My Trip From Bicol to Cebu Via Masbate (Part 1)

When I go from Bicol to Cebu I usually pass through Masbate. Going via Eastern Visayas is farther, longer and costs more. The route via Masbate also affords me the chance to cover a southern port of Bicol and the nascent port of Masbate. However, whatever route I take I usually end up tired and lacking sleep. The reason is I start my trip on a midnight and this is dictated by the the hours that the bus pass by Naga on the way to Pio Duran or Pilar, the jump-off points to Masbate. Well, even if I take the Eastern Visayas route still the buses pass Naga at night and at midnight I will be there awake in Matnog port. I don’t sleep well on buses and that is more so when there are frequent stops and shuffling of people and baggages.

On this particular trip, I had no firm decision whether to take the Pio Duran or Pilar route to Masbate. It was peak season, the buses were full, the weather was not very cooperative and so I decided I will just ride the first bus that will stop for me. Luckily,I was rewarded with a 4-day old bus, a brand-new unit recently fielded. It was SRO but I didn’t mind because as just a Pilar bus I know there will be passengers that will be going down in the next town or two and I was not mistaken. My bet to stay at the front paid off again and I was rewarded with a front seat (thanks again to the lady who pulled my arm so I can have her seat). I had opportunities to use my cam for bus pics although it was limited because it was night and dark. Besides the rain started again when the bus started rolling.

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Pilar Bus Terminal and my ride

This was the trip that fully exposed me to the damage of Typhoon “Nina” to the electrical lines (I had been exposed before to the physical damage when I made my shipspotting trip to Legazpi and Tabaco). All the towns we passed had no lights and the first one I noticed that had widespread lights was already the known junction in Kimantong, Daraga, Albay. But after passing that part of the poblacion of Daraga it was all dark again (and there was not even a moonlight) until we were already on the descent nearing the port town of Pilar (and Pilar is already some 130 kilometers from where I came from). After such a long drive the lights of Pilar felt welcome as we were no longer peering in the dark. And being just past the Yuletide season, the Christmas lights and decors were still on the streets and homes and those added to the welcoming feeling.

We stopped at the bus terminal of Pilar and I made small talk to the bus crew. This small talk enables me to update on some things I should need to know with regards to trips. The terminal is walking distance from the port of Pilar and we entered through a portion of the market that was converted as a port terminal. The ticket sellers (and the painitans) were there as well as their agents and runners. They were selling us the competing advantages of Denica Lines and Montenegro Lines (the RORO because just past midnight there were no fastcrafts yet). Showing my veteran side I passed by the terminal without deciding yet. I just asked what their fares and skeds were. The ferries are not yet leaving so I have time to get more info, assess the options and make the better decision. And who knows if a motor banca makes a very good offer?

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Motor banca to Mandaon

The row of motor bancas that were leaving comes before the ROROs. Uhm, there were more offerings now. Aside from the usual motor bancas to Masbate and Aroroy there was now a motor banca to Mandaon which on the southwest of Masbate island facing Romblon (and is a gateway to Sibuyan island by motor banca). And those were pre-dawn departures as in 3am to 4am. That was new to me. So they allow it now. In amihan? The waters of Ticao Pass, the Burias Gap and the Masbate Pass are not exactly known for gentleness. Cross-swells that need to be read well, you bet.

Made small talk with the motor banca people. Well, not only they know more of their trade but also to cross-check the info about the ROROs. They are better sources of info, not that partial and without the rah-rah. I noticed something that was not there before. They are quieter now. The quietness of the beaten? It seem i can’t see anymore the elan I used to see in them before. Was it all just a mirage before or they were simply sleepy? There seems to be attitude of “Thanks, there are still passengers”. Maybe they are not used to the likes of me. Maybe they are just used to the passengers they know that are “theirs”. Or probably they thought I will not ride their craft anyway? Well, I was not inclined to ride them on that situation because their engines are simply too noisy for sleeping.

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Motor banca to Aroroy

I was mulling on an Aroroy motor banca. But thinking ahead, I realized I might not reach Masbate port before the first ROROs leave (and the fastcraft and the motor bancas leave even earlier) so I decided in favor of Denica Lines. It was supposed to leave earlier at 3am compared to the 4am of the Montenegro RORO and an earlier arrival in Masbate is better. But the decisive thing was while I already knew the Maria Angela of Montenegro Lines, I have not yet ridden the Marina Empress of Denica Lines. A 3am departure is perfect as the arrival in Masbate is before breakfast, a good time to catch the early birds. I did not know yet then that the Marina Empress had other advantages compared to the Montenegro RORO.

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Marina Empress

To relieve myself of my baggage which was a burden to me, I boarded the Marina Empress after buying my ticket. I then made a tour of the small ship (I thought that in Masbate I might not have the chance anymore if I am pulled by other immediate attractions like ship departures and arrivals there). I noticed that the crew were still all asleep and no one was really minding the ship. I thought that was a show of small port behavior. They know their clientele and there is really no threat to the ship (contrary to the over-active imagination of the believers in ISPS or International System of Port Security).

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Pilar port

I went down and made my first round of the port and the vessels docked there. It was a little difficult to survey the port as it was dark from end to end. Pilar is a substandard port as there is really no overhead port lighting like what is usual in other ports. I thought Pilar still has the characteristic of a municipal port. I realized it was actually a little dangerous to shipspot. One to watch his steps.

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Hammity and Denica fastcraft

With the dark enveloping the port, it was hard to gauge the lay-out of the port and the vessels docked there. But aside from the two ROROs which are prominent because of the height and size and the many motor bancas (which is difficult to count in the dark), there were two fastcrafts on an unlit portion of the port beyond and ahead of the cargo motor boat Hammity of Denica Lines (that was the first time I saw this boat which I first became familiar with in the MARINA database). Hammity was being used as an “LPG carrier”.

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I rounded the Hammity to get a better gauge of where the fastcrafts were tied up and where is the possible vantage point. It was difficult as it was unlighted and Pilar port had changes since the last time as was there (it was finally refurbished by the government but I was not impressed; it deserved something better given its traffic – now why does ‘ports to nowhere’ deserve more funds here in our country?). It seems the main change was only the addition of RORO ramps.

I realized that the best vantage point for the fastcrafts is the motor banca leaving for Aroroy. I made my way to its outboard gangplank. They did not mind. It is really the humble local crafts that are the most hospitable. But the problem was there was some distance. My flash can’t cover the whole lengths of the fastcrafts which are now perpendicular to me. Their lengths are probably over 20 meters.

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The two fastcrafts are already old and probably was bought as junk given the state I saw it. But of course Japan junk when refurbished here looks good again. I asked around. They have no names yet and no work has been done yet. The loan from the bank is taking time? Well, our commercial banking system is known for not being appreciative of the shipping sector. They would rather fund chattel mortgages of new cars. Well maybe because that has greater “value” (is “value” like beauty that it depends on the eye of the beholder?).

It was also difficult to photograph the motor bancas. They are tied perpendicular to the wharf and so my flash can’t reach the sterns of the bancas. I thought had this been daytime I would have had a field day. Well, I can’t even have a good shot of the motor banca and small fastcraft docked parallel to and near the Marina Empress. Worse, I can’t even make out their names. That will show how dark it was (I realized what I actually needed was a good flashlight).

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Maria Angela

I boarded Maria Angela. Since she was filling up with passengers and rolling cargo, it was easy to get onboard. I look like one their passengers. The ferry was well lit unlike the Marina Empress. I thought maybe Dynamic Power of Mandaue made a sale of an auxiliary engine to them, seriously. I then went next to the fastcraft jetty of Montenegro Lines which I tried to use as a vantage point. It was still deficient – it was really too dark. I did not go anymore to the bigger fastcraft tied up in the jetty. I reasoned I will catch her in Masbate anyway in better light too.

Made more roamings of the port and port terminal to catch stories, size up things. When I noticed it was just less than an hour to departure time and there was no activity yet in the ferry I then went inside. The crew was still fast asleep including the Chief Mate. The Chief Mate is usually the one in charge of loading in the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. And horrors! The Maria Angela is undocking already and leaving before its ETD. Its vehicle deck was not even full.

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The small Montenegro fastcraft

I went down to their ticketing office to register a note. I was worried about a late departure especially if they try to take advantage of the absence of a Montenegro RORO. They said not to worry as loading is easy and fast as only three trucks are to be loaded and no bus. They said the Marina Empress normally doesn’t load a bus. They note it is an advantage to us because the accommodations do not get full. I understood it also that if true it will mean less noise, less people moving around.

In this talk with them, I also learned that their other RORO, the Odyssey left before 9pm and it was its usual schedule. That was new. Pilar has no night RORO to Masbate before. Maybe the competition with Pio Duran port which is on a parallel route to the Pilar-Masbate route is working wonders for options. The PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) knows parallel routes compete but a PhD holder in La Salle that did a thesis in shipping does not know that.

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Loading operation

About 20 minutes from departure time, the crew awakened and began loading the three trucks nonchalantly and right after that our vessel undocked. We were almost on time. And the ticketing office was right. There were just a few passengers since we have no bus on board. The former Tourist section where I was in was still half-lit. With the good seats that was more fit for sleeping than the usual Economy seat, we few passengers all had good benches for sleeping and in semi-darkness too. I opened the door near my head and there was freeze breeze and soon I was fast asleep.

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Nice to sleep in

It was the first ever that I had a good sleep on a ferry to Masbate that I woke a little late. I usually wake up when I feel a little commotion and when I opened my eyes it was already light. My thought that we were already in Masbate was correct. We already passed by the Masbate lighthouse and we were already inside Masbate Bay and the ship was already entering final docking maneuvers. It was not too late really but it was better had I woken up 15 minutes earlier. Now everything is already rush.

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Nearing Masbate Port

I tried to take as many photos of the ships and the port of Masbate before we docked. But as I said I was a little late and soon I have to disembark too. I cannot stay long because I have no ticket yet for Cebu and I have a worry because the entering week was Sinulog Festival week in Cebu and I fear a delegation or two might already have tickets aside from the Masbate tourists going to the festival.

(To be continued…)

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The Trip from Tacloban to Surigao del Sur [Part 2]

When the smaller group of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) members split and said goodbyes in Tacloban bus terminal, I was aware it was already December 13 and it was the PSSS’ 8th anniversary. I dunno if anyone mentioned it but I didn’t coz I do not want to spook anybody since many associate the 13th with bad luck and we were still all traveling. In our drive to Surigao del Sur, I never mentioned to Joe the anniversary because active members remember the PSSS was founded on December 13. Well, the luck of PSSS is still holding, fingers crossed.

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From Surigao City, me and Joe followed the road to going to Butuan. In our short drive in the city I think Joe already had an idea of the lay-out of it since we took the main road going in and another road going out. Along the way we saw some prominent landmarks like the St. Paul College, the Lipata junction, the bus terminal and the airport plus the shuttered Pacific Cement company. If I remember right, what Joe told me this was his first time in Mindanao and I felt pangs of remorse we were not able to invite our two companions we left in Tacloban for I know they haven’t been to this place yet too. But our host in Surigao del Sur knows only two are coming and Joe didn’t want to abuse the hospitality.

It was a serene drive from the city punctuated by some curves and by some sea views. No meaningful ports really in the area until we arrived in the junction to Surigao del Sur by the progressive barrio of Bad-as which belongs to Placer town. I was surprised there was already a Prince hypermarket there, a Cebu chain. In a barrio no less, when the towns there don’t even have one. I thought the mines might be giving prosperity in the area and the chain bet that junction will soon boom (well, it already looks like a small town to me).

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From there it was a more serene drive. Fewer vehicles, fewer people. We were no longer in the main road, i.e. the Maharlika Highway or AH26 but the road is just as good with even less damage and bumps. We were some distance yet from the sea and small rice fields and low hills dominated the sight. We had a relaxed drive.

Soon, Joe rolled out his GPS map. We were now in an area where I was not familiar with the ports and roads so I can’t give him directions. I told him our first target is the Port of Placer that I have heard before which is named after the town that is still a part of Surigao del Norte (it always enters my mind that there is a port in Placer, Masbate and also in Placer in Surigao del Sur).

Not long after, the sea and then the town came into view. I have the impression of an old town but the progress we saw in Bad-as was not evident here. We made a tour of the town while looking for the protrusion in the GPS map that indicates a finger port. Soon we were running on a road by the sea that is also a docking wharf for the small fishing bancas. That road then led to the actual port which was walled with a gate.

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We paused, a natural reaction but when we entered slowly there was no challenge, just curious looks (maybe they were trying to figure who the big shots were entering the port). That’s the beauty of a port that is not ISPS. In an ISPS (International System of Port Security) port, the guards are generally hostile and visitors are not welcome (they only want people who have official business there).

The Port of Placer surprised me. Offshore there was a tanker (not the Pandacan-type, mind you) but in the port itself there were two Petron truck tankers transferring fuel to plastic drums aboard a motor boat and a big passenger-cargo motor banca (I thought this was illegal but, oh well, we have to be practical). We learned it is destined for a generating plant of an island. The fishing boats inside were bigger and mostly of the basnig type. There were also two motor boats one of which is discharging scrap metal to a truck and the other has drums for fuel also.

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Offshore were islands and islets. Not a surprise since looking at the map this portion of Surigao has many offshore islands. Fishing abounds here and it seems the Port of Placer is one of the recipients. There were fish trucks in the port along with fish brokers. Placer port, though out of the way did not disappoint me. The visit was worth it.

We next passed the small towns of Bacuag and Gigaquit. We had no target ports here. We next rolled into Claver town which was the last town of Surigao del Norte (and soon we understood how it came to be). It was more progressive and I half-expected it having heard of it in the past. The GPS indicated to us a finger port and so we came looking for it. It was small with just a motor boat which seems not to be too active. There was no open sight of the sea. Only mangroves. It was a disappointment. I only took long-distance shots because if we enter the only way out is by backing the car. Not good.

From sea level, the road began to climb and offshore at a long distance we can see LCTs and barges. I forced getting pics but the quality was not good as it was too far for my lens. It turned out I was over-eager. Later, we found out that the mining ports were still ahead of us and I already began to exhaust my supply of batteries (after visiting nine ports already it should have been no surprise). But i rued my over-eagerness.

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As we proceeded, we noticed more and more ships were coming into view and most of those were LCTs and barges with loads that look like brown earth. We can also already see the mining wharves which are mainly causeways built by rocks and earth just bulldozed into the sea (but the biggest in the area, that of Taganito Mining is a pile-type port and it docks bulkers and tankers). The seawater of the area already has a tinge of brown when it was supposed to be blue. We were coming into the mining pollution we have read and seen from the news.

Soon, it was obvious we were nearing a mining community. The mud in the road tells it and what we are meeting now in the road were mostly mining trucks and vehicles. There were also truck depots of the mines along the road and there were also heavy equipment. China brands were almost universally the makes of the rolling stock here, some of which I just seen for the first time in my life.

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Before descending to sea level, it was becoming obvious the mining community we supposed was not just composed of one company but of several distinct companies with it own compounds, gates and wharves. The community was several kilometers long and it already has the feel and flavor of an emerging town. I remembered our member ‘kensurcity’ mentioned to me in a shipspotting meet that Jollibee can open a store in Claver and he said it will thrive. Maybe, this place Taganito was what he was referring to. Well, mining boom towns have magic in terms of glittering metal.

At the center of this community is the legendary Taganito Mining Corporation of the sometimes-controversial Nickel Asia which hit jackpot with the rise of China’s metal needs. There are other mining companies in the area and all are just adjacent one another. One is Adnama Mining Resources and the PSSS is familiar with some of its LCTs that are normally caught by our cameras in Cebu waters.

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When i check the AIS sites, I often see MMSI vessels near Surigao that has Taganito port as the intended destination. It is not a government-owned port, by the way and there are actually many mining wharves in the area each hosting ships with many other ships anchored offshore. We saw about 20 ships in all in the Taganito area (it is actually several barrios) but one needs really long lenses to cover them all well.

Even in the descent to Taganito community (the mining companies are centered in the barrio of Taganito), one is already aware of the exposed rocks at the side of the road which really looked like ores. Slowly, one can also see the stripped mountains and the water run-offs that are brown in color. Ascending after Taganito, it was even more visible and the mining communities also come into view already along with the bays that hosts the wharves. Brown, stripped mountains up high, brown-colored water run-offs and a sea that is turning brown.

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There is no surprise in that because what is being done is plain strip mining (not open pit as there is no pit; the mining companies were just stripping the mountains) just several kilometers from the sea and there are no holding or containment pools. No wonder the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources is now threatening the closure of some of them. It was great shipspotting in that area, there are magnificent views but at the same time one would begin to understand the controversy surrounding the mining in that area.

Leaving the mining area, I began to understand why there was no proper road there before and why Surigao del Sur is cut then from Surigao del Norte then. The area is mainly rocks and it does not have good vegetation and so how much more agriculture? No agriculture, no people. No people, no roads. Then it turned out those rocks are valuable. And so the road connecting the two provinces was built (i was told it was mush before). It looks like a good mining road anyway because most of the vehicles that pass are connected to the mines.

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I exhausted my batteries after that place and me and Joe began to hasten because our target Cortes town is still a fair distance away and it was already past mid-afternoon. We just whizzed by the towns of Carrascal, Cantilan, Madrid, Carmen and Lanuza. We vowed just to cover them and whatever ports are there on our way back to Leyte and Samar. Then, we finally reached the house of Joe’s shipmate at 5pm which we found to be in a progressive but woody barrio off the main road. Good decision to just whiz by the five towns (and anyway I don’t have batteries anymore). Otherwise, we would be searching a woody, unfamiliar and probably dark place after nightfall.

A seafood fete awaited us and all were fresh catch (we learned the fishermen themselves hawk it house-to-house there). Joe immediately posted a shot of the feast in Instagram with a hashtag of the place. A companion we left in Tacloban immediately noticed it (chismoso talaga ang social media). Maybe he was wondering how Joe, in an area he hasn’t ever run was able to cover a lot of distance in just such a short span of time with a ferry crossing to boot and almost no sleep. I didn’t know why James immediately suspected I was with Joe. Was I missing something;)?

Ah, anyway our luck held. And it seemed we did very fine on the day of the PSSS’ anniversary and Joe was able to prove he was a superb driver. Imagine that distance (350 land kilometers plus the Surigao Strait crossing) and pace (13 1/2 hours) with nine ports and one port complex (Taganito) covered including a meal stop. Who will believe that was possible? I bet James was thinking i was holding the wheel.

[Part 3 will be in the next installment.]

The Wrong Way of Treating Passengers in Intermodal Ports

The intermodal system by container ships has long been hailed as convenient and that is generally true. Goods no longer have to be brought to ports to be unloaded, reloaded, unloaded and again reloaded aboard trucks. This process is true especially in loose cargo. It might be more efficient if the goods are aboard container vans mounted on trailers. But then the trailers would have no other use while laden with container vans and there is no guarantee the container van will not lay still in the ports for days.

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It is different in the intermodal system by buses and trucks in terms of efficiency. When the truck leaves the factory it is already on the go and it will reach the destination faster, in general. And it can already make deliveries along the way especially if it is a wing van truck which opens on the side. So the intermodal system by buses and trucks is superior than the intermodal system by container ships in terms of flexibility and speed.

On the passenger side, the passengers no longer have to hazard a ride to the North Harbor (now called stylistically as “North Port”) and haggle with porters re luggage (and haggle again in the destination). Now they can take the bus to their destination and it need not even be in Cubao, Pasay or other terminals. It can be Alabang, Turbina or somewhere along the way as many buses have designated pick-up points. It is now easy with mobile phones. And the passenger will alight right by their gate or else there is a good connecting ride and it can be a bus, a van or even a jeep. And intermodal bus rides are available daily and in many hours of the day.

Whatever the convenience of the intermodal bus, what I found that what did not change is the boarding and the disembarking process in the intermodal ports. The passengers have to disembark from the bus, queue for many tickets, wait a little in the lounge before boarding, then board the ferry, disembark from the ferry, look for their bus, embark and be on the way again. It will not matter if it is midnight or if it is raining hard. A passenger must follow that routine like cattle being herded (“iyon ang patakaran, e”).

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Now they have to walk in the rain and look for their bus (Matnog port)

Come analyze it. Isn’t that the same as cargo being loaded in North Harbor and being unloaded in a destination port? Yes, people are treated just like cargo. And “dangerous cargo” at that because “people can sabotage” and “all are potential terrorists”. Yes, that is the ISPS (International System of Port Security) which applies like law in our busier ports even if it was not passed by our Congress and we were not asked if we agree to it (well, talk about “representation”). It is just like an imposition by a foreign power.

Well, that onerous procedure in ports against passengers is not surprising for me because the boss in the ports is the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) and for too, too long they were used to bossing cargo and so they also boss people like cargo.

Can’t not the various tickets queued at the port be remanded to the bus companies so it can be bought and paid for together with the bus ticket? But the problem with the Philippines is we always suspect daya, palusot and rackets. Yes, that is what we are as a people and society. We may really be too crooked a society so we suspect in anything and everything that there are crooks and crookery. As if controls cannot work. It also betrays a lack of trust in the justice (justiis) system that true crooks can be punished and also lack of trust in the bureaucrazy that crookery can be stopped. Immediately.

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Now, because of all those ticket requirements in the port the passengers can’t board with the bus (well, the port authorities will also say “passengers can be hidden”). So it doesn’t matter if it is raining like hell, the bus passengers will have to disembark from the bus and walk scores of meters to the ferry without any shade. It also doesn’t matter if it is midnight and the passengers are too sleepy. It is PPA rules so one has to follow it. Fiats. And that is the PPA concept of “passenger service”. And they won’t mind if it takes you 30 minutes in queue. Or if you are already old and visually-impaired and can’t find your bus after disembarking from the ferry (a common occurrence at night in Matnog port when buses are sent outside the port gates at peak hours because there is not enough back-up area).

Once there was a change in Matnog port. In midnight when raining hard some hustlers will board the bus and solicit service for queuing. That means they will do the queuing. For a P12 PPA terminal fee they will accept P15 or P20 depende na sa buot kan pasahero (depending on the graciousness of the passengers). Practically all passengers wouldn’t mind the difference. Imagine the comfort of just riding the bus up to the car deck or the ramp of the ferry.

Then came the bureaucratic reaction (which always implies lack of understanding). They banned it. They called those hustlers as “fixers”. Many international economic experts understand that “fixers” have a place in the bureaucratic maze. After all, many people don’t want to lose their time or be hassled. It is a willing transaction anyway. The only problem with the Matnog “hustlers”? They lack a law degree. If it were in other cases and the “fixer” is an attorney he will be greeted with far, far more respect and will not be called a “fixer”. But actually the attorney is also “fixing” things. So what is the difference?

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Now came another bureaucratic kneejerk. MARINA questioned buses embarking on ships with its passengers. They say it is “dangerous”. Huh! Not for the drivers? Yes, they will also willingly let you get the “rain treatment” (plus the little mud and water in your shoes). Misplaced concern, I will say.

Aboard the ship MARINA wouldn’t let the passengers stay in the vehicles. The reason? There are no lifejackets in there. Yeah, really. Now, why don’t they require the ferries to have lifejackets in there? They say car deck is just for vehicles. Actually I have been aboard ferries where trucks stay with their trucks especially if it is “Stairs” Class upstairs (that means there are no more seats). I can understand the reluctance of the bus crew to have some passengers stay aboard the bus. Theft is possible and they will be the ones liable. But if it is midnight the drivers sleep with the bus and lucky is the passenger invited aboard for he can lay flat and sleep well unlike upstairs when one has to curl and contort in search of sleep, if that is possible. I have been invited aboard by drivers and I have slept atop the aluminum vans of trucks. It’s nice especially if there is carboard as mattress.

Actually there is also a problem with letting passengers sleep with the bus. If it is an aircon bus and the air-conditioner is running then slowly the car deck will get full of fumes and that will seep upstairs through the stairs. Well, unless ventilation fans are installed or the bow ramp is partially lowered (which is against regulations, too). Unless it is daytime, the ordinary buses can take passengers better. But if it is full and it is daytime and the bow ramp is not partially lowered or if there is no good breeze then the bus will soon be also uncomfortable with heat.

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In daytime and if the route is short there is no problem staying aboard the passenger compartments of the ferry. However, if the transit time is 4-6 hours then not even a TV is enough to while away the time and rest (well, unless one was able to hunt a girl or was hunted if female). Ferry seats are notoriously less comfortable than the bus seats and there is not enough change of scenery to distract the passengers.

Disembarking the passengers are also not allowed to board the buses while on the ship. Well, the car deck will be soon full of fumes if the buses wait for the passengers and sometimes the gap between vehicles is too narrow. But the problem again if it is raining hard and they require the buses to park a distance away from the ferry. It is doubly hard during the night and if there are many buses especially of the same company when the only distinguishing mark is a small number. I have always seen seniors lose their way or board a different bus. It is not unusual if a bus can’t leave for 20 minutes because they have a passenger or two “missing”. Even a veteran like me can make a mistake. I once boarded a bus wrongly. Good I saw the baggage lay-out was different and the driver does not look familiar. So I just asked him where the bus with a particular number is. They usually know.

I just wish the PPA and its guards don’t require the bus to park too far away from the ship and more so when it is raining. And I also hope that near the ramps they have covered areas. That is more important than the lounges that they have. The walks should also be covered. BALWHARTECO, a private port has a covered walk. Why can’t they copy it? Does it mean BALWHARTECO cares more for the passengers than the PPA? They should also bulk up their back-up area to match the traffic. If it means reclamation then they should do it. Is the terminal fee not enough? Or are their funds diverted to construction and maintenance of “ports to nowhere” and other ports that do not have enough revenue? I think the services and facilities of the port should be commensurate to the terminal fee being raked in.

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Covered walk of BALWHARTECO

I just hope that the PPA and MARINA change and look at things from the point of view of the passengers. They are not cargo, they are not cattle.

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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