My Samar-Leyte Ship Spotting With Jun Marquez

(Sequel to “On The Way To Leyte To Meet Jun Marquez”)

https://psssonline.wordpress.com/2016/05/14/on-my-way-to-leyte-to-meet-jun-marquez/

After leaving the town of Pintuyan, Leyte and the hospitality of Mayor Rusty Estrella, me and Jun settled down for a ride which was actually touring. It was a thrill for me as we were only two and it would be a tete-a-tete between friends in a locale we both know. It will be an intersection of parts he knows well with the parts that I know well. Leyte and Samar in all my years of travel there feels to me like I know the place or at least the highways. The two islands were my connection to my birth place of Bicol and I came to appreciate her well in my nearly two decades of passing through her. Now, I have a front seat ride with a ride pace I can control and view things or places I was not able to see well inside a bus.

The first order of business was the ascent and descent through was is called “The Saddle”, a peak dividing Pintuyan and the next town of San Francisco which indeed looks like a horse saddle from the sea. This road is a mountain pass feared especially by the truckers. I told Jun it does not even begin to compare with the “Tatlong Eme” in Quezon. My analysis is with the disuse of that legendary mountain pass the drivers of today have no good idea how to handle their horses in challenging ascents and descents (when to think their mounts are overpowered now and has power steering). Moreover, I have observed they no longer know the rules of the roads in the mountain passes, i.e., the one going up will always have the right of way, trucks can use the other side of the lane in the hairpins and tight curves and the descending trucks should not stop on that side but on the other side as they will block the truck or trailer going up and horns should always be used as query and reply. Me and Jun began to connect. We were two oldtimers talking.

Next in the order was to look for the old, abandoned San Francisco port which even became a topic in our talk with Mayor Rusty Estrella and which he confirms still exists and to which he answered some of my questions. I was surprised to know the Go Thong ship then there was passenger-cargo. I thought she just carried copra during the heyday of copra and of course Lu Do & Lu Ym and Go Thong (the first was the biggest copra dealer then before Enrile, Cojuangco and company muscled their way in and the latter was the biggest carrier of copra). Yes, it was still there. The wharf was still intact but lonely and the surf was really strong.

I was also getting a kick seeing the buses of Panaon island (they have their own uniqueness) and soon the next order was the Panaon bridge (or is it Liloan bridge?), the short bridge connecting Panaon island and Leyte island as if it is just crossing a river. Approaching this I sensed there is a sense of hurry in Jun as we did not take the opportunity to pass by Liloan town and its port or visit Liloan Ferry Terminal. I thought there should have been enough time if we were just going straight to Baybay City (his hometown) via Mahaplag junction (it’s actually not a “crossing” but most wrongly call it as such). In the past I always enjoyed the ride through the mountains to Mahaplag and passing by Agas-agas where water flowed naturally (and wrecks the road). Now a bridge has been built instead of repairing the road again and again (it was built according to Japanese design). There was a sign of hurry in Jun and we did not stop by the bridge that is now becoming a tourist site.

Then I learned he wants me to view the Typhoon “Yolanda” devastation (so that means turning right in Mahaplag junction instead of turning left) but leaving Pintuyan at 3pm means we didn’t have much time really as the drive is at least 3 hours (the late departure from Pintuyan also precluded a ride through the new Silago road and the sea landscapes of Cabalian Bay). One might want to speed up but that also defeats viewing the scenes and besides lack of familiarity with the road means more use of the brakes too. In the straights after Abuyog town I commented that it seems the devastation was worse in the news compared to the actuality (seems when media takes photos they take the worst scenes and people react correspondingly). Having been born and raised in Bicol, a typhoon area, I knew a thing or two about typhoon damage.

Nearing Palo, Leyte it was beginning to get dark. The “curfew” of my cam was fast approaching and it was beginning to get difficult to take bus shots, one of my targets when I travel. Then it began to unravel that Jun is actually targeting a place much farther than Tacloban, an idea I have no inkling before. Jun, they Leyteno wants to go to Allen, Northern Samar! How could I have anticipated that?

I do not know if I sounded dissuasive to Jun but I told him that Allen is 250 kilometers from Tacloban. He told he is used to driving long distances in Australia. I told him it would take 5-6 hours at the rate he was driving (and our mount, a Ford Ranger is no longer the fast type). His response was, “Is is still open in BALWHARTECO at 12 midnight?”. I told him at that hour the disco there will still be furiously blasting and that sleeping (we planned to take a room) might actually be the problem (haha!). Now when did one hear of a disco inside a port? Well, there’s one in Polambato, Bogo but I can’t think yet of any other example.

Jun knew before that I was going to Allen after Leyte to take ship pics and here he was offering a free ride to me! I was flabbergasted. How can I refuse that? But I knew there should be a deeper reason. It turned out that when he was still a student during Martial Law days he had an experience riding a Manila-Baybay bus. He wants to relive that especially he wasn’t able to really know Samar then, his home region. And of course things and places change after 25 years. And so “two birds in one stone”, he was going with me since he knows I know Samar, I won’t lost my way and I can answer his questions! How could I have anticipated that? A Dabawenyo and a Bicolano at the same time will be the tourist guide in Samar! And we will take shot of ships! And well, ship spotting is always more enjoyable if there is a companion.

Since he told me it is there is traffic inside Tacloban especially at that hour and anyway it is already getting dark and Tacloban was dark after dark (no electricity in the lamp posts), I suggested to Jun that we bypass Tacloban, we use the diversion road and just visit Tacloban on our return trip. Anyway, we were still full after that hearty meal in Mayor Estrella’s house and I said we can eat in the Jollibee in Catbalogan or Calbayog at about 9pm when it will still be open as looking for decent food in Allen could be a little problematic at midnight. I estimated our arrival in BALWHARTECO or Balicuatro port will be 12 midnight.

It was already nearly dark when we reached San Juanico bridge so no shots were possible at that picturesque bridge. I warned Jun that Samar is dark at night, there are no street lights and it will be seldom that we will encounter another vehicle and I also told him repairs or looking for a vulcanizing shop is a problem while running in the Samar night. But like me Jun is not the frightful type. Soon our speed dropped as there was mist and there was fog on the road (this is not unusual in Samar). Then our companion and pace-setter vehicle also dropped out and we were all alone. I told Jun the buses for Manila were already well ahead of us and there is no more local bus and there will just be two or three buses that will be leaving Tacloban that night and two will probably do a night lay-over in Calbayog and we will reach Allen without encountering any Manila bus yet. Yes, night runs in Samar are lonely and difficult (I will not say dangerous) once you run into mechanical trouble.

From San Juanico bridge the road is mostly straights and well-paved and we had no incidents. Then we came to Buray, the old junction to Eastern Samar. I told Jun once I spent a few dawn hours there waiting for a bus and I didn’t knew then there was a rumor about poisoners there and I was happily eating (seems it’s not true as I am still alive; didn’t also know before Mahaplag junction also has that “reputation” and I also buy there and usually). I also told Jun my funny experience one morning aboard a local jeep in Wright town (now known as Paranas). When they told me they will be picking up passengers I easily assented to that. After all, is there a jeep that does not pick up passengers? Then they entered Wright town (it is not on the highway) and by golly, it was “free tourism”. Seems they have their clientele by the pattern they blow their horn. Then we stopped by a house to pick up “Ma’am” Well, she has just finished bathing and so we waited for her and the driver turned off the engine. Then came out a beautiful, young teacher and the conductor asked me if she can seat with me at the front (at the back there were some fish). Yes, my drive with Jun evoked some memories. That was 18 years ago!

Then the fishponds of Jiabong came into view in the soft moonlight and I always take pleasure when I pass through that place. I always remember the fries from tahong that they sell. It seems there is no product like that anywhere in the Philippines. Their area is known for tahong and they sell it far and wide up to Iligan, Bukidnon and Davao in Mindanao (yep, I came to know the trader and well, that is intermodal talk again). I am also attracted by the estuaries and navigable rivers not only in Samar but anywhere else (my eyes are actually easily attracted by waters and what navigates there).

Soon from the a cliff, the lights and city of Catbalogan appeared. The outlines of the bay were also apparent and it is actually a majestic view at night (well, even in the day). We then began the narrow descent to Catbalogan. It was a respite after a little over two hours of running in the dark highway of Samar. We were soon on the narrow roads of Catbalogan and we decided to find Jollibee Catbalogan. The city proper is a little of a maze and we had a little bit of hard time finding the fast-food restaurant. The people we asked didn’t seem to understand that we non-locals don’t have an idea of what they take to be commonly-understood references . It was not helped that the streets of Catbalogan are narrow and it was mostly dark as most enterprises have already closed. Anyway, we found Jollibee Catbalogan and we took our dinner.

We then proceeded on our way after our meal and we passed the new Catbalogan bridge. The road after Catbalogan is narrow with houses occupying what should have been the shoulders of the road. Then the roads became more challenging. What I mean is it is no longer as straight but it does not really climb. Anyway, I assured Jun we will veer off the wrong road as I know it very well (that is always the fear of a driver on a night drive in an unfamiliar road). I was trying to feel if Jun was already tired but he was keeping pace and since there is no traffic there was a big leeway for mistakes, if any. Actually I was the one more tired because except for the three hours we spent at Mayor Estrella’s house I had no rest since my trip started from Davao and it was already my second night on the road (and my bus ride from Davao was tiring as it was an ordinary bus).

We passed Calbayog City, the only other mecca of light on our trip (the towns of Samar are all small). It was bigger than Catbalogan and more lighted. After passing the city, I told Jun the dark won’t come for several kilometers as we will still pass through the municipal districts absorbed into Calbayog so it will meet the criteria of the late 1940’s. Then we passed the junction of the road leading to Lope de Vega and Catarman which was the old Samar road when the direct road to Allen does not yet exist. The road then began to have more curves and climbs and unfortunately some portions of the road were cracked and this ran for kilometers and so our mount have to “dance” trying to evade this. It would have been easier if it was light. After nearly two hours of dark and lonely driving we were already in Allen and we passed by Dapdap port before we turned round the town to go to Balicuatro port.

At 12:30am we entered the gates of BALWHARTECO (Balicuatro Wharfage and Terminal Corp.), the biggest and most progressive port in Allen. Allen is the Visayas connection to Luzon and its counterpart port there is Matnog. The guards thought we will board the RORO but we told them we are just touring. We also told them we are just looking to sleep in the lodging house of BALWHARTECO and in the morning we will take ship pics. BALWHARTECO is a private port, they have never heard of ISPS (International System of Port Security) there, the port is geared for hospitality and service and so one will never hear of the word “Bawal” (which means “It’s prohibited”) there whereas in government ports whose first guiding motto is “Be ‘praning’” one’s ears will be saturated by that word. In Balicuatro you can roam the port for all you want and take pictures and nobody will mind you.

After finding a good parking area (that means a slot away from the trucks to avoid damage) we went to the hotel or more properly the lodge. The hotel was a little full and there were no more airconditioned rooms. We also had another request which seemed a little odd to the front desk – we wanted the room to be farthest from the disco. It was a good decision as I found out in the next morning the disco stopped at 4am. We soon feel asleep. We were tired especially me.

I woke up at 6am and headed straight to the wharf. But the 6am ferry was no longer there. I was told it got full early. Soon Jun was around and I tried calling the Captain of the Don Benito Ambrosio II as I had a PSSS shirt for him. We were soon able to board the ship. In Balicuatro if one has the time and energy he can board all the ships that dock. There is really no hint of suspiciousness and I like that because that was the situation in the old past when they were even happy you are taking interest in their ship (nowadays if you take interest in a ship you are a potential terrorist). In Manila, Cebu or Davao, if you enter the port they will think you will take out of the port a container van all by your bare hands.

We talked to the Captain who was apologetic he was not able to answer immediately because he had the flu. We took some time to talk to the Captain of the Don Benito Ambrosio II and waited for the arrival of Star Ferry III. Then we had to disembark because the ferry was already leaving. And there went away my chance because of a conflict. In my plan, with my connections developed with Sta. Clara Shipping and sister company Penafrancia Shipping I planned to joyride their ships (and pay if needed) and take as much ship photos as I can and elicit as much data and history (with my base the BALWHARTECO hotel). Depending on my health I planned to go to Masbate and Cebu via Bulan or if my body was not strong enough then I will rest first in Naga.

Even before boarding Don Benito Ambrosio II, I was already able to locate and talk to the Allen LGU man who tracks the vehicles coming out of the ROROs for the purpose of their taxation. For the first time I had somebody who can tell me where located was the first Allen ports (that are no longer existing now) and he knew all the old ships from Cardinal Ferry I and the old Matnog-Allen motor boats (since those are things that happened in the 1970’s, it is hard now to find a first-hand, knowledgeable source). If I were able to stay, I would have squeezed him for all his knowledge.

But then Jun’s main reason for his vacation was to attend the 80th birthday of his father and he wants me to attend it! He in fact has already promised I will be present. And that birthday was that day we were in Allen. He promised we will be there that dinner. I immediately knew it was tough as were some 370 kilometers from Baybay City and we still have to do ship spotting along the way. We agreed a Balicuatro departure of 9am (later I realized we should have left earlier). My Allen-Matnog joy trips were gone. I just promised myself I will cover it on my Manila trip the same month (however, this no longer happened as along the way I developed a medical condition).

We took some time to prowl Balicuatro port, its eateries, the stalls and merchandise offered. I was actually looking for pilinut candies and not the dried fish and dried pusit (these are the common pasalubong items hawked in Balicuatro). Of course we did not forget to take bus photos. There at least Jun got a good idea what is the kind of movements in a short-distance RORO port where most of the load are trucks, buses and bus passengers (this was certainly different from his experience in the western Leyte ports). He then had an idea how many buses and bus passengers passes through there and I pointed out to him how much the Allen municipal LGU earns daily (and yet there is no infrastructure or development to show for it). The illegal exactions of the vehicles had actually long been deemed by the Supreme Court as illegal but of course illegal practices are very hard to stop in the Philippines because of the weak rule of law and even judges and lawyers will not stand up to what is patently illegal (of course, they all know that permanent checkpoints have long been declared illegal by the Supreme Court and yet they will not raise even a whimper).

We then took leave of BALWHARTECO after a late breakfast. Now came the tough part – how to ship spot along the way, visit the Tacloban devastation wrought by Typhoon “Yolanda” and still be able to reach Baybay at dinner time. But we were not the ones to worry about such conflict. Sometimes the Pinoy bahala na attitude comes in good stead too. What was more important was to maximize the situation, forget the pressure, take pleasure in what was there before you and enjoy what is a trip that might not be duplicated again.

From BALWHARTECO we first visited the Dapdap port of Philharbor Ports and Ferries Services. This is the other private port of Allen but less stronger in patronage than BALWHARTECO although most vehicles first reach it in Allen. The reason is it has less ferries and so departures are fewer and that might mean a longer waiting time for the vehicles. Philharbor is the sister company of Archipelago Ferries which is synonymous to the Maharlika ferries whose reputation is much less than stellar. The Grand Star RORO 3, a ship they have acquired to replace broken Maharlika Uno had just left and all we can take were long-distance shots (now if only we left BALWHARTECO earlier!). But the express jeeps that meet the passengers that disembarked from Matnog (they call that “door-to-door” because those will really deliver you by your gate; of course the fare is higher but what convenience especially if you have lots of pasalubong – rides are difficult in Samar because public utility vehicles are few and these jeeps specialize in the barrio route) were still there as well as the motor bancas for the island-municipalities off the western coast of Northern Samar (specifically Dalupiri, Capul [which speaks a Tausug language, the Inabaknon] and the Naranjo group of islands).

We next stopped at the private port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. that was then undergoing construction (it is operational now). We can’t enter as the gates were locked and there was a crude notice, “Closed by LGU”. Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and its sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corp. were the biggest clients of BALWHARTECO and if they leave a lot of things will change and so the Mayor of Allen who owns that wanted it stopped by using the powers of his office (not issuing a Mayor’s permit). Talk about a self-serving action! I told Jun Sta. Clara Shipping will win as they are not lightweights and they have won before a maritime suit big time and the resistance by the Mayor can easily be challenged in the court by a plea for a mandamus order (Philippine jurisprudence is very clear on that).

The island of Samar, Southern Leyte and Agusan del Sur are among the places I noticed that sudden, heavy downpours will happen even in the peak of summer. It was raining cats and dogs when we reached San Isidro Ferry Terminal and we had difficulty getting out the car. This port is a government-owned and is the official connection to Matnog but lost since it is farther. They were surprised there were visitors since their port no longer has ROROs docking. But we were even in luck as there was a beer carrier from San Miguel Brewery in Mandaue, Cebu and so it was not so desolate. We were entertained at the office and we were surprised to learn that the Philippine Ports Authority office in San Isidro Ferry Terminal controls all the ports in that area of Samar. So that was one reason they still have not closed. (Note: The FastCats of Archipelago Ferries are now using San Isidro Ferry Terminal now.). This port has an islet just off it which acts as a protection for the port against big waves.

Driving south we spotted a port I did not notice before from the bus. It was a private port with copra ships. But all we can do is to take long-distance shots from two vantage points but then we can’t stay any longer as the rains pelted us again and we have to run to the car as there is no other shelter (it was a road cliff on our left and a sea cliff on our right and there are no houses). But the rain had a cooling effect, it made vegetation greener and fresher and it felt fine on a summer day. However, it was a bane in my taking photos of the buses. It should have been heaven for a bus spotter as I had a front seat and it was peak time of buses leaving Samar for Manila but so many of my shots were of poor quality because the windshield has drops of rains and smudges.

We entered the town of San Isidro in the hope we can get a better shot of the port we saw and maybe ask around around to flesh more data. But there were no openings as it is all barred by GI sheets. Jun reminded me to hurry as we were still far from Baybay. But I least we saw the municipal hall and poblacion of San Isidro. This was not visible from the buses as they don’t enter the town proper. That is actually the weakness of bus touring. There are so many poblacions that the bus don’t enter and so views and insights are lost and one can’t judge how big is the town or what is the activity. In Pintuyan, I commented to Mayor Estrella that I thought his town was very small. It turned out his town center is not by the main road….

[There will be a continuation in a future article.]

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The Original RORO Ferry Terminals

It has long been the dream of our country, the Philippines, to connect the main islands of Luzon, the Visayas group and Mindanao to unite the country physically. The only way to do this is through an intermodal system that will use both land and sea transport. This is because the sea crossings are simply too long for the bridges based on the technology of decades before. And, even if the technology is already available, the needed budget for such bridges might simply be too great for a poor country like the Philippines (only fools believe we are the “13th-largest” economy in the world).

The foundation for such Luzon-Visayas-Mindanao connection was actually the study and plan made in the early 1960’s during the administration of President Diosdado Macapagal for a “Philippine-Japan Friendship Highway”. Such grand project will depend on Japan reparations money, soft loans and technical assistance and that was why that project was retitled to such from “Pan-Philippine Highway”.

Aside from a concrete highway stretching from Aparri, Cagayan to Zamboanga City, it also had provisions for a Sorsogon-Samar connection through a ferry, a Samar-Leyte connection through a bridge (which later became the San Juanico bridge), a Leyte-Panaon island connection by a short bridge and a Panaon-Surigao connection through a ferry. That route was the one chosen because it will involve the least number and shortest ferry crossings plus it will mean the most regions that will benefit from a concrete highway. Included in the project was the purchase of two RORO ships for the sea connections and four RORO ferry terminals.

This project was actually not finished during the term of President Diosdado Macapagal. It was actually not even started during his term. The project was really grand, the highways to be paved were really long and a very large number of bridges have to be built. The project was started in 1967 and it was finished about 18 years later. Along the way, the new administration of President Ferdinand Marcos renamed the project into the “Maharlika Highway”. The ROROs in the two sea crossings were also named as Maharlika I and Maharlika II.

The four so-called RORO ferry terminals (they were not called as ports even though they really are) were located in Matnog (Sorsogon), San Isidro (Northern Samar), Liloan (Southern Leyte) and Lipata (Surigao City). For Luzon, the logical choice is really Matnog as it is the closest to the island of Samar. In Samar, it should have been logically located in Allen, Northern Samar. However, it was located instead in San Isidro of the same province because at that time the Calbayog-Allen road was not yet finished. The vehicles then still pass through the mountain town of Lope de Vega to Catarman.

In Panaon island, the logical location of the ferry terminal should have been in the southernmost town of San Ricardo. The problem again was the uncompleted road. The first plan was to put it in San Francisco town. However, the final decision was to locate it in Liloan. One reason forwarded was it was more sheltered which is true. That reason also factored in the choice of San Isidro as it has an islet off it. In Surigao, the ferry terminal was located in the barrio of Lipata. It is nearer to Panaon island than Surigao City poblacion.

Looking at the lines of the ferry terminals it is obvious that all were constructed from just one architectural plan. The only one that is a little different is the Liloan Ferry Terminal. All are modern-looking and even now, more than thirty year after they were constructed, they still do not look dated. It is obvious from the design that effort was made to control the heat from the sun. They were also all well-built and all sat low and maybe that was done to minimize damage from strong winds. Typhoons and earthquakes have come over the decades but all are still spic and span. They all seem to blend with the terrain, too.

The ferry terminals themselves are surrounded by access roads. The design was that the vehicles to be loaded have a separate access from the vehicles being unloaded. There is also back-up area for the vehicles to be loaded. Inside the terminals aside from the usual waiting areas, there are shops and a restaurant. That is aside from the office of the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) and booths for the shipping companies and the useless arrastre firm.

One difference of the ferry terminals from the ports of the past is the presence from the start of RORO ramps in the wharf. It signified that the ferry terminals were really meant for RORO operations right from the very start. Originally, there were only two RORO ramps per ferry terminal. This provision grew short when the number of RORO ships using the ferry terminal multiplied. So, alterations and expansions were done along the way in the quays of the ferry terminals.

When the sea ferry terminals were opened in 1982 in Matnog and in San Isidro with the arrival of the RORO Maharlika I, San Bernardino Strait, the sea separating the two was already connected by privately-owned ROROs for three years. However, they were using the shorter Matnog to Allen connection. Allen, in Northern Samar, had a port even in the past but a private operator developed their own port. Actually, San Isidro port is not well-placed for the vehicles headed just for Northern Samar as they need to backtrack.

Also, when the ferry terminals were opened in 1984 in Liloan and Lipata, Surigao Strait, the sea separating the two was already connected by privately-owned ROROs for five years already. The original connection here was between Surigao port and Liloan municipal port (plus Maasin port). Incidentally, in both connections it was Cardinal Shipping which was the pioneer using the ROROs Cardinal I and Cardinal II. This is to correct the wrong impression by many who thinks it was the government and the Maharlika ships which were the pioneers in this routes. This erroneous impression is the product of government propaganda. May I add also that even before the ROROs came these two straits were already connected by wooden motor boats (called the lancha locally) and big motor bancas.

Trucks, private cars and government vehicles made the first Luzon-Visayas-Mindanao connection and it was not many at the start. The signal connection that everybody was waiting for was the bus connection since that will mean that all and everybody can make the LuzViMinda run. It finally came in 1986 when the Philtranco bus made its first Mindanao run. The run took longer than expected because of mechanical problems but finally it came about. Now, private vehicles and trucks and everybody is taking it now through many buses and even by commuter van at times.

And the Philippines is physically connected now.