Thursday, August 23, 2012

Calbayog, and the road through it

By Mike McIlvain

CALBAYOG, Western Samar, the Philippines -- One place that knows how to make an eye-catching entrance, but a deeper impression is right up the road.

Florescent long bright green grass grows between clumps and patches of eastern and middle Philippines rainforest, breaking the mind’s fog in sleep-deprived eyes at the end of a one hour turboprop flight from Manila.

The olive palm forests surround the eye-catching florescent green until the dark blue of the nearby bays and straits join in, dotted by outrigger-style fishing boats, and smoke from coconut processing fires – all in the same window frame.

This all gently wakes up a traveler, too cautious, or paranoid, to take a nap anywhere in any of the separated Manila airport terminals just a few hours before. The tiny Calbaygo airport terminal, not much bigger than an average parking space, keeps arrivals outside as bags are brought in from the small plane. Not much room inside, anyway, only enough for a few waiting for the plane to make a quick turnaround trip back to the capital.

Calbayog’s sights in the morning lights don’t fade away quickly, either.

The sun bounces off the multi-colored front and side panels of motorized sidecar motorcycles – tricycles – and off bicycle-powered pedicabs the same way. These further enhance the surrounding arrangement of clouds, mountains, and multi-colored outrigger fishing and transportation boats to nearby islands. The bridge over the little river leading past Calbayog’s port points across a channel to one island, which usually keeps low-lying clouds fluctuating between palm tree tops and mountains for a friendly, relaxing sight.

Not much relaxing on this unnamed roadway, but one sees several desirable photos in numerous trips up and down this highway. Several more lie just up the coast along the white knuckle trips guaranteed here.

This is one narrow, two-lane concrete road where drivers handling anything from a pedicab to a large truck dodge each other slipping past slow traffic, animals and people ignoring potential death on a frequently rain-slick surface. This highway down Samar’s west coast might remind some travelers of Costa Rica’s similar scary ride, or of some spots in Spain’s Tenerife Island where drivers seem to be guessing that no one is coming around that blind turn just a few feet up ahead.

Locals here will remind each other, and you, that people really do die along this dangerous road. Motorcycles might collide when drivers have had too much brandy during any of the many area festivals in July and August, and children are sometimes lost when forgetting to learn to look both ways before crossing the road – if they had time to learn it. The honk of an oncoming truck, bus, van, or car can reopen old memories, and the lessons of being too slow here.

Peripheral vision might catch quick reactions in any of the numerous pickup basketball games along the side of the road. Fast shots and quick steals are part of the occasional scenery where the patchwork, plywood backboard holds a slightly tilted rim bolstered by a palmwood support somewhere near 12 feet off the ground.

One rim extended over the very edge of the roadway, jutting out from a brown wooden backboard, waiting for a passing truck or bus to snag it with a right side mirror some day, or night. There is little time to be patient for the right shot when you are suddenly shooting in real traffic.

Dogs and cats have the mistaken idea that this highway is OK for a short nap. People have the mistaken idea that this highway is OK for a place to meet neighbors and gossip. One good honk, and they suddenly leap back to reality – on the side of the road, crossing an often ignored white line. A few smugly step back off the road with each passing vehicle, as though they have developed a sixth sense, telling them the bus was coming.

The side of this road is only relative safety. Houses and small family-run stores sit only feet from possible destruction, and death, vulnerable to the dangers of fast-moving vehicles on the too often slick slab – perhaps trying to avoid the people and animals. Coconuts drying on the sides too often extend into the roadway, too, leaving drivers here another hazard to navigate.

Then there are the constant power outages here, or brown outs, which leave more vagueness between road traffic and life in the cities, towns, and villages, or barangays. Not a good thing at night.

Someone’s cat dies when it hits the bottom of the chasis with a loud clunk, but it will not likely slow down a bus, truck, or other vehicle out to make a schedule. However, if a large python appears in the sights of seemingly wreckless drivers -- keep an eye on your watch. There might be a long delay dealing with the serpentine distraction as numerous handlers emerge to prove they can hold the big snake. The skins are said to be very valuable, too.

It is an adventure, this roadway through the heart of the Philippines. Public transportation between Calbayog, and Allen to the north, can be found by van and motorcycle, or van, bus, and Jeepney.

And, you never know what you might be fortunate to see, or forced to see. A roadsign one sees constantly, dotting the sides farther north in Luzon, and to the south in Leyte reads: Slow Down Accident Prone Area.