Most of the Peace Corps Response Volunteers had an hour or two journey to get to their assigned sites from Manila. There are numerous cheap flights to the various regional capitals in the Philippines, and even to the outer islands the flights are generally about an hour and cost less than $100.
But that was not the case for myself or Derik, my site-mate. We were both assigned to work in Sibuyan Island, a smaller island in the Romblon province largely covered by the protected area of Mt. Guiting-Guiting Natural Park.I began to get an idea of how remote and isolated Sibuyan is during my first two weeks in Manila since every Filipino that I met, when I told them where I would be working, invariably shook their head and said they had never heard of the island. I went to three bookstores, and none of them even had as much as a map of Sibuyan.
There is no airport near Sibuyan, so the day after the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines swore us in officially as Peace Corps Volunteers Derik and I began the long journey to our new home. Accompanying us was Rebecca – a forester working at Guiting-Guiting.
I’d like to say the trip to Sibuyan was a magical journey reclining on the upper deck of a modern ship smoothly cutting through glassy Philippine waters. But in reality it was not an easy nor a fun ride: first off was a 3 hour bus ride from Manila south to Batangas, where I then had to wait about another three hours for the first of two ferries I would have to take. Once all the heavy cargo had been loaded and we finally were able to climb aboard theboat, there were rows and rows of bunk beds in a large room enclosed room. When we found our assigned bed the open room seemed spacious, but within an hour almost all the beds were occupied and luggage spilled into the floors and walkways everywhere making it hard to even move around.
After losing to a Filipino kid in Scrabble (who was on the phone the whole time he was kicking my butt), I tried to get some sleep and had just about dropped off when the boat made the 3 a.m. landing at Odiongan which was our stop. Many of the Filipinos exploded into action once we docked, grabbing their bags and racing out the boat to try and catch the jeepneys and few transportation options.
Fortunately for us, a contact had arranged for a police jeepney to come get us so we piled our luggage in and got a ride to the Department of Environment & Natural Resources (DENR) office, where they gave Derik and I a room with a bunkbed and we collapsed into sleep around 4 a.m.
A few hours later around 8 a.m. began about 3 hours of introductions – to the about 20 or so DENR staff in the office, and various others who were eager to meet the new ‘kanos working for the natural park in Sibuyan. In between meetings, we strolled to the market and looked over the fruits, vegetables and fish many of which were unfamiliar to me.
Lastly, we met the governor’s executive assistant/daughter for lunch; who kindly gave us a tour of Odiongan and some of the large projects the governor has accomplished (renovated and expanded hospital, a new conventions center with a beautiful view). Trina provided transportation for us to San Augustin, where we spent the night. It was about a two hour drive through some beautiful countryside of green rice fields interspersed with tropical forest – a trip which I probably would have appreciated more if I hadn’t been so exhausted.
At 6 am the next day we hopped on our second ferry, and had a short ride to Romblon City (on the island of Romblon, which is also the name of the province just to make it extra confusing) where we hopped off the ferry and went to the police station to introduce ourselves to the regional police director; who kindly offered us coffee, asked a few questions about what we were doing here, then told two officers to drive us back to the ferry where we scarfed down a quick breakfast then got back on the boat with only about a two hour journey to Sibuyan remaining.
As we waited to begin the last stretch of our 48 hour journey, several Filipinos threw coins off the boat into the water where several boys waited to dive down and catch the coins before they disappeared below. Visible schools of fish appeared below in the aquamarine water, and tropical forest encircled the Romblon City port where the boat waited and Sibuyanos greeted each other and upon hearing I would be working in Sibuyan came up and introduced themselves to me.
Finally the ferry departed Romblon City, and chugged around the island heading toward Sibuyan. Romblon is known as the marble capital of the Philippines, and as we passed the island Rebecca pointed out to me scars on the hillside left from quarrying the rock. The ferry chugged across the deepwater ocean channel (a few hundred meters in depth) we made our way to the place known as “the Galapagos of Asia”. The Philippines as a country is one of the most biodiverse in the world, if not the most – I’ve seen it called “the hotspot of biodiversity hotspots” in scientific literature. Part of the reason for this is because at various times in the geologic history of the islands as sea levels rose and fell the islands became connected and then isolated, which allowed alternate waves of speciation during the times of isolation and influxes of new species and genes during times of land bridge connections.
However Sibuyan Island, as far as researchers can tell, was never connected to other land masses due to the deepwater channel that we were currently crossing over in the ferry. And because it remained isolated, it has a large number of endemic species that cannot be found anywhere else in the Philippines or the world. The small island about twice the size of Santa Cruz Island that I was heading toward boasts over a hundred species of trees and perhaps the densest forest in the Philippines. It has over a hundred species of birds, with the majority of them endemic and residential year round. It has several larger “charismatic megafauna” including a local primate the long-tailed macaque, a native wild boar, a species of civet cat (civet coffee anyone?) not to mention the wide array of marine biodiversity.
And that’s just the natural wealth of Sibuyan. Even before I arrived I had heard intriguing stories of the indigenous tribes on Sibuyan that I’d be working with, a World War II plane that was shot down and crashed somewhere on the mountain, of the tragic ferry accident offshore that killed hundreds of people, of the odd German enclave on the island.
But the most exciting part to me by far is the fact that there are undoubtedly species yet to be identified on the island. And discovering and documenting the species of Sibuyan Island is what I will be spending my next nine months working on.