“Asa na mo dapit?”
That was from Jethro, a text message that hardly sounded urgent but was no less unnerving. He had flown ahead to Manila, where we’d agreed to meet the day after and head for Sagada, our room there sitting on the edge of a karst cliff, waiting for guests who probably won’t arrive on time, or might not even make it.
So where were we?
“Tacloban,” I texted back during a stop near a fork in the road. I wasn’t sure. One tortuous, poorly paved stretch in Ormoc city made the ride so jarring it made dirt roads seem first world. I shot uneasy glances at my passengers: my wife and youngest beside me, and the two girls in the backseat. They seemed docile, unperturbed. Despite the incredibly slow, wearisome Roro crossing from the Danao city to Isabel, the late lunch and loads of chips and candy kept their spirits at manageable levels.
I looked up the rear view mirror – Jong emerges from the driver’s side of his white Fortuner and approaches our pickup. I stepped out. He was all smiles. I supposed the rest of the Fernandezes were doing fine as well. I forced a grin.
I think we’re headed the wrong way, I said, pointing to a sign that read “To Maasin City.” Jong studied the sign, then the busy road to the right that led all the way to Southern Leyte, and nodded. That same road would have led to my grandmother-in-law’s hometown in scenic Panaon Island, which rests placidly right across Surigao city, Mindanao’s northernmost tip. The thought of changing courses on a whim sounded inviting.
Apparently, I had missed by a few meters the sign that pointed to Tacloban. But that delay was a mere hiccup, because no matter what we did, we already found ourselves three hours off schedule that Saturday morning, no thanks to the ancient vessel from Cebu that took forever to leave and even longer to find our port in Leyte.
We had planned to reach Allen, Samar by nightfall to catch the last Roro trip to Matnog, Sorsogon in the island of Luzon. But it was now mid-afternoon: to cover 250 kilometers to reach Allen on schedule meant having to drive like maniacs who bear no scruples in violating all of Newton’s laws of motion. We must have been mad to have gone on a road trip from Cebu all the way to Sagada and back –with our families in tow at that – but I’m pretty sure none of us was crazy enough to dare turn this road trip into a physics experiment. Allen before midnight now seemed the more realistic outcome.
Let’s go to Plan B, I told Jong about our options (Plan C was to cut the trip short and just text Jethro the bad news. End of road trip, end of story, ktnxbye). But Plan B meant spending the night in Allen and taking the first Roro trip the next morning, and as soon as we disembarked from Matnog, we would just have to drive all the way to Mandaluyong city in Metro Manila, hoping to get there by Sunday evening.
“Okay ra na bay,” Jong – Mr. Fernandez in the consultancy industry – said. Always composed and cheerful, this guy made for a perfect road trip companion. We had been talking about taking such a trip for years, and finally took the chance in March last year. Spanning the entire Holy Week, plus the weekend before that, the road trip would take nine days in all.
The initial plan was only up to Metro Manila. Sagada came into the picture when my balikbayan friend Manok – don’t ask about the nick, long story – regaled Jethro and me about how mystical and unspoilt the place was, and how much he enjoyed his recent trip there, never mind if he nearly keeled over after unwittingly swallowing the juices of some “momma,” or betel nut, he was chewing on.
After hearing Manok’s story, I told Jethro about the plan to take a road trip to Manila. I asked him if he wanted to join us if we proceeded to Sagada. Great idea, he said, but he would fly directly to Manila and just meet us there. It made sense – Jethro is 300 pounds of muscle, and with his girth, Cebu as starting point would be brutal for him. Manila to the Cordilleras, though, sounded doable and charming. Just imagine a gentle behemoth soaking up the sun on the bed of a pickup truck.
Jong didn’t need much persuading when I threw Sagada into the road trip equation. My wife Bretha and Jong’s wife Reggie, didn’t put up much resistance to the idea either.
The kids were excited, only because they had no clue how long the trip was going to take. Consider these figures: the road trip from Cebu to Sagada via the Pan-Philippine Highway would cover some 1,500 kilometers of road, apart from the two crossings over sea. Anyway, the date was fixed: March 23 to 31, 2013.
We left Metro Cebu on a Saturday morning, and after an uneventful, bone-rattling, energy sapping eight hours of travel over sea and land, we made our first wrong turn near the edge of Tacloban city. We would soon realize that all stops – whether by mistake or on purpose – were a welcome chance to stretch some weary limbs, to find our bearings.
The road to Tacloban city was busy but smooth. Shops old and new lined the streets.
The numerous car showrooms were shimmering announcements that Tacloban had arrived.
Even if we were just passing through, it was hard to ignore that the country’s gateway to the Visayas was a bustling, progressive city so full of promise. But little did anyone know that such a promise would be snuffed out eight months later, by a natural force so ferocious and malevolent, a natural force that, indifferent as it sounds, was also just passing through.
“Asa na mo?” Jethro’s message flashed, now almost taunting.
We’re about to cross the San Juanico Bridge, I texted back. The handsome bridge that snaked across the strait that separated Leyte from Samar got everyone excited. But this sense of elation would be short-lived, because in roughly an hour, the most difficult part of the entire road trip would have begun – the 90-kilometer drive to Catbalogan. And this difficulty had little to do with the state of the road. In fact, this national highway in the north western part of Samar was surprisingly good, except for the last 30-minute stretch leading to Allen.
But as the body begins to feel the first signs of fatigue, something else happens inside the head. Deeper into the mountainous forest where the road to Catbalogan cuts through, the signal from the mobile networks began to fade, along with the last traces of sunlight. We would not receive any text message for hours from Jethro, who right now, was probably stretched out on a soft king-sized bed in Manila, snoring a hundred decibels to his nostrils’ content.
Good thing the children and the wife didn’t find it hard to fall asleep on the car seats, and better still, that I found it easy to stay awake. What was hard to brush off was this question: What had we gotten ourselves into? And harder still, was to persuade myself that this insanely long road trip on the tightest of schedules was not a mistake. These are the kinds of questions one asks when one sees nothing but a pitch black curtain at the edge of the car beams. And what if we caught a flat tire, or worse, got into an accident in the middle of nowhere? What if bandits waylaid us? What if the tales of the undead were true?
While some turn to prayer in times of unbearable darkness, or get philosophical (“Live – or drive – to the point of tears”), I bombarded my head with images that inspired awe and wonder, the very reasons this road trip was conceived in the first place: the Hanging Coffins of Sagada, the Banaue Rice Terraces, Mayon Volcano. Mr. Fernandez, meanwhile, turned to bottles upon bottles of Cobra Energy Drink.
And that was how we managed to drive on for hours until we eased back to civilization, stopping by Catbalogan for dinner at Jollibee, after which, Jong took over as lead driver of our two-vehicle convoy on the way to Calbayog, some 70 kilometers away along similar environs, before we finally endured the last 80-kilometer stretch, reaching the quiet town of Allen shortly before midnight. We missed the Roro, of course, but we found accommodations at an inn by the sea, close to the port.
So how did we fare, so far?
After driving 400 kilometers of road for close to a dozen hours, I looked at the numbers: 1,100 kilometers more to negotiate from Allen to Sagada, not to mention the 1,500 kilometers we needed to traverse all the way back to Cebu. For a moment there, Plan C became a tempting option that needed serious consideration.
At the edge of the shore near the inn, I could see faint lights from across where I was standing. Must be the town of Matnog in the province of Sorsogon on the island of Luzon. They say there’s a magnificent natural wonder not too far away. The world’s most perfect cone, they say. Surely that volcano alone is worth the trip. (Part 2 on January 30, 2014)