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.

Sometimes The Best Way From Davao To Cebu Is Via Baybay

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.

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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.

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Lipata Port

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Mahaplag junction

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?

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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.

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Baybay City

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Trip Summary:

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.

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