Desolate. The empty highway seems to stretch on for miles. Except for the occasional habal-habal or van going in the opposite direction, most of the main road in Northern Samar just feels so empty. There are hardly any establishments or houses on either side of the road. Just mountains on the horizon, coconut trees and fields.
While driving from Lavezares to Laoang Island, the only fairly large town I pass that has an actual mall and big gas stations is Catarman. After that, I only encounter small villages with their poblacions made up of a few streets punctuated by a handful of sari-sari stores selling gas in litro bottles. Then it’s back to deserted roads after driving for five minutes.
I reach a dead end in Rawis, a small but bustling port town where the coastal highway is cut-off by a narrow strait. There are no bridges here and the only way for motorbikes to get back to the highway is to catch a ride on a boat twice to and from Laoang Island. The cargo fee for the bike and my fare costs P70 per way for a quick 5 minute ride from port to island.
It’s the first time I’ve had to board a motorcycle on a boat so there’s that novelty factor. The porters maneuver the motorbike backwards so it’s facing out. After crossing the narrow strait, we reach a small port. I have to have to drive off the boat up a wooden plank to the island and I’m thankful I don’t fall off and make a fool of myself to the stares of the locals.
Laoang is a pretty small island and motorcycles are the main mode of transport here. I wonder how cars can even cross or if they’re also boarded on the barge-like wooden boats. I later learn that the town only has one jeep and most locals who have cars leave them on the mainland.
Rain starts pouring once I reach the island, so I take shelter in the nearest structure I see, which happens to be the Laoang Church. A mother and her child who were on the same boat I was on are sitting in pews, seeking shelter as well.
When the rain stops, I follow my GPS and make my way from one end of the island to the other, which is roughly about 10km to another small port by a waiting shed. The local porters pose when they see me taking snapshots but a burst of rain again halts the motorcycle loading. Crossing the strait again, I arrive in Palapag and am back on the highway.
If I thought some stretches of the road were empty before, the road after I cross Laoang island feels even more isolated. The weather isn’t doing the place any favors and I feel like I’ve just crossed over to Silent Hill.
This whole island of Samar was devastated by typhoons the past few years and it’s still evident in the northeastern towns of Lapinig, Gamay, Mapanas and Palapag. I pass an Ocean Front Beach Lodge with a “For Sale” sign up, its large gate padlocked and the main structure faded and peeling. A few houses I pass also have their windows boarded up. Then I spot a waterfall flowing from the mountains along the highway.
A dreary grey veil blankets the whole landscape. I drive at a relatively slow pace because the roads are wet and slippery. I barely encounter other vehicles on the road. Or even people for that matter. The few who I do encounter, mostly construction workers taking a break on the side of the road just stare at me as I drive by.
I’ve been trying to remain as anonymous as possible, but I realize I stick out like a sore thumb carrying a backpack and wearing a helmet. None of the locals wear helmets. And of course, there’s the fact that I’m a girl driving alone, which is somewhat of a rarity in these parts.
I pretty much had the road to myself except for the snakes. I counted at least 3 dead snakes on the road and a couple of run-over dogs earlier on in the stretch from Catarman to Laoang. That’s one of the worst things about motorcycle rides for me: seeing the roadkill up close.
That and the unpredictable weather. My thoughts turn as dark and brooding as the sky. What are the chances I can make it all the way to Borongan City today? The heavy clouds that hung in the air the whole morning and caused bursts of rainshowers earlier turns into a full downpour.
I take it as a sign to take a break and stop at the first sari-sari store I come across, where I see other motorcycles parked. I order some instant noodles for lunch, my first meal of the day.
The vendor asks me if I’ve heard any news if it’s a storm brewing or just normal rain. “Grabe nung bagyong nakaraan, akala namin lahat kami mamamatay,” she says as she rocks her two-month old infant to sleep.
A guy in a cap who’s also sought shelter gives me a strange look and asks bluntly: “Ano, nag-aadventure ka mag-isa? Ang lakas ng loob mo, ate. Ano kung sumpungin yung motor ko, o masiraan ka?”
I eat my noodles in silence, annoyed that he’s verbalized the innermost fears that I’ve been trying to ignore this whole time. I usually feel safe even when I ride alone. If I encounter some mechanical trouble, I rely on the kindess of strangers or head to the nearest vulcanizing shop along the road, but I’m aware that I haven’t come across one, or a gas station since I crossed the island.
We chat a bit about where I’ve been. I tell him I spent the night in Biri Island and asked the name of the waterfall along the highway I passed earlier (which locals call it Pangpang falls). I ask him if he knows a place to stay in Mapanas. He says I should try to make it to the town of Gamay instead before night falls.
“Hindi sa sinisiraan ko sila, pero wag ka kakain ng kahit ano sa Mapanas. Naglalagay sila ng lason dun sa pagkain kung dayo ka. Kahit tinapay. Yung nanay ko kamuntikan na dun. Alam mo naman yan diba?,” he addresses the sari-sari store vendor, who to my horror nods in agreement. “Hindi naman lahat, pero yung iba ganun talaga. Parang ganun yung trip nilang gawin,” she says.
Chills run down my spine and it’s not because my clothes are soaking wet from the rain.
Locals are usually very proud of their hometowns and will highlight the most positive features, no matter how small. Why would they say that to me? My thoughts flicker to an episode of Shake, Rattle & Roll about a “fiesta” in a remote town feast where a foreign visitor was the main course. If their basis for warning me not to eat anything is out of superstitious beliefs, I can easily ignore that, but if it’s real life harm they’re talking about, that’s another story.
The rain doesn’t look like it will let up anytime soon, so one by one the other locals huddling under the nipa hut roof of the sari-sari store decide to brave the rain after asking for plastic bags from the store to wrap their phones in.
I stupidly forgot my rain-jacket in another bag before my trip. My clothes and SLR are already double bagged in a garbage bag inside my backpack (which has rendered the camera useless to me because it’s so hard to take out), so I make a makeshift raincoat from an extra garbage bag for a layer of protection and utter a silent prayer that the motorcycle won’t act up.
After driving for a while, I come across a sign leading to Pinusilan Beach Resort with a tarp advertising a blue lagoon and rock formations. Ok, this is a beach resort. They probably get tourists here. It must be secure!
The cottage costs P250 plus entrance and parking fees. I could still ride on to a bigger town, but the place looks interesting. Plus, it’s not very comfortable driving around in wet clothes and shoes so I decide to stay for the afternoon. I take the time to dry out clothes and recharge my gadgets. There’s no phone signal though so I can’t update people on my whereabouts.
I spend the rainy and cold afternoon in the cottage, reading a Caving Guidebook on Samar Island from cover to cover. Of the 19 caves listed in the book, I’ve had the chance to explore four with outdoor tour company Trexplore (Langun Gobingob Cave, Lobo Cave, Central Cave and just most recently Sulpan Pinipisakan Cave on the book’s cover). The book reads like a walkthrough with difficulty ratings, useful information and maps, but also comes with experiential first-hand accounts by writer Sarah Francis. It’s a thrilling and amazing read that really stirs up that sense of adventure for the unknown.
One phrase from the last story sticks out: “Cave diving is often deemed the world’s most dangerous sport. As such, the USA’s National Speleological Society defines a successful cave dive as ‘one you return from.’ Anyone diving in an underwater cave should be realistically prepared to die.” I guess you could say the same thing of all extreme activities including motorcycle trips. A lot of things can go wrong when you’re riding alone. Good rides are those where you and your motorcycle get to your destination in one piece.
The beach resort’s name, Pinusilan means a place for execution by firing squad. There are stories that during the World War II, American soldiers brought their enemies to the lagoon where they killed them. I plan to check out the lagoon the next day. The view at the beach would probably be really beautiful if only the weather were better. The overcast skies make the place look a bit too gloomy for good photos. I take a nap in a hammock while a bunch of locals in the next cottage chatter over a round of drinks they brought.
When I wake up it’s almost 6 and the group has left, but at least the rain has stopped. Apparently there’s no food in the resort, so I make my way to the next town. I look for food but stores are already closing for the night, boarding up their shops with steel grate windows. There’s one carinderia but food is all out. I end up buying a block of cheese and crackers from a sari-sari store and ask the vendor if she knows the resort I’m staying in and if it’s safe to stay there alone overnight.
ROUTE: Lavezares – Catarman Diversion Road – Rawis – Laoang Island – Palapag – Mapanas (125 km)
The vendor and another woman buying stuff from the store seem shocked at the idea and that i’m traveling alone on a motorcycle and planning to stay alone there. They say the beach resort is OK for day tours or if I had a companion, but they don’t think I should sleep alone at night in an open air beach cottage. They urge me to look for a place to stay in the poblacion instead. I ask if there are any lodging houses or homestays in the area. There are none.
Which is how I ended up sleeping in an empty house in the village with the help of one of a local policewoman. My gut feeling is to listen to the locals, so I pass by the police station to ask for help. A couple of policemen on duty also ask me a few questions and make sure to record my details “in case anything happens.” I told them I had no problems sleeping outdoors when I camped out in Biri Island.
“Isla yun. Maliit lang yung lugar. Puro bundok dito, Hindi natin masasabi kung anong pwedeng mangyari,” says one policeman. TV Patrol is blaring on the news with the latest reports on EJK drug killings in the city. I believe in the innate goodness of people, but I understand why others would err on the side of caution given the current events these days.
Samar is the third largest island in the country with large forested areas in the middle of the island, with a reputation as being sensitive areas. I believe that the NPA are generally good people who won’t harm civilians, but there are incidents when encounters with the military still happen. Even going to San Jorge the previous day to go sightseeing at a waterfall, we encountered lots of anti-NPA signs along the road.
Ayanie, a policewoman accompanies me back to the beach resort so I can get my things and let the caretaker there know I won’t be staying the night. She brings me to the empty house and contacts someone from town who sometimes serves as caretaker. The problem with the house is there’s no electricity yet, she told me.
For the small village, the house was pretty big. It was a two story house with columns going up the stairs to two bedrooms. Since there’s no electricity, a lone candle in front of a mirror up the stairs made me feel like I was in a horror flick. It had all the elements of Pinoy horror movies – lone traveler staying alone on a rainy night in a remote town.
The structure is actually the house of an ex-mayor that isn’t lived in yet, but the rooms are sometimes offered to transients for P300 a night. The upstairs rooms have beds and the bathroom is modern but parts of the house and the kitchen downstairs are unfinished.
I remember the strangers’ warning earlier not to eat anything from town except for packaged goods. I don’t really have much of a choice though. Cheese and crackers aren’t so bad, I tell myself, as I turn on my headlamp and double bolt the door behind me for the night.
NOTE: This is Part 2 of my Solo Motorcycle Ride around Samar Island series.