Voyage in the Philippines

The cruise ship leaving Manila harbour. Picture: Courtesy of Gerard Brennan

Sunday, April 15, 2012

TYRES squealed, engines revved and cars clogged the streets. The surrounding sky-scrappers blocked out the sun. Keen to escape the chaos, I flagged down a taxi on Adriatico Street in Malate.

"Kamusta. The Super 8 Ferry which way?" I asked the cabbie.

Smiling, he pointed towards Manila Wharf. "A few minutes. Sira ulo traffic's so crazy."

After queuing at the shipping office, I purchased a ticket to Cebu and plodded up the gang-plank. In the lobby, a serene statue of the Virgin stood vigil over boarding passengers.

With help from a crew member, I soon found my cabin. I was sharing with a Filipina and her baby, a Vietnam Veteran and a Filipino; a comfortable combination. The baby slept as calmly as the sea, allowing us all a quiet night.

A sole tug coaxed the ferry away from the pier. The Super 8 then turned, passed through a gap in the breakwater and found ample sea-room in Manila Bay.

Some months later a manic typhoon, with hellish fury, screamed down from the North; scorned the sea-wall and submerged scenic Roxas Boulevard. Sadly, so typical of the terror-tantrums, endured by the Philippine Archipelago.

As our ship slid across a smooth sea, Manila's tall towers shrank astern. A leaden sky matched the grey, slate sea. And the horizon played hide-n-seek; lost somewhere, in that pallid charcoal wash. Like molten mercury, silver slicks of sunlight shone on the water.

At dusk, a dimming sun directed a fiery, fare-well beam across the water. Night's coal-black curfew, followed fast.

Later, when the restaurant opened, I queued and met Randy, an affable Filipino. "I've been buying goods in the capital," he mentioned, "to sell in Butuan."

"Your business?" I queried. "Nah, my father's; I do photography."

At the servery, a range of Pinoy meals stimulated our appetites. "You could try some pancit manok, or maybe that sisig," Randy suggested. With its mix of: chilli, savoury meat, onion and white-rice, the sisig was superb. "Ok?" he queried. "Sarap, delicious," I replied, keenly ordering seconds.

During the tropical night our vessel ventured south, through the serene Sibuyan Sea; passing Mindoro to starboard and Marinduque to port.

Dawn revealed a fleet of flimsy out-riggers; far from land and lolling lazily on a languid ocean, paying out nets with small, bobbing floats.

Our ship cruised on, carving a furrow through the torpid Visayan Sea, with Panay to starboard and Masbate to port. On rounding Cebu, our vessel aimed south; cleaving through the calm Camotes Sea, towards Cebu City.

Above, glowed a copper sun; a fiery furnace intent on grilling anything beneath.

For 22 hours of voyaging, the only motion on the ocean was the ship's curling bow wave; a churning propeller-wash; and a trailing, white wake.

Otherwise, the sea was curiously inert, indolent, indifferent; as if laid low by some listless lethargy; perhaps the sea's surrender to the violence of previous typhoons; or just exhaustion under a scorching sun.

The ocean was flatter than any table-top. And the horizon was so pedantically precise; a level line demarcating sea and sky.

Slack-sailed yachts lay becalmed on that enchanted sea, as if bewitched.

Almost five centuries earlier, Magellan had sailed these same waters. His voyage was the first circumnavigation of the world; but one marred by treachery, execution and starvation. He fell to the spear of a local chieftain, on Mactan Island; but his crew sailed on, through the East Indies to Brunei and Europe.

My goals were more modest. I had planned to jump-ship at Cebu City; but instead, boarded a boat bound for Mindanao. I was so eager to surf the mythical Siargao Island; or discover waves at Tangdag or Cantilan, on the mainland.

After completing a smooth night-crossing of the glassy Mindanao Sea, the ferry docked at Surigao City.

A surge of tricycle drivers scrambled for my custom. Having agreed on the fare, I clambered into the cabin behind the driver. We bounced along dim streets to four full hotels, before finding the last 300 peso bed at the Lemon Dee.

Breakfasting the following morning at the Jollibee Restaurant, I survived the crowd's sardine-can-crush.

Afterwards, I crossed the town plaza to San Nicolas Street and early Mass. The celebrant led an entrance procession down the aisle; devout worshippers chanted the Gloria.

Mid-morning I boarded the Fortune and Angel ferry to Siargao Island. A flood-tide was surging through the Hinatuan Channel, roughening the surface. Whirl-pools spiralled along the channel's edge; and eddies curled playfully around the boat. Islands nearby, seemed afloat; poised to drift away, on the slightest breeze. Astern, lay the calm central seas; spread ahead was the petulant Pacific.

To the south, a line of dark, distant mountains straddled Mindanao Del Norte; smaller ridges criss-crossed closer.

Over two hours later the ferry docked at Dapa.

The town was quiet, with only a few cars about. Slender palms bent in the breeze; and dappled light filtered through the fronds.

I flagged down a tricycle. "Cloud Ninewhich way?" I asked.

"Not far," the driver smiled. "We go now."

And with that, I was closing the gap on C9; and possibly the best surf in the Philippines. (to be continued).

The Brunei Times