The Un-achieved Blessing of the Eastern Seaboard RORO-Capable Port Towns

I am talking here of the port towns of Pilar and Matnog in Sorsogon, Allen and San Isidro in Northern Samar, Liloan and San Ricardo in Southern Leyte. When port ferry terminals were built there decades ago (a decade in San Ricardo’s case) to connect the islands there were high hopes of them being economically developed from being poor and distant towns to something better.

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Pilar port by Christian Von Jaspela of PSSS.

But that clearly did not happen and it seems it won’t be happening soon, no way. Those towns are still lagging economically in all ways. The populations are still small, no infrastructure to boast off, no commercial developments and the municipal incomes are still way down. They are not even first class towns and the best of them is a third class town which is just about average in the hierarchy of Philippine towns in income. They will not compete in any way with the string of towns between Butuan City and Davao City which are almost all first class towns because of agribusiness.

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Matnog Ferry Terminal by Britz Salih of PSSS.

The big question is why is it that these towns where so many travelers and vehicles pass through have nothing to boast of when they take in lots of forced collections which are actually illegal according to the Supreme Court in two decisions? In whatever guise whether it is called ‘regulatory”, “environmental” or for garbage these were all declared illegal because the Supreme Court said it is a form of travel tax and only the national government has the right to levy such.

Even the levying of collections against vehicles was also ruled illegal by the Supreme Court. In his ponencia, the then Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban said only High Urbanized Cities (HUCs) can levy a certain kind of rate on trucks using the port and that should only be for P500 a year. Now, none of the towns I mentioned is an HUC so clearly they have no right to such levy.

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BALWHARTECO port of Allen by Joe Cardenas of PSSS.

And yet after collecting so much from travelers and vehicles passing through their town, Pilar, Matnog, Allen, San Isidro, Liloan and San Ricardo have no development to show after these decades. Worse, it seems these “other incomes” do not show in full in the income reports of these towns. Do all of these collections really go to government coffers? If it did then there must be some infrastructure development that they can show off already.

These illegal levies just go on and on despite two Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) memorandums because no one files a case of contempt or injunction and no one is hauled to jail (that is the only thing lawbreakers fear). It only stops if it is foreigners who question these things like what happened in the case of the Island Garden City of Samal. Well, they say we are governed by laws and there is “rule of law” (or is it “rule of law-ko”, the longer form of “loko”?) Maybe in Davao City only as the city government here did not try to collect any of these illegal fees.

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San Isidro Ferry Terinal by Grek Peromingan of PSSS.

What changed anyway after all these years when in the old past having a port is a passport to development? Well, in the past when there is a port there are compradas for the likes of abaca, corn and coconut. And these are loaded into ships manually (which provide income too) and brought to the likes of Cebu City. In return there are bodegas and stores which bring products from the city to the port town for distribution even to the neighboring towns.

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Liloan Ferry Terminal by Britz Salih

Maybe all these commerce where profit is made and provides livelihood and capital to farmers is the reason why old port towns generally became prosperous. And this seems to be no longer true in the new RORO-capable port towns where goods just pass through, literally. But the question that begs to be asked is what has the local government done to harness the opportunities  in the passing cars, trucks and people? Are they simply content is collecting from them illegal exactions like a landlord (at least this has the legal right)? If such is the case then woe to them and their people. Nothing will really change for them.

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Benit port by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

Actually, the case I am presenting is also true in other parts of the country but I found that more pronounced on the eastern seaboard of the country. Maybe this is a case for serious study by true scholars. It can even be a subject of a thesis.

Whatever, I hope there is a solution to this conundrum.

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…)