An island that embodies the abundance and generosity of the Philippines
By Luke Henkel
“It’s more fun in the Philippines!”
Spend some time in this Southeast Asian island nation, and you’ll become quite familiar with this phrase. From the northern Luzon beaches of Vigan and Pagupdpud all the way to Davao in Mindanao, this slogan is ready on the lips of just about any Filipino.
Of anywhere I’ve visited in this island nation, nowhere is this richness clearer, freer (and more delicious!) than on the small island of Ticao, off the southeast corner of Luzon in the province of Masbate. The natural wealth on this relatively unknown island is truly paradise!
It is a national slogan that captures the spirit of the people, who are known for their hospitality and generous fun-loving attitude towards life.
Whatever you’re doing in the Philippines – even if you’re stuffed in a jeepney in the clogged streets of Manila, or wandering the streets of a slum area to get to know a back side of local life – there’s rarely a dull moment.
It’s easy to find yourself picking up this phrase and repeating it like you’ve always belonged.
Yet there’s an equally fitting phrase, one that captures the spirit of the people and the islands, too – indeed, of the land itself: “It’s more abundant in the Philippines!”
This country is a country of abundance: the richness of the land and its resources; the smiles and laughter of the people; the diversity of both animals and human inhabitants – and yes, even the pollution, social justice issues, and poverty.
One of the first things you may notice about the Philippines on your visit is that just about everything is a superlative. This land certainly doesn’t do small scale.
This land is a step back in time and space, as if the hour-long ferry boat from Bulan port on Luzon Island transported you not to another island in the Philippines but to a different world altogether, a world in which the people live by one simple word: abundance.
The Ticao Specialty: What is it about this island?
Ticao is a sparsely populated island between the southeast corner of Luzon and Masbate, certainly off much of the foreign path, and even slightly away from the more popularly tread Filipino path!
Ninety percent of Ticao Islanders (Ticaoenos as they’re called locally) are fisherman. Here, the people live off of fish. Fishing is everything.
Of course, with more than half of the population of the Philippines relying on the sea for income, that’s the case with millions of Filipinos.
What makes Ticao so unforgettable?
It’s the people, it’s the fish, and it’s the way of life.
While this island is gaining notoriety precisely because of the diversity and abundance found here, Ticao is still a mostly unknown and unblemished gem. Ticao is unforgettable for the fish and the diving (of course!) but also for its inhabitants. Here, it all comes naturally.
Here, too, Filipino hospitality is in its purest form: as open and rich as the seas.
On my visit, I stayed with coworkers’ family in Batuan, a village towards the southeast of the island. Within about two and a half minutes of arriving, I was being shepherded in to my colleague’s aunt’s house and shown the array of fish on her table.
The table was literally sagging under the weight of fish: four different varieties on the table, two pots boiling on the stove, freshly caught sapsap in front of the TV, and several other varieties I could not ascertain.
Lilly, the aunt, represents Ticao perfectly: abundant joy, abundant food, abundant hospitality, and abundant taste. This is what you’ll find and remember on Ticao: simple food, and simple people who have no hesitation in sharing.
Fish, fish, fish: what to try?
The most abundant varieties of fish on Ticao are dilis, lawlaw, sapsap, and lapulapo, as well as talakithok and tilapia. Dilis is generally served salted and fried, then dipped in suka (vinegar) with garlic and chili. You can also enjoy dilis plain, dried, or as pulutan, an appetizer accompanying a drink.
Slightly larger and longer lawlaw are salted and fried whole, and served with suka or sweet and sour sauce. Dig in at one of the small restaurants in San Fernando before leaving the ferry pier upon arrival, or feel free to pick some up from the small fish market in Batuan, about 30 minutes southeast by tricycle.
Another not-to-be-missed specialty are squid and fish balls. Popular street fare all over the Philippines, they have an especially dear place in the hearts and palates of Ticao Islanders.
If you’re not munching on dilis, chances are you’re probably being offered these doughy snacks in a plastic cup, with a ladleful of the ubiquitous sweet and sour sauce to drench your treat, or perhaps hot chili dressing with onions and garlic.
You can get these just about anywhere in the towns strewn across the island, most typically from street vendors.
Go for the taste, stay for the Hospitality
Fish isn’t the only food in abundance on Ticao. There may be a small amount of farmland, but there are, at my last count on the island, uncountable fruits. The most abundant is by far coconut, or niyog.
The small barangay, or village, of Rizal, towards the interior of the island about half an hour from Batuan, is the center of paradise. Upon the very jolting and dusty arrival into town on motorbike, we were offered coconuts by my coworkers’ neighbors before we’d even dismounted.
I couldn’t even drop my chin in awe before some of the neighbors had an empty sack across one arm and a long-armed scythe in the other, and were hacking coconuts from the nearest tree. They collected a sackful of about fifteen coconuts in half a dozen smooth swipes, and returned to our table under the woven coconut roof of a bahay kubo.
The table was laden with plenty of the land’s bounty besides coconut: jackfruit, star apple, mangoes, bananas, and mangosteen, and cooked laing and coconut leaves, to name just a few.
The way of the subsequent afternoon was the way of life in Rizal: catching up on life in the shade of the bahay kubo, watching the activity of the village, and eating fruits until ready to burst – or simply sink blissfully into an afternoon siyesta, or nap.
One thing to learn from all this is that Filipino hospitality is not simply for tourists or a matter of triviality. It as deep and enduring as it is freely given. Indeed, it is a matter of survival.
Despite the visible poverty in this village – the actual roads are all barely discernible amid the brush and footpaths, the school does not have any government support, either local or national, and despite their age most of the villagers have yet to graduate high school – no one goes hungry here.
Perhaps because of the poverty that grips much of the nation in a vise, even despite the abundance, villagers watch out for each other. If you are suffering and your farm is not doing well, the other residents will rally for you in a heartbeat.
In Rizal, everything we ate was shared: mangoes from one house, jackfruit from another, coconuts from a third, and naturally-raised chicken from the last house down the road.
This sense of giving is as natural and as free as the smiles across Ticaoenos’ faces. It lends the food a sweetness that can’t be forgotten. This is #filipinohospitality – and ultimately the most memorable part of any visit to Ticao.
It truly is more abundant in the Philippines, and certainly on Ticao!
Hot places to visit, hotter places to visit
Yuson Beach and Resort is one of the gems of Ticao: spectacular rates, spectacular service, spectacular fare and an unrivaled beach front. There are two pools and a slide, and spacious cabins directly on the water, so you can come simply for an afternoon swim or to spend a very chill, calming night.
Owned by the mayor of Batuan, the resort celebrated its first anniversary in May 2018 and is growing quite quickly.
The cooks are as local, as happy, as humble and as dedicated as they come. Rates are competitive but the tranquility, comfort, and relaxation you’ll find here is anything but second-rate. Ask for Johnny to make coconut ginataang with tilapia, and fried bananas, or bananacue.
Alternatively, Ticao Tacdugan Lodge is cheap, calm, and accommodating to all. Located towards the northern tip of the island, it’s a must if you’re really looking for relaxation and good beach time.
This is also a great central point from which to head out for diving or to explore the west side of the island. Call to confirm spaces ahead of time, and to ask about arranging for a tricycle from San Fernando pier for your stay.
Shoot down to the south end of the island for an afternoon visit to the Bongsalay Mangrove Natural Park. Arrange a tour guide/local hire from your hotel or resort, or just ask around from the locals. You might get grifted on price in many parts of the Philippines if you do this, so be careful.
However, a little wise talking and asking multiple people will guarantee that you’ll get a knowledgeable, affable, and agreeable host for your trip through the mangroves!
How to arrive
From Manila, there are several options for getting to Ticao. The quickest is to fly from Ninoy Aquino International directly to Masbate City (MBT) via either Philippine Airlines or Cebu Pacific. The flight is just about 70 minutes. From Masbate Island, the ferry ride directly to Batuan is an additional thirty minutes.
Yuson Beach and Resort is 20 minutes by tricycle, and further on to San Fernando is about 35 additional minutes. Ride prices can be negotiated.
By bus, take any line going to Legazpi City in Albay province, and then further on to the port of Bulan by tricycle. From Manila, the best point of departure is Cubao in Quezon City. The ride takes about 15 hours, and is generally from 900 to 1000 pesos depending on the line.
There are plenty of choices to Albay. (NOTE: the air-conditioned buses can be quite cold at night, so be sure and bring some layers and a nice travel pillow! This will come in handier than perhaps anything else you could travel with.)
The best time to leave from Manila is in the early afternoon (1 or 2 PM), to beat the traffic out of the city and arrive at 2 or 3 AM the following morning in Bulan. This will put you on the first ferry ride at 6 AM bound for Ticao.
Returning, leave San Fernando on Ticao on the 1 PM ferry, take a tricycle for 20 pesos to the Bulan bus terminal, and depart at 4 or 5 to arrive the next morning in Manila at around 7 AM.
Luke Henkel was born to cross borders, oceans, cultures, and socioeconomic barriers. As an avid traveler since shortly after birth, he has lived and taught abroad in multiple countries including the United States, South Korea, the Dominican Republic, Thailand, India, and the Philippines. He has written for various publications including the Missionary Minute and EcoJesuit, and is currently working on his first novel. You can read and follow his blog, the Invitation, at http://theinvitation.blog