A few years back, I was planning to go to Cebu from Davao. I had already made Cebu to Davao combined land and sea trips via Leyte before that and though more tiring and longer I found out it was more rewarding – in views and photos, in insights and just by the plain experience. With those long trips I am able to talk to people, soak a lot of things and garnet a lot of photos of ships to share with friends and the ship spotting world.
In my travels through the decades I had always sought new routes, new connections so that my travels will be more diverse. No need really to trod the old routes as I am not for the “safety” conferred by it. I want the new, the unexpected and sometimes I welcome the difficulties. One learns with experimentation and errors. I have had failures and misses that I sometimes had to sleep in terminals or lose hours waiting for the next connection. But I never despair or get upset with that because I try to make it a learning experience. If I can guide people now with their travels, it came from the failures and successes of my experimentation with routes and connections. Of course, one has to read and research so the failures will be less than the successes and so that the experience will be more rewarding. It is always better to be not so dumb with the new places one will pass through.
One attraction of a trip from Davao to Cebu via Leyte is I will be able to ship spot Lipata port again and one of its corresponding ports in Panaon island. In the main I try to pass by Surigao every year or two as to be acquainted with the place again. Surigao is one place that has a tug in my heart because in the many years since I learned the overland trip from Davao to Bicol I found it a nice intermediate point. Actually, the crossing of Surigao Strait is refreshing to me especially the always changing seascape one sees as the ship chugs along. There is also the sight of the “The Saddle”, the volcano that produced the Guinsaogon tragedy, the historic Limasawa island, Nonoc island that is synonymous to nickel and the northernmost headland of Mindanao, the Punta Bilar. And of course the realization that in Surigao Strait one the greatest naval battles in history took place.
Panaon island also holds attraction to me that I have sought tales about it. I was able to learn the peculiarity of its copra, its old ports, its original people, the Mamanwas, a dark people of Aeta stock, similar to the original people that once dominated the eastern Mindanao cordillera but who are dwindling now. One will see their relatives in the mountain pass that divide Agusan del Norte and Surigao del Norte and sometimes one will read about them in the news when conflict arises between mining companies and their ancestral domain claims.
Now, don’t people say now that Agas-agas is majestic? Maybe they talk of the new bridge now spanning that chasm. It was a bridge that was the solution put forward by JICA to solve the problem of the always cut road because water from the mountain will always crash through on the way to that chasm in the rainy season, the beginning of a river, hence the name “agas-agas”. With it cut the vehicles from the south will head to Maasin and Bato, Leyte to make the long cut to Tacloban.
The boundary of Leyte and Southern Leyte, once impenetrable before also have a great attraction to me because I am a nature guy. Though not really a great forest, still the lay of the land and the vegetation attracts me along with the many curves and ascents and descents of the road. How can one forget the old Sogod buses then which just freewheel going down and engage 2nd gear when the rig goes too fast already? The mere swaying of that into the road curves by the ravines is exhilarating (but terrifying to many). I don’t know if they stopped the practice already but I found it heartwarming that in Christmas, the oh-so-few barrios by the there will put Christmas lights by the road. From out of the dark and gloom one will notice at night that the bus is passing a small barrio and it feels welcoming.
I can go on with what I remember with the route. Those are some of the things why a route to Leyte is always an attraction to me. I want to experience it again and besides I want to visit a ship spotter in Baybay, someone who knows a great deal the ferries of Leyte in the past and so I wanted to have a chat with him. He was also once assigned to Bicol in an abaca trading firm, an oldie at that and for one who was always attracted in crops and trading I also wanted to have sharing with him. I have lost track of the the abaca trade in actuality (as opposed to figures) and I know it has a revival of sorts (recently, news say there is a shortage of abaca fiber). And besides he teaches at Visayas State University which was once known as VISCA, a highly-rated college in agriculture (#4!) but few knows that. I always had an attraction for agriculture and crops.
I did research on the timetables and decided the 9pm Philtranco bus from Davao Ecoland terminal will best suit my travel needs. I predicted it will be in Mahaplag junction (some call it a “crossing” but it is actually a junction) just before noon the next day and from there Baybay will be a short distance away (24 kms). Just in time for lunch and if I am lucky I can have a meeting with Mervin Soon and be free part of the afternoon to roam Baybay and then take the cheap night ferry to Cebu which will serve as my first rest.
Being a Bicolano I am not a great fan of Philtranco as it disappointed us a lot in the past even when it was still Pantranco South. I got a ticket in their booth and promptly went back to complain. Yes, the sly charging to the passengers of the rolling rate of the bus was there in the ticket. I made my point and they issued me a new ticket and refunded me P50. They knew they were talking to someone not dumb.
I viewed the bus. A relatively new Daewoo BF106, a Hino RK derivative, the front-engined version. It is non-air and it will be the first time I will be riding it so I welcomed the chance to assess it. Not good. If the Hino RK platform is not respected in Luzon this was a worse version. Stiff, not too compliant platform and the suspension hisses as lot. The windows rattle too. I thought the old Leyland Albions of Pantranco South was better. But of course they were not powerful, runs slow compared to today. Well, time passes. What I mean is technology improves. The upholstery is low-class too. The edge of the headrests were fraying from being used as hand support of the passengers when getting on and off.
We made some fast clip. It was a night trip and except for designated stops where they have a pick-up, the bus just rolled into the night. That is why I recommended before for Davao passengers to just use the Manila buses in going to Leyte rather than riding the slow Bachelor buses that hugs the terminals a lot and which is hard to sleep on because of that (passengers and vendors rustling every now and then and the bus will turn on its interior lights at every terminal). If a Manila bus from Davao can reach Tacloban in 16 hours or so, it will take a Bachelor bus nearly a day to reach the same place. I am talking of the transit times then.
Vultures of Benit
Our bus reached Lipata port at sun-up which was just in time for the 6am Montenegro Lines ferry (it leaves anything but 6am sharp). Got off the bus, made a roam of the port and took shots, absorbed the atmosphere, made observations. Why would I queue with the rest of the bus passengers? That’s dumb. They will let you in the ferry even without ticket (just be prepared for the ticket inspection). And besides, it was never the job of the ferry people to check if one has a terminal ticket.
I headed next to the ferry and boarded. I wanted to take shots and talk to some crewmen. Met a kind engineer who offered me to partake breakfast on the bench near the door to the engine room. After some talk I asked if I can visit the engine room. I ask for this before the ferry sails because that is more difficult to ask when the engine is already running and besides that it will be too noisy then.
The engine room of Maria Lolita was very clean, tidy, well-organized. I noted the Yanmar engine, its dials and then the auxiliary engines, etc. When my back was turned, the main engine started. I asked what time we were leaving? The oilers said “Now!”.
No time to get tickets anymore. Just made small talk, asked questions on the oilers regarding the engine and engine performance. The noise was bearable, the vibration acceptable. I know the inspection of tickets will be fast since Benit port is just about 1 hour and 15 minutes only. When I knew the coast was clear I headed up first to the car deck and then to passenger deck. I met the kind engineer and he had the smile na “Nakalusot ka!”. I just smiled back. At the passenger cabin there were quizzical looks from some of the bus passengers. It meant, “Where have you been? We thought you were left in the port.” A ship spotter maiiwanan sa pantalan?
Maria Lolita is a double-ended RORO with two heads or bridges. But only one bridge is being used and she does not sail like the usual double-ended RORO (which means she still turns around). With one bridge not used I was able to roam and inspect it closely. One thing I noticed is the view is good and it looks modern.
Maria Lolita has only one passenger deck and in the center is the airconditioned Tourist and outside of that on the sides is the Economy. The passenger capacity is only moderate. But she is relatively fast for its size. The vessel is still relatively new by Philippine standards.
The bus made a meal stop in Benit. By 8:30am we were already rolling out of the port. The vultures of Benit are still there by the gate demanding the illegal exaction from the hapless but clueless passengers who should not be charged anyway as the Supreme Court has already decided such LGU exactions are void and illegal. Well, I bet even our lawyers and judges pay those illegal exactions. I guess that is how “enlightened” we are as a people.
The climb to “The Saddle” soon began. It should have been a magnificent sight of the sea but the growth and undergrowth is thick. It is not a long climb and soon came the slow descent. We were rolling now in the straight and flat roads of Panaon, not first class but good enough. There are only a few vehicles and the sea is almost always on sight. The towns looked small (until I found out later that Pintuyan poblacion was not in the highway when we were invited by its Mayor).
Soon we reached Liloan bridge, the short bridge spanning the very narrow Liloan Strait that looks more like a river but it actually divided Panaon island from Leyte island (and the northern part of Liloan town to its southern part). Again the road was mostly straight and traffic very light. It is heavy in coconuts fronds as Panaon is coconut country). We passed by Himayangan junction which leads to Silago and the towns by Cabalian Bay and which is dominated by the volcano Mt. Cabalian. Sogod junction appeared with its beer slogan “So good, ayos na ang kasunod” that was already decades old. I always wondered as a boy ano yung kasunod. Maybe it is the only place in the country that that ad slogan is still used.
After that I knew the hard climbs will begin when the bus will just alternate between 2nd and 3rd gears and be down to 1st in some stretches. I was busy watching the scenery, taking shots if possible when the bus swung to a parking area. It was the Agas-agas rest area of the DPWH. The bridge is just nearby but the bus didn’t slow down when we passed through it. Maybe the driver is also too full of its sight it he doesn’t care anymore (anyway, bus drivers are not tourist guides). More climbs and descents, curves and turns and soon we were in Mahaplag junction with its empty gas station and lots of vendors. It was just past 11am. So far our transit time was still just 14 hours. The comparative Bachelor bus will just be entering Surigao transport terminal (that is why I don’t use the “Express” in their name because that is blasphemy against the true express buses and as I said before when a bus company has the name “Express” it is sure as hell that it is a slow bus).
I partook some of the offerings of the vendors and downed it with two bottles of soft drinks. I was hungry, I was dehydrated. I always wondered about all the rumors and warnings that the food in Cuatro de Agosto barrio is “poisoned”. All the years I have always bought there and I did not even had the slightest stomach ache. I also wonder about the reputation of Buray, the old junction to Eastern Samar. I have eaten there. Now where were the supposed “poisoners” of the place? If one listens to all these tall tales a fearful person will form the idea that Eastern Visayas is the land of “poisoners”. Well, in Tacloban terminal they will even offer free tikim of their moron. I have not heard of a complaint there that they were poisoned.
Then the vendors were even kind enough to wait for a van for me and talk to the driver if I can be accommodated (it was a hot day). Soon I was on the descents to Baybay and then to its rice plains (Baybay is known for rice and maybe that is part of the reason why VISCA is there). Finally, I had a signal in my Sun cellphone and notified Mervin. He won’t be available till past noon but we will have lunch together. I didn’t mind as I can have a visit to Baybay transport terminal again. Nice to lounge there and I taste the offerings there too. I am a kakanin person.
I soon met Mervin for the first time. He was still very healthy then, the type who had a very understanding mother. He took me to a seaside ihaw-ihaw restaurant (it’s no longer there now). Had a good view of Baybay port and soon we were talking about ships especially the old ones. He knows some of the shipping scions being classmates with them in Sacred Heart School and he knows their stories. We also talked about TAG Fiber. Yes, he knows Bicol abaca.
We parted at mid-afternoon and I had the reign of Baybay again. Enough time to soak it up, observe the movements, gawk at their kind of vehicles. They have double-tire jeeps and that goes to Abuyog town passing by Mahaplag.
It rained in the late afternoon and early evening making access to the port difficult. The walk is a little long and it is uncovered. I took the Rosalia 3. I prefer these old ships especially the local-builds. They are a little bit unlike the ex-Japan ferries and I am interested in their history. The Lapu-lapu fare is cheap. P300 for economy and P400 for tourist (I heard that even got lower because of tightening competition). It was bunks tejeras in economy, bunks also in Tourist. It was reasonably clean and the aircon is cold enough with free beddings. The rain gets in a little in the economy. Rain in Baybay is driven by the wind.
I made a tour of the ship even that night but I vowed I would linger in the morning to get a fuller and clearer view and throw questions. Sure enough I was among the last to wake up and get off the next morning. I was able to explore the ship and heard some Lapu-lapu Shipping tales. Rosalia 3 is small but she is actually a fast ship. Later, we learned she has three engines and is of fishing vessel origin. Now, isn’t that nice to know?
I also made a tour of the nearby ships. I really make the most when I am inside the port because once outside it is very hard to get in and visit the ships because of ISPS (International System of Port Security). In its book, everyone should be treated as a “potential terrorist”. It was made by some who graduated in Praning School.
Soon the sun was beginning to get hot. Time to go. As usual because of ship spotting I leave the port tired as I will max everything as long as I have the strength.
That is me as a ship spotter.
An ordinary bus plus free ferry, then a cheap van and a cheap ferry, that was why I was able to reach Cebu cheaper than if I had taken a bus to Cagayan de Oro and rode the Trans-Asia ferry. Actually, even if I had paid for the ferry fare, the route via Baybay is still cheaper. Imagine that! In the map, the route will look more circuitous and it has two sea crossings (but that meant more ships can be caught by a ship spotter). But those sea crossings are cheaper than the much longer sea crossing through Mindanao Sea.