Last week we stopped at a little island called Gigantes Sur. Still in the Western Visayas province of the Philippines it is a small island off the east coast of Panay; a dot among several others in the area. There isn’t too much in the way of Cruising Guides for the Philippines, or at least not that we have. Quite frankly it has been nice not to have one, nice not to have some unknown opinion mire our choices. Gigantes Sur was not listed in our almost decade old Lonely Planet and Google Earth only showed a small fishing village, so we had didn’t expect to find much ashore. All of which was fine with us.
Our choice to anchor there was made purely by how it looked on the chart; a wide bay with a slowly shoaling cove that ended in a sandy beach, which probably meant good holding and there wouldn’t too many rocks to snag the chain on. The anchorage was protected from the predicted winds, was within our travel range and we were well provisioned. Really Gigantes was just another stepping stone in our voyage north, not much more a convenient stop over, a place to rest for a night or two.
The thing is about exploring is that you never really know what you’ll find. So we when pulled into the anchorage and saw flags lining not one but two beaches nearby and a parade of boats depositing people on those beaches we were more than a little surprised. Gigantes Sur was not just a sleepy little fishing village, it was a destination.
The next day we decided to go see what all the fuss was about. We landed on the first beach just after noon. It was a sand spit that was slowly being covered by the tide, busy with boats, children splashing about in the shallows. There was a small shack with a few Styrofoam coolers and a stack of beer crates outside. A covered, open air café set with a half a dozen plastic covered tables and wooden benches sat at the edge of the beach, full of people enjoying lunch and the respite from the sun. It was basic, maybe some would even say grungy, but it was definitely popular.
We grabbed a beer and sat to watch the action, trying to figure out what the attraction was. On one table that had been vacated had, amongst the half eaten bowls of rice, fish bones and empty glass bottles, stacks of sea shells in plastic baskets. We noticed a sign that asked for a table charge of 50P and another that stated no paper plates allowed. There was no obvious kitchen over by the drinks shack so we wondered if it was a BYO, a lunch stop on a day tour from the ‘mainland’. Then we saw woman walk from the drinks shack with a steaming basket of scallops and deposit it in the middle of a nearby table. I decided to go find us some lunch.
I am not much of a shellfish eater actually, give me a can of smoked oysters at Christmas time and I am pretty much set for the year. I have on occasion ordered a bowl of mussels steamed with white wine and garlic and served with a fresh baguette and cold bottle of rosé, but you do those things on hot afternoons when visiting French Islands in the Caribbean. Steve, however, likes seafood of any kind and I resolved to be a more adventurous eater a
while back, a decision which definitely hasn’t led me astray in the Philippines.
When I asked the girl at the drinks shack whether they served food she enthusiastically said yes, then got up and motioned me to follow her to the back of the shack. There, in a basic outdoor kitchen, were two guys trending two large blackened pots set over wood fires. They served scallops, freshly caught and steamed to order.
As I ordered one basket of scallops a pile of large blueish shells caught my eye. From the exterior they looked like an oyster; a long, flat shell whose layers and bumps were very pronounced. When I asked what they were the three replied in unison “wasi-wasi” (wha-sai, wha-sai). Noting the obvious language barrier one of the boys plucked one from the pot, pried it open and thrust it toward me, “You try.” Opened I noted the unfamiliar mitten-like shape of the shell, but the pearlescent, pale blue interior was unmistakable. Wasi-wasi was a mussel. On a whim I ordered a half basket.
Returning to the table Steve was surprised to hear about my spur of the moment lunch decision, and even more so when the baskets appeared shortly after.
By now we had drawn the attention of the other eaters. This wasn’t exactly a spot on the tourist trail, well at least not the ‘whitefella’ tourist trail anyway. We asked for plates, which the sort-of-waitress found for us but it was obvious that this wasn’t a regular request. Seeing us struggling a bit with the wasi-wasi a guy came over with a spoon to give us a demonstration on how to open them. Since this is our usual MO, wandering into local joints and trying to blend in, we have come to expect to turn a few heads. We also expect what always happens next; nods of approval and wide smiles of agreement. Seeing we were all here for the same reason the other diners went back to their plates and we got down to the serious business of opening what seemed like a hundred scallops.
They were, of course, delicious. Perfectly steamed the scallops were sweet on their own but even better with a sprinkle of the homemade spiced cane vinegar that sat on the table in an old rum bottle. The wasi-wasi were a little tricky to get into, but tender and briny and reminded me of home. The beer was cold, the company excellent and the view out of the café stunning.
After lunch we sat for a while in the shade, quietly soaking in the day and our good fortune. A few kids wandered by selling trinkets and, uncharacteristically, I bought one of their cheesy scallop shell coin purses, perhaps hoping to take a little of the island away me for later.
We went home with full bellies and a bag of scallops that I later turned into a pasta dinner for you, sautéed in just a little butter and garlic and served over large shells.
It is afternoons like this that I cherish most, when impulse and chance pay big dividends. It is serendipitous experiences we find along our travels that are the most memorable. Sure the price tag helped; the scallops were 100P a basket and the wasi-wasi were 50P for a half basket. That’s about $3.00 USD for all you can eat, SUPER fresh seafood. However the afternoon at the sandbar eating and drinking with the locals was, as they say, priceless.