A Trip to Cebu by a Fast Van and MV St. Pope John Paul II

Once, the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) had a ship spotting meet in Cebu City, the usual venue (since Cebu has the greatest number of ships anyway in the country). I will be undertaking the trip from Davao with a fellow member of the group from Samal. As ship spotters we will be taking the ship and not the plane. We had the choices of Cagayan de Oro, Nasipit or Surigao as embarkation ports but we settled on Cagayan de Oro because our target was the ship MV St. Pope John Paul II and its luxurious Stateroom. We know we will be able to get that room cheap if we book early enough. And we were not mistaken. We were able to get that room at just above the Tourist rate.

The MV St. Pope John Paul II leaves Cagayan de Oro at 10am and if we were lucky that it is on schedule (and during that time 2GO ships were late more often than not) we might still have enough light approaching Cebu port since its ETA was 6pm and so she should be approaching Mactan island when there might still be enough light. We were hoping for some good encounters approaching Mactan.

To be able to board the ship at two hours before departure I estimated we should be able to board a bus at just past midnight in Davao Ecoland terminal. We know we won’t get to sleep much aboard a bus but we planned to make it up aboard the ship since there will still be time to sleep after making a round of the ship taking photos.

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A commuter van similar to what we rode from  Davao to CDO (Photo by Custom Cab)

We went to the bus terminal at 10pm. The bus was our first choice because my companion is afraid of the cheaper and faster commuter van (it is supposedly less safe in case of a collision). We checked the Rural Transit bus inside the terminal. They were using their high-deckers in that stretch of the night and so the fare is P640 instead of P570 (this is aircon fare). My old resistance and animosity against Rural Transit was reawakened. This bus charges high as there is no competition. I came from a deregulated region and I am used to a P500 aircon bus fare for a 380-km Naga-Manila route. The P640 was just for a distance of 320 kilometers.

I told my companion-friend that we check the commuter vans just outside the terminal (it is no longer there now, driven out as having no permit). I asked the rate. It was just P400. I told my companion that with the difference we can buy a lot of food and drinks. And so we decided to take the van but like my old style I told the dispatcher we will take the next van and please reserve the front seats for us.

Our van left at 12 midnight sharp and I was in the front seat. The van was a new Toyota Grandia and the driver is still at his peak years. We made small talk. I always do that and I also mind the quality of his driving. He was competent. There was no over-speeding or reckless driving. He was usually running just in the 100-110kph range but he was serious. No laxing off in the pace. We arrived in Valencia City after exactly two hours. We stopped because a passenger alighted and it was time for some to relieve themselves. The driver waited five minutes in case a chance passenger shows up.

I thought we will be arriving very early. At first thought we will be in Agora of Cagayan de Oro at 6am which is just time enough for breakfast and lounging (as we plan to go to the Macabalan port at 8am). Valencia is already more than halfway of our route. I observed the driver. He is not showing signs of tiredness. The pace was still the same. Our pace slowed a little in Mangima because of the road works but at 3:57am the driver pulled his parking brake lever in Agora terminal and market and we disembarked. I complimented the driver on his driving and gave my thanks and and well wishes. I always do that.

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Agora Market and Terminal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Our trip just took 3 hours and 57 minutes for the 320-kilometer stretch! That was over 80kph average speed! Now suddenly my companion realized that the buses of Mindanao are real laggards for even aircon buses take 7 hours in that stretch (to think half of the Davao-Cagayan de Oro stretch still lacks habitation and vehicles). Well, the drivers of Rural Transit are too fond of meal and coffee stops and once they see 100kph on the speedometer they back off.

We were lucky the Jollibee store in Agora was already opening. I thought swerte, me tambayan. We really need a friendly place to while away a long time. I told my companion we won’t leave the store unless they kick us out because there is no sense in going to the pier early because one can’t enter anyway and the passenger lounge which has only bucket fiberglass seats might still not be open. And I am not even sure if there is air-conditioning. I said our place is way better than the pier and at least there is activity outside.

At 6am, we called a PSSS member in Cagayan de Oro. He joined us at 7am and so it became livelier. We finally left the store before 9am after 5 hours there (and we extended profuse thanks for the hospitality). We thought our time allowance is perfect.

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Well, things does not turn out that way. We have to have our tickets xeroxed and there is no xerox nearby. It seems the ticket printed by one’s own computer is only for 2GO’s convenience. And we have to line up. These checking of persons in the terminal is just for the benefit of the Americans. It is not for our safety. If someone will bomb they will bomb anyway. And there are much easier targets like the city halls, markets, plazas and other places of gathering including the church. If I am the bomber the port and its terminal will not be my priority.

We were finally able to board and we knew the departure of the ship will be late as it was already announced before we boarded. There goes our chance of a free ship spotting approaching Mactan and Cebu. We made a tour of the ship taking pictures along the way. Our first respite was our free lunch at the separate restaurant for First Class passengers called “Horizon Cafe”. Not that very inviting. So many trainees (and they chatter). And I commented to Aris that 2GO food is just like hospital food. Just enough for one to remove his hungriness but no feeling of being full as it is not Sulpicio Lines. If we were aboard a Sulpicio ship it would have been smorgasbord since we were in First Class.

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Horizon Cafe

MV St. Pope John Paul II is also tiring to tour. The ship is longer and it has more than two passenger decks. Part of the navigation deck structure is also for the passengers and so it is also open unlike in MV St. Gregory The Great and MV St. Leo The Great where it is fenced off. And part of the upper wagon deck is also for passengers. So practically three-and-a-half decks has to be toured. One thing noticeable though for MV St. Pope John The Paul are the big rooms and other facilities not in use and it is obvious that many cabins are unoccupied.

After lunch and a few more shots we took our rest. Time for some sleep. Our Stateroom has two beds, one big and one smaller and near the door there is a divan fronting the bath. There is a cabinet for clothes and smaller cabinets for stowing away things. And a big mirror. The appointments are really for multi-day voyages. The air-conditioning’s cold was just okay although I wanted it a little cooler. What’s the use of a good blanket anyway?

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Stateroom (on the right is the bigger bed)

We woke up at about 4pm (but I really did not sleep much) and again made a round of the ship. It was cooler already and we know we will be up and about until the ship reaches Cebu. And that is one that fags me out a little since it means two hours of so of milling around and taking shots. As we expected approaching Mactan the light was no longer enough for good shots. The price of being late.

Although there were some disappointments, over-all we enjoyed our ride aboard MV St. Pope John Paul II. The Stateroom for the price we paid was treat enough. The ship was still a good ship, not rundown and it was clean and inviting, the main restaurant had plenty of offerings and the service crew tries a lot. Even the restaurant crew are hard-trying. 

We then disembarked in Cebu International Port. Being dark already the shots are also limited. We made our way outside the port and soon hailed a taxi. We will be staying at Mariners’ Court which we expect will be a good vantage point. It did not disappoint. And nor did the ship spotting tours with the group that happened in the next few days.

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The Sunset of Tacloban Port

Tacloban City is the regional commercial center of Eastern Visayas and this has been so for about a century now. It has the advantage of a central location and a sheltered port and bay. Its reach weakens, however, in the western coast of Leyte which has its own sea connections to a greater trade and commercial center, the great city of Cebu which has been ascendant in the south of the Philippines since half a millennium ago. 

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http://image.slidesharecdn.com/easternvisayasfinal-150407210918-conversion-gate01/95/eastern-visayas-biliran-2-638.jpg?cb=1428459126

As a regional commercial center, it is but natural for Tacloban to have a great port with trade routes to many places. That has been the situation of Tacloban since before World War II and even before World War I. It also does not hurt that Tacloban is the capital of the province of Leyte. In fact, because of her superior strategic location, Tacloban even exceeded her mother town which is Palo which is still the seat of the church hierarchy.

Before World War II and after that, passenger-cargo ships from Manila will drop by first in Masbate, Catbalogan and Calbayog before hooking route and proceeding to Tacloban. Some of these ships will then still proceed to Surigao and Butuan or even Cagayan de Oro using the eastern seaboard of Leyte. Tacloban then was the fulcrum of these liner routes going to Eastern Visayas. That route was much stronger than the routes that drop by Ormoc and Maasin and perhaps Sogod and Cabalian before going to Surigao. The two routes were actually competing (like Ormoc and Tacloban are competing). If the route via Tacloban was stronger it is because Tacloban was the trade and commercial center of the region.

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At its peak, Tacloban port hosted some seven passenger-cargo ships from Manila per week from different liner companies. She also had daily regular calls from passenger-cargo ships emanating from Cebu. There were also some ships that originate from as far as Davao which dropped by Surigao first. Such was the importance of Tacloban port then which can still be seen in the size of Tacloban port and the bodegas surrounding it.

There were many liner companies that called over the years in Tacloban from Manila. Among them were Sulpicio Lines (and the earlier Carlos A. Gothong & Co.), Compania Maritima, General Shipping Company, Philippine Steam and Navigation Company, Philippine Pioneer Lines (and later the successor Galaxy Lines), Escano Lines, Sweet Lines, even the combined Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. and Lorenzo Shipping Corporation. When it was still sailing local routes, even De la Rama Steamship served Tacloban. Among the minor liner companies, Royal Lines Inc., Veloso Brothers Ltd., N&S Lines, Philippine Sea Transport and Oriental Shipping Agency also served Tacloban. Not all of those served at the same time but that line-up of shipping companies will show how great was Tacloban port then.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

For many years there was even a luxury liner rivalry in Tacloban port. This was the battle which featured the Dona Angelina of Sulpicio Lines and the Sweet Rose of Sweet Lines which mainly happened in the 1970s. Sweet Rose was sailing to Tacloban from the late 1960s and was in fact the first luxury liner to that port. The two liners were the best ships then sailing to Tacloban port. The rest, of course, were mainly ex-”FS” ships which was the backbone of the national liner fleet then and there was no shame in that.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

Tacloban port was doing well until the late 1970’s when a paradigm change pulled the rug from under their feet. This development was the fielding of a RORO by Cardinal Shipping, the Cardinal Ferry I that connected Sorsogon and Samar. With San Juanico bridge already connecting Samar and Leyte and the Maharlika Highway already completed, intermodal trucks and buses started rolling into Tacloban and Leyte. In fact, in just one year of operation the intermodal link was already a roaring success with many trucks and buses already running to Manila. Soon other ferries were connecting Sorsogon and Samar including the Maharlika I of the government.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

With this development the irreversible decline of Tacloban port began. It was a slide that never ever saw a reversal because what happened over the years was the buses and trucks rolling to Tacloban and Leyte just continued to multiply without abatement (and the ROROs in San Bernardino Strait also increased in number). Soon the passengers were already filling the intermodal buses and freight except the heaviest and the bulkiest was also slowly shifted to the trucks. Over the years the number of passenger ships to Tacloban slowly declined as a consequence.

In the late 1980’s, when the pressure of the intermodal was great there were still three national shipping lines with routes to Tacloban – Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines. In the early 1990’s. when Sweet Lines quit shipping only the top two shipping lines then where still sailing to Tacloban with the Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines and the Masbate Uno of William Lines. Incidentally, the infamous Dona Paz which burned and sank after a collision with a tanker in December 1987 originated from Tacloban.

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Tacloban Princess by John Carlos Cabanillas

When the WG&A merger came in 1996 the company pulled out the Masbate I from the Tacloban route. The last liners ever to sail the Tacloban route were the Tacloban Princess and the Cebu Princess which alternated in the route. Both belonged to Sulpicio Lines. The liner route from Manila to Tacloban was finally severed when Sulpicio Lines got suspended from passenger service as a consequence of the sinking of the Princess of the Stars when both the Tacloban Princess and the Cebu Princess were sold.

The overnight ferry service from Cebu almost followed the same path and died at almost the same time. The last three shipping companies which had a route there were Roly Shipping, Maypalad Shipping and Cebu Ferries Corporation (which was the successor of CAGLI). But passengers slowly learned that the routes via Ormoc and Baybay were faster and cheaper and the connection was oh-so-easy as the bus terminals of the two cities were just outside the port gates of Ormoc and Baybay. The High Speed Crafts (HSCs) to Ormoc, mainly SuperCat and Oceanjet also made great strides and captured a large portion of the passenger market and it further denied passengers for Tacloban. With the HSCs and overnight ships from Cebu that leave Ormoc in the morning there was no longer any need for Tacloban passengers to wait until night.

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http://www.maritime-executive.com/article/Paralyzed-Philippine-Port-Resumes-Operations-2013-11-21

The last rope for Tacloban port passenger-cargo ships was cut when the new coastal highway from Basey, Samar to Guiuan, Eastern Samar was completed. With that the passenger ships connecting Tacloban and Guiuan had to go as the fast and ubiquitous commuter vans (called “V-hire” in the province) suddenly supplanted them. Trucks also began rolling and some of these were even coming from Cebu via the intermodal.

Now only a few cargo ships dock in Tacloban port. There is still one cargo shipping company based in Tacloban, the Lilygene Sea Shipping Transport Corp. Gothong Southern Shipping Lines meanwhile still has a regular container ship to Tacloban but there are complaints that the rates are high (the consequence of no competition). Whatever, there are still cargoes better carried by ships than by trucks. However, some of the container vans for Leyte are just offloaded now in Cebu and transferred through Cargo RORO LCTs going to several western Leyte ports.

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What might remain for a long time maybe in Tacloban port are the big motor bancas for Buad island in Western Samar which hosts the town of Daram and Bagatao island which hosts the town of Zumarraga. I am not sure of the long-term existence of the other motor bancas for the other Samar towns except for maybe Talalora as more and more they have buses that go to Tacloban and maybe soon the commuter vans will follow. Or maybe even the jeep. The lesson is with roads established the sea connection always have to go in the long term.

Tacloban port is improved now. Improving the port eases port operations but it will not make the ships come back contrary to what the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) and the government say. It is cargo and passengers that make the ships come to a port but if there are other and better transportation modes that are already available then cargo and passenger volumes drop and sometimes it becomes uneconomical for the ship to continue operating.

So I really wonder what is the point in developing a port in the nearby town of Babatngon as an alternative to Tacloban port. Have the Philippine Ports Authority ever asked who wants to use it? It is not surprising however as the PPA is the master of creating “ports to nowhere” (ports with practically no traffic) especially in the time of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who was so fond of those (for many “reasons”, of course).

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Ormoc Port by John Luzares

In the past two decades the PPA always touted Tacloban port. For maybe they are based there. There was a denial that actually Ormoc port was already the main gateway to Leyte and it is no longer Tacloban port. Recently however, there seems to be an acknowledgment of the real score — that Ormoc port has actually been the de facto gateway already. The government is now developing Ormoc port and it is good that the PPA vessel arrival and departure site already covers it.

Whatever and however they try, it cannot be denied that the sun is already setting in Tacloban port. It is no longer the same port it used to be in the past because of the intermodal assault changed things.

Like they say, things always change.

Can Grief And Distress Be Read?

At the turn of the millennium, my parents were already getting old and with it came the inevitable sicknesses. I began visiting Bicol through the intermodal route from Davao. The reasons were varied. One, I found out that it cost only half compared to a trip via Manila. Second, I don’t have mall eyes and it is the countryside view that I enjoy. I even hate more the always-present clouds in a plane trip. Third, I don’t enjoy battling the hassles of Manila. Fourth, I want to learn new places and I am also a fan of buses. Lastly but not least, I am a ship spotter and I wanted to learn more about the ferries of the eastern seaboard.

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San Bernardino Strait from BALWHARTECO

The trips were exacting but I was younger and more eager then. I was not daunted that I don’t know the route well. By that time, I have began to give up on the Philtranco direct bus that I didn’t like. Honestly, as a Bicolano I was not a fan of the bus company as it has failed and abused Bicol for so long. Second, I do not want the long lost hours in the hot ports waiting for the ferries of Archipelago Philippine Ferries, their sister company when one is already tired (Philtranco is tied to the ferries of Archipelago). Sometimes, the bus waits for up to 5 hours for them. Third, in peak season it can be a battle for seats in Naga and then one had to wait for hours for the bus.

Since I was a lifelong traveler, I decided to experiment by using Manila buses to and from Leyte plus the Surigao ride I already knew. At times I ride some local buses, commuter vans and jeeps like those in Bicol, Samar and Leyte. What a fun it is to ride the ugly-looking Samar Bus Lines buses in the bumpy roads of Samar! Or the kamikaze buses to Sogod that freewheel the descents from Agas-agas. And riding the faster Tacloban van to Allen to catch the last St. Christopher bus in Allen, a rotten bus most of the time but they were the ones that specialized then on the “stragglers”, the passengers left by the last Manila bus from Tacloban.

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Those early trips that rely on connections were trials and errors. Early, I didn’t know the windows of the trips in each places (what hour is the first trip and what hour is the last trip). That was when I am forced to stay overnight in dark bus terminals like in Tacloban or even the plaza in Maasin or even wait alone in a waiting shed near midnight in Sogod junction with only mosquitoes for companions. Sometimes, having eateries open at night in a junction was already heaven like in Buray. If I know the schedules well now and the window hours of the trips is because I have learned from the mistakes of my trials and errors in the past.

In the process of all these, I grasped how lousy and how few were the ferry connections then across Surigao Strait. And I learned that in one mistake or one unfavorable bus or jeep connection might mean an 11-hour wait in Liloan port (once what made us miss the ship was a near-fistfight between our driver and another driver!). Or suffer long waits in Lipata port because the ferry was not running. And after all the hours of waiting then not being able to get a seat because the ferry was over its capacity. Lucky then if one will have an air vent for a seat as the stairs were just too dirty. Sometimes I vowed I will bring a carton or a newspaper so I can sit on the deck at the top of the ship.

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Lipata port

It was much better in San Bernardino Strait as there were more ferries there and not once I encounter a ferry that there that was overloaded. Even if it was, it will not be a problem since usually I don’t sit in a Matnog-Allen ferry at day. I just roam around the ship and see the outside view if there is light since the ferry there normally took only 1 hour and 10 minutes to cross. Just milling around is difficult in the Liloan-Lipata route because the ferries there took at least three-and-a-half hours to cross.

The trip going north for me was much better and less tiring because I know when the bus will be leaving the terminal and so I don’t waste time and effort needlessly. In Naga, it was much difficult since one can’t predict the exact arrival of the bus from Manila (and sometime they were delayed if it is rainy or there was some kind of road obstruction or traffic). When it rains it was much more difficult especially since flagging a Manila bus to Visayas was very hard since one can’t immediately read the signboard (it is not lighted). Moreover, Visayas buses were hesitant to stop for one or two solitary passengers which they think might just be destined a few towns away (and this has consequences).

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Well, Visayas buses are not so kind to passengers in Bicol because Bicol bus operators tell them not to take passengers bound for Bicol (when they legally can and anyway Bicol buses ply routes to the Visayas) and if they do they are stoned. There were stretches in Bicol where the driver/conductor will tell the passengers to deploy the shades (these are curtains actually) to avert injury should a stone hit the bus. That is the reason why riding a Visayan bus I don’t speak Bicol nor do I introduce myself as a Bicolano (I say I am a Tagalog which is also true and I will speak Tagalog with the accent of my parents).

One of the trips I remember well was a southbound trip where I started it too tired and very much lacking in sleep plus I was out of sorts. My brother gave me extra money for a plane trip but on the last minute I decided against it and I took the bus from Naga. My trip started at night as usual (because there are no buses from Manila passing Naga to the Visayas during the day). I can’t remember my bus now but we reached Matnog uneventfully sometime midnight and we reached Tacloban about midmorning.

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Matnog port

Usually, if I had a direct Naga-Tacloban bus I will get off in Tacloban and look for a connecting ride to Liloan. I usually do that since it is very hard to time a Liloan or Davao bus from Manila in Naga. I know that in Tacloban there will always be vans for Liloan but these were not many then. So, if there is a Sogod bus leaving immediately I might take a chance on it since van waiting times to fill can take two hours or more then. Or else take the more frequent Hinundayan van and get off at Himayangan junction and take a habal-habal to Liloan.

I reached Liloan in time for the new-fielded Super Shuttle Ferry 10 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) which was then the best ship in the Liloan-Lipata route. Before boarding and in the bus trip maybe I was not looking too much at myself and I was just preoccupied in gazing the views and in trying to find sleep and peace.

2008 Super Shuttle Ferry 10 @ Lipata 1

Photo by: Gorio Belen

The crew of Super Shuttle Ferry 10 was welcoming unlike the crews of their competitors which nary had time for passengers and treats them like cattle. If one needs anything from them one still has to look for a crewman. Maybe since they are too used to then with overcrowded ferries they would just rather disappear and also to avoid complaints about the congestion and the dirtiness (one can’t see anyone of them take the mop to clean the muddy deck when it is rainy). Or to try to find a seat for passengers unable to find one. Or assist the elderly and pregnant.

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I was looking for a seat among the lounge seats of Super Shuttle Ferry 10 in the Tourist section where I can have the chance of a semi-lying position to sleep when a crewman approached me. “Sir, would you like to take a bath?” I was dumbfounded and astounded. Never in my hundreds of trips aboard ferries have I ever heard such a question. He offered a lounge seat and placed my knapsack there and said to the passengers around, “Let Sir have this seat so he can lie and sleep.” I was doubly astounded. And he nodded to the crewman in charge of checking the Tourist tickets at the door as if to say “reserve this seat for him, don’t let others take it”. And that angel of a crewman led me to a bath in the middle of the Tourist section and guarded it so there will be no intrusion. The bathroom was clean and so was the water. It was one of the most refreshing baths I ever had.

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Bath is in the middle of that structure in the middle of the passenger deck

The crewman led me back to the seat after my bath (I was actually a little numb and so I welcomed the assistance) and said to the effect that “please no one disturb him”. In an instant I was deeply asleep and only a gentle nudge woke me as we were docking in Lipata. I softly thanked the two crewmen and it was thanks from the bottom of my heart. Soon I was looking for a connecting bus to Davao.

Can grief and distress be read in a person? Maybe I was not aware of this before because growing up in a region where we have no relatives, we don’t attend burials. Actually, once when my wife was confined in a hospital I was froze when an employee burst into tears wailing, “Wala na si Sir”. I grew up not witnessing such things or taking care of patients in hospitals when they were already terminally sick.

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The TB of SSF10 on the right

Until now I can only thank from the bottom of my heart that crewman of Super Shuttle Ferry 10 who assisted me and showed me all kindness and assistance I needed then. The trip I was making then happened after the death of my mother.

Was he really able read me? Was there some angel whispering in his ears? Did a senior officer noticed me and gave instructions? I don’t know, I don’t have the answers.

Super Shuttle Ferry 10 was soon replaced in the Liloan-Lipata route and I never rode her again. But in one ship spotting session of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society), we were able to board her in Mandaue Pier 8, the AMTC wharf. Yes, the lounge seat where I lain was still there. The only change was it was already re-upholstered.

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I had goose bumps looking at that seat and at the same time my heart was pounding. I tried to look at the faces of the crew. My angel was no longer there. But whatever, this article is my way of saying thanks to you again. From my heart, I wish you reach far in your career.