Konichiwa. The words escaped from the cashier as she placed a number on my tray and pointed to the next customer. Finding a table afterwards was not hard judging by the sheer lack of people actually in the store. The number on the tray meant a tonkatsu to follow but the pre-made four-piece California maki was promptly placed on the tray before I left the cashier. Fresh Japanese cooking at its finest. It was no wonder that the place was nearly empty.
My bus tickets were beside a saucer of soy sauce and it was almost a miracle that not one drop of that salty black liquid landed on them. The details on the tickets were still readable, the handwriting being the bigger obstacle than a saucer of soy sauce. Manila-Legazpi ETD: 630pm. Cubao. Thirteen hours and five hundred or so kilometers lay ahead of me that night, most of it along the Pan-Philippine highway. It was difficult to fully comprehend the enormity of the whole trip as well as the fact that there was indeed a road called the Pan-Philippine highway. The AH26 was the long strip of asphalt and concrete which led the way down south of Luzon, along the coast, to the Bicol region. After 150 kilometers or so, the highway traced the coastline with the Pacific on the east. It would have been a sight to see but most of the sights would pass me by as I slept away the hours in my seat.
Gulping down the last of the tonkatsu, my watch already read 5:50 pm. It was only when I left the restaurant that I realized how much I missed the air conditioning. Hot, humid, and noisy – the streets of Cubao never toned things down. Car horns and the tshh tshh of buses as they parked at the terminal and opened their doors. People walking the streets and paying no heed to traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. Incoming traffic is the only red light that works it seems. The terminal was not crowded. Although perhaps I use “crowded” quite loosely. Less than ten buses are parked at the loading bays and there was still space to walk comfortably around the terminal. At times, especially during holidays when people are at a rush to head back to the provinces, the terminal would be crowded in the full, unadulterated third-world-bus-terminal sense of the word. People would be piling boxes upon boxes and bags upon bags. Without any strict carry on limit, everyone had free reign to bring whatever they please. The utter lack of rigidity could be a blessing or a curse depending on how one looks at it, but it was precisely what I wanted. It was cheap and as long as I came before departure time, I would be fine. Ironically, coming late would incur the ire of your fellow passengers more than the bus company itself. I wonder sometimes why this was a bit toned down when it came to air travel. Are air passengers more patient or are they just so used to waiting that maybe a few more minutes won’t even matter?
The bus could readily be described a long, gray box on black wheels. The white letters “Mercedes-Benz” were etched on the window which elicited a reaction first of excitement then of suspicion. Jeepneys never balked at the chance to place the hottest labels onto their ride: Jaguar, BMW, Rollz Royze, Lamborgeeni. Imitation could indeed be the national pastime. My fears were allayed, however, as soon as the bus strolled out of the bay. It swayed from side to side and hardly made a sound as it sped away into the streets lined with ambulant vendors and sodium-yellow lights. Air suspension would be like mana from heaven in long bus rides and I suspected that this bus had it. It was probably why I had a relatively smooth sleep and how nearly twelve hours passed away almost seamlessly. The night passed by in a series of short naps with the clock showing different faces every time I would wake. 10pm. 1:25am. 3:34am. 4:40am. 6:15am. Then the sun came up and I was some place else: off the bus at a gas station with a heavy backpack, a satchel, and no clue of where I was other than knowing the name of the town I was in: Ligao. How apt.
One thousand pesos for twenty four hours, sir. The inn keep’s voice uttered the number again in my head while I thought about the costs and benefits of such a steep price. There was an inn across the road from where the bus dropped me off. The inn was named Sambitan and it was an inn that was recommended to me by a local in the next town. The inn, however, neither boasted an email address nor a mobile phone number on Google which raised some fair concerns for any one travelling alone. Was it safe? Was I willing to take the risk and go without a reservation nor any knowledge of the going rate? Would I make it out alive? Fair concerns indeed to say the least. Decisions, decisions. Whether it was the adventurous side of me or the utterly reckless side that told me to go ahead and take the risk, I really could not tell. I walked over to the inn and stood in the middle of the driveway looking for the reception. After a few minutes a woman nursing a baby yelled at my direction and flung her arm back. I did not know a thing about Bicolano but that was an invitation if I ever saw one. I then collected the facts. Yes, there was a vacancy. Yes, you can stay. How much? One thousand for 24 hours. I believe we’ve run into a problem. My feet were walking to the highway even before I realized that it just was not a good deal.
So. Where to go now…
Half an hour and forty pesos later I was bobbing my head on a jeepney half-asleep and mildly starving. Mildly. The jeep was en route to Legazpi which I later found out would be an hour or so away. This adventure is picking up speed. Nearing the one hour mark, I looked around for a Gaisano mall. It would have to be around here somewhere. The hope of somehow finding a mall I’ve never seen filled my being then, driving my eyes as I ducked under the rickety plastic shutters of the jeep, squinting against the morning sun. It was only when that familiar briny breeze drifted into the jeep that I knew I failed miserably. The air that wafted inside the jeep smelled of salt and sea which only meant that I could be in one place, and a place that never failed to pop up when I studied the map – Embarcadero.
Relativity can be at times a funny little thing. I’ve lived in Cebu for 18 years and mountains were in short supply. There were pointed hills, maybe, but a full-fledged mountain? Maybe not. The closest guess I could make on what a mountain looked like then was just to blow up a pointy hill and imagine how that would look like. It seemed simple enough, but it just was not it. Cebu was an island of two bridges, bounded by bodies of water all over and even crossing the bridge can bring in the smell of brine, salt, and sea from the shimmering waters of the Mactan channel. The waters at Embarcadero were a welcome sight, but it was only when I glanced northwards that I finally saw a real mountain. Silent and massive – the volcano loomed northwards with its perfect cone and perpetual halo of clouds. Having only seen the volcano in postcards and film, I thought that was all there was to it. Isn’t that tourism these days? Go to one place. Take a photo. Share it on SNS. Move on to another place. That day, that volcano lifted itself out of every postcard I saw and met me in person. It was visceral. Raw. Real. The sheer size of it took me and held me for a moment. I admit that I may merely be romanticizing a mound of dirt for all it’s worth, but that mound of dirt was just unreal.
The sun went up and went down. I managed to take some photos of the volcano during sunset. Then the oranges turned to reds and purples in the sky and the sun was out.
It was morning again. Birds were calling outside in the docks. It was near 8 and it was already piercing bright outside. The sun bared its face on the waters as they scintillated underneath its glare. Gentle breezes brushed over the surface which sent mild waves crashing on the concrete walls of the dock. There is just something about the sea the lures you out of your routine. Just the sight of it lends a tone of finality to any trip. On the map, east of the port of Legazpi would be the Pacific. It was strange but after nearly 14 hours travel by land, the sight of the waters of the Pacific brought some form of closure to it all. It was the point where the land ends and the waters began. A sight of endless possibilities – of hopes and dreams, or of pleasures and terrors. The deeps: even if we have mapped them out with satellites or laser beams, something in the soul seems to forget all that and which clings to its mystery, that ever elusive part of the sea that is always within reach but never really grasped. No wonder the sea lured so many adventurers out with promises of glory or fame.
Whether it was glory or fame, all I ended up with were calories. And maybe a few pili nuts. The 930am bus was late that morning. Taking the day bus was a dumb mistake, now that I think about it. Twelve hours of daylight all spent inside a metal compartment was definitely time not spent wisely. I burned a whole day travelling while I spaced out into the distance watching the lines on the ground race downwards while the landmarks by the roads came up intermittently. 515km. 400km. 365km. Little by little. A little before 10pm, the bus doors tshhh’d open and I stepped down into asphalt and got a whiff of that familiar metro air accented with piss and car exhaust. Hello, Metro Manila. It was time to go back to routine. There and back again.
Post script: All photos on film were lost due to a VOLCANIC blunder on my part. This is either Bicol being clingy and making me come back just to take photos or simply a meaningless, dumb blunder on my part, nothing more. GOOD GRIEF!