Romblon…the Heart of Philippine Archipelago
By Apolinario Villalobos
Bordered by Marinduque in the north, San Jose (Mindoro) in the west, the Bicol Region in the east and Panay Island in the south, the hemmed-in province is composed of more or less twenty islands and islets, the three major ones, being Tablas, Sibuyan and Romblon. The country has always been proud of the Romblon marble, in fact, one of the best in the world. It is quarried on the island of Romblon, although, veins of this coveted colorful mineral rock can be found in some areas of Tablas island. The airport is located at Tugdan, also on the island of Tablas, and so is the province’s biggest port which is located at Odiongan. Both Romblon and Sibuyan islands have their own ports but with limitations. Romblon, the namesake of the province is its capital.
Romblon was used during the Spanish era as a repair station for galleons, reason why many Romblomanons have traces of Spanish and Mexican blood in their veins. The uniqueness of the province lies in the dialects spoken by the people which vary from town to town, despite their not being not-so-far from each other, some even separated by just a short bridge, as in the case of Alcantara and Looc.
The first time I set foot on the island of Tablas was when I was given the order by PAL to report there as a ticketing clerk with duties that included checking in of passengers, accepting cargoes for shipment, making reservations, and giving signals to the pilot where and how to park on the tarmac using two orange-colored paddles, similar to the ones used in pingpong. I was overwhelmed by the quiet life and cleanness of the island. I found out that the first Miss Aviation beauty queen of the Philippines came from the town where PAL’s ticket office was originally located, Alcantara. She was Yvonne Solidum.
There was no need for street sweepers on the island as the streets were immaculately clean. During that time, there was no electricity in most part of the province, including Alcantara and later, Looc, where our office was located, but lately, the islands have caught up with progress and blessed with this convenience. Fish were abundant, until now, I was told by a friend. My favorite seafoods, then, were alumahan, tulingan, sapsap, squid, anchovy (dilis), and sea urchin roe. But because of the limestone and rocky characteristics of the islands, most vegetables were still brought from Manila, Lucena City and Batangas, as well as nearby ports of Panay Island.
On a private transport, one can go around the island of Tablas in one day, with stops made at coastal towns that sell handicrafts made of nito which are actually major products of Sibuyan Island. Marble figurines abound in all the major towns of the islands, although, the main sources are the shops in Tablas and Romblon. I tasted the sweetest sineguwelas in Romblon. I just hope that the small orchard of this Asian fruit still thrive at Tugdan. When in season, dried squids and anchovies neatly packed in small plastic bags can be bought at the airport and the pier by departing visitors.
Tablas island prides in its several waterfalls, the most famous of which is the Mablaran Falls found in San Agustin. It also has a hidden “sea”, hence, called Tinagong Dagat, found at Calatrava. Beaches frame the eastern side of Tablas, that include San Agustin, Concepcion, Bachawan and Alcantara. Although some are of white sands, the rest are of grayish black fine sands. A beautiful sunset can be viewed from Looc Bay. An islet known for its rich Hispanic heritage and still part of the Tablas group of islands, is Banton which comes to life during the Holy Week due to the influx of pilgrims. This small island used to be regularly pillaged by pirates. It caught the attention of archaeologists when centuries old coffins made of hollowed logs were discovered in the caves that pockmarked its cliffs. I was surprised to learn during one of my homecomings to my birthplace in Mindanao, that my English teacher in first year high school who gave me a break at editing our high school organ, Elmer Festin, was from Banton. He was equally elated when I told him that I had the chance to visit Banton. He was teary-eyed when I told him this, because since the time he left his birthplace to study in Cebu, and finally settle in our hometown with his family, he did not have any opportunity to retrace his steps back to Banton.
There are ferries that ply between Lucena City and the island of Sibuyan, particularly at Magdiwang. The most prominent feature of the island is Mt. Guiting-guiting whose forests yield nito vine that is woven into baskets, food covers, hampers, trays and hats. The mountain caught the limelight in the ‘80s when careless mountaineers from UP pitched their tents on the bank of the Cantingas River which overflowed during a sudden downpour. As it happened late in the night, they were caught unaware and got carried by the surging current. The Cantingas River flows down San Fernando, creating a waterfall along its path. Another three-tierred waterfall, appropriately called Kawa-kawa due to the shape of the basins, can also be found at the nearby barrio of Lumbang Este of Cajidiocan. The island can also be reached by small boats from San Agustin and Romblon.
Romblon, the province’s capital can be reached from San Agustin by small boats. The remaining structure of the sturdy moss-covered Fort San Andres on a promontory, used to guard the bay of Romblon where Spanish galleons were moored for repair. To have a glimpse of how marbles are quarried, one can hike a few kilometers to reach mounds of marble chips, indication of the flourishing activity. Here one can find raw slabs of multi-hued marbles ready for transporting to the town, and finally for shipment to Manila. Romblon marble is touted as better than Italy’s carara variety. This claim has been emphasized with the discovery of the matted white and rosa violeta varieties.
Some of the rustic towns of Tablas were used as backdrops in movies years ago, aside from being known as the home province of the popular ‘60s movie personalities such as Daisy Romualdez, Blanca Gomez, and Dorothy Joy. Migrants from neighboring provinces, helped much in the development of the islands. Members of the later generations of these families still maintain their ancestral homes on the islands. Pioneering families that I could recall are those of Solidum, Ganan, Fiel, Fernandez, David, Magnaye, Gacura, Quiachon, Festin, Solis, Romualdez, Fabella, Chavez, and Tirol. The practice of “extended family” is prevalent in the province, not only among the blood relatives, but even among neighbors. The spirit of brotherhood can be strongly felt and observed, too. Mothers who have children studying in Manila for instance, standby at the airport with a wrapped warm dinner for them, waiting for a departing friend to hand carry the precious meal, which will be handed over to a member of the family waiting at the Manila airport terminal. Such practice is just one of the many that manifest the closely-knit relationship among the Romblomanons.
Philippine Airlines played a vital role in the development of the province as regards tourism during the late ‘70s which saw the country’s hectic promotion of this industry. PAL personnel in provinces virtually acted as airline ambassadors who promoted air travel. They carried the image of the airline wherever they went, be they simple barrio fiesta or family gatherings where they were invited. This was the picture that I saw when I set foot on the island province of Romblon twice. Those I found busy maintaining cordial relationship with the communities were Bien Alvaro, the supervisor, Celso Dapo the load controller with assistant supervisor capacity, Sonny Garcia and Oswald Alamo as ticket and cargo clerks. Sometimes, due to the absence of electricity during the time, they even took pains in issuing tickets at night, with the aid of a kerosene lamp, just to accommodate clients who came from neighboring towns but caught by darkness on their way to the ticketing office. This kind of unselfish service was actually ingrained in the minds of the PAL recruits before, who during the battery of interviews, expressed their willingness to be assigned anywhere in the country, where there was a PAL station. The principle behind was the “total passenger care” which was eventually, used by tour agencies as the essence of their packages and programs. Those were the golden days of Philippines Airlines.
In the case of the PAL Tablas Team, its efforts that smacked of goodwill were etched in the mind of air travelers who did not lose time in spreading by word of mouth stories of how tourists can enjoy a safe sojourn in the province. Their stay in the province made alive the spirit of the “hospitality home concept” that the company has been espousing during the time. They did not hesitate to accommodate stranded passengers, free of charge, in the Chavez ancestral house that they were renting.
I am told lately, that the islands of the province are very much progressive. The small village-type wet markets, are now spacious, accented with grocery stores, and electricity flows throughout major towns and barrios. Another good news is about the sidetripping of tourists from Boracay to the province, to make use of remaining days in visiting marble quarries in Romblon island, if they had enough of white sand beaches. Even the Carabao island that used to be just a resting stop-over for night-sailing excursionists are already replete with visitors. Visitors now have the choice between regular hotels and small lodging inns in the towns of Odiongan, Looc, San Agustin and Romblon island. There are also ships that regularly ferry passengers to Odiongan from the port of Manila.