Saturday, October 22, 2011

Backpacker: Santa Ana, Cagayan

First Part: A Traveler's Tale

"Baabaa! I have something to tell you ..."

It's past 7 in the morning and I was standing outside the Eastern Hawaii Hotel in the town's Centro district. Robbed of sleep, I was waiting for the security guards to let me in so I could speak at the front desk and ask about their room rates.

"Balak sana kitang i-surprise at sabihing nasa Cagayan ako, kaso I'm in a bit of trouble."

"Cagayan what!?!" I am paraphrasing our conversation.

"Santa Ana, check it out on the map."  

After a brief pause, JC blurted "Ang layooooooooo!!" My partner couldn't believe where my feet had carried me. "Grabe ka haaaaa!"  

"Gusto ko sana mag Skype tayo habang iniingit kita na nasa tabing dagat ako, kaso the resort I booked the previous day has problems with their WiFi connection."  

"Now I have to look for another place to stay."

There was no doubt that I am out of the city. Even the cool breeze suggest I am in a place never before touched by smog and fumes that I have grown accustomed everyday.

The Florida bus arrived at daybreak, and it stopped right in front of the town market. Unsure of where Jotay Resort is, a trike volunteered to take me there. Not knowing the place was only a few blocks away, I paid thirty pesos when it should have been fifteen. I could even walk if not for the stray dogs and the unlit unpaved roads along the way.

First thing in the morning and I was hoodwinked. Even the guard at the resort told me to come back because their rooms are fully occupied. Apparently my contact didn't tell him about my arrival, despite sending an SMS while in transit to confirm my reservation. 

Talk about hassle. I couldn't imagine this is the treatment I would get after coming all the way from Manila.

15 Hours Earlier

"Pilyo punta akong Cagayan. Ikaw muna bahala sa kanila ha?" I was referring to the Encantos.

"Ay putanginamu, hindi nga?! Seryoso ka?" Even my closest friends wouldn't buy my story.

Kasi naman, never in Encantos history did I show up with a huge backpack before lunchtime. The guys couldn't even convince me to join their out of town trips. And here I am, telling Pilyo that I'm going solo and that, it would take an entire day (and night) to get to the tip of Luzon.

"Ano namang naisipan mo at bakit pupunta ka dun?" I had to explain the wisdom behind the pilgrimage. It was my heart leading the way. Lol.

"Ikaw na bahala magsabi kay Dadi ah. Hindi ito dapat malaman ni JC." 

"Iba ka rin mag-trip no?" I know. For someone who climbs the ledge of a dance floor out on a whim, my mind is wired quite differently.

"Siyanga pala, I gave your number at home. In case lang magkaproblema ako dun." And with that, I disappeared from Pilyo's view.

Little Spot of Paradise (Ako lang ang nagkumot sa loob ng bus!)

The bus ride is a story in itself. Like a collection of tapestries adorning a wall, each piece tells a part of the journey.

It began in Espana shortly before 1. The bus lurched forward despite the disarray of cars along the road. A stow-away missionary preached the good news to ambivalent passengers. Her sympathetic voice eased the troubled spirit. Envelopes were passed after her soulful performance. Lacking spare change, guilt struck while returning my donation coupon with three pieces of silver coins.

I should have given her a twenty peso bill. But I had none.

"Babawi na lang po ako ate." I could not even look at her in the eye.

As the bus merged with the sojourners heading north, I put on my ear phones and listened to Jam 88.3. I forgot to bring my Nano's charger so I had to ration the use of the gadget. The two-lane expressway stretched on forever, with rice fields - some still under flood waters, while others appear like a giant green carpet - went as far as the eyes could see.

In Tarlac, mats of palay were laid along the sides of the national highway. They were left there to dry. The pink bus would occasionally overtake a kuliglig with sacks of rice stacked behind its trailer. It's harvest season and everyone in the plains made themselves useful. Even the year-long tambays. If only I paid more attention to the naked, ripped and sweaty laborers I caught glimpse at the warehouses, I would have lasted the entire night without dumping anything on my tummy.

But one thing I found truly amazing was Jollibee's long arm stretching out to the heartlands of the small towns. Who would have thought the fast food chain has branches in obscure places like Guimba and Talavera. Heck, I don't even know they appear on the map. For all my expectations of a rural poblacion, the signs of civilization are truly heartening.

Pitstop One, SCTEX Tarlac Exit

It was getting dark when the flower bus began its ascent towards the treacherous Dalton Pass. At 3,000 feet up in the mountains, this is the highest portion of the Maharlika Highway. Flanked by the Caraballo in the east and the Sierra Madre in the west, the road follows a brook that drains into the Manila Bay.

But this wasn't the stream the locals knew just a few weeks ago.

The mountains glisten under the low sun like pale emeralds in the distance. But as you go closer, only weeds and flimsy shrubs grow on some of its brown slopes. Gone are the massive trees cut down to build houses. Even newly planted seedlings are uprooted to make firewood.

No wonder, when strong rains come, mud slosh down instead of water. Even parts of the highway disappears as stones tumble from the peaks. The dry riverbed - once littered with boulders as big as dump trucks - are now covered with silt. With the river much shallower, the water that should have merged with the bay in days lingered in Bulacan for weeks.

The nerve of us to complain about the mess we made.

I felt sorry for the mountains, and the trees that used to hold the earth with their mighty roots. I felt sorry for the fields, inundated, with crops swept away instead of being harvested. I felt sorry for the rain, that began to fall and made the winding road more slippery. For instead of sprinkling life, the rains are feared for being the harbinger of death. I wish I could have done something to the destruction around me. But I was reduced to being a silent witness as the bus push back to the lowlands, on the other side of the mountains. 

Hot, Spicy Mami and C2 Green, Dalton Pass, Nueva Vizcaya

By nightfall, everywhere I look, the roads are deserted. The poblacions themselves become ghost towns as the bus continues to roll towards the tip of the island. I dozed off in Nueva Vizcaya, and was stirred back to lucidness in Santiago, Isabela. I should have left the bus, according to my press release to my mom. But instead, a passenger who took a leak at a gas station almost got left behind.

Lucky for him, his wife alerted the bus driver.

At past eleven, habit follows that I should have arrived home. G-Talk should have recognized my name and Baabaa, who is busy at work should have received my hello message. But instead of following the routine, I was in the middle of nowhere, where even distant, lonely lights refuse to shine.

As the final ploy unfolds, a single SMS message covered my grand deception:

"Baabaa, hope u are doing okay. I'm having problems with my internet connection." Notice the absence of the word home. "Online na lang ako when my connection returns. Labyuu!" The partner didn't bother to reply.

It turns out, he would surprise me by calling my phone at the strike of midnight. Weasel. We agreed to follow the Atlantic time instead of mine. Siya rin pala magbre-break ng agreement.

Good thing, I was drowned in my own alternative music and the thoughts of the sea that I didn't hear my phone ring. He sent a text message which I refused to reply. Even the missed call with his number, I pretended not to see. Let JC think his Baaboo fell asleep. It would buy me some time.

Florida Bus Station, Tuguegarao, 2 am

The clock is ticking as my destination remains a full sleep away. In the cover of my own fabrication, the last leg of the trip would be best remembered with a lower back pain from staying in the same sitting position for hours; a male seatmate tossing over and over because of the cold air blasting from the overhead AC, a runaway tooth ache threatening to spoil my getaway, sleep or any semblance of it as the road signs tell that we are still more than a hundred kilometers away from Jollibee Aparri.

Like the very long blog entry you are reading right now, I was beginning to feel that I went on a road trip any sane person would refuse to go. Unless he got days to spare or is a travel writer by profession. I should have known better, it was different on the map. One look, and there you are in the coast, while in real earth, it took more than an hour from Aparri before we spotted the sea.

The hippie bus, that left Manila the day before accelerates like it was chasing darkness. The sky, while being lit by the moon hints that it was giving up the night. The fluorescent lights inside the bus were switched on, and the welcome arc outside says "Welcome, Santa Ana, Cagayan." Finally, we have arrived. A few more minutes and we would carry our bags, step out of the bus for the last time and embrace our destination.

Fifteen Minutes After Arrival:

"Sir kung gusto niyo, intayin niyo na lang muna si Topher dumating. Nandito na yun ng mga 6:30." I checked my phone and the clock tells its 5:20.

"Upo muna kayo dito," The guard lead me to the porch in front of the beach.

First thing I did was to open my laptop to see if the Wi-Fi really worked. I also got hold of my contact's personal number. It didn't matter if I had to wake him up an hour before the start of his shift.

A deal is a deal.

Having been initially denied entry to the place I sought refuge, I also learned that a password was required before I could access the resort's Internet connection. Tophe would still have to send me the access codes and I was growing really impatient.

Rather than get depressed, or let the feelings of exhaustion sink in, I left the resort to cross the street. The sound of waves lapping up against the shore was too hard to ignore. There, I let my sneakers feel the fine sands beneath my feet. As I look up in the sky, the horizon breaks revealing a crimson delight. While across the channel, the scenic Palaui Island emerges behind the mist like a curtain is being lifted to bring to view the town's main attraction.

"At the very least, I am standing on a beach, right at the beginning of the world." I consoled myself while taking my first picture of the sea.  

After risking my mind and body to leap out of the box, my journey at long last, comes to an end.

- tobecontinued -


Mr. Hush Hush said...

ahhhh… the pleasure and pressure of solace :) have fun Mugen! :)

Blakrabit said...

Aaah! The adventures of backpacking! Good or bad, they are still the thrills of life for adventurous spirits! Pasalubong, master! I hope you enjoyed your journey! I can't wait to get into one, soon!

nubadi said...

I like the way you tell your story, Mugs. it's like I am there with you. can't wait for the rest of the travel blog.

MkSurf8 said...

buti di sinabi ng guard balik muna kayto ng manila kasi wala pa yung kausap nyo hahaha

i envy people who can embark on adventures like this. i've been to a lot of places but never in a manner similar to yours. baka it's age or sadyang maarte lang ako.

but thanks i might just push through with a major solitary journey to the 'roof of the world'

looking forward to the rest of your story =)

RainDarwin said...

gusto kong mag-react sa comment ni dabo sa previous entry mo about anong feeling na nakasakay ka sa pink-floral bus.

Twink na twink din ang name ng tinuluyan mo ha? JOTAY resort.

Pink-floral bus and Jotay resort sa pinaka-TOP ng pilipinas. Hanggang ngayon gusto ko pa rin tumambling sa trip mo.

Leo said...

I love it when you interjected the story of how decayed our forests are. :)

Grabe pala, the biyahe and the hassle you experienced for your accommodation. Albeit the case, you still managed to look at the brighter side of things - the sight of the beach is indeed a happy pill.

Alam mo mas exciting kapag kasama mo si JC sa next road trip/travel... Nafefeel ko mangyayari yan. :)

Pepe said...

"I am standing on a beach, right at the beginning of the world", the way you put it, walang roadtripper ang hindi mae-engganyo. kahit na mag-rant ka pa ng mas matindi, kainggit pa rin. (at honga, ang Jotay ba eh OK naman? LOL)

nangingisi lang ako habang binabasa ito. kasunod agad!