First trip to Biri

Biri Island Travel Blog

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Let me preface this entry by letting you know that this trip was taken a few years back. Things have changed a bit since then but not dramatically. The biggest change came when a cell tower went up 10 miles accross the channel. You could climb the mountain behind Matangyaron and get a signal. Since then a tower has gone up in Biri and I suspect that there will be internet before long. Beyond that life is much the same. There is still no electricity although Maximino's daughter bought him a generator which he fires up in the evenings when I'm there to pay for the gasoline....


   Our destination today is Biri Island, one of the Balacuatran group that lies in San Bernardino Strait which separates Southern Luzon from Samar.

En route we will fly over the Mayan Volcano said to be the most perfect volcanic cone in the world. It is quite active and erupted several weeks ago.
      Our flight will take us south from Manila traversing Bicol to Catarman, the capital of Northern Samar Province. There, I hope to locate a cash machine. From Catarman we’ll take a trike to the jeepney terminal. From there a jeepney will take us to the town of Lavezares where we hope to find a boat bound for Biri Island.
       Biri is said to offer some of the best diving and snorkeling in the Eastern Philippines although there is not much in the way of tourist accommodations there.
The island isn’t much visited by foreigners.
   The flight took about an a hour and a half. I dozed off for a bit and awakened to find that we were crossing the San Bernardino Strait. I could see several Islands below covered with lush vegetation. There was not much sign of development and as the plane made it’s steep descent over coconut covered hills and onto the tarmac, I could see people excitedly running along the runway to greet the plane.  Once on the ground we grabbed our backpacks and proceeded to the front of the small airport where we jumped in a trike.*

* A trike is a motorcycle with a covered sidecar.  Outside the larger cities, it's the closest thing you'll find to a taxi.

      We rode for about 10 minutes until we met the jeepney bound for Lavezares.

It was crowded with people and we wedged ourselves in among the tightly packed bodies. The ride to Lavezares took about half an hour and the countryside was green and beautiful. Rice was laid out to dry on straw mats along the road along with coconuts for processing into copra.
    The little port town of Lavezares clings to steep hillsides along the sea. There is a covered fish market whose concrete tables display an impressive variety of seafood. A large shark lay along the first table with fins cut off. There were fresh parrotfish, octopus, squid, tuna, shellfish and dozens of fish that were unfamiliar to me. Venders stood behind each table shooing flies and wetting the fish down. Behind the fish market was another covered market with fruit, vegetables, canned goods, rice and general sundries.
     We waited for about an hour and finally boarded a banca (outrigger).
The 45 minute trip took us by Bani island where we offloaded several sacks of rice and one of the passengers. The young boy that unloaded the rice couldn’t have been more than 10 years old and I was amazed to see him picking up the 50 kilo bags while everyone else looked on.
      At the Biri Island boat station we took a trike to the northern edge of the tiny town of Pablacion where the road ended. From there, we walked along a seaside path for about 10 minutes fording 2 small streams and arrived in the tiny seaside settlement of Matangyaron.
     The scene there is idyllic- 11 small houses are clustered on a sandy flat set against beautiful verdant hills. There is a long strip of soft green grass studded with coconut palms that separates the houses from a lovely white sand beach strewn with shells and bits of coral.
In the distance some 20 kilometers across the strait you can’t help but see the great volcano, Mt. Bulusan which rises to over 5000 feet.
  Although there are no phones there and we hadn’t sent word ahead, news of our arrival preceded us, via “bamboo telegraph” and the entire village turned out to meet us. Everyone in Matangyaron is related and we were greeted with open arms.
    Not many foreigners travel to Biri, and the kids crowded around to get a look at the gigante Americano. Aileen introduced me to everyone and they all made me feel very welcome despite the fact that most of them spoke no English at all. I speak some Tagalog which is understood by most but the native tongue here is a dialect Wari Wari mixed with Bicolano.
      We passed out candy to the kids and after things settled down a bit Aileen and I took a walk up the beach.
The water is crystal clear and although the strait is host to formidably turbulent surf owing to its exposure to the open Pacific, the shore is protected by a coral reef. We walked hand in hand as the waves gently lapped against the warm white sand.
    The water is fairly shallow along the coral shelf, which extends about 200 feet form shore. Beyond that there is a steep wall that drops into a dark abyss. As we made our way further up the beach I could see Gehron, the headland at the northern tip of the island, giant waves crashing against it sending white explosions of spray a hundred feet into the air like fireworks.
   Back at the village we had some dinner and afterwards, I ran a slide show on the laptop computer to a packed house. I took a few pictures with the digital camera and everyone was thrilled to be able to see their pictures instantly.

    There is no electricity in Matangyaron and it gets dark a little after 6:00. Illumination is by alcohol lantern. The houses are constructed by and large of local materials. Aileen’s was typical. Corner posts are formed from unmilled local timber; bark peeled and crooked, set onto concrete footings. The sleeping area consists of a single raised 16’ X 10’ platform built of bamboo. In the evening, woven straw mats are rolled out across the split bamboo floor for sleeping. It is bounded on the east by a kitchen and on the south by a small sitting area. Both are at ground level and are paved with smooth painted cement.  The sleeping area and the kitchen are separated by a wall that extends all the way up to the palm thatched roof.   Painless windows are fitted with thatched top hinged covers held open like sleepy eyelids with bamboo prop sticks that are also used to bar the window covers shut at night.

    Bedtime comes early in Biri and by 7:30 or so the mats came out and we settled in for the night. I knew before going down to Biri that we’d be sleeping on mats but thought that I’d get used to it. I was wrong. I tossed fitfully for much of the night, trying to get comfortable and vowed that I would buy air mattresses at the first opportunity.
    I was already awake when I heard Aileen’s Grandma ”Mai” get up around 5:00am. She is always the first one up. Mai is in her late 70’s or maybe early 80’s (She’s not really sure herself), a bit stooped over and has one of those rusted and ropy old well-worn faces that is somehow compelling despite the fact that there are no discernable clues to suggest that this might once have been a beautiful young woman. She has one great solitary front tooth that hangs long and wide over her lower lip.
She speaks no Tagalog at all, only Wari Wari and never actually spoke a single word to me despite the fact that she was always smiling and would giggle whenever I spoke or gestured to her. She spends much of her day sitting on the bench just inside the house beneath the window that overlooks the water pump and  the activity that surrounds it punctuating the conversation intermittently with her baritone chuckle.
   By around six, everyone was up and Aileen’s sister Heide was boiling water for instant coffee in the kitchen. The stove consists of a waist high 3’X5’ counter covered with a veneer of cement to keep it from catching fire. This 2 burner Filipino stove really is just a hearth big enough to build two small fires. Stones are arranged in two groups of three to provide support for the various cooking vessels.  There is a shelf set about two feet below the ceiling above the cooking area where the wood is stored.
There are openings high on each side that allow for ventilation and provide for the elimination of the smoke.
    Adjacent to the cooking area is a longer counter cantilevered out over the sand and covered with bamboo slats to allow for drainage.   It serves as sink and food preparation area. Water is retrieved from a nearby mountain stream and stored in large covered urns.
    Soon we were sipping coffee and getting ready for the day. Breakfast consisted of rice and tustos (dried squid) which was surprisingly delicious. After awhile Aileen, Heide and I trekked across the small rice paddy that lies behind the village and up a trail that leads to the top of the mountain. The vegetation on Biri is lush and beautiful. There were small fields of cassava and pineapple dispersed among the natural vegetation.
The view from the top was stunning looking out across the San Bernardino Strait with Sorsogan Province and it’s looming volcano visible in the distance. We descended down another side towards the northern tip of the island and walked back along the beach to the village where we had a delicious lunch of rice, fresh tuna and jackfruit.
     After lunch we gathered our snorkeling gear and headed to the beach.  The coral formations on Biri are spectacular and there is a vide variety of marine life. There are thousands of beautifully colored tropical fish. We saw octopus, puffer fish, small eels and all kinds of shellfish.
  Just outside Aileen’s house is a large hand pump mounted on a cement pad. Here women congregate to wash clothes and socialize, each one squatting in front of a plastic basin with a wooden washboard. The area around the pump is the heart of the village and is rarely unattended. Bathing is also done here.  A basin is filled with water which one ladles upon oneself with a plastic handled pot. The younger children bathe naked but everyone else wears shorts and the women wear t-shirts as well. Aileen insisted on bathing me and the event was better attended that my baptism as a child.             
    Behind the pump next to the house is a large remus tree, about 50 ft. tall. It’s arm like branches spread wide and have fan shaped leaves forming a shady canopy. The fruit of the remus tree hangs like heavy green rugby balls weighing up to 3 kilos.  In the evening as twilight fades, great congregations of large furry Pomeranian faced bats descend upon the tree like barnstormers to feast upon the succulent fruit. These are known as caboogs and are quite anathema to the stereotypical cryptic image attributed to bats in general. No fearsome creature these, the caboog is more like a plush brown fox with a 2ft. wingspan.     
    It takes about 20 minutes to walk the trail that leads from Matangyaron to Pablacion, the main town on Biri Island. En route, the estuaries of two streams have to be crossed. The trail is only wide enough for one person until you reach the road in Bungto which terminates at the cemetery. I was curious and wandered through the old graveyard one day. The markers indicated long life spans with many reaching into their 90’s. The graves are mostly raised crypts and some of them were in various states of disrepair and I was surprised to see 3 skulls and a few other human bones among the clutter.
   Just down the sand road past the cemetery is the primary school. Behind the school is a small lagoon. During World War II, Biri was reluctant host to a Japanese garrison whose job was to defend the straits. On October 27, 1944, an attack was launched by  U.S. forces. A 105 mm mortar hit a supply of explosives stores in this spot leaving a large crater and forming the lagoon.

Storm watch
The weather's on the change and pressure lines join in a faint discord.
And a stormwatch brews a concert of kings, as the white sea snaps
At the heels of a soft prayer, Whispered.


The Typhoon

      Several days after my arrival in Biri the elements began to rise into a great crescendo that sent wind and water pummeling against the land. The sea churned off shore while palm trees bent and shook like wet dogs. The elements seemed to challenge each other as if the gods were engaged in a great contest. Gigantic waves impaled themselves against volcanic rocks rising like great black teeth from a great watery mouth and a mile offshore, 50 ft. waves tumbled foamy white charging aimlessly as the old gods played in the shadow of the great silent volcano.     
   The storm lasted for 2 days but we weathered it well and the next thing I knew I was walking up the beach toward the headland at Gheron warming my toes in the tropical water and feeling the caress of the sweet sea air.   
   There is an amazing abundance of beautiful shells and coral strewn among the incredible black rock formations sculpted for  millenniums by the relentless elements. I had a wonderful time there walking the beaches and taking it all in. Such an awesome place... Biri is a magic jewel set upon the South Pacific.


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Biri Island
photo by: snow82