I’ve visited a number of lakes in my travels – Lake Danum (Sagada), Laguna de Bay, Taal, Mainit, Kandy, and Nuwara Iliya (Sri Lanka), Lake Geneve, Lake Tahoe (California),  Inle (Yangoon), Lake Poas (Costa Rica) and Ton Le Sap (Cambodia). They are all immensely beautiful. But the most beautiful of all is right in the middle of my  own island of Panay: Tinagong Dagat (Latitude: 11°4’28.65″/ Longitude: 122°19’46.03″) in Cabatangan, Lambunao, Province of Iloilo.  When I took a spiritual journey to Tinagong Dagat on April 10, 2015, life took a more profound meaning for me.

Tinagong Dagat (literally, in English it means Hidden Sea) is ensconced in the mountain ranges between Lambunao, Iloilo and Valderama, Antique. Some say the water there tastes salty, but I found it differently sweet after drinking a liter coming right from the head spring of the danao (lake). It is called tinago (hidden) for it is very exacting for a non-native to access.

I had conditioned myself for the journey as early as 2014, knowing that the trails would be arduous and dangerous. For some reason, it took me a year to find the right guide and company for the journey. Vangie is a local indigenous leader and had been there twice. What she is – a babaylan ng bayan (people’s shaman), traditional healer and long-time friend of mine – I believe, made her the right companion.  Vangie agreed to travel with me on the condition that we would not mine the platinum grade gold found in Tinagong Dagat.

Vangie and I left her house in Jayubo at 5 in the morning to travel the 17-kilometer concrete road from the town center of Lambunao to Agdalusan on a motorcycle. Before we could reach the end of the passable road in Agdalusan though, the motorcycle fell sideways and we were all thrown off. We couldn’t explain why that happened. Wala lang. Thankfully, no one was badly hurt.

Vangie met James Bedecir, her 12-year old distant grandson. James recently stopped schooling to take care of his young parents who were both hospitalized and rendered immobile due to a motorcycle accident. Being the eldest of nine children, he suddenly became his family’s breadwinner. James joined our trek.

I came prepared for the journey. Or so I thought. Upon reaching a hubag (landslide), after covering two-thirds of the distance to Tinagong Dagat, Vangie asked if I could still walk, otherwise we would turn back. I knew that it would have made me sad had I given up upon seeing the rock formations and steep trails leading to a stony river. I told myself to be brave for the next stage of the journey.

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I continued walking, armed with my magic wand-cum-walking stick which James cut from a coffee tree,  my eyeglasses and Dortmuend sandals. I wished that I was truly a witch so that I could glide down the mountain on my broomstick! I made a deal with the Goddess in tears while crawling and cliff-hanging my way to the lake.

We came to a point called Taripis, so called because we had to scale the top of a mountain via a narrow trail with thin cogon grasses on both sides, and with virtually nothing to hold on to.  We then had to descend into a small stream with huge rock formations that, to me, looked like sleeping giants who rolled down from the mountains. Thankfully, the Taripis trail changed path by skirting the mountain. Still, it was steep and dangerous.

At dusk, we arrived at Tinagong Dagat, a sub-village of Cabatangan, after a total of 13 hours of  trekking including the 15-minute motorcycle ride, lunch and bath in Cabatangan, excluding several stops for Vangie to greet and meet her relatives in Agdalusan.

Arriving at Tinagong Dagat was like being coyly welcomed by Mother Earth to her silently heaving belly. Instead of getting scared of the approaching night in the middle of nowhere, I was thrilled that I would again experience a solemn moonless darkness  and  the piercing silence of the quiet mountains. I was reminded of the same silence  when I once asked a boatman to switch off the boat’s engine while in the underground river in Palawan years ago. It was simultaneously sacred and scary!

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That night, Vangie asked that I speak and laugh more softly and stop gushing at the beauty of the place. In short, I should behave so as not to offend the resident spirits.

We stayed with Vangie’s relatives. Early the next day, we set out for the lake.  After a 30-minute walk, we reached a small overflow that gave us a hint that we were almost there.  Suddenly there it was, Tinagong Dagat, secure at the foot of a towering mountain holding a huge white stone shield at its breast, as if protecting the lake.

I have never felt serenity as sublime as that in Tinagong Dagat. It was something not ephemeral because I was fully present in the place. I swam near its banks under a big narra tree clad in my fuschia sarong.  The water was calm and lukewarm, its color was like no other. The jutting parts of felled ancient trees in their dry whiteness near the banks exuded an eerie charm.  The water was the perfect mirror for the trees that lined the lake and the towering mountain on one side. As I gazed at them, I felt blessed many times over that I felt ready to be taken by the hand to move on to the next life! Or perhaps to be pulled down in the middle of the lake into an abyss.

The awesome beauty that I beheld in Tinagong Dagat affirmed my faith in the queer and limitless creativity of the Creator, and in the capacity of human beings to be awed by nature’s beauty, and to be held by the Goddess who is manifest in such beauty.

My reflections are simply this: Tinagong Dagat is Paradise already here. It is not closed, distant or withheld from us although it is not easily accessible. We do not have to recover or reconstruct paradise. We only have to perceive it and let the eros of beauty call us to be fully present here and now, to pay attention to intricate details, to be emotionally alive and expressive, and to be responsive to injustices that darken and destroy beauty. The grace and beauty of the core goodness of creation impel us to be just in our relations to fellow humans and to creation, to seek partnerships to achieve a fuller life for all, and to let beauty hold us and give us joy.  This beauty also calls us to arrive fully to the present, and to respond to its lure with lives committed to justice-making and care of this world, our only home.

Dr. Liza B. Lamis is a theologian from Iloilo City. She travels a lot and blesses everyone she meets.