The Leyte-Surigao Crossing Is Heating Up

Just after Super-typhoon “Yolanda” in 2013, long lines of trucks formed in the Surigao Strait crossings connecting Leyte and Mindanao when the relief and reconstruction efforts were in full swing. I thought it was just a temporary phenomenon brought about by the typhoon destruction but the truck queues persisted after that (but the buses were not affected by that in the main because bearing passengers they always have the highest priority in boarding short-distance ROROs). Cargo RORO LCTs requested by the government helped in transporting trucks months after the super-typhoon passed until the situation more or less returned to normal.

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LCT sent by Asian Shipping Corporation to the Typhoon Yolanda relief effort (Photo by ASC)

But further developments showed there was really increased vehicle traffic already in the Liloan-Lipata and Benit-Lipata parallel routes that connect Leyte and Mindanao. So in the recent years the Surigao Strait saw more short-distance ferry-ROROs sailing the north-south direction. These included new players plus a dedicated Cargo RORO LCT plying the route and carrying trucks. With such there is a palpable increase in the sailing frequencies between Leyte and Surigao.

The once-oldest ferries in the route, the Maharlika ferries are now gone after the sinking in 2013 of its Maharlika Dos off the southwest tip of Panaon island when its engines conked out and she was swamped by waves when no help came after she drifted for hours. Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the owners of the Maharlika series then stopped operations until they were able to bring their new catamaran-ROROs which are part of the FastCat series.

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Now these new type of ROPAXes (RORO-Passenger ships) hold different time slots. Even with just a single ferry which is currently the FastCat M7, it can do three round trips in a day with its superior speed (17 knots) and favorable passenger and shipper response. The FastCat is gaining popularity in the route by offering the same rates but employing a brand-new craft with the best passenger service in the short-distance routes together with the legendary 2GO liners. They are practically the horse to beat there now from being derided in the past because of the lousiness of their Maharlika series.

FastCat still uses the Liloan-Lipata route even though Lipata port was damaged by an earthquake in 2016 which forced other ships to use the other port of Surigao City which is Verano port. This is the port that caters before to the passenger ships from Cebu (there are no more liners from Manila) and freighters plus different crafts to Dinagat, Siargao and various small islands off the Surigao mainland.

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Benit port and MSLI ferry

Giving them stiff competition because it enjoys a short route are the ferries of Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) which uses the Benit port exclusively to sail the Benit-Surigao route. Normally, this shipping company deploys two big short-distance ferry-ROROs in the route and these are usually the sister ships Maria Felisa and Maria Vanessa. The Benit-Surigao route is only a little over a third of the Liloan-Lipata route but the MSLI rates are only a little less than Liloan-Lipata rates and so MSLI enjoys greater profitability than competition and I wonder why MARINA allows the shipping company to prey on the passengers and vehicle owners when I thought they are the maritime regulatory agency (and they are regulating what and are they for the shipping owners or for the passengers and shippers?).

A newcomer on the route is the Southwest Premier Ferries which is using a brand-new ferry, the SWM Stella del Mar which is a sister ship of the new vessels of Starlite Ferries of Batangas. This company promised several trips in a day but I wonder how they can live up to that if they don’t have enough rolling cargo as many of the vehicles there are already locked to their competitors (well, they can offer discounting to attract the clientele of competition). Southwest Premier Ferries is just a few months on the route.

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Photo from Scoopnest.com

A Bicol shipping company has also invaded the route, the Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. which rotates some of their bigger ships in the route and sometimes it uses a ferry of its legal-fiction company Penafrancia Shipping Corp. As of the time of this writing they are using the ship King Frederick but with two ferries from Japan being refitted right now in Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu, it is probable that one of the two might be assigned to their Liloan-Surigao route to better handle the challenge of the new ferries in the route.

Another old shipping company still plying the route through Liloan and Surigao is the Millennium Shipping Inc. which uses its old and slow Millennium Uno, a ferry with over half a century of sailing experience. At several times in the past this ferry was thought by observers to be already gone only to rise again like a phoenix and one of the recent episode was when they voluntarily stopped sailing after the hot eyes that came with the sinking of the Maharlika Dos (she has her own deficiencies after all). When the ruckus died down the ship quietly went back to sailing with some cosmetic changes and engine improvements so that from 4 hours plus she can now sail the 38-nautical mile distance in a little over 3.5 hours.

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Added to that mix of ships is a Cargo RORO LCT, the GT Express I of GT Express Shipping which was once connecting Negros and Panay islands through the Banago-Dumangas route. This LCT actually uses the Liloan municipal port which once had overnight ships to Cebu and not the Liloan Ferry Terminal. The two ports are just a kilometer apart in a very small bay. As a Cargo RORO LCT, the GT Express 1 can only take in trucks.

One shipping company that is gone now in the route is Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) which stopped their sailing when they found themselves lacking ferries because of mechanical failures on their other ferries. It is a loss and a perplexity because they fielded in the route the first decent ferry when all that was available 15 years ago were the lousy Maharlika and Millennium ferries. I don’t think they will come back in the route because they still lack short-distance ferry-ROROs.

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Verano Port of Surigao City

So right now 6 different ROROs ply the routes across Surigao Strait from 5 different shipping companies and total of about a dozen voyages in a day with a capacity for over 200 assorted vehicles each way excluding motorcycles plus a passenger capacity of more than 4,000. Such is the available capacity now on the route which is a far cry from that of a decade ago when shut-outs happen.

One reason from the increased demand in the route is Surigao Strait became a favorite crossing point of vehicles to or from Cebu of vehicles not only from CARAGA Region but also from Southern Mindanao as Northern Mindanao is not a viable entry for the rates there are very high. This is aside from the fact that that strait is the old crossing point of buses and trucks coming from Luzon and going to Mindanao.

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“The Saddle” dominates the view of the Surigao Strait crossings

The competition in the route might be heating up for now with some threatened over-capacity but in a few years, with the growth in traffic being shown by the route then maybe more ships and frequencies will again be needed. Actually there is a report that a new port will be built in San Ricardo east of Benit and it will be connected to the eastern coastal road being built in Panaon island that will bypass the mountain pass called “The Saddle” which gives some trucks problems because of the inexperience now of drivers in mountain passes.

Maybe by then there will also be more routes across Surigao Strait in the future. More is merrier and normally that redounds to the benefit of the passengers and shippers if only MARINA will do its job. Let us see it then.

The Trip From Tacloban to Surigao del Sur (Part 1)

The smaller tour group of the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) reached Tacloban on the midnight of the second night of the tour. Waiting for Mark to get a ride, we finally parted at about 3:30am of December 13 with Mark on the way to Bato, Leyte for a shipspotting of Bohol and James on the way back to Cebu via Palompon. Me and Joe’s destination was unmentioned but we were actually on the way to Cortes, Surigao del Sur, near the capital of Tandag to visit a shipmate of Joe and shipspot along the way.

There are really not many ports on the Tacloban-Panaon island axis if one follows the road to Mahaplag. From Tacloban, Joe and me had to take the Mahaplag route mainly because it was still dark and Joe also wanted to see the Agas-agas bridge. Besides, a trip via Silago will take longer and I want us to be on the 8am ferry in Benit because that will afford us the greatest chance of visits to the unexplored ports of Surigao without nightfall overtaking us. We had the thought of passing it on the way back, halfheartedly, because our tentative route on the way back now was via Isabel, Leyte to pick up a puppy.

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Liloan Ferry Terminal and Liloan bridge

We reached Liloan at about 6am and Joe tried entering the Liloan Ferry Terminal. I dissuaded him because I feared we will get in trouble with the LGU collectors of illegal exactions and we will lose more time if a scene erupts and anyway I don’t want to take the ferry there because I thought it will reach Lipata Ferry Terminal not sooner but later. I told Joe we can cover Lipata Ferry Terminal from the Liloan municipal port which is located just a kilometer from the other end of the Liloan bay.

I was not mistaken and we were lucky because as tipped by member Mervin Go Soon of Baybay (whom we met on the Oroquieta Stars on the way to the PSSS tour-meet assembly in Tacloban), the former Maharlika Cinco of Archipelago Ferries was there. The other tip of Mervin that the Grand Star RORO 3 was doing a Liloan Municipal Port to Surigao route also proved true because she was there besides the former Maharlika Cinco. We noticed no work was being done on the former Maharlika Cinco which would become the Gloria Five of Gabisan Shipping. I was wondering then who is operating the Grand Star RORO 3. I thought it was “M Shipping” whose AUV we encountered on the road (I was mistaken on that assumption as Mervin very recently told me that Grand Star RORO 3 was also bought by Gabisan Shipping and I wonder now if she is the Gloria One advertised by the company in Liloan port).

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Across the bay, we saw that it was only the Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping which was docked in Liloan Ferry Terminal. With its slow speed and the triple distance of Liloan compared to Benit port, it would have been disaster to our schedule had we taken it (so our bet not to enter Liloan Ferry Terminal was right after all). There was also anchored in the bay the Cargo RORO LCT GT Express 1 of GT Shipping which was doing a route to Surigao so that trucks wouldn’t queue long like in the past. I noticed the old Liloan municipal port terminal was already converted into an office by the municipality. But the old arrastre office was still there.

At the end of our short, alloted time in Liloan we made a run for Benit in San Ricardo town at the tip of Panaon island. I did not want a photofinish and I told Joe we need to put in some allowance on time lest we were shut out of the ferry (“shut out” in maritime use here means one’s vehicle or cargo fails to be loaded to a ship) and probably have to backtrack to Liloan and so we did not look for a place to eat anymore (anyway there was probably none that is inviting as Liloan is just a small town). Along the way we saw the abandoned port of San Francisco which once docked the copra ships of great shipping line Go Thong in the past.

We next came to “The Saddle”, a renowned mountain pass that Joe wants to conquer (it was called by that name because it resembles a horse saddle if viewed from the sea). It was not shipspotting but there were views of the sea from there and we knew right after that will come the town of San Ricardo but Benit port will still be some distance from it.

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Leaving behind Benit, its collectors of illegal exactions and “The Saddle”

Approaching Benit port, before the turn inside, I told Joe that if the San Ricardo LGU collectors of the illegal exactions flag him down that he continues driving as if he did not see anything. The ruse worked and upon entering the people of Montenegro Lines and the arrastre rushed us saying we will be the last vehicle that will be loaded. There were already shortcuts in the processing of papers and we were already on the ramp before all the papers were even processed. The ship left even before 8am and I saw two vehicles that arrived minutes after us were no longer accommodated (and there was actually still some space for at least one of them). So it was still a photofinish alright and a lucky accommodation. Sometimes that is one gets from being disciplined in the travel approach. I told Joe before that many said I am lucky with trips and it seems it was holding. Actually, it held during the 1,000 kilometers me and Joe ran with two ferry crossings and with many ports visited.

Our ship was the Maria Vanessa of Montenegro Lines, sister of the Maria Felisa (actually no other shipping company serves the Benit-Lipata route). Since we both lacked sleep, me and Joe barely toured the ship. Instead we immediately looked for a cool, comfortable and quiet place and soon we were asleep although the voyage usually takes only 1 hour and 15 or 20 minutes. We two really needed that rest even if it was so short. We did not even care for food as all we wanted is sleep.

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Lipata Ferry Terminal

That short sleep reinvigorated the two of us and there was no hassle in the disembarkation process nor in getting out of the Lipata Ferry Terminal. We did not try anymore to tour the port since we will be exiting Mindanao through that port anyway. What we wanted was food as our stomachs were grumbling already. It was already mid-morning and we only had hamburger the previous night in Tacloban terminal and no breakfast at all.

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“Voyagers” (Photo by Joe Cardenas)

Going out of the port, I espied a new place which looked like a diner to me although it looks more of a lodging place. I was able to convince Joe to backtrack and what a discovery! Well, they really serve meals and snacks and it turned out that the owner is a master mariner abroad and so the place was themed by maritime things. The was not the usual rush of people, it was quiet and clean and it does not look or smell like the usual roadside stands. The name of the place is “Voyagers” and we recommend it. Me and Joe took a little time to unwind and relax there before we proceeded to the city (i.e. Surigao City). 

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In the city, we first went to what is called the “Boulevard”. It is a boulevard indeed, a seaside one. It is adjacent to the main port of Surigao and it is there where the so-many big motor bancas of Surigao to Dinagat, Siargao and other islands dock. We were lucky since we were early they were still all there and since the sea was calm so many came. I walked the entire length of the Boulevard getting shots of all the bigger boats. Offshore, a few LCTs were moored, as always. LCTs are a fixture of Surigao now because the mines employ them.

From there me and Joe proceeded to the main port of Surigao which is called Verano port. Joe wanted to enter but I told him there is almost no chance of a free pass as it is an ISPS port which means visitors are not welcome. To buy a ticket for Siargao so we can enter means a bit heavy “entrance fee”. Might have been affordable for our pockets but I was always mindful of the time and I do not want the quest for the unexplored ports of Surigao be compromised (why is it that long-distance shipspotting is always balancing of compromises?). Besides I was more interested in the old docking area of boats nestled on the side of Verano which was not obvious or visible from outside it. So I just contented myself with some shots of Verano ships from the gate. There are not many of them at a given time anyway and two i even caught while departing.

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A view of Verano Port from the nearly-enclosed marina beside it

I then nestled myself into the narrow opening that leads to what I found to be a dirty marina where many bancas and motor boats were anchored (there were more than 15 of them). This looked like to be the old port as can be deduced from the road on the other side of where I was. It is now almost encircled by Verano port but I knew from observation inside Verano that passenger-cargo motor bancas emanate from it which I found to be bound to the smaller islands that belong to Surigao City.

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The MARINA nestled by Verano Port

Many of the vessels in that nearly-enclosed marina were actually fishing bancas. But it seems nobody cares anymore for that port and marina. It is dirty and it looks as if there is no order there and even the roads and pathways leading to it look unmaintained. I did not dare exploring anymore as the walkways looked dangerous to me.

From there me and Joe exited Surigao City not through the main road but through some shortcuts which Joe saw on the GPS map. We did not try anymore the Surigao-Lipata coastal road whose turn we missed earlier. The unexplored municipal ports and the mining ports of Surigao were the ones that were already pulling us. Their magnetites seem to be strong….

(More on the next installment.)

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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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.]