December 2003

Ana has been telling me about Surigao for two years. Surigao Del Norte Province occupies the northeast corner of Mindanao Island. Her father lives on nearby Dinagat Island, and she only gets to visit him once or twice a year. So I felt honored when she invited me to accompany her on a trip there. It took me about 30 seconds to get to "OK!"

On Thursday, December 10, we left Cebu City aboard the Filipinas Dapitan at 7pm, arriving 120 miles east in Surigao City 12 hours later. There we changed to the pumpboat News MPC to cross Surigao Strait to San Jose town on Dinagat Island.

S.S. News MPC

S.S. News MPC

We sat on the lower deck's rough wooden benches with no windows for the hour-long trip in rough seas.

Finally, arrival in San Jose town.

San Jose town

We trudged up the hill in drizzling rain to Mr. Flores' house.

Mr. Flores' house

The home is classic two-story wooden Philippine style, with a kitchen, dining room, bathroom and "healing room" downstairs; while the upstairs has a sala, two bedrooms and a large covered porch out front. At only twenty years old, the house has extensive structural damage from termites, a badly-leaking roof, and needs extensive repairs. Nevertheless, it's pleasant and was a comfortable base for our week on Dinagat.

Living there are Ana's father Fernando, her 16 year-old brother R.D. (Reynaldo), and family helper Alex who has been sort of a protege of her father for the past 11 years. The three were wonderful, friendly hosts.

Clockwise from left: Fernando, Ana, Alex, R.D.

Fernando, Ana, Alex, R.D.

Ana's father Fernando Flores is a tambalan with the Philippine Benevolent Missionary Association (see PBMA webpage.) Two days a week he hosts a healing clinic at his house, with hundreds of local PBMA members lining up for hands-on tambal (healing.) In Bisayan, the word "tambalan" includes the different roles of doctor, physician, medical practitioner, herbalist, spiritist, psychic surgeon, spiritual, and faith healer. Fernando wouldn't let me take photos at the clinic because he said that invisible spirits are present that, while invisible to the naked eye, nevertheless would appear in photographs and he didn't want that to happen. At my request, he gave me a healing treatment: he put his hands on my head, then did a series of brief massage-like movements on my temples, shoulders, arms and back. As he moved his hands around I felt a sharp sensation, and later told him so. He said I had experienced the "invisible divine instrumentof God" that manifests during his treatments.

Fernando is 62, father of eleven children, and is an apparent pillar of the PBMA community. He spends the week giving healings at his house and in neighboring communities, sleeping only a few hours each night. He has a very dynamic presence, bantering continuously and making ribald jokes; he is truly a human dynamo. (I asked him to do a STREETBUZZ.COM Interview but he politely declined.)

Ana and Fernando Flores.

Ana and Fernando Flores

San Jose is a poor fishing town, but scrupulously clean with local ordinance prohibiting public smoking or drinking. It is an impressive experience to walk around a Filipino town and not see the ground covered with garbage and cigarette butts; nor hear drunken men crooning in videoke bars.

San Jose, Dinagat Island San Jose, Dinagat Island

San Jose's houses are modest, clean and appear well-maintained.

San Jose house San Jose house

The only disapointing sight in the town is the public market, which looks like it was hit by a 1000 pound bomb. Market patrons must walk through a huge mud puddle to enter the building.

public market

Daytimes we went on trips around the island, mostly to accompany Fernando on his tambal missions. We twice visited Fernando Basilia, a pretty seaside barangay.

Fernando Basilia Fernando Basilia


Fernando Basilia Fernando Basilia

We traveled around Dinagat Island on motorbikes.

motorbikes on Dinagat Island motorbikes on Dinagat Island

Every day we drove past people working in rice fields, so once I asked to stop and ask permission to fulfill my longtime dream. We arranged to return the next day. For the story, visit Rice Dreams


One day Alex took me for a walk uptown, to the PBMA Shrine. Check it out: PBMA


With a large low-pressure system hovering 500 miles off the east coast of Mindanao and bringing high winds and torrential rains across the southern Philippines, it rained nearly continously during our stay on Dinagat Island. Nevertheless, it was time to head back to Cebu. We rode the pumpboat to Surigao City and then spent the day at the ferry terminal, hoping the rain would stop long enough to walk around town for awhile. It never stopped: the buckets poured down for 8 hours.

Surigao rainstorm

At 6 pm we boarded the Philippines Princess for the return to Cebu. Fortunately, this was a huge boat, easing my worries given the unsettled weather.

Philippines Princess

We arrived back in Cebu City at 1am. We took a taxi back to the McSherry and slept like babies until 10am. Good to be back home.

Storm Update: As of today, December 22, 2003, there have been at least three storm-related disasters here:
- In Surigao City, at least 13 people died in landslides triggered by the non-stop rains.
- On nearby Leyte Island, similar landslides buried at least three towns, with 98 bodies discovered so far and 117 persons missing.
- Near Palawan in the western Philippines, a ferryboat carrying 69 passengers sunk after sending a Mayday message in which crew members reported the vessel's hull had been pierced by huge waves.