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Camotes: Deliciously different
To appreciate Camotes, one has to bite it and chew it, preferably in little pieces. Its proximity to mainland Cebu is both a blessing and a bane. It has enduring legacy at every turn. Its people do not fit the paradigm of a fixed entity, handcrafted from the same mold, thrown into a wood-fired kiln, coming out semi-chocolatey.

It is quite common to meet families of spinsters and bachelors, and medicine men performing ancient rituals, like planting camotes (sweet potatoes) with nothing on. These people emerged from a cocktail of civilization and history borne by the sea. Truth to tell, Magellan and his men had dropped anchor in Camotes Sea on the way to plant Spain’s Cross in Cebu.

Camotes lacks the mystic of Bali and the colors of Caribbean. Yet it moves through the light speed of the 21st century. And the time warp can be a hazard and a boon. MTV and CRV have come like uninvited guests, co-existing peacefully with hilots and tambalans.

A few years ago, a strip of land was cleared for six-seater planes. The idea was to bring in tourists. Instead, cash-driven lab-aseras (fish mongers) chartered flights to sell their catch in the city! In 1997, when the first jet-propelled fast craft appeared on the horizon, skeptic islanders raised their eyebrows, saying investors were just throwing away their money. In hindsight, the coming proved to be more than worth it. Investors and speculators, reminiscent of the Gold Rush have staked their claims making real estate prices skyrocket.

But amidst all these dynamism and frenetic activity, there is always the gentle and polite side of Camotes. A poet once remarked, “I see smoke from dried leaves swept for burning, and I can smell them. Against the trees and the sunset, it is a reassuring feeling of neighborhood, of a provincial community, of life at a standstill, a feeling that most places, in their desire to get there, have already lost.”

When men, women and families gather, they buzz cheeks, they kiss hands, they go through social rites that help preserve the grace of a community and a fraternity about to be tainted by the homogenizing impact of globalization.

In Camotes, there is the version of the Flying Dutchman --- a ghost ship loaded with tons of cacao beans that nobody has ever seen but has been whispered about. There is a river that meanders uphill, enchanted palaces perched on century-old rain trees, an old sunken town in Lake Danao, and believe it or not, a church bell under the sea that is home to a giant grouper. And looking for that perfect solitude? The blindingly white secluded sand beaches of Dapdap and Lanao have cemeteries that promise, well, eternal rest.

Camotes has also revealed to the world things not seen before. Which makes it an interesting field lab for archaeology. In the 70’s, a clueless resident started his pigsty project and found instead an ancient burial ground teeming with grave markers, pottery, celadon wares, Spanish medallions, gold trinkets and Carnelian beads from India, proofs that Camotesnons had traded earlier with other cultures before the Spanish conquistadores came. There are farmers plowing into earthen shards and skulls. In one expedition, the famous Otley Beyer described the islands as a “basket of interesting archaeological finds.”

There are beautiful beaches, springs, natural pools and a legendary waterfall said to be where Panganuron, the islands’ mythical Solomon held court and mediated warring tribes. There is a limestone promontory called The Quarry, a local lover’s lane overlooking the seven-hundred-hectare Lake Danao. The waters around the islands run the spectrum from blue to bottle green and finally deep blue.

And what about its world under the sea? So undiscovered, they say. Snorkelers and divers in Tulang Islet (where back in the 60s, Italian actress Rosanna Podesta was rumored to have swam about raising the male residents’ temperature) report spectacular marine life.

Camotes has one leg on the grandeurs and spring times of the past, and one leg on the megalomania and promises of the future. It is an exciting study, a macrocosm of island life. The four towns offer something different: Poro with its rich history and unique spoken language, Tudela its cave systems, Pilar its old houses and charming coastal villages and San Francisco its vibrant commerce and stunning beaches.

Delicious. That is perhaps the single word that best describes Camotes. It is a place of contrasts, of contradictions. An island group leapfrogging toward the future with so much incredible energy and passion.

Camotes is vibrant, progressive and confident in the coming global network of trade and tourism. Yet, it has tradition, rhythm and above all, a human face.
The silent war
By Boboi R. Costas
Did the Battle of Mactan happen in Camotes islands?

In the early 70s, Camotes residents have raised this question upon the discovery of what seemed to be an ancient seaside burial ground in Mactang, Poro, Camotes. Since then, the question hounds historians, residents and scholars.

Mactang is a coastal community that has figured well in Camotes history. In 1997, University of the Philippines anthropology student Ivon Banzon Cabanilla presented a paper that attempted to settle the setting.

Cabanilla wrote that a 1950 atlas of the Philippines in the Museo ng Manila library showed Mactan Island used to be called Isla ng Opon (Opon Island). It was only called Mactan after the construction of international airport, the Camotesnons assert. And a Pigafetta 1521 map of Cebu showed that Matan (Mactan) was in the middle of Zubu and Bohol --- where Camotes is located.

“Mactan has questionable terrain,” the paper said, adding that it has more rocks and corals than anything else. Could it then support the 1,500 men who fought with Magellan and his men, including their families?

Mactang in Camotes, on the other hand, has arable lands, timberlands and natural springs.

Moreover, there are no official records from the National Museum showing excavation done in Mactan (Opon), and therefore, no physical basis. In Mactang (Camotes), excavations in the 70s yielded spears, shields, daggers, swords, a skull pierced with an arrowhead, and artifacts such as carnelian beads, blue glass, shell bracelets, iron pendants and crosses.

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