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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, November 04, 2005

entry arrow4:16 PM | The Ways of Getting There

First of Three Parts

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3

"To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive."
--Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey

Someone once said to me, in a note of hopeful travel, that sometimes what counts in the traveling is not the destination, but the "getting there." I find in this curious paradox of traveling something quite truthful: how we get to a place more often than not define, or color, the destination itself -- and sometimes transcends even that.

The best memories of traveling for most of us are often that of the friendly banter and jokes that accompany our road trips, our sea escapes, our treks to secluded mountains and lakes. Our destinations sometimes become a strange counterpoint one faces as final inevitability, the absolute let-down of a period after a long, lush sentence. Arrival after all is closure, a definite finish to what makes traveling great -- the sense of anticipation for what is yet unknown. After that, when we finally behold the destination, there is only the process of comparing what was anticipated and what is real. While there is certain magic in what are present moments upon arrival -- say, gazing upon a giant wooden Buddha in Nara, Japan, for example, or being taken away by the sight of the Eiffel Tower in Paris -- these moments of arrival often diminish into the sepia of memory. Anticipation sometimes can still prove greater than the real thing. To travel is to take part of a dream. Arrival is waking up.

I have always known this to be part of my rough philosophy of traveling. Last week, given the rare opportunity of holidays stacked upon each other, I decided to see if I still believed in it. The philosophy had grown rusty in recent years which had seen me desk-bound for the most part, with the memories of my traveling days as a younger man growing fainter by the minute. There were days when I couldn't even trust my own memories of backpacking through most of Southeast Asia, getting on by the skin of my teeth, sleeping in airports and train stations and eating the strangest of foreign cuisine. Was that me? Or have I created fiction of a life I wanted as my past? But while there are photographs in thick albums to prove no fiction in this cherished past, I knew that my instincts to travel have gone to seed. It needed a jolt -- and for that, I chose Cebu City.

Cebu. Because it was the nearest destination that necessitated the most traveling effort. Because there was someone there waiting for me, of course. Because, like any small town folk, my idea of a vacation (and always contrary to the common metropolitan's) is to leave the quiet of Dumaguete for the noise of big city life. If you are a probinsyano, you know that there is a kind of comfort and energy in a bigger city's bustle and traffic. I wanted to revel in the sudden anonymity and insignificance in a city where a million other souls lived, and eked out a living.

How to get there? There are several ways of getting to Cebu from Dumaguete on any given day. I have tried all of them, and have come to the conclusion that the most basic mode of transport -- not to mention that it may also be the hardiest -- may be the best of them all.

Forget planes. There are none to service the link between the two cities (although there used to be a Philippine Airlines flight that took all of thirty minutes). Getting to the metropolis on a fastcraft, which used to be the popular way of traveling, is now out of the question as well: the long hours of riding the rough, sea-tossed juncture between Tanon Strait and the open Bohol Sea and the increasingly forbidding cost of the ticket have virtually made this travel route something only for the rich and the suicidal. For the most part, fastcraft travel for me resembled being herded into a tin can and then being gleefully tossed off to sea. Because I have some delusions of claustrophobia, this makes the trip border on the challenging for me; plus the fact that the preceding years of having virtually been a non-traveler have made me lose my sea-bearings. Gone are the days when I could brave the strangest of waves. The turning point perhaps was one ill-advised banca trip home to Negros from Apo Island, after three o'clock in the afternoon -- a trip which found me screaming for dear life as waves upon waves pounded on our little, little boat, so little that there was nothing more between me and the rough sea within five inches on each side. It was a roller coaster ride of the worst kind. By the time we docked in Malatapay in Siaton, I swore that sea travel was no longer for me.

Most people, of course, prefer the six-hour slow boat ride via one of those passenger ships, the rationale being that you can spend away the travel time by dozing off, to wake up the next morning to the tooting of the ship's horns, signaling arrival at Cebu's port. That it can cost a minor fortune equivalent to the purchase of a cellphone load card, however, is not lost on me, a relentless cheapskate.

There soon came a time when I wanted to travel the fastest way possible to Cebu on the most stringent of budgets. For a while, I loved the discovery of bus travel between islands: the Ceres bus, which departs for Cebu several times in the early morning proved highly attractive. I have always noticed in me a preference for land travel, maybe because it afforded a quick tour of quirky countryside without me bothering to set foot into any of them. It is no wonder then that some of the best travel experiences I've ever had had been on trains, once on a late afternoon getaway from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, and once on the famous shinkansen or bullet train, on which I sped from Tokyo to Hiroshima like, well, a bullet. I take pleasure from the quick spying of rice fields and mountains and peasant hovels. Thus: bus travel.

In those early days of the route, however, the fare was cheap and inclusive of the passage via a ferry that traversed Bato in Amlan and Sambo-an in Cebu. But sometime last month, I went on the same route and found, not to my surprise, that fares have gone up considerably, and was now exclusive of barge charge. The current newspaper headlines have taught me to expect inflation of the worst kind; still, when the reality hit, it felt like highway robbery. "For this price plus a few pesos more," I thought, "I could have slept my way last night via Cokaliong to Cebu." And I wouldn't have to be bothered by the needless bodily transfers between barge and bus, and the constant stops on the way to pick up more passengers. When I finally settled on my seat in that ferry that early morning, the dawn that broke through the low mountains of Cebu in the far but nearing distance also necessitated another dawning: that perhaps I must find something more reasonable than this.

The answer was obvious: I could travel via the giant bancas of Lilo-an and Sibulan, coupled with a van for hire to complete the itinerary. The banca fare is ridiculously cheap: only P35 pesos, for the 20-minute ride between the islands. The van from Lilo-an to Cebu City, which goes for P110, guns for a travel time of less than two hours. If you are a quick traveler, like I can be, you can escape the uneasy crunch of the van ride where four people are cramped into each of the available rows, by commandeering the relative comfort of the front seats. The increasing popularity of the route is evident in the fact of infrastructural change. The last time I took to traveling this way, the station in the Sibulan port was just a ramshackle hut that had makeshift planks to serve as seats for the waiting passengers, who would then go down to the bancas on equally makeshift moorings. When I resumed traveling this way after my disappointments with bus, passenger ship, and fastcraft, what greeted me in Sibulan was an air-conditioned, and concrete, station overlooking a new concrete pier, with surer moorings that connected to the waiting banca which has, of course, remained the same. It was still the same long boat powered by a pump engine, easily accommodating fifty passengers or so, with huge bamboo outriggers on each side, a trapal to serve as protection from the sun and sea.

But what ultimately seduces me to this type of traveling is the romance of the effort. I like the feeling of negotiation of my feet and hands as I try to steady myself on the gangplank. I like the occasional spraying of sea water on my face. I like smelling the early morning surf, and tasting the sunrise. I like listening to the drone of the engine as the pilots, equipped with long bamboo poles, carefully guide away the banca to face the open sea. I like looking at the bluegreen water churning up surf and waves as we slice through the sea. I like the mad dash, upon arrival in Lilo-an, to the waiting vans. And then, as we rev up for the final ride to the city, I like looking at the random sights of Cebu southern country: the white beaches in the distance framed by palm trees and rocky shores, the tiny villages, the zigzagging highway, and the barren and rocky cliffs set against the bluest of sky reminding me of a tropical Mediterranean. Somewhere between Santander and Talisay, I always find myself nodding away in sleep. When I wake up, still miles away from city proper, I find that Cebu City always provides me slow fodder for anticipation: the city builds slowly from the fringes, and then finally, without realizing it, I find myself in the middle of metropolitan wonderland. Traffic and people cut from everywhere, in decibels I am unfamiliar with. That always gives me a smile, because I realize that at least for a few days, I can delight in being a stranger in the big city.

(To be continued.)


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