I was assigned to a disaster recovery project on a remote island in the Philippines after a typhoon devastated the area. Dinagat, governed for many years by a religious organisation called the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association (PBMA), a sect with many followers, is an island of myth and mysticism.
We climbed a mountain with breathtaking views and waterfalls said to have healing properties. Halfway up this small hut marked the entrance to a small farming community of 25 families hiding on the mountainside. But, despite the welcome sign, we were denied access because only the unvaccinated are allowed to visit the falls. A local, who had seen us from afar, called out to ask our purpose for entering. Our voices echoed as we answered and we were lucky that someone came down to the hut to explain.
The PBMA claims to be a non-sectarian and non-profit religious organisation, although some see it as a cult. In the past few years, this island, known to have unexploited mineral wealth, has seen a radical shift in its exposure to the modern world. For many, it feels too fast, and there are complicated dynamics around generational views, practices and beliefs. And people on the relatively undeveloped island are still trying to sustain themselves after the ravages of two major typhoons.
Dinagat is an enigma and its secretive nature and beauty radiates a mystical attraction. There is so much more to learn here. I can only hope to return to Dinagat to understand it better.
Alecs Ongcal is a Philippines-based freelance photojournalist who started her career in 2013 while finishing a psychology degree at De La Salle University in Manila. She has covered major news events such as the Philippines drug war, the Marawi siege and Typhoon Haiyan for international news outlets.