The Islander’s Life
I hail from a small and beautiful island called Cuyo in the province of Palawan. Cuyo is a group of 45 scattered islets and is composed of two municipalities: Cuyo and Magsaysay. The biggest island, also bearing the name Cuyo, has an area of about 35 square kilometers. Cuyo is located northeast of mainland Palawan, adjacent to Panay Island. The first settlers of the islands were two groups of Malays coming from Panay, followed by the Spanish friars in 1622. Since then, several groups of local and Spanish migrants settled in Cuyo, hence, mestizas and mestizos abound in the islands.
We lived in a barrio called Pawa, approximately five kilometers south of the Cuyo town proper. It is about a 15-minute ride by tricycle – the major means of transport within Cuyo Island. Our house is right in the center of the barangay called Sitio Igasing; hence, during fiesta or other special events, we were always in the thick of things. The school and church yards also served as our playgrounds during weekends and summer vacation.
Life in the islands back then was really simple yet exquisitely exciting. Most of the houses, particularly in the barrios, were still made of bamboos and cogon grass or thatched nipa leaves for roofing. We were lucky enough to have a house made of concrete and wood and galvanized iron for roofing. My parents were both public school teachers and owned/inherited relatively large farms planted mainly with cashew, coconut and banana. The proceeds from these crops, on top of their salaries as teachers, enabled them to send us all five siblings through college. We always had a maid back then, but my parents saw to it that we were involved in all chores both in and out of the house.
Cuyo had no electricity until about the mid-1980s, so one of my regular chores at home was to light the “Petromax” (pressure lamp) at nightfall. My other regular chores were tending the goats and feeding the chicken or pig particularly in the afternoon. I also served as my father’s assistant whenever he was doing some repairs or carpentry works at home. During summer, we would gather and stock dried coconut husks and wood so that we would have enough fuel for cooking during the rainy season.
Summertime in Cuyo is synonymous with the harvest of cashew – being the island’s major crop. Cashew harvest usually starts in late February all the way to the first week of May when the rainy season starts. Cashew is usually harvested by simply picking-up felled nuts from the ground and picking mature fruits/nuts from the tree using a bamboo pole. Young fruits were left until they get ripe and ready for the succeeding harvest day(s). Ripe cashew apples were usually eaten while harvesting or taken home so that the entire family could partake of the sour-sweet juicy and succulent fruit as dessert. Sometimes, the nuts are also roasted in the backyard for some sort of a fun-filled family picnic.
Cashew nuts are sold either raw or processed. Raw nuts have to be dried under the sun before selling or processing. Farm-level processing of cashew involves the extraction of the kernel from the outer hard shell of the nut. The process starts with the breaking of the nut in two through the use of a tool called “kolokati” and the kernel is removed from the hard shell with the use of a pick-like instrument with a flat rounded tip, resembling a miniature spoon. The testa (soft covering) would be further removed from the kernel which is sold in its raw form to local cashew traders who in turn would sell them to traders and/or food processors in Manila.
As expected fish and many other sorts of seafood (too many to enumerate) are abundant in the island. Chicken and tropical vegetables are always part of a typical Cuyonon household’s daily menu. Pork and beef were not so common until about the mid ‘80s when the wet market and slaughterhouse were established at the Cuyo town proper.
Our main source of water was from a private water system at the town proper and from an 11-fathom deep well some two kilometers south of our house. During rainy season, we tapped the rain and stored them in two rain-catching tanks situated beneath the roof’s gutter on each side of the house. The two tanks can provide enough water for washing dishes and clothes and bathing all through the rainy season. Nevertheless, the water we used for drinking and cooking was still from the private water system at the town proper.
As kids, the special events that we always looked forward to were the Holy Week, the entire summer vacation, the Cuyo Town Fiesta in August, our barrio fiesta in October, Christmas, and New Year. These special occasions meant that we would be getting together with our cousins. For the Town Fiesta, Christmas and Holy Week, we would stay in the Blanco’s ancestral house in the town proper. These events are also the times when Cuyonons from other parts of the country and abroad come home just to take part in the celebration.
Aside from the festivities, day or night swimming at the island’s best beach called Kapusan highlighted our stay in the town proper. Kapusan is a relatively long stretch of white sand adorned with sand bars that resemble long and pointed arms reaching out to the sea.
Cuyonons also have a peculiar way of celebrating Halloween – called Kalag-kalag in Cuyonon vernacular. At the night before All Saints’ Day (November 1), one of the most common practices is the removal of the detachable stairs of elevated bamboo houses by some “wandering souls”. The ladder-like stairs, also made of bamboo, are located right out of the main and back doors of the house. Although all Cuyonons are aware of this custom, injuries still resulted from it especially when a still yawning household member decided to go out of the house early in the morning.
Likewise, clothes left hanging outside of the house also become part of the charade during Kalag-kalag. The clothes would be found scattered on the ground or hidden somewhere in the yard in the morning. In rare cases however, such exploit has been abused by some unscrupulous pranksters who took the clothes for good.
Every summer, usually after Holy Week, we would stay for two or three days in Ba’yad (bah-yad) – the ancestral home by the beach of the Blanco family inherited by one of my father’s sister. Ba’yad Beach is characterized by creamy-white sand with a stretch of more than a kilometer. Like the Kapusan’s, the sand at Ba’yad is fine and firm that it could be treaded by a bicycle or motorcycle. There we did nothing but swim from morning till nightfall and/or play many sorts of kids’ games.
Education and career opportunities…
Alas, no matter how much I reveled Cuyo, it is a reality that the island has very little to offer career-wise. The idiom, “If you want to get up, get out,” has become an unwritten code among us islanders. Hence, it has become a status quo that most youths, right after graduation from high school, go to Puerto Princesa City or Metro Manila, or someplace else to pursue their college degree. They would eventually land a job in those places, elsewhere in the Philippines or even abroad.
I, myself, studied college in Baguio City and in Metro Manila where I now have a steady job and a family. Although we still have our house and some of my parents’ properties there, going back to Cuyo for good is now a remote possibility for me. However, no matter what I do or where I am, I will always be proud of my heritage as a CUYONON. CUYO will always be MY ISLAND, MY HOME.