle and another image as a fierce warrior riding in a galloping white horse.

Saint James the Greater in his most identifiable image — a galloping horse and a sword in the final procession of the fiesta. (Bulusan, July 24, 2015)

In Bulusan, there exists a persistent folk story that Saint James the Greater, our patron saint, has this miraculous power to deflect even the most powerful force of nature like typhoons and volcanic eruptions. Many versions from time to time update the story but the common gist is this : the patron saint is ever ready to protect and shield Bulusan town from danger of any kind.

Patinti (vigil light) for St James the Greater during the feast day and the novena days inside Bulusan’s parish church.

Photographs by Alma P. Gamil
Bulusan, Sorsogon

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Members of the drum and lyre corps take time for selfie pics after the morning fiesta parade. (Bulusan, July 24, 2015)

Fiesta is intended to be celebrated to the fullest. It is a collective celebration of a community and there are no excuses. No work. All fun. And of course honoring the patron saint is foremost.

Aside from the preparation of fiesta food in every household for the fiesta ‘handa’ (roughly translates to banquet because the food feast largely depends on the individual household capability), Bulusan fiesta has generally two major community events —  The religious processions and the fun-filled parades that peak on the bisperas (day before) and the fiesta day — Saint James the Greater’s Feast Day. The drum and lyre corps (DLC) from the different local high schools and elementary schools annually provide the colorful side. And the devotees see to it that the religious aspect of the fiesta is not forgotten. A balance act since fiesta is in fact the death anniversary of the town’s patron saint.

Pretty silver ruffles for high school DLC members make a stunning tutu-like skirt

My fiesta photos of the July 24 and 25 Bulusan fiesta have both the fun side and the solemn elements. Fiestas in Bulusan have always been like that but surprisingly the excitement never wears off. This I think is the appeal of fiestas not only in Bulusan but in all towns and provinces in the country. I still have to meet a local who does not relish fiesta events.

Elementary grade school participants for the drum and lyre event. (Bulusan, July 24, 2015)

“I feel young just by looking at these photos” says a friend. Well, maybe that is why we love fiestas in the Philippines. It evokes youth and fun for both the young and the old. Fiestas transcend age. It is ageless.

Silver and blue DLC uniforms for this local high school blend beautifully with the sunny day fiesta celebrations. (Bulusan, July 24, 2015)

DLC participants from a local high school take their boots off to relax before their DLC number. (Bulusan, July 2015)

Red, yellow and silvery white are the dominant colors of the day. (Bulusan, July 24, 2015)

A DLC majorette and her proud mom with the crowd at the municipal auditorium before the presentation. (Bulusan, July 24, 2015)

Colorful and shiny boots are part of the festive uniforms of the drum and lyre corps. (Bulusan, July 24, 2015)

Fiesta in the age of instagram — to each her/his own photo. (Bulusan, July 24, 2015)

Photographs by Alma P. Gamil
Bulusan, Sorsogon

Business as usual for this local rice farmer on his way to work in sitio Baluarte, Bulusan on June 17, 2015.

Minutes after the steam-driven Bulusan Volcano eruption of June 19, 2015, I headed to Baluarte in the outskirt of the poblacion where the view of the volcano is unblocked by residential houses. I spotted several farmers attending to their rice paddies as if nothing unusual happened. It was the onset of the rice planting season and the field is flooded with irrigation waters as preparation for rice planting. One farmer told me that had I arrived earlier the volcanic ash-cloud was still beautifully formed compared to what I was looking at that moment I arrived in the area. The wind easily dissipated the volcanic plumes.

I stayed awhile just in case a sudden eruption will follow. I waited. The volcano was silent.

As I waited, I busied myself taking some photos of the surrounding rice fields where farmers were doing their regular morning field chores. No eruption followed. I was about to get back home, when suddenly the quiet farmer from the nearest rice paddy next to the roadside where I was standing turned to me and requested in a serious tone : “Retratoha man ako (please take a photo of me, too),” spontaneously posing with his hoe in hand and beaming with a toothless grin.

Of course, I obliged happily. This for me was unexpected. For a moment I have forgotten my original intent which was to photograph the volcano in action. I grinned back and quickly pressed the shutter. How could I possibly presumed that a busy farmer would not want his photo taken by a shutterbug? I went home smiling with this thought.

“Please take a photo of me, too.” (Bulusan, June 19, 2015)

As of today, August 15, alert level 1 remains in effect for Bulusan Volcano.

Alert level 1 for Bulusan Volcano is described by Phivolcs (Philippine Institute of Volcanology) as a kind of low-level volcanic unrest. Entry to the 4 kilometer permanent danger zone is strictly prohibited.

Luckily for Bulusan town, the volcano’s continuing low-level activity is mostly confined to the western side of the volcano that faces the towns of Irosin, Juban and Casiguran. Bulusan town is located in the eastern hemisphere of the volcano’s lower slopes. This is no reason though to be complacent especially for my townmates residing in mountain villages near the PDZ (permanent danger zone) where the smell of azupre (sulfur) pervades the surrounding mountain air in times like this — a reminder that we, Bulusanons live in the embrace of a living and beautiful volcano.

Bulusan Volcano at dusk viewed from the roadside of Baluarte still showing slight steam/ash emission on June 18, 2015.

Photographs by Alma P. Gamil
Bulusan, Sorsogon

Bulusan Lake, 2015

Bulusan Lake is undoubtedly the most photographed spot in Bulusan for obvious reason. The beauty commands awe. This however makes visitors to the nature park spend more time taking selfies with the lake rather than exploring the vicinity.

As a local the following activities are my suggestions to would be visitors of the lake :

1. Remember that the place is a nature park and it’s teeming with biodiversity. Make use of your camera whatever is at hand and snap away photos of the flora within your reach. For all you know there are species still waiting to be discovered – by you.

2. Hike the perimeter of the lake in a pace of your own liking. The greenery will make you stop once in a while so it is advisable to make the trek earlier preferably in the morning.

3. Watch the fog kiss the lake.

4. Observe the mesmerizing reflection of the water from the lake above the canopies of giant trees with the sun at high noon.

5. Ride a rustic boat instead of the colorful ones for a change and learn to row the one-sided outrigger banca (photo).

6. Cook your meals inside the lake vicinity. I suggest grilled tilapia from the lake, hot rice and kinilaw na pako (fern salad) from edible ferns picked along the forest trail.

7. Camp overnight and listen to the nature acoustic. Record the sound of the unseen rainforest’s creatures nearby.

8. Firefly gaze at night.

9. Butterfly watch in the morning

10. Bird watch. Early morning is best.

11. Snooze during siesta time with the sound of the forest as your lullaby.

Photo: Alma P. Gamil
Bulusan, Sorsogon

Bulusan, July 2015 (Photograph by Alma P. Gamil)

Solitude is my default mode. It is always by my side. And the more I stare at it in the face the more I discover that solitude is my most devoted friend. It is also a great teacher that encourages me to explore more of myself and how to profoundly see things around me.

Solitude has many gifts for me – like little seedlings sprouting in my head. These include impressions from real events, imaginings and daydreams that manifest naturally. The tropical clime of my hometown where I stay conspires perfectly.

‘These are worth sharing,’ my town mate told me.

So I decided to make a home for these gifts. A home that will give some form of permanence and coherence to the continuing flow of life’s surprises – if not physical at least a virtual one. This is also a way of continuing my silent conversation.

Anything goes.

My thoughts are messy now, full of the ordinary and the mundane with a twist of freshness…seeds and fragments of conversations to be told in the days ahead. And hoping I will do so with a joyful heart.

Alma P. Gamil
Bulusan, Sorsogon