Tacloban on my mind

(Originally titled “My Southern summer holiday,” this story came out in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s travel section more than 13 years ago. In hindsight, my life, much like Tacloban and most other key cities in the South, seemed so carefree, less complicated and full of promise back then.

(Although this piece isn’t all about Tacloban, I’m dedicating it to the people of the once beautiful and thriving city by the sea as well as those from other towns and cities directly affected by “Yolanda.” I have faith that you’ll be back on your feet in no time.)

LEYTE, like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, immortalized here in a park named after him in Palo, shall return to its former state. (happytripz.com)

LEYTE, like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, immortalized here in a park named after him in Palo, shall return, with our help, to its former state. (happytripz.com)

I SURVIVED the grueling Summer Caravan 2000 cooked up by the Department of Tourism, and so did more than 90 others who joined the six-day trip that covered five regions, 1,369 km of roads and bridges, and more than 40 hours of travel time.

The yearly extravaganza, so far the longest and most ambitious, kicked off April 28 in Metro Manila and culminated May 3 in Cagayan de Oro–the day Moro terrorists began bombing several cities in Mindanao. But that’s going ahead of our story.

It was DOT’s eighth such attempt at promoting domestic tourism. Previous summer caravans included trips to Laguna, Bulacan, Pangasinan, Batangas, Cavite, the Mountain Province and the Ilocos Region.

THE San Juanico Bridge, which connects the provinces of Samar and Leyte, is the Philippines' longest bridge and said to be one of South East Asia's most beautiful. (gerryruiz.wordpress.com)

THE San Juanico Bridge, which connects the provinces of Samar and Leyte, is the Philippines’ longest bridge and said to be one of South East Asia’s most beautiful. (gerryruiz.wordpress.com)

The trip offered many the rare chance to see the country’s prized tourist attractions up close and personal. An old lady, for instance, claims to have traveled to Europe and the US several times, but was awed nonetheless to see majestic Mt. Mayon for the first time.

Traversing the 2.16 km San Juanico Bridge, reportedly the longest and the most beautiful in Southeast Asia, became a novelty to many. To think the bridge, which connects the islands of Samar and Leyte, has been around for more than two decades now.

AERIAL view of San Juanico Bridge is no hype. From this vantage point, it is, indeed, a scenic site to behold. (gerryruiz.wordpress.com)

AERIAL view of San Juanico Bridge is no hype. From this vantage point, it is, indeed, a scenic site to behold. (gerryruiz.wordpress.com)

The DOT is encouraging Filipinos to spend their pesos here rather than squander their precious dollars abroad. Not only will they get to rediscover the country’s unique attractions, goes the rationale, their money will go a long way in boosting local tourism.

Trip tease

Such trips naturally appeal to more mature patrons with more time and money to spare, but we also met several families, yuppies and, of course, balikbayans during the trip. A 9-year-old girl, for instance, has been joining the caravan with her family for the past three years now.

“This trip is just a teaser for many of them,” says DOT’s special events director Nora Bautista. “We hope they will stay longer next time in places they find interesting.”

OLD timers describe Tacloban, captured here before "Yolanda," as a city that rose and grew out from a beach. It was just a matter of time before a howler as huge as "Yolanda" wreak havoc on it.

OLD timers describe Tacloban, captured here before the disaster, as a city that rose and grew out from a beach. It was just a matter of time before a super howler as huge as “Yolanda” wreaked havoc on it. (gerryruiz.wordpress.com)

A teaser, indeed, since we seemed to have spent more time on the bus than on land. Holy Week ended several weeks ago, but not for us who have had to endure hunger, sleepless nights, heavy bladders and, yes, biting cold in between stops.

Three gleaming Philtranco buses we rode during the entire trip probably doubled as freezers. The worse part was nobody from DOT reminded media persons to bring their jackets, sweaters and turtle necks. So there I was in the middle of summer, clad in shorts and a flimsy Hawaiian shirt shivering in Arctic-like temperature.

TACLOBAN'S once thriving downtown area (gerryruiz.wordpress.com)

TACLOBAN’S once thriving downtown area (gerryruiz.wordpress.com)

If not for the friendly Philtranco drivers and the warmth exuded by many of the participants, we probably would have succumbed to frost bites–really!

The long night drives were made bearable thanks to several karaoke tapes featuring songs of Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdink. I wisely shied away from the microphone to lessen our miseries.

But one’s tolerance for the same songs–and singers–could only go so far. Before the trip was over, melodies from “Delilah” and “Cuando, Cuando, Cuando” kept ringing in my mind. Tama na, sobra na, palitan na!

BINAGOL,  a Leyte delicacy, which can be bought almost anywhere in the island province.

BINAGOL, a Leyte delicacy, which can be bought almost anywhere in the island province.

In fact, the caravan’s resident nurse earned the moniker Delilah for her inability to put the mike down. Well, with Delilah in the picture, could Samson be far behind?

Being holed up in the same bus for several hours was no joke, but it also allowed us to observe and laugh at each other’s quirks. Of course, who could forget the odd couple who kept videotaping each other’s every move-even while lining up the restroom? Or the perennial whiner who, thankfully, spewed her venom in another bus.

Then there’s the aging bank executive who loved to parade in sleeveless tops and short shorts fit for girls half her age. And how we sat dumbfounded as she and her partner posed for pictures even before unlikely places such as a senator’s unfinished house in Surigao. Indeed, such motley characters were already attractions in themselves.

NO tourist attraction she, former actress Christina "Kring-Kring" Gonzalez, now a councilor of Tacloban and wife of Mayor Alfred Romualdez, shows off the province's traditional products. (leytesamardaily.net)

NO tourist attraction she, former actress Christina “Kring-Kring” Gonzalez-Romuladez, now a councilor of Tacloban and wife of Mayor Alfred Romualdez, shows off the province’s traditional products. (leytesamardaily.net)

Philtranco, one of the caravan’s major sponsors, together with Shopwise and Pilipinas Shell, offers similar trips under its Biyaheng Pinoy program. There are several shorter trips to the North and South for those with neither the time nor energy to brave the Manila-CDO run.

Since Philtranco exclusively operates the Liloan-Lipata line, we wish it would start paying more attention to its ferryboats as well. The one we boarded in Liloan, for instance, had dirty and stinking restrooms with several busted flushes.

State of restrooms

By the way, how’s the state of the countryside’s notorious toilets? If you’re not that fussy, you will survive the experience. Philtranco has refurbished and air-conditioned almost all its restrooms located in major terminals. It also required all its affiliate restaurants to do the same.

THE iconic Leyte provincial capitol building in Tacloban (intrepidwanderer.com)

THE iconic Leyte provincial capitol building in Tacloban (intrepidwanderer.com)

But the best restrooms we came across on the road were those maintained by the Philippine Ports Authority. The one in Liloan, for instance, gleamed and oozed with the smell of disinfectant. A cleaning man was stationed in the men’s room to follow and mop every last drop.

Each participant shelled out between P5,000 to P7,000 for the entire trip. Not bad, really. Aside from round-trip transportation, the package included meals and hotel accommodations. Those who chose more fancy hotels naturally had to pay more.

SOHOTON Caves shows the wild side of Leyte. (gerryruiz.wordpress.com)

SOHOTON Caves shows the wild side of Leyte. (gerryruiz.wordpress.com)

Aside from several pit stops, participants stayed for a night in Legaspi and two nights each in Tacloban and CDO. But despite organizers’ best efforts, the caravan often arrived late–sometimes by almost two hours.

Two of the few times we did arrive on time were during the ferryboat rides from Sorsogon to Samar and, two days later, from Southern Leyte to Surigao del Norte.

And what if we didn’t? Aside from waiting until nightfall for the next ferryboat to arrive, first-time travelers would have been deprived of imbibing the lush and seemingly virgin islands that dot both waterways.

THE Santo Niño Church, one of many places of worship dedicated to the Child Jesus, in Tacloban. (www.ilovetacloban.com)

THE Santo Niño Church, one of many places of worship dedicated to the Child Jesus, in Tacloban. (www.ilovetacloban.com)

Truly, on top of seeing natural and man-made attractions, travelers could sit back, relax and bask at the verdant scenery outside. It’s heartening to note that many of the hills and mountains we saw by the roadside were still covered with lush trees.

Surprisingly, the extreme conditions didn’t have any noticeable effect on anybody, perhaps, except me. By May 1, on our way to CDO, I was already feeling a bit under the weather. True enough, before the trip was over, I was already nursing a fever and coughing like hell.

But despite all the hassles, the trip was-pardon the cliche–worth it. And why not? For less than $200, the experience afforded many the chance to discover or rediscover their country’s natural attractions no foreign developer or savvy marketing man could ever match.

Santo Niño Shrine, which is said to be now just a memory, was anything but a shrine to the Child Jesus. As envisioned by then first lady Imelda Marcos, it was an ancestral house of sorts and a repository of couple's questionable wealth. (happytripz.com)

Santo Niño Shrine, which is reportedly now just a memory after “Yolanda,” was anything but a shrine to the Child Jesus. As envisioned by then first lady Imelda Marcos, it was an ancestral house of sorts and a repository of the couple’s questionable wealth. (happytripz.com)

Indeed, why go to Thailand for sun, sea and sand when you can have much more for less in the Philippines? Why shop at Hong Kong and Bangkok’s night markets when CDO’s Cogon market offers cheaper but equally interesting finds?

Gustatory tour

In search of a miracle? You don’t have to go to Lourdes or Fatima to find one. A visit to Our Lady of Penafrancia, whose image is enshrined in the Basilica Minore in Naga, may work wonders and alter your life forever.

For others, it was also a rare chance to forget their diets and indulge in the freshest fruits and seafood so abundant in the countryside. Nothing comes close, for instance, to the feast prepared by–hold your breath–Dee n J Hyacinth Seafood Restaurant in Catbalogan.

Short of serving stewed snake, the restaurant’s chef whipped up a heaping buffet consisting of every conceivable creature—from baked mussels, oysters and crabs to grilled squid, fried chicken, lechon and blue marlin cooked bistek-style. He even added lumpiang ubod, pancit and sweet and sour fish.

INSIDE Imelda's Santo Niño Shrine (gerryruiz.wordpress.com)

INSIDE Imelda’s Santo Niño Shrine (gerryruiz.wordpress.com)

And since everything was served on every table, guests were spared from lining up. Another noteworthy restaurant that served good food in generous servings was located in Pamplona, Quezon. Its laing, tempered, perhaps, to cater to non-Bicolanos, was superb.

Having gone through a similar ordeal, rather, experience 10 years ago, I welcomed the occasion to revisit familiar sites and facilities. And, unlike my first trip, which brought me to Davao City, this time it ended in CDO, the city of Golden Friendship, a city I had heard so much about.

Of course, the Cagsawa ruins sill stands beneath Mayon’s looming shadow. But those who had expected to see the old, unobstructed Cagsawa as pictured in countless books and postcards probably went home disappointed. The area had been fenced off and made into a park, complete with a restaurant called Cagsawa 1814, the year the barrio was buried by Mayon’s eruption.

The night before, guests were treated to a cultural show of songs and dances performed by the Banaag Theater Group and Valderrama Brothers. The hour-long program focused not only on the “Sarungbanggi,” Bicol’s homegrown classic, but music and dances from other regions as well.

We also came across several old and new attractions that dot and add character to each region. After booting out he Marcoses from power 14 years ago, Filipinos who explored Imelda’s Sto. Niño Shrine in Tacloban were again reminded of the Conjugal Dictatorship’s extravagance and misplaced priorities.

DID the Santo Niño live here? (gerryruiz.wordpress.com)

DID the Santo Niño live here? (gerryruiz.wordpress.com)

Other interesting sites in Leyte include MacArthur Park in Palo, where the returning American general and his entourage are immortalized in larger-than-life statues.

Mindanao charm

Because of Surigao del Norte’s numerous beaches, the province has opted to promote such natural attractions as Siargao Island. Tourists will get a sneak previw of the province’s beachfront properties from a viewing deack near Lipata.

The government of Butuan, Agusan del Norte, another province belonging to Region 13, has taken a different tack. In their desire to promote the city as a historic and cultural melting pot that dates back before the Spanish times, city officials have built a National Museum which houses ethnological and archeological pieces either still in use or unearthed within the city.

Organizers saved Malasag Eco-Tourism Village, one of the caravan’s best sites, for last. At P20 per person, the sprawling 7-ha park outside downtown CDO is an ideal summer destination with such amenities as an orchidarium, deer pen, monkey trail, swimming pool, and aviary, among others.

Now, what will all these efforts amount to in light of the precarious peace and order situation in the South? Indeed, the DOT, if not the entire government, is probably finding it hard to promote a paradise like Mindanao as an ideal tourist destination.

While some towns and cities in Mindanao have turned into veritable battle zones between the military and Moro extremists, there are still plenty of areas left untouched by war. Cities such as CDO, Davao, Butuan and Surigao seem oblivious to the sudden rush of violence wreaking havoc elsewhere in the island.

Like participants in the recent caravan, future visitors will definitely enjoy and, God willing, live to tell about their Southern summer holiday.

THE San Juanico Straight separating Samar and Leyte is a beautiful but deadly area in an age of global warming (gerryruiz.wordpress.com)

THE San Juanico Straight separating Samar and Leyte is a beautiful but deadly area in an age of global warming (gerryruiz.wordpress.com)

 

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