Through the Night River of Sorsogon Where Fires Fly
One does not see the Buhatan River from the road that seems to go on forever. At the end of the long road in Sorsogon, one sees mountains and low hills. Coming from Albay, one looks back at the assault of the beauty of Mayon. It is a mountain of myths. In Sorsogon, one has to always ask local if one is already seeing the Bulusan or the other mountains that have buried in them hot springs and sources of energies.
Bulusan does not have the mighty dimension of Isarog, the volcan de agua located in Camarines Sur, with myths speaking of eruptions that brought down massive amount of water instead of lava. Bulusan does not have the disturbing beauty of nearby Mayon. What Bulusan has is mystery. It does not have stories to tell. If ever, it appears to be waiting for us to weave tales that would explain its power to us. Chill, that is what this volcano is all about.
I was in Sorsogon on a program sponsored by the Film Development Council of the Philippines. I was one of the resource speaker to talk about film education to teachers of the venerable Sorsogon National High School.
On my second day in the city, I realized I have to look for Bulusan if I had to marvel at its splendor. It is a volcano and the locals are proud to tell you about its lake and its enchantment. There were, however, many other mountains close by, one hill covering another hill, a mound rising upon a mound until they become a full mountain.
It was on that second day that we were informed we would go down a river and cruise, and watch fireflies. It was also on the first day in this small city that I learned more about the generosity and vaunted kindness to strangers of the people from Sorsogon. This realization came from what I sensed about the good teachers of Sorsogon National High School: you ask about some food, the next day or the next meal, you see that food being offered to you.
When I mentioned how I wanted to visit Juban because that is where many of my kin from the Alindogan side come from, they offered to take me there. At about 5 in the afternoon, we were all travelling to the town of Juban, more than 30 kilometers from the city. At 6 in the evening, we were in an old home that was made into an inn.
The old homes all face the wide highway but inside it was the past. “Kamingaw,” I told my companions. “Mingaw” is that feeling of longing for something that is not here anymore. It is light feeling, not as hard as grieving, not overbearing as loneliness.
I would encounter this “kamingaw” again with the fireflies.
From the bridge of Buhatan, I could see raft-like conveyances – moored below and shaded by tall trees. We missed the sunset, the guide told us. The trip up river would take some 45 minutes. At the end of the trip, we would stop by a restaurant, and there eat.
After some pulling and twisting of ropes, the boatmen requested us to transfer to another cabanas. Soon, we were on our way. The trip away from the bridge was nothing extraordinary. What made that part of the trip exhilarating was Myrna, the guide, who seemed to know all the stories and travails of that eco-adventure. As we slowly sailed past mangroves, she began telling us the story of their beginning – how they started with nothing else and how they have now millions in the bank.
The eco-adventure is a success. The story of Myrna confirms it and makes us realize how a community-based project can only succeed if everything is centered on communities and not stuck in the romanticized notions of urban cultural workers.
The story also made the trip quicker.
It was on the return trip that earth magic started to spin its web of enchantment around us. By that time, the night, the true night had set in. Behind us we could see the river opening up into its end, the sea. Further up, lighted, was the city. Before us, the dark.
The river was black in the night; the water was a wet velvet upon which the flat boat-like contraption floated. One of the guides was training his flashlight on the trees and shrubs along the river bank. Then, he turned it off. In the darkness, the stars above multiplied themselves many times. There were just too many of them for one to chart the constellations.
There was no need for the guide to say anything for the next splendor. From the stars, our eyes moved to the fireflies humming their tiny flames and allowing them to burst, fade, and glimmer again in mid-air. More fireflies appeared. Darkness became the beacon. Embarrassingly numerous fireflies glided and flitted around the old trees and giant leaves.
These insects, for fireflies are insects, were emanating lights because they are getting ready for the mating. Forget ecology, we were rhapsodizing about the amazing display of Nature and sexual habits of some organisms. But you do not think of fireflies as sexual objects. That is almost sacrilegious in the shrine of ecology. Each time the fireflies appeared, we were told to clap our hands. The idea was that our applause made those lights even brighter. Whether it was true or not, we followed the instruction, afraid that if we did not, this gift from the darkness of the universe will be taken away from us.
The fireflies are signs of the clean environment. Our bamboo boat sailed down the shadow of the river, now hiding the many years of cleaning done by the people around the villages. The absence of manmade light around made us feel the boat was resting on the silence of the water. We were moving though, at each turn the fireflies hovered around mangroves that brought them back. Or was it they that caused the return of these mighty growth to protect their flames?
Where celebrities thank their make-up artists and fashion designers, through this column, I would like to extend my gratitude to the teachers of the Sorsogon National High School who accompanied me through the ghosts of the old homes of Juban and the magnificent realities of fireflies and the river cruise. The head teacher of the group is Ms. Aninipot, the Bikol name for “fireflies.”