Sunday, August 14, 2016

ZORAYDAH'S TALE OR:THE TREE OF DIAMONDS

ZORAYDAH'S TALE OR THE TREE OF DIAMONDS

                  by Manny Panta

I
n the great bazaar of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, during the reign of Shah Jahan, the same who built that shrine  to immortal love, Taj Mahal, there dwelt a seller of gold, silver, diamonds and other precious stones. He was prosperous, his business was thriving, and, spoiled by his success, he had become    quite greedy and cynical. He bought his jewels and precious metals directly from mines and impoverished widows for a pittance and sold them for huge profits to  the public. He built for himself a sumptuous haveli near the Red Fort. Its walls and columns of its courtyard were adorned by colorful tiles and paintings of scenes from the Mahabharata. There was continuous feasting at his house. When the Shah paraded in his richly caparisoned horses and elephants through Chandni Chowk, he and his family stood in front of their shop dressed in their finest clothes and jewelry to pay homage to the ruler. Life for the dealer was good.
     One day, a man in ragged clothes came into his shop. The seller looked at him crossly, thinking he was a beggar and shooed him away.
     “Please sir,” said the man in the ragged clothes. “I have something to show you.”
Overcoming his disgust, the dealer relented.
     “What do you have to show me?” he asked brusquely.
     “This,” said the man. He took out a dirty piece of cloth and undid the knot that secured it. The dealer’s eyes nearly flew out of their sockets when he saw what the man showed him. Staring back at him was one of the largest raw diamonds he had seen in his life. True, it looked like dried milk sap the size of a pear, but to his jeweler’s eye he could see that it had the attributes of a diamond.
His hand trembling with excitement, he snatched the stone, examined it with his jeweler’s loupe and sighed. It was real. He estimated that it easily weighed one hundred carats polished. If he had it cut into several smaller diamonds, his profits would be even more massive. As far as he could tell, the diamond had no inclusions. If it turned out to be flawless, it would be worth a rajah’s ransom.
     “Well?” he asked. “I can see that you want to sell this to me. How much do you want for it?”
     “Ah, sir,” said the man, “I do not quite know.”
     “It is diamond, that I must tell you,” the dealer said. “However, it is low-grade. I will give you ten thousand rupees for it.”
     “Sir,” said the man, “I am sure it is worth more than that.”
     “All right then,” replied the dealer, “twenty thousand and not a rupee more.”
     The man thought for a while.
     “You need the money, my friend,” encouraged the dealer, trying to distract the man from thinking too much. “You cannot eat diamonds for lunch.”
     “I accept your offer sir because I must leave tonight,” said the man. The dealer gave him twenty thousand rupees, and the man left.
     The dealer had his most skilled craftsman polish the diamond. He sold it for one million rupees to the Shah in Agra.  The Shah, dazzled by the size and brilliance of the diamond, caused it to be placed as a centerpiece in his processional turban where it provoked great admiration and envy among all those who saw it.
     Wealthier than ever, the dealer wondered whether he was going to see the man who sold him the diamond ever again.  He needed not have wondered. One year to the day of the sale of the diamond, the same man went into the shop of the dealer. This time he was dressed more smartly.
     “Do you recognize me?” the man asked the dealer.
     “Yes, of course,” replied the dealer. “Do you have anything for me?”
     “Yes, I do,” said the man. This time he produced a plain silk purse from which he produced the same kind diamond that he showed a year before. The dealer was even more mesmerized by this stone. If it turned out to be as flawless as the previous one that he sold to the Shah, it would make him even richer than he was now.
     “How much do you want for this?” asked the dealer, practically salivating at the mouth.
     “One million rupees,” said the man. The dealer looked up in surprise at him.
     “But that is outrageous!” he protested.
     “If you do not want it at this price, sir,” said the man, who did not look as abject as he did before, “then I shall look for another buyer here in Chandni Chowk.”
     “Wait! Wait!” said the dealer. “Five hundred thousand rupees. That’s my final offer.”
     The man looked at him and demanded: “Eight Hundred Thousand and that is my final price.”
     The dealer hurriedly calculated that he could easily sell the diamond to a maharajah or even to the Shah himself for double the amount.
     “Agreed!” he said, and paid out the rupees, albeit reluctantly.
Once again the man disappeared. Once again he would appear every year, bearing the same kind of diamond, striking a bargain with him that grew even more painful, but which proved to be extremely lucrative. His flawless diamonds now reached the noble families not only of India but of Europe as well.
     On the fifth year that the man paid him a visit, the dealer could no longer contain his curiosity.
     “Where did you get this diamond, sir?” he asked. “You must tell me its provenance.”
     “Ah, I cannot tell that to you, my friend,” said the man, no longer addressing him with the honorific sahib.
     “If you do not tell me now,” said the dealer, “I shall have you arrested by the Shah’s men. You won’t be able to refuse the Shah as you now do me.”
     “And what will you say to the Shah?” the man asked.
     “I will say that you are a thief,” said the dealer.
     The man considered this, sighed and said: “Yes. I might as well tell you. This diamond and the other ones before it do not come from a mine. They are the fruit of a tree. The tree grows from solid rock. Its roots go deep into cracks in the rock and into the ground. Once a year, it blooms and yields a single fruit. This diamond is that fruit. Believe or don’t believe me but it is the truth, by Allah.”
     “That is impossible,” the dealer exclaimed, incredulous at this assertion. “Diamonds come from deep beneath the earth!”
     “Yet, in this case, it does not,” said the man.
     “I must see this tree for myself!” said the dealer.
     “Then you must wait a year before it bears fruit again,” said the man.
     “I want to see it now, even if it hasn’t borne fruit yet,” demanded the dealer.
     The man sighed.
     “Then prepare yourself for a long journey,” he warned him.
     The dealer prepared a caravan, and at the direction of the seller of the diamond, traced a route inland from Delhi to Udisha, past the tiger-infested swampland of West Bengal and into a land where even the pebbles of the streams where rubies. But they pressed on and after many a hardship, they arrived at a valley with a pleasant river running through it. In this valley rose a rock of great height. Atop this rock, a solitary tree stood like a sentinel. It was stout at the base and many-limbed at the crown. The tree was leafless.
     “Is that the tree?” the dealer cried, trembling with excitement.
     “That is it,” replied the man. “We must climb up to the summit of the rock to be near it.”
     Grown fat from too much indulgence in food and drink, the dealer could not carry his weight up the rock. He called his servants to hack a staircase from the rock and caused himself to be hauled up on a palanquin.
     In time, he finally stood at the base of the giant tree.
     “You are in luck,” said the man who led him there. “It has been a year since the tree had borne fruit. I can see that it has produced a single flower. If you wait just a little bit longer, that flower will become a diamond.”
     After a week this came to pass. Up on a branch high up the tree, a milky white substance materialized from where the flower used to be. It was a raw diamond.
The man climbed up the tree and plucked the fruit from the branch. He went down and offered the raw gem to the dealer.
     “Behold!” cried the man. “The Fruit of the Tree of Diamonds!"
     “How is this possible?” cried the dealer, as he held the rock in his hand.
     “The roots of the tree probe into every nook and cranny of this rock and, by my reckoning, finds the diamonds from inside the rock,” offered the man.
     “If what you say is true,” said the dealer, “then the tree itself does not produce the diamonds. The diamonds come from within the rock!”
     The man looked doubtfully at him and said, “Perhaps.”
     “Why wait for the tree to render a single fruit once a year?” asked the dealer. “Why not dig for the diamonds now?”
     Despite the remonstrations of the man, the dealer had his men cut down the tree and the rock blasted until nothing remained of it but a pile of rubble. He was convinced that the rock extended into the ground and a fortune of diamonds lay within its seams. He returned to Delhi and recruited more men to excavate the place where the tree used to grow. In time the whole scenic valley became a wasteland. In time, as he poured money over his venture, he lost his shop, his customers and his haveli, so convinced was he that he had found a new Golconda.
     In the end, his expense and effort came to nothing. Several years of excavation rendered not a single diamond. All that he and his workers found were pebbles and rocks.
On his deathbed, as he lay ill and impoverished in a hut within the shadow of the cliffs that surrounded the now despoiled valley, the man who had first sold him the diamond came to visit him.
     “Where?”  the dealer cried. “Where are my diamonds?”
     The man looked at him sadly and said contemptuously: “The diamonds were the sap of the tree, didn’t you see? It took nourishment from the rock from which it grew. It drew the elements that make up a diamond from the raw matter of the earth. The tree combined these elements in its body and produced the fruit. You did not believe me. Now the tree and rock are gone, and so are the diamonds.”

     The dealer stared at the man. gave a deep sigh of disappointment and died.

©Copyright 2016 mannypanta All Rights Reserved

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Manti-Anak by Nards Ver Melendres

MANTI-ANAK
by Nards Ver Melendres
Translated from the original  Cebuano by Manny Panta

________________________

The report that Imong met  a monster roiled the entire community of Apokon. The rumor spread like wildfire. In places where people congregated such as liquor stores, barbershops and petty gambling spots, the topic on everyone's lips was Imong's supposed encounter with this monster.

"By golly," started Noy Andes who was washing his tied-up fighting cock, "Impong would have been killed if he wasn't able to run away quickly; they say he encountered a manti-anak!"

  "Yeah, supposedly. We'll just suppose it happened because we didn't see it, Noy," agreed Salo, who was stroking his bee-eating rooster that he had just bathed. "But where was Imong, Noy Naryo, that he would encounter this manti-anak?" asked Salo.

     "Oh, you know, it is already durian season. Apparently Imong was going to steal some fruit from Digirmo-Floring's durian orchard.  But instead of stealing fruit, he met the manti-anak," said Noy Naryo who fetched another rooster from the bamboo cage. "But it was raining lightly the night Imong went there," continued Noy Nario. "That's when they say the monster, if we can call it that, usually appears. They say that Imong was sputtering in terror because the monster chased him."

     "So where's poor Imong now?" asked Salo who made feints with Sidro-Kiang who had just arrived with his fighting cock.

    "Where else but at Mano Ekoy, the medicine-man. It seems that until now Imong has still not recovered his wits. Probably because of too much terror."

     "Poor man," said Sidro-Kiang. "Digirmo must be very happy that nobody is going to filch his fruit. Nobody would be stealing now!"

     "That's right!" said Noy Karyo. "Who would dare steal from that durian orchard now? That monster will not fail to appear there."

    "You,"said Noy Naryo addressing Sidro-Kiang," you've been here in Davao for a long time already, that is to say, you are among the first in the cradle in this place, what really is this manti-anak that everyone is afraid of?"

    Sidro-Kiang did not answer immediately. He thought for a moment.

    "Okay, listen well," he said. He looked at Salo then swung his gaze at Noy Naryo who had seated himself on a rice pounder while holding the rooster he had taken out of the cage. "I will tell you what little knowledge I have of the manti-anak and this knowledge came from the stories related by the natives and aboriginals of this place, the Mansaka. According to the Mansaka, the manti-anak originates from a mother who is unbaptized in the Christian faith and dies at childbirth.  Its face looks like a cat's," continued Sidro Ki-ang,” and the voice sounds like a newly-born child's cries. The unbaptized mother who dies at childbirth becomes the manti-anak and goes after men only because man is supposedly the cause of her death and therefore deserves vengeance."

     "What are they going to do with the man?" asked Salo curiously. "Will they kill him if they capture him?"

     “Of course they'll kill him!" Sidro-Kiang answered emphatically.
"The manti-anak is going to suck the blood out of the man until he's dead."

      "Come on, won't he be aware of that?" interjected Noy Naryo while looking at Sidro-Kiang.
     "That's the difficult part, because we won't be aware that our blood is being sucked away. According to the natives, when you hear the cries of the manti-anak up close, that means it is very far away. But when its cries sound far away and suddenly it is so quiet you can feel it in your bones, that’s when it is very near.

    "That's terrifying, isn't it?" Salo and Naryo exclaimed almost simultaneously.
     "Of course, it is terrifying," said Sidro-Kiang.
     "Can't we escape that fate?" asked Salo.
     "Why not? Through a woman...they say only a woman can counter the curse of this monster."
     "Why a woman?" asked Noy Naryo.
     "Why a woman is the antidote to this monster, I know not the precise reason. But that's what the natives say. The manti-anak is afraid of women."
     The conversation ended when Sidro-Kiang's eldest son fetched him for breakfast. And that's when they went home separately.

**********************

Digirmo-Floring's durian was famous in Apokon. Its fame reached even the neighboring barrios of Pangi and Anibongan. Digirmo-Floring's durian trees were first in fecundity.  The fruit were not just large but they were tasty because they were thorny. In the past years, husband and wife made a lot of money every time the trees bore fruit. Last year alone they made more than two thousand pesos. Two years ago they made three thousand pesos. But in the past harvest season, they barely tasted any durian. Every morning that they went to harvest the fruit, not even one fallen fruit was left on the ground. Everything would be scooped up by the thieves. And one of the quickest was Imong.

“The savages! The devils left nothing behind. As if they planted the trees! They’ve stiffed me who’s done the hard work!” Digirmo was complaining one morning when he visited his orchard and found nothing left behind.  “They didn’t choke when they ate the fruit of my labors!”
Digirmo went home in a fit of anger. He arrived home still muttering his complaints. “One day I am going to get you, you wretches! Your day will come!” His face was contorted in rage.
“Ay, just let it go, Digirmo, what can you do since you didn’t catch them in the act,” admonished his wife. “How can you accuse anyone whom you haven’t seen?”
“I will give the savages their own medicine,” said Digirmo, his anger abating.

Thus began the haunting of the durian orchard. After Imong got scared off by the manti-anak, nobody dared go  into Digirmo-Floring’s orchard. The couple was able to sell fruit again. But mostly what remained of last week’s harvest.

**********************

Salo, Andes, Atoy and Sidro-Kiang met at Nang Eka’s tuba place at the Crossing. Andes who was already there offered a shot of tuba  to Sidro-Kiang when he arrived. “Oh, this is your glass, Dro."
Sidro drank the liquor with a gulp as if it was nothing. Salo gave a separate shot to Andes who drank it without spilling a drop, dregs and all.
As their drinking wore on, their topic turned to Digirmo-Floring’s durian orchard.
“Dro, I admire your courage,” said Salo who was already slurring his speech, “so, hey, will you be going into Digirmo-Floring’s durian orchard?”
“Really?”  riposted Sidra-Kiang at Salo’s challenge. “I would, even tonight,” he boasted.
“Aren’t you scared of the manti-anak? What if it gets you?” asked Andes as he gulped his shot.
“Hey!, Des, Lo, Toy… I’m gonna tell you the truth, Sidro ‘aint scared of a dozen manti-anak!” Sidro-Kiang answered back. “I will eat anyone who is foolish enough to play monster with me, raw and without vinegar!”
“Bai, in order to test Abai Sidro’s bravery,” said Andes who was exchanging looks with Salo, “let’s all bet a demijohn of tuba. What say you, Bai Salo?”
“Agree!” Sidro-Kiang exclaimed. “What should I do to win?”
“This: tonight you are going to Digirmo-Kiang’s orchard,” explained Atoy. “If you can bring back a durian fruit, we’ll cut the story short. You win a demijohn of tuba. The loser pays!”
“If you can bring back a durian, we lose!” Salo added.
“All right!” said Sidro-Kiang who gulped down his glass of tuba. “Sidro aint scared…”

That night they all met at the tuba place at Crossing. It must have been eleven in the evening. Their plan was that Atoy, Salo and Andes would be waiting. They were getting tired because Sidro was nowhere in sight. They suspected that Sidro-Kiang was making fools of them.
After a while Sidro-Kiang showed up carrying eight pieces of durian fruit on a pole. At each end of the pole were tied four durian fruit. Their eyes widened at the sight of Sidro-Kiang who was staggering from the weight of the fruit.
“So you lose, eh?” declared Sidro-Kiang after he had unloaded the fruit right near Salo and Andes.
“Golly, we’re impressed, bro!” said Salo.
“So did the manti-anak find you?” asked Atoy who was waiting for the answer with bated breath.
“The manti-anak was nowhere in sight!” declared Sidro boastfully. “It was afraid of Sidro…!”
They all drank the contents of the demijohn of tuba. Salo’s ear had hardly heated up when he hurled the challenge again: “Again, on Saturday, and the prize once again is a demijohn of tuba. Perhaps the manti-anak was inattentive tonight. It didn’t rain.”
“Anytime, I will always say yes,” said Sidro.

********
Digirmo was fuming with anger that morning. He was only able to harvest two fallen durian fruit. “Stricken again!” he thought. “Now let’s see what you’re made of!”  He forced a smile on his lips.

Early that evening Digirmo hid among the durian trees. He promised himself that he would not fail to be vigilant for as long as fruit remained on the durian trees. Every night he would make his way to the abaca grove where he had prepared a bed of dried fronds. He would rest there.
At around nine o’clock Digirmo heard noises. He felt excited. “I’m gonna get you know you wicked man,” he said silently.

Dried sticks snapped on the ground, surely under the weight of a man’s feet. Then he made out the shape of a man who was starting to pick up the durian fruit that had fallen to the ground. He saw a lighter turn off and on which the bastard used to illuminate his misdeed.
Digirmo started to press off and on the belly of the object in his hand. At once the cries of a suckling baby spilled out. The cries were loud. Digirmo saw that the man looked around. He touched the belly softly. The crying subsided. Silence fell. But the man continued picking up the fruit as if nothing had happened. Digirmo impatiently put down the doll which belonged to his youngest kid and which in turn was a gift from his younger sister who was in the United States, a doll that cried when you pressed its belly. He took out a lamp that had already been filled with compressed gas and lighted a candle that had already been fitted into the lamp.  He pressed the doll’s belly down at the same time that he lighted the lamp. The resulting flare looked like a St. Elmo’s fire gone amok.

     Digirmo could barely suppress his laughter as the thief scampered away for dear life, shouting for help.






Tuesday, February 23, 2016

AN ACCOUNT OF A BUS TRIP FROM CUBAO TO ORMOC CITY

February 22-23, 2016

I bought a ticket from DLTB Bus Line for 1350 pesos discounted senior’s price at the Cubao bus terminal. The bus terminal itself is a gloomy, dingy, ill-lighted hangar you wouldn’t want to hang around in. This is in sharp contrast to the ultra-modern architectural transformation that the Cubao commercial center has undergone. DLTB itself has a small but clean waiting station located on the outer wing of the terminal. I was going to spend some time here when a woman suddenly erupted in anger. It seems she was going to Sogod, Southern Leyte by way of Bato, Leyte, but she learned that her bus was going via Agas Agas Bridge (a previously famous, but now closed venue for a zipline). Well and good. An obvious way was to change her bus. However, although the person she complained to had left the waiting room, she could not stop mouthing off her disappointment to no one in particular. We listened to her rant, totally disinterested in her concerns. Finally, I told her to “Shut up!” She did, perhaps surprised. The others seemed to look at me with gratitude. Before I could settle in to read my iPad, the door flew open and in rushed a flustered woman who looked to be in her 30’s. She sat beside me and started to noisily transact business with some DLTB men. It turned out that she was involved in buying and selling jewelry. Unable to withstand the hubbub, I left the   waiting room and   hauled me and my luggage to a Jco Donuts cafĂ© where I spent the better part of two hours enjoying their excellent donuts and coffee and using the free internet. Before 1 pm I went to join the bus. Because nothing in the Philippines is ever punctual (my previous Air Asia flight from Tacloban to Manila was delayed by an hour), we did not leave until 2 pm. The bus then went across the metropolis, through the EDSA skyway, to Pasay City, where it lingered for a while until we finally left at around 5 pm. The bus itself, which they referred to as the Greyhound on account of a logo that was on the outside of it, was well-appointed. It had a toilet which you can only use to pee, not poo in. Ventilation was  individually controllable .The chairs were clean and comfortable. Not only could you lower your backseat, but there was a cushioned leg rest that could be raised with a lever so you could rest up your legs as well. Not having to have to keep your legs down on the floor all the time is a great boon to long-distance travel. One of the best features of this bus was the free internet. The last time I had a bus with internet was on a Greyhound on an overland trip from New York to Dallas, Texas. You can also charge your cellphone, but I learned about this only in the last third of my trip.  There was a 42-inch Flat screen showing the likes of Transporter 4 and Taken 4, not necessarily my type of movies. On the other hand, who among my fellow Filipino travelers would want to watch a 5-hour telecast of Wagner’s “Das Ring Des Nibelungen” except possibly me? The one movie that I truly suffered through though was a Vice Ganda “comedy” called “Beauty and Da Bestie”. If Filipinos watch this kind of hysterical and nonsensical movie with characters drawn from all types of Filipino caricatures (the screaming gays, the overblown action hero with not a scratch on him, the American pinoys who can barely talk Tagalog, the unconnected scenes just slapped together for laughs) then there is no hope for movies in the Philippines. The bus wound (or should I say rolled slowly on) through Paranaque and various towns in Rizal and Laguna. If we ever went through the South expressway, I didn’t notice it, because traffic was slow. Finally the bus picked up speed somewhere in San Pablo, where there was a notice of a highway bypass. This was a trip where I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Mayon volcano in Albay, but the entire trip took place at night. There was a moon, but there were also clouds, so I saw nothing outside, just the usual jumble of galvanized iron roofs and dark tropical vegetation. I nodded off to sleep. The bus was half-full, so I had both passenger seats to myself. At some point, the bus stopped, the lights went on, and it was announced that we were in the ferry point in Matnog, Sorsogon. It was 2 AM.  I thought we would be arriving at 6 AM! When I got off the bus, I was slightly disorientated. Back in the first few years of the Maharlika freeway and the opening of this trans-insular bus route in the late 70’s, I had taken the same bus trip twice. Matnog at that time was just a backwater barrio, with fishermen’s huts and people who regarded you seemingly in awe because you were passing through their dirt-poor town. I remembered stepping into the nearby brown sand beach, the waves rolling under the light of a cloudy dawn and the hermit crabs scampering among their holes. I thought: “What a pleasant, idyllic place!!” Now the beach was gone. In its place was a yard typical of built-up ports: cement tarmac, steel fencing, a line of snack stores, some steel containers and lines of buses waiting to board the ferries. Matnog now also had a transit terminal, with the required terminal fee (30 pesos). I discovered this on my own because the driver made no announcements on what to do next. If you are taking this bus trip for the first time, ask around. You will discover that you should leave the bus, go into the ferry station, and wait there till your ferry, where you bus has been loaded, is leaving. The ferry station was the most modern aspect of Matnog. It was not luxurious but functional. It was also hot, at 2 AM. It had air-conditioning units, but the units were not turned on, despite the crowd of passengers inside. A few fans were turning, but because the whole station is hermetically sealed with storm glass windows and walls, they were just fanning hot air. Despite it being beside the seashore, no windows were opened to let the air in. The station had no ventilation whatsoever. That’s probably were I picked up my current cold. My delight at seeing this ostensibly modern terminal turned to dismay. And I had to pay 30 pesos for this? One positive feature was a free cell phone charging station.
In the past, there were only two ferries. They left at noon. If you missed those ferries, you had to wait the next day to go across the San Bernardino Strait. Now they had several private ferries operating, so crossing the San Bernardino strait is now very much a 24-7 operation, barring bad weather.When we were finally told to embark our particular ferryboat, this marked the start of a demonstration for Filipinos’ penchant for needless bureaucracy. First I had to undergo a security checkpoint previously at the entrance of the terminal. I then had to present my paid-up terminal fee ticket, which a woman at the exit door dutifully stamped. After negotiating my way past trucks and buses outside (there is no covered walk, which would have made sense in the unpredictable weather) I then had to present the ticket again to the security guard. He tore off part of it while another guard deposited it in a slotted box. When we made it to the pier (there are now several jetties, so you must determine that you are in the right one), a youth called on us to produce our bus tickets. Oh? The driver of our bus made no mention of this, no “Please hold on to your ticket to present to the agent” sort of announcement that is usual and mandatory in most places (the US is very good at this). As a result, I and several others had left our tickets on our bus seats. The youth gave us our boarding tickets anyway. When we went to board the ferry, a young lady took our ticket and tore off a third of it. When we went climb up a side staircase to the upper level of the ferry, another young lady took our ticket and tore off the remaining 3rd. So, counting the security check at the entrance to the terminal, I counted six levels of check-ups before we could board the ferry. What’s that saying: the more backward and corrupt a country, the more regulations it has? Certainly, the more steps there are to an end, the more palms will need to be greased.
The ferryboat that we embarked was a rusting junk that must been used to ply Japanese waters. I gathered this from the safety signs that were still plastered on the walls. Judging from its condition, it must have never seen any refit or any attempt to make it a comfortable ride for the public ever since it was bought from the Japanese. It was filthy, and shamefully so. The worst features were the toilets. Just a yellowed and rusty open latrine with a divider on which an inadequate number of naphthalene balls were sprinkled. The stink was awful and possibly life-threatening. Where was the Coast Guard? Where was the DOH? Why do we keep saying it’s more fun in the Philippines? Why do we keep inviting foreigners to come visit just to see and smell the abominable conditions on our ferryboats on what should be a pleasurable transit from one island to another?
One other thing: our bus arrived at 2 AM in Matnog. We finally boarded the ferryboat at 4 PM. I thought that was it: we leave. No. As it turned out, the ferry wasn’t leaving until the hold was full, and that could take a few hours waiting for vehicles to arrive The ferryboat did not leave till 7 AM, when dawn had already broken. It was only by the light of the morning that I saw how transformed Matnog really was. The fishermen’s huts still stood in the far distant shores, but the main barrio itself was now an assemblage of cement, painted houses, with the large ferryboat terminal dominating the foreground.  Not far from the port, on the opposite side of the cove was a mountain still lush with greenery and a long stretch of sandy beach. Nearer the boats, plastic garbage floated round the port. Here was also something that I did not see before: badjaos, boat people. A man was paddling a boat with a woman and baby in it. Others dove into the waters, yelling for the passengers to throw coins. Just to be sure I asked a ship’s attendant (such as he can be said to be one) who they were. Are they sea gypsies? Some were, he replied, but others were locals, trying to earn a pittance by diving for coins. I saw signs that said: “Please do not throw coins!” Yes, throwing coins is not allowed, said the attendant. You could be arrested for it. And the badjaos? They were not subject to arrest, he said. But if they were not there in the first place, making so much noise trying to get people to throw coins, no one would be throwing any coins in the first place, right? Yes, said the attendant, but they are able to go through security (the port is a supposedly secure area) and do it. So it’s security’s fault, right? I suppose so, said the attendant, but “Puwedeng mapakiusapan ang lahat. Besides, these people have to earn a livelihood.” This kind of self-defeating, convoluted reasoning is why the Philippines can never be said to be under the rule of law. A passenger who throws coins can be arrested, while the diver cannot, when in fact he is not only in a secure zone under the very noses of the security guards, but could put himself in real danger by being accidentally sucked in by the ship’s propellers. Those who are supposed to enforce the law look at the poor wretches and allow the situation to continue because they are sorry for them since they need to earn a few coins to survive. “Ganyan dito,” said the attendant with a smile, “patay malisya”.
When you make the hour-long run across the straits from Matnog to Allen, there are usually a few islands with white sand beaches that you can see along the way. It rained and was misty all the way to Allen so I saw none of the islands. Getting off the ferry in Allen, Samar was a straightforward proposition. I got off the ferry, found my bus and with no further hassles went our way.
Despite the existence of the Marlika highway and the improved transportation that it brought to Samar, nothing indicated to me that Samar itself had really gotten off the poverty rut that it had always been known for. In fact, I saw more houses and hovels. Where before Allen charmed me with its white sand beaches and sleepy-small town feel, those beaches seemed to have disappeared, replaced by a rocky shoreline overrun by nasty-looking green algae. There were no factories or any sign of industrialization anywhere. I could be wrong, but it is not a town you would want to holiday in. The monotonous greenery of Samar sometimes opened up and revealed beautiful looking coves. In Calbayog, there were more signs of urban improvement and vacation houses lined the beach outside town. The water here was clear and from the little I saw, not much garbage. The same could not be said of Catbalogan, where a small inlet that was used as a docking area for boats was positively swimming with garbage. Outside town, garbage rolled down a hillside like a fountain of unmentionables. I would definitely check out Calbayog again, especially with those islands I saw beckoning from the distance and the waterfalls I’ve heard about that abound in this area. Catbalogan, not so much.
Despite the presence of some improved housing, I would conclude that Samar seems to still be a definitely poor province, poorer even than Leyte. With the NPA still conducting raids here, the typhoons that ravage the island like clockwork, and the lack of big-ticket industrial production, I doubt if Samar will ever get off the rut. Its one big hope for improvement is if it seriously promotes itself as a tourist destination.
The bus stopped off for lunch at 2 PM at some DLTB depot and eatery. The food on offer was crap. In fact, in the two eateries that the bus stopped by en route, the food was just plain crappy. I probably have had too much pampering in Manila, having been treated to high-end meals by friends, not to mention the buffet at our Yupangco-Yamaha reunion. But sometimes there are really good eateries out in the countryside. In Ormoc, we have our cheap, filling and tasty bbq chicken at the plaza and they cost almost nothing.  A woman who was riding the bus from Manila to Mahayag near Ormoc explained that she never ate at these food stops. She brought her own packed lunches: fried chicken from Jollibee, the like. I had to eat at the food stop at Calbayog, but did so only due to hunger. I didn’t bring any box lunch, an elementary mistake for a traveler like me. The toilet facilities were no better either. But enough of that.
After a brief delay in the mountain pass above Kananga due to road construction, I finally made it back to Ormoc at around 7 pm. My grandniece Keziah May babbled delightedly when she saw me. Then she was off to spend some fun time at the Ormoc plaza with mom and dad. Ah, Keziah, if I could only bring you to ride the carousel at Mall of Asia!
Some words of advice: if you want some sightseeing, take the bus and spend a day in Legazpi or a week trekking up Mayon Volcano. Stop at Calbayog and go visit its islands, beaches and waterfalls. If you just want go from Manila to Tacloban, take the plane, it costs virtually the same, without the aggravation. Don’t eat at the foodstops. The toilet facilities are bad. The ferryboats are decrepit. You have been warned. If you are an adventurer, none of this will matter to you.
And one last thought: travelling by bus from one end the Philippines to the other would not be possible without the Maharlika Highway. Travelling from Samar to Leyte would not be possible without the magnificent San Juanico Bridge. Whatever their hygienic conditions, the establishment of RORO’s has increased and made convenient bus and vehicle transits between islands. The first two were built during the Marcos years, the 3rd, under Arroyo. Is there anything comparable today?