My Recent Trip to Masbate, Batangas, Mindoro and Bicol (Part 1)

I promised myself before that if I am in Cebu and if the Super Shuttle RORO 3 (SSR3) of Asian Marine Transport Corp. (AMTC) is running then I will take her to Batangas and that ship calls on Masbate on the way to there. I already inquired about her in AMTC Ouano last Sinulog but she was not running continuously yet then. She is my choice as she is the only direct trip to Batangas and she is the cheapest way to there. I also intended to take her on my way back to Cebu after I go on a short visit to Mindoro.

We thought she was just running recently but I found out she was already in the route since March but her schedule is irregular as it is already the cargo that determines when she leaves port making her more of a cargo-passenger ship or a RORO Cargo ship.

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When I verified she was sailing, I tried to get a ticket in their Gorordo office in Cebu but they were no longer issuing tickets there and so I just got one when I went to AMTC Ouano where she is docked. We left on a Monday midnight but actually I nearly left the ship even though I already had a ticket because upon boarding I found out many of her comforts were already gone when to think she wasn’t really a very comfortable ship to start with.

Gone already was the restaurant and the aircon sitting accommodation called “Theater”. Both were already closed. Of course the Tourist was never opened for since the very start SSR3 didn’t have enough passengers. Although I paid for the cheaper Seating accommodation in “Theater” they bumped me into the more uncomfortable Economy.

The Economy was the same and the mattresses are folded and the reason is to cut down on the dust settling in. But then it was still dusty as nobody takes care to clean them anymore and AMTC Ouano is dusty since the concrete has already turned into muck and the dust floating even diffracts my shots. The toilet and bath is also deteriorated too and less than clean (and its flies even go to the Economy section). The Economy is also hot even then but I found out the noise and vibration from the propeller shaft has lessened. There was no linen available. The Economy is basically for truck crews now and the passenger total was less than five.

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The only place to while away time in SSR3 where there is air. On the kiosk on the right some food is available. Getting hungry is a possibility in the ship. The seats are dusty.

For meals there is rice and the service crew of the kiosk in the bridge level will cook canned food in a single-burner stove when ordered and eggs are available plus drinks, biscuits and noodles. Even that kiosk is also deteriorated too and the seats are dusty. In the ship there were more apprentices than passengers and truck/vehicle crews (there was one pick-up in the load). But what they had were apprentices that do not know how to clean a ship.

My condition demands more comfort than the average person and I feared I won’t be able to sleep. I suffered in the trip but I tried the best I can to survive. But I cannot remember the last time I rode a more uncomfortable ship that has a reclining accommodation. Even the unimproved Lapu-lapu Ferry of more than ten years ago to Cataingan, Masbate with folding cots was more comfortable because it was airy and there was passenger service unlike in SSR3. In SSR3 I never saw a crewman in uniform and most of the persons doing some jobs were just apprentices. Now I wonder what they will learn after their apprenticeship expires when they don’t even tend to the ship and the passengers.

When I woke up in the morning we were still in the middle of Visayan Sea and it was the Samar Sea islands that were dominating the seascape. I knew there is just a small chance of a ship encounter as this place has few ships sailing at daytime. It is a long time before the islands seemed to move and the very few passengers and crewmen at the lounge by the kiosk don’t know them better than me. Until we passed by Cataingan Bay the Masbate land when we were astride it already seemed featureless. I just tried to view the islands in the east especially when we were approaching Naranjo islands. Yeah, with so many islands in the place and lots of fishes I was imagining the place as the birthplace of the Tausugs and the Badjaos which linguistic research says it is and they even have a descendant in the place, the Abaknons.

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Islands in Samar Sea

Until the ship reaches the Uson area with its offshore islands Masbate island is not exciting to watch passing by. Maybe the lack of a true mountain range is the reason and though there is a coastal road few developments are visible. It is the islands on the starboard of the ship that seems to provide variety. And I was peering into it as if I am trying to peer into history and the peoples of the area. I feel that what is called Masbateno now could be the mother language of many languages. If our people came from Formosa and Bicol is their landing place on the way south and Bicol with its many dialects is a Visayan language then Masbate and the islands in Samar Sea might have been the key to the diaspora south.

The Uson area of Masbate also has a fascination to me as that was the only place in Masbate island that the Spaniards was able to control and the rest was controlled by the Moros. In Uson the Spaniards was able to established a galleon-building yard and the area south of the Bicol mountain ranges hosted the bulk of the galleon-building yards of the past as it had the best shipwrights then. I cannot help but think of that when I pass the place. By the way after Uson the ship will sail astride Ticao island too which was very important then to the galleon trade.

As forecast soon we were enveloped in heavy rain and visibility was hampered. The positive thing is everything cooled. It was a reminder that it was already habagat (southwest monsoon) season. We were now leaving the area where there is a gap in the far land mass. To the knowledgeable they know it is the San Bernardino Strait, the way of the galleons in the past into the Pacific Ocean (which is anything but pacific). It was also the way of our seafaring ancestors to Formosa and China, the Pintados with their boats that are even longer than the galleons. Their shipbuilding stopped when the Spaniards issued an edict outlawing them because they needed their skills for the galleons.

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Masbate port. We will try to dock sideways between the two ferries.

We arrived in Masbate after more than 14 hours of sailing and we had a long time docking because the Captain tried a 45-degree docking. Maybe the linear space was not enough for sideways docking. But then the Sta. Clara ferry Jack Daniel suddenly left ahead of time and maybe her Captain was apprehensive of our docking maneuver and she was not waiting for any more vehicles anyway. But with that the last chance I can take pictures of buses in Masbate port was gone. Regarding ferries there were still two Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) High Speed Crafts plus a small RORO of them that will spend the night in port.

I then just made my way to Masbate bus terminal where I found four buses and a few motor bancas in the nearby boat landing area for most have already left as it was already 4 o’clock in the afternoon and the activities in the two Masbate ports was already dying. I was clearly dissatisfied with my Masbate ship and bus spotting. My only consolation was eating the Reuben burger of Bigg’s Masbate but it cost over P200 already. I try to eat in Bigg’s whenever I am in Bicol because they can’t be found outside the region except for two of their outlets.

We left Masbate after more than three hours when night had already fallen after taking in livestock trucks and that meant cattle, carabao and goat (thanks there were no hogs). Masbate is known for livestock and the cattle was obviously for fattening. It was headed for Batangas and I assume when it reaches the market it will already be “Batangas beef”. The car deck of SSR3 when we left Masbate and actually they did not fully load it in Mandaue so the cargo in Masbate can still be loaded.

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For conversion to “Batangas cattle”

After dinnertime (there was actually no dinner), I was able to find a truck crewman that knows the area and like me has been around the country as he drifted from one job into another beginning with fishing. In terms of knowledge of the sea the contract fishermen in the big fishing fleets have almost the same knowledge as the seaman. Amazingly, he also knows buses. He has already lived in many places. We talked even past the Aroroy headland and lighthouse.

I was able to find a more comfortable position on an upper deck which I normally won’t take because of my condition but the only breeze was there. The alternative is to sleep on a bench in the bridge deck by the canteen. Even there it was dusty but at least it was airy. A practical passenger actually slept there and I also spent time there after a hypoglycemic attack when I needed to cool down.

In terms of uncleanliness I do not know if SSR3 has descended to the level of Viva Shipping Lines. Sorry to say it and no offense meant but SSR3 is only good for truck crews whixh is a hardy bunch and not passengers and may this serve as a warning. Cleaning is not part of the routine of the crew and the apprentices. If there is no regular schedule then MARINA could just withhold the passenger license like with what they did with Gothong Lines. It won’t matter on the part of AMTC anyway because for all practical purposes SSR3 is just a RORO Cargo ship now and she gets full anyway according to what I heard.

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Marinduque behind

When I woke up in the morning we were just between Marinduque island and the Batangas headland which corresponds to the town of San Juan. I laughed because that route will make one feel what the view is if the Starhorse ferry was still sailing the San Juan to Marinduque route. Astride San Juan the plains of Naujan of Mindoro, the former developed area of Mindoro before Calapan was very visible along with the two tall mountains of Mindoro. Up ahead were the islands in the Verde Island Passage. But I was wondering why our ship was following the coastal route. Were we reclassified into a “coaster”?

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Mindoro up ahead

I was able to engage in some productive exchanges with people connected with AMTC before entering Batangas Bay. From Matuco Point I was already busy taking photos of ships. The only positive thing about SSR3 was I was able to charge all my batteries. As usual there were a lot of ships in Batangas port and in the bay. Maybe my most notable finding was the reappearance of the former Siquijor Island II which is now The Pegasus. Our trip from Masbate lasted over 16 hours and it was near lunch when we arrived.

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Batangas port

Disembarking from the ship the ATI (Asian Terminals Inc.) shuttle picked us up. Nobody walks around in Batangas port because ISPS tells them any passenger is a possible saboteur and ATI is the new operator. I really cannot understand this practice of government of handing over fully-developed ports with a lot of traffic to private operators for just a small rental when a port like Batangas costs in the billions. A chance to engage in “golden signatures”, perhaps?

I did not have much time in Batangas port because upon surveying the ticketing booths I noticed the Starlite Pioneer was leaving at 1pm and I wanted to take that to assess the design of the new ship series of Starlite Ferries. I did not even have enough time to take enough bus pictures or have a proper lunch. But one thing I noticed in Starlite Ferries is a lot of passengers have food in see-through plastic meal boxes. I found out later that was already the new way of selling meals in Batangas and Calapan. Neat and practical and the price just matches that of fast food chains and there is less garbage and mess in the ship.

I found out the new Starlite Ferries has no meaningful difference over the older ferries except the side passageways are wider and there was an elevator for disabled persons. A wing passenger ramp like in Cebu is a better improvement for Batangas ferries because what they do is hold the passengers so that the vehicles can load or unload first. A wing ramp will enable simultaneous passenger and cargo loading and unloading which the Batangas ferries can’t do unlike in Central Visayas.

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By the way the passenger bridges of Batangas port are no longer used as shuttles just whisk away the passengers to their ship. So the design was wrong? Well, one does not need to go to the second floor of the passenger terminal building anymore and then go down to wharf level near the ship. Bus passengers meanwhile has to go down to pay the passenger terminal fee and board again their bus up to the ferry. Well it seems “cattle-herding” won’t go anytime soon in the ISPS ports. Why can’t the port assign collectors to go up the buses? It seems passenger comfort is an unknown objective to them. If passengers can move their asses so should they can for they are paid after. Maybe they can recruit former bus conductors to do that job for them.

Starlite Ferries built an open-air Economy section on top of the Japan-built passenger section to increase passenger capacity much like what shipping companies do with the surplus ships from Japan. It should have been my accommodation but the good thing is they upgraded us to the aircon section. That was a nice facility to cool down when ship spotting. My senior citizen fare was only P171 and I wondered how they computed that since it was lower than what I expected. Their fare are like the Economy of Oceanjet and FastCat which is about equivalent to the Economy of MSLI and I heard MSLI is suffering as a result. It is really good if there is true competition as fares go down.

It is nice taking a ferry to Calapan as there are many ships anchored in Batangas Bay and there are also encounters with ships from Calapan and ships traversing the Verde Island Passage. Sabang of Puerto Galera also becomes visible along with Maricaban island and Verde island. Traversing the strait one might think it was not habagat yet as the sea shows no sign of it. Approaching Calapan one has view of the town (it is a city), the settlements to the port and the port itself which looks very long now with many buildings already.

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A part of Calapan port

We arrived in Calapan port at past 3pm. Starlite Pioneer was not able to deliver on their 1 hour 45 minute promised crossing time and we took two hours in the 24-nautical mile route. I thought the cruising speed of the ship was 14.5 knots? That is what they advertised. But anyway the crew was nice and I was able to charge batteries a little. And riding a new ship is always nice.

Upon arrival in Calapan, I realized I had no time anymore to go to Puerto Galera because if I do so I will arrive there when the sun is already setting down and I still wanted to roam Calapan port and take photos of ships and buses there if there are any around (there was none as it was still to early for the buses from Panay and Occidental Mindoro). I was also interested in the Mindoro jeeps which are actually trucks in disguise as they can’t be found anywhere else.

After finding an eatery where I was able to charge battery I went to Calapan market to visit old haunts (I did business in Mindoro before) and see what changed, what remained. When I visited Calapan three years ago with two PSSS Moderators as hosts I was not able to figure out well the market as we were more on the outskirts and the new developments in Calapan. Roaming the market, I just did it on foot to better absorb things. I already tried to find our old place. I can no longer find it. The place of a lady Chinese friend was shuttered already. And the legendary Ampo was no longer there too.

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Calapan public market and terminal

Before leaving the city I took my first food that can be called a meal. That was also my rest. Then a heavy rain fell and that precluded any more roaming or getting around. Getting a tricycle also got difficult. It was already a little dark when I arrived back in the port and roaming and taking shots were compromised. I got back to the eatery to retrieve my battery. I was able to interview the owner a little about the old ferries of Calapan when all were still wooden-hulled and moving cargo were all mano-mano (by hands).

In Calapan port I made calls and verification through others of my possible rides. I have the phone of AMTC Batangas but they were not answering calls. They had a notice in their ticketing office that boarding of SSR3 is 6pm the next day. If that is the case then I can while away the time in Batangas port, the city and the terminal (or go to Puerto Galera). But I was warned aboard the ship that it usually takes 3 days before SSR3 heads back to Cebu. Even the crewman aboard SSR3 was not taking my calls.

My alternative if it really that long was to take the 7am St. Francis Xavier of 2GO the next day in the North Harbor of Manila. It will cost me more but I can cover North Harbor again. But I anticipated a problem with the 2GO ship. All charging are charged there at P5 for 10 minutes. It will cost me a fortune to charge all my batteries which take a total of over 12 hours. And that is what I cannot understand about 2GO when the likes of Trans-Asia can offer free charging by the bunk and that is also what I found out about the refurbished Filipinas Maasin of Cokaliong which was my ship back to Cebu. It’s hard when there are stockholders to please like in 2GO. They always expect dividends from profits.

I tried to avoid an early Calapan departure because I know there are less passenger comforts in Batangas port than in Calapan port. The first one is an ISPS port in the fullest sense and the passengers have a very small “corral” to roam around with few “grazing” areas like stores. That is not a problem in Calapan. If needed I can take a tricycle and head back to the city if I want a better eat or surroundings. If I go early there is no sense arriving in Manila at 2am. Manila is more dangerous and going to North Harbor early is also no good as the terminal is not open much ahead of the departure time (why waste power?).

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Issuance of free ferry tickets for bus passengers in Calapan port

So I decided on an 11pm FastCat where I can have a nice rest. I declined the Starlite ferry at the same time because it is the older Starlite Jupiter. I am not sure if it has individual seats in an air-conditioned compartment and visually I dislike seeing people sleeping on seats (Batangas ferries are known for scrimping on bunks unlike in Cebu). If it was a new Starlite ferry that is different from the Starlite Pioneer I would have taken it because I need charging.

While waiting in Calapan port I was able to befriend two guards and I had a lively conversation with them that I was able to get more sense of Calapan-Batangas shipping now. We also had some talks of the past of Mindoro. Nothing beats a good talk when one is just waiting anyway. While i was talking to them the buses from Panay island and Occidental Mindoro kept arriving and after a short wait they board their ferries. Dimple Star is already the dominant bus in the routes that cross from Batangas going south.

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The FastCat and the Starlite Jupiter arrived one after the other in Batangas after leaving one after the other in Calapan. Are the new ferries limiting their speeds already to save on fuel? We took nearly two hours to Calapan. My FastCat was the M5 and I have not ridden it before like the Starlite Jupiter. Their fares are about the same but I got the feeling the FastCat is more comfortable as it is a new ferry.

When I arrived in Batangas port at 1 am there was only one bus available, an N. De la Rosa Transit which is a Cubao/Kamias bus and passes through the Cubao underpass. I didn’t like it. I don’t want to go down in Makati and so I waited. But there was no other bus because a 2GO ship arrived ahead of us and vacuumed the waiting buses. At that hour going to the Batangas Grand Terminal will cost money by tricycle. Yes, one can get marooned in Batangas port after midnight.

Until 3am arrived. The N. De la Rosa bus has not yet left. Seems it was waiting for the 1am ferries from Calapan. 3am is the critical hour for me. If my bus is not leaving by that time then there is no more point going after a 7am ferry in North Harbor as I might just miss it. Good i hedged my bet and didn’t get a 2GO ticket yet although their ticketing office was open.

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A view of Batangas port while waiting for a bus

And from there my plans changed in an instant. Good I was from Luzon and I know the other alternatives. I can’t wait for the other 2GO ferries in North Harbor as the next two departures are at night and the arrival in Cebu will also be at night and what is the use of that for ship spotting? It is also not a good alternative to wait for the SSR3 for 3 days. I was also not prepared for any long-ranging diversion in terms of days as I was not prepared for that in many ways.

I have to go some other way back….

(To be continued…)

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