reaping the cost of solitude

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A trip to Sohoton, Siargao turns into a nightmare

Welcome to Siargao.

February 9th 2013

I'm never a fan of boat rides lasting more than an hour. This one lasted for two hours. So there I was, clutching my numb butt and deaf from the relentless roar of the 'twin' engines for the past two hours. We disembarked into this wooden reception 'cottage' at the Sohoton Lagoon in Siargao, Philippines. The scenery reminded me of Coron, Palawan, except this one had no rock spires. Just huge mounds of bush and trees sprinkled across the crystal clear waters. The sea water tasted like it was diluted enough to be drinkable, probably from the amount of vegetation surrounding the area. Nonetheless, despite the moderate drizzles every now and then, the place was a sight to behold.

The mounds of bush and trees at Sohoton Lagoon.
So, this reception cottage we were at served as the starting point for the tours in the lagoon. By my count, there were only two. We immediately dove into the first one, got on a small pump boat and went through a cave that could only be accessible during low tide. At the other end of which led to another area of the lagoon only accessible through the said cave. Our tour guide was talking about horseshoe-shaped stalactites, bats, and ironwood (allegedly the hardest wood in the world). I was busy admiring the scenery.

After a short ride, we arrived at another cave named Hagukan, which apparently made snoring noises as air rushes out of the cave during high tide. Because the inside of the cave was dark, the only source of light came from the water. This made human skin look like it was glowing underwater. At this point, someone in our group was already panicking from the dark of the cave and the deep water. We waited until he calmed down a bit and we moved on to the next area.

We were still on the small pump boat when we heard cheers and laughter from the other tourists around the corner. Apparently they were encouraging their friends to jump off a 12-foot ledge at the edge of a cliff. Most of those who did not have the nerve to jump were women, all of whom were on the verge of tears. One cried after the jump. Despite seeing the torture the others were subjecting themselves into, our group decided to do the same. But first, we had to get to the ledge. This involved having to pass through this pitch-black cave, do a bit of ridiculous spelunking to get to the top, and, since it was mildly raining, descend through mud and the roots from trees onto the aforementioned ledge. When I got to the ledge, everyone in my group had already jumped, except for my girlfriend. Yes, 12 feet isn't that deep and it did look like it wasn't that high when were still on the water, but being on that ledge made the drop look like it was 24 feet. My girlfriend was trying to muster up the will to shoot herself off the ledge, but her legs weren't cooperating. After a couple of (failed) words of encouragement, the tour guide suggested that I jumped first to show her that "it was okay". Once I readied myself on that ledge, I knew exactly what my girlfriend was talking about. My feet seemed like it had a mind of its own, trying to take control of my body and refusing the commands of my brain. I managed to jump anyway, and my girlfriend followed suit. She then declared it was one of the scarier things she had ever done. Little did we know what was in store for us later...

We got back to the reception cottage and discovered our lunch was ready, conveniently prepared by Charlito and Ivan - the father-and-son duo who drove the pump boat from our resort to Sohoton. (You're going to hear a lot about them as you read on.) Anyway, we had lunch, went on another tour to see harmless jellyfish that have been trapped in a lagoon. It was nice, but it wasn't as impressive as I thought. And there weren't as many jellyfish as I was led to believe. 15 minutes later, we were back at the reception cottage and we were ready to take the 2-hour trip back to our resort. It was 2:00 pm.

This was before everything went to hell.


Around 2:30 pm we were at open sea. The group was still in good spirits, taking pictures and posing at the front hull of the "Jade Star Lodge" pump boat. The mood suddenly changed as the first wave hit the boat. Then it began to rain. We began to settle in our seats and switched to "alert mode", as each wave meant a slight ascent and an abrupt descent that gave us the "falling sensation" at the same time getting us wet from the resulting splash. This went on for a couple of minutes, and I could see the others had begun panicking. The look on their faces says it all, as they reached and wore the nearest life jackets. As for me, I was in a state of "it will be okay" and "would this bitch weather stop already!". I was horrified.

At around 3:00 pm, just as the waves had grown increasingly violent, Charlito motioned to his son, Ivan, to stop the engines since he noticed something was "off". He made his way to the front of the boat, opened a panel and slid inside. At this point, we were confused. A few seconds later he came out and shouted to Ivan in bisaya:


If you see this pump boat, run for your life.
I realize this doesn't happen regularly, but there was a HOLE in the BOAT I was riding in the MIDDLE OF A FREAKING STORM IN THE MIDDLE OF THE OCEAN. How unlucky could we get? The water in the boat had begun to rise and Charlito advised us to get to the back of the boat as quickly as possible so that the hole in the front won't let more water into the boat. We were scrambling for containers to use as makeshift pails to throw out the water that was already in the boat. At one point someone was using a water bottle, submerging it in the water and waiting until it got full, and emptied its contents outside. Repeat ad infinitum. All this while we were inhaling the smell of gasoline and while the boat was being thrown around by the violent waves.


While we were busy with keeping the boat afloat, one of us realized we weren't going to make it through this ordeal without any help - so he called the caretaker of the resort we stayed at and asked for help. The caretaker promised to immediately call the coast guard for a search and rescue operation after they hang up. Still not contented, he dialed "167" on both of his cellphones. The first cellphone gave an automated response "you do not have enough balance to make that call, please reload soon" (Globe Telecom). Luckily, the call on the other cellphone went through (Sun Cellular)*. He frantically tried to explain our situation to the person at the other end, saying we were near Socorro (an island beside Siargao), and that they should send speedboats and helicopters to save our asses.

Overhearing the phone conversation, I do not know why I was still able to smile at that point. Maybe it was the thought of being rescued by helicopter, or maybe I wasn't fully aware that this might just be my last stop. I honestly knew no one was going to die. We knew how to swim. We had life jackets. We knew the wooden boat wouldn't sink to the bottom of the ocean. But still, at that point, my life and the lives of those in the group felt volatile. Like at any moment we could lose it. What's jarring about it was the weird casualness of the whole situation, and nature in general. It's hard to explain. In hindsight, the loss of life is devastating, yes, but when you're actually in the situation where you could possibly see the loss of life, yours included, it kind of felt like it was "ok" to lose it, even when it's clearly NOT, again, in hindsight. We were nothing but vessels about to be emptied at any moment, and we wouldn't care or even be around to worry about it. I thought if only I could tell those who would mourn my death that I was "ok" with it, maybe they wouldn't be so saddened about it.

Charlito eventually spots another pump boat on the horizon. So he turned on the engines and made an intercept course towards the boat. It took a long time for us to arrive within hand signal distance, and once we did - they threw a rope and Charlito tied it to the front hull. Clear communication was non-existent. You'd think local seamen knew how to communicate using hand signals, but these people did not. The people on the other boat (it was a fishing boat) thought our engine died and we just wanted to be tugged along to the nearest port. We kept screaming "BUSLOT AMONG BANKA!". At one point we almost capsized since they were headed in the opposite direction, making our rear end take in a lot of water (remember - all the weight was at the rear to keep the front above sea level). Now I understand how tragedies occur when people act on wrong information. It was such a disgrace to see it in motion at a time like that.

We kept screaming for them to stop and they eventually realized what was happening. So they turned around, positioned their boat so that we could get on it, which was incredibly hard considering the waves, but we managed to pull it off. Thankfully, all of us got onto the fishing boat without injury. The last thing we wanted was to see someone's face slam against the hulls of the boats.

We began to settle inside this moderate-sized fishing boat. A few of us cried. Others were in full blown sea sickness - dizziness, puking - thanks to the waves and the smell of gasoline. I was busy tending to my girlfriend. About thirty minutes later, and what felt like forever, we finally arrived at Socorro. The coast guard was there, and the rescue speed boat had already spotted our boat through the markings on the side, "Jade Star Lodge", being tugged along by the bigger fishing boat. We logged our names on the coast guard manifest and the speed boat took us back to General Luna, Siargao, where we were staying.

On the way there, the driver took a safer route through a mangrove area - a decision we welcomed since the last thing we wanted was to deal with another journey through treacherous waters. Despite the circumstances, it was the first time I've ever ridden a speed boat, and I was beginning to enjoy the ride. It just sliced through water and waves like a boss. The scenery was beautiful, and the sun had just begun to set. The others were beginning to lighten up for the first time since the whole "boslot" ordeal. And once we absorbed the scenery and got back in good spirits, we managed to take a few snaps with huge smiles smeared across our faces.

With the rescue team on the speed boat bound for 
General Luna, Siargao. Big smiles after the ordeal.

Our island-hopping route. Click to enlarge.