November 2 – 4, 2016
Sipalay and Kabankalan, Negros Occidental, the Philippines
We started on the wrong foot. We were just a party of three, but one woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Actually, he did not even sleep a wink. At our 7AM call time, he was just about ready to turn in. Never mind that we had a bus to catch for a 6-hour ride to a remote beach, and that we could miss the last boat ride to our resort. Alas, the majority had to acquiesce to the lone game-changer.
It was past noon when we boarded a Ceres Liner in Bacolod. All direct trips to Sipalay had already left. No choice but to get off at Kabankalan, a city still hours short of our destination. Sipalay-bound buses were SRO by then. We had to jostle with a long line of commuters to get on one. To fail was to waste one night and catch an early morning bus.
The second leg took longer than expected. The previously jam-packed bus gradually emptied out until we were the only three passengers left in the trip’s final 20 minutes. Darkness had fallen as our feet touched the sands of Sipalay.
An outrigger boat was waiting, perhaps begrudgingly, to take us the resort, some 20 minutes away, in pitch black waters. We could not even make out faint lights on distant shores. Our boatmen’s spotlight was swallowed up by the wall of void ahead of us. To up the ante, we were not provided with life vests. I was certain I would drown in the darkness.
Upon our beach touchdown, I could kiss the ground, but we were quickly ushered into the complex of wooden huts. Driftwood Village was a resort after my heritage-loving heart. It took a foreigner (married to a Filipino) to build a native-style resort. In place of concrete ugliness and “posh” amenities, we got breezy cottages – no need for A/C- under a grove of coconut trees.
Being this close to nature meant sharing habitat with insects, reptiles, and marine life. I shared my tea with a bee and my shower with a crab. Even pets seemed feral. A couple of dogs always greeted me with teeth-baring enthusiasm. These close encounters soon lent our digs a wild side.
The nipa huts had walls made of sawali and floor of split bamboo. We opened our window upward and held it up with a wooden rod. Mosquito nets were hung over our beds. The front porch was outfitted with a hammock, a bamboo sala set, and a tree stump table, a reminder of my mother’s puskol. The hut was a throwback to my childhood weekends spent at the farm, save for the modern toilet and shower. The door had a lock, but, nonetheless, a safe was provided wherein we could store our valuables.
And the all-important Wi-Fi? There was a reason my hangout was the dining hut, where the connection was strongest. Where I was ridiculed and judged for liking the “likes” of my ATM Facebook posts by someone toxic. So much for my supposedly stress-free, pollution-free getaway.
Driftwood’s “Babe,” Evangeline Arnaiz, introduced herself as a bartender but, in practice, was more like a concierge. She singlehandedly made our stay comfortable, enjoyable, and even informative. She could banter like a talk show host and answer questions like the same show’s guest. Thumbs up to Babe for going over and above the call of duty!
Oh, but we came for the beach! My friend Melds latched on to the idea of a golden sanded Sugar Beach, much touted online. Cloudy skies did not produce that effect. The trade off was having the breadth and length of the beach all to ourselves. Ah, the peace and joy of off-season beach-bumming. Or perhaps the off-the-beaten-track-ness, even by Sipalay standards, kept busloads of tourists away from Sugar Beach, accessible by boat (short cut) or by tricycle with a bit of hiking thrown in (long route).
Our last hurrah was a tricycle tour to more famous sights of Sipalay. Driver and guide Roland de Quena drove us up to Tinagong Dagat, a resort atop a seaside hill and a vantage point for an Instagram-ready photo op of iconic Sipalay – finger-like projections of land, lush and hilly, clawing out a piece of the emerald sea.
Our next stop was for a lunch with a view at Nataasan Beach Resort & Dive Center, overlooking an immaculate strip of white sand beach made more photogenic by anchored boats on the shallows. Resistance was futile. We hurried down the steep steps for a quickie frolic on sand and sea.
This time we arrived at downtown Sipalay early enough to see it in broad daylight. Recent development was apparent: paved streets, concrete market, freshly-painted public structures.
All told, Sipalay was still, at heart, a small town. The decidedly rustic, and charming, bus station was a tent in the shade of a talisay grove. How quaint to see the Ceres Liner to Bacolod pull over between trees.
This trip had its share of hiccups. I may have been triggered quite a few times, but Sipalay saved the day every day. Paradise was in the eye of the beholder, not in the circumstances he was in.