Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Trip to Iloilo part 2

Continuing the account of our trip to Iloilo, you may recall that Gilbert came to visit Ron and us on Friday. On Saturday we accompanied Gilbert on his return trip to his home island of Guimaras. It began with a half-hour bus trip to Iloilo. The bus fare was only 20 pesos (a bit over 40 cents) apiece. From the bus terminal we took a taxi to the central Jaro district of Iloilo, cost p120, including tip. There we marveled at Jaro Cathedral, also known as Our Lady of Candles, one of the oldest and largest Spanish-Catholic churches in the country. Iloilo is known for many such historic structures, as well as considering itself the cockfighting capital of the world. Resisting the urge to go to the cockfights at 8:00 A.M., we ate breakfast, and then hopped a jeepney to the pier, cost p7 each.

Guimaras, known for growing the world’s best mangoes, is an island just a 15 minute banca ride across the straight. The bancas, which run as soon as 50 or so passengers are on board – as often as every five minutes – cost p13 each. Gilbert lives in a remote village, Morubuan, so we climbed into a tricycle, with Gilbert riding behind the driver. The driver agreed to provide round-trip service, including waiting while we visited, for p150 each way, and we were happy to get it. We still find ourselves surprised by the availability and affordability of public transportation in the Philippines. Total cost to get the three of us to the village including bus, taxi, jeepney, banca, and tricycle, was p390, less than $9.00, for three people traveling for over two hours.

Gilbert’s village is along the coast, and there is a daily 10 A.M. banca direct from Iloilo. However, transportation from his village to the main banca port is by motorcycle only. This is why we came via the high-traffic banca, and also why Gilbert arranged for the tricycle driver to wait for us. Also, Morubuan has no pier and its scenic white-sand beach is very gently sloped, meaning that banca passengers either walk to shore in a couple feet of water, or are carried by banceros if they wish to stay dry.

We took a tour of the village. It’s hard to say how many people live there – certainly hundreds at least – densely-packed into a few hectares. Somewhat to our surprise, the houses do not have running water. There are three water supply points, spring water piped fresh from the mountain. Houses have individual septic systems. Several of the houses contain sari sari stores. Gilbert and his wife operate one from the front room of their house. We met Gilbert’s wife and father, several uncles, aunts, and cousins and other relatives in the two-hour plus stay.

On our tour through the village we stopped at the school, where Gilbert’s son is the youngest first grader. We arrived during their one-and-a-half-hour English session, and the teachers were pleased to have us stop in and say hello in response to a chorus of, “Good morning, visitors.” School begins before eight and runs until five. Later we talked with the principle, who told us that there are many very poor children from outlying areas. They come to school hungry most days, and are fed government-supplied rice supplemented with vegetables from the school garden to fill their bellies, while children who live in the village go home for lunch. Considering its location and age, the school seems quite well run, and the children well-cared for.

Our return trip to Pototan was uneventful. That evening we went to Ron’s one last time for dinner. His parents seemed genuinely sad to see us leave, as you can see in the picture. Pastor, who up until now had always had a big smile on his face, said, “I’m so happy that you come” while crying at the same time. We could not have felt more included in the family for the past four days, and are very glad that we took the initiative to visit them.

When we first were discussing our trip to Iloilo, a few people encouraged us to fly down and “RORO” back. This involves taking a bus the entire distance. Since the Philippine islands are an archipelago, the bus has to be ferried from one island to the next, “Roll On, Roll Off.” We were told that it was a good way to see more of the country. So we purchased one-way plane tickets a couple of months ago in anticipation of returning by bus and ferry.

The RORO station is less than a kilometer from the hostel where we were staying in Pototan, so it was easy to purchase tickets ahead of time. We were told that the bus would arrive around 7:00 and depart by 7:30 A.M. and arrive in Manila around midnight. We got to the station way too early, as the bus was over an hour late arriving. The stationmaster had reserved the front right seats for us, so we had a wonderful view out the front of the bus.

Panay is a beautiful island. We passed through many small towns and villages. There were usually mountains off in the distance, rice fields in abundance, a few corn fields, and cattle pastured on terraced slopes. It took us about five hours to reach northern Panay, finally arriving at the port town of Caticlan. Passengers walk aboard the ferry while the buses, other vehicles, and cargo are loaded. We were on the ferry about six hours, although the first 90 minutes was spent waiting for all of the vehicles to be loaded. Near the end we watched a beautiful sunset over the island of Mindoro while a ferry passed in the other direction. We arrived in Roxas just after dark.

All we could see as we crossed Mindoro Island was the roads, which are undergoing major repair. We boarded our second ferry at Calapan, crossing to Batangas, which is on Luzon, the same island as Manila. The final bus leg was quicker since there are good expressways in Luzon. However, every once in a while we had to depart the major roads and head into a bus stop in a smaller town. When we finally reached our destination at Pasay it was 3:00 A.M. The roads in Manila are less deserted than you would think at that hour, but we still managed to reach our hostel in decent time. We were extremely exhausted, of course.

Looking back, RORO was an interesting experience but one that we aren’t likely to repeat. The bus stopped on several occasions for food and restrooms. The restrooms were inadequate and not well maintained, and the food was precooked and generally cold. Since we’d gotten our plane tickets on sale, it actually cost us more to take the bus, not to mention the much longer travel time. We enjoyed seeing Panay, and would have liked to see Mindoro but it was too dark by the time we drove through it.

Before we reached Luzon, all of the roads were two-lane and for the most part they had no shoulders. The roads are shared by cars, trucks, bicycles, and even pedestrians. We had the same bus driver for the entire trip. His shift started before we boarded and the bus was still not at its final destination, so he must have been on duty for close to 24 straight hours. Of course he got breaks on the ferries. Nonetheless, he did an outstanding job driving for so many hours in such challenging conditions.

Despite having lived on Corregidor for over two years, it was still an adventure for us to go to Iloilo on our own. We are not conversant in the language, are of a different culture, and were completely dependent upon the hospitality of our hosts and the kindness of complete strangers to get us through our return trip on RORO. At times we really didn’t know what the heck we were doing, where to eat, find a toilet, or whatever. But we made it just fine, met many interesting and friendly fellow-travelers, and will not hesitate to see other parts of the country when the opportunities arise. But we’ll certainly try to plan ahead and fly whenever possible.

One other thought: taking RORO gave us a much better understanding of the Philippines as a nation that is physically divided. In the continental United States you can drive to just about anywhere; even many of the outer islands are connected by bridges and roadways. Here, customs and languages vary from region to region and, in some cases, island to island. In many ways, two entirely different worlds.

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