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 café 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?