by Ben Granali
(NOTE: This article was originally published in Women’s Journal, May 14, 1991, p. 14.)
Isla de Panamao — three words in which are embodied magic, mystery, and romance. No other words best describe the islands of Biliran Province but the resonance and the imagery of the original name. When one intones the words “Isla de Panamao,” it is as if he were invoking a spell in which reality intermingling with myth can no longer be distinguished one from the other.
The magic is there for all to see; that is if one is responsive to the evocative moods of nature. Picture Isla de Panamao as a picturesque and fabled mountainous island rising from a mirrored sea — the whole panorama of earth, sea and sky in soft and translucent shades of blue seemingly as fragile and evanescent as the mist pervading the scene.
This was a view of the island of Biliran as seen one morning by the writer from a mountain road on the mainland of Leyte. The entire scene bathed in the subdued sunlight of a cloudy sky conveyed a mood of magic and enchantment. For those who see nature as art, the picturesque features that abound in the islands exert an unforgettable fascination evocative of the magical, the mysterious, and the romantic as well as the beautiful in nature. Tourists from abroad have indeed visited these unspoiled islands to experience for themselves the lure of these places.
More prosaically, the Province of Biliran is made up of several islands — Biliran Island, Higatangan Island, and the northernmost island, Maripipi. Along with these three are about half a dozen islets from Biliran to Maripipi. The inhabitants of the island are hardy and independent people who have agitated for 30 years for Biliran provincehood [which became a reality in 1992].
How Biliran Island came into being is a matter of conjecture. One popular theory is that the island was once connected to the mainland of Leyte by an isthmus. The body of water now separating the island from the mainland could have been formerly a lagoon partially enclosed by a sandbank stretching from Barangay Villalon, Calubian [on the mainland] to Naval. Some old people reminisced that at low tide, when the sandbank became visible, a man on horseback could cross from one opposite shore to the other.
Natural forces carved a channel in the isthmus. In fact, on both sides of the isthmus, the formation of coasts (island and mainland) leading to the channel is like that of a funnel tapering to the narrow opening. The combined forces of wind, boiling tidal current and pounding sea at the apex of the funnel cut the channel and thus liberated the island of Biliran. The process could have taken some fifty to five hundred years, depending on the width and level of the island at the apex, the matter that formed the isthmus and other pertinent factors. When the channel happened we do not know. We do know that in 1604, a historical record of the channel was printed in Relacion de las Islas Filipinas by Fr. Pedro Chirino.
In another hypothesis, a volcanic or tectonic upheaval — millions of years ago — either wrenched apart from the mainland with cataclysmic violence the portion that became Biliran or heaved the island from the sea in a tremendous release of energy. Biliran Island and northern Leyte have remained a volcanic area. What is strange is that Samar, northeast of Leyte, is not reputed to be volcanic; whereas Albay in the Bicol peninsula has its famous Mayon Volcano.
Biliran has still its active volcano. And yet the fate of the lost Atlantis might be the fate of the island, a violent end for us all, God forbid. A most dangerous threat lies in the bowels of the island, making its presence known now and then by a muffled underground explosion and an earthquake — a mild tremor or a severe jolt.
Biliran Island was first known as Isla de Panamao — the island of Mount Panamao, the towering mountain that dominates the northern half of Biliran. As early as 1601, Isla de Panamao was already known in Spanish history as one of the sites established in the archipelago for the construction of Spanish galleons.
Why the island was named after Mount Panamao is not known. Was it because the very mysteriousness of the mountain commanded a superstitious awe in the people who gazed at its soaring peak?
Mount Panamao was once thickly forested and abounded with wild deer and wickedly tusked boars. The old hunters and kaingineros with their superstitions would walk warily in the forests since people then believed in mountain spirits. If a nymph like Maria Makiling were known to have haunted Mount Panamao, it would indeed be a most appropriate tale, but there was no such legend.
The old hunters would tell of a plateau where hectares of cacao plantations appeared to be diligently cultivated. The cacao trees were full of fruit. Game was also plentiful here. But the hunters never dared to pick the ripe fruit or kill the fat deer and wild boar.
There was an eerie atmosphere in the plateau about which the hunters would talk about in nervous whispers. Such strange stirrings among the trees when there was no wind, white mists floating wraith-like among the trees, and snatches of haunting music coming and going like gusts of wind, but it could be the wind soughing among the hollows and rounded contours of the mountainside. Such talk kept the superstitious and timid rural folk away.
But there was something that the inhabitants of the island learned later from distant Manila, which gave rise to the legend of the island of Mount Panamao. It was the story about the arrival of a strange galleon at the port of Manila and of how the Spanish port authorities stared in eye-popping wonderment at the splendidly furnished vessel with its shining sails of costly silk.
Everything about the galleon was new — from the ropes of abaca hemp, the smooth lines and surfaces of the vessel from bow to stern, the elaborate carvings on the polished cabin panels, to the shimmering sails of silk. And crammed-full in the capacious hold of the ship were sacks of dried cacao seeds.
The port officials were astonished and visibly impressed when they met the passengers on the deck of the galleon. The men were richly attired and strutted about with the air of grandees; the women beautiful and elegant in fashionable clothes of costly materials. They were as fair-skinned and even more aristocratic in bearing than the colonials.
When asked where they came from, the passengers of the galleon answered, “Punta de Bulalacao, Isla de Panamao.” And where was the beautifully carpentered galleon built? The answer: “Isla de Panamao.” After a week, the passengers of the galleon sold all the cargo of cacao and returned to Panamao Island.
And mystery after mystery followed of course, some invented and relished nonetheless by Maynila folk. For certainly, the galleon and its aristocratic passengers and cargo of cacao would be the object of a lot of excited talk and speculations. The authorities themselves were said to be nonplused about their Spanish identity. Did they really come from Spain or any of the colonies? But no one had officially tried to identify these visitors from the records of the port authorities during their stay in Manila. And because of the lethargy of the Spanish bureaucracy, further inquiry was not made at all. Only the stories of the mysterious galleon would reach far and wide in the whole archipelago, for gossip and rumor travel on wings and cannot be stopped by anything but the fates.
Tongues continued wagging of the Spanish officer who, in the delirium of passionate love, deserted his post to follow his inamorata to Isla de Panamao. The man reportedly went mad because no one in the island knew about the galleon and the shipboard of cacao and lovely señoritas. And Punta de Bulalacao! Not a ship was seen, the port itself just rocks, shrubs and trees, and no one, not a single soul.
Even today there is still enough mystery brooding over the mountain when we see it veiled in mists in the cold and rainy months of the northeast monsoon. There are a lot of things that we would like to know about, such as the plateau with cultivated cacao plantations, and the deer and the wickedly tusked boars. Is the galleon going to sail again from Punta de Bulalacao with its fair passengers, or would it be this time a modern ocean-going vessel with a cargo of cacao? Where is the invisible kingdom of the engkantos? Where?
And who would believe this tale? But Mount Panamao is there, in the full glare of sunlight. And when the moon is a bright disk in the sky, when in the silvery sheen of moonlight Mount Panamao looks more mysterious than ever, who knows what not to believe?