Before leaving for Samar to join Kontra-Gapi’s touring caravan, I was told that Samar is the most depressed of all provinces in the country. As a Manileño, I don’t have a running impression of the island. I usually think thick forests and landscapes. Not that that’s uninteresting. I have Samar in my bucket list of places to visit in the Philippines, I just didn’t have any idea what to see if I did get there…
Which is why this was a surprise:
We were told that Samar came from the word “samad,” or wound. Sounds dangerous and sad, but the description is apt once you traverse its many routes, by land and sea. Samar is a geographical wonder: hills, rivers, cliffs, mountains, and seas. The many terrains form gashes along the surface of the island, giving it a rough yet pristine environment, capable of sustaining its rich flora and fauna. No wonder a greater part of the island was turned into a protected area known as the Samar Island Natural Park (SINP)*.
Of the municipalities Kontra-Gapi visited in the Samar leg of the caravan, three were covered by the SINP: Paranas, Calbiga, and Calbayog.
It is worth mentioning that Kontra-Gapi, in conjunction with the University of the Philippines Diliman and Tacloban campuses and the Department of Tourism, was slated to have a performing tour (a Cultural Caravan) of the municipalities and cities of Leyte and Samar. The goal was not only public service, but to revive and encourage tourism in Leyte and Samar. I’m reserving the first goal for another post. This one is all about Samar.
My first day in Samar was particularly dragging. Our plane landed in Calbayog Airport and we had to catch the group in Paranas in time for the afternoon show. From the airport, we took a tricycle (a 6 seater, custom-fitted motorcycle) to the closest van depot (I fail to remember the name, but they’re a pretty popular mode of transpo to and fro Tacloban in Leyte). A confusion with the route had us riding two separate vans (Calbayog-Catbalogan, and Catbalogan-Tacloban) to Paranas. The fare is around Php100 each, which is okay for an air conditioned ride along the coast of Samar. The journey itself was rough because of the long, winding highway, which doesn’t help you catch a nap.
On our free day in Paranas, we were treated by the LGU of the municipality to a TORPEDO boat ride along Ulot River*. The approximately 2 and a half hour ride (to and from the stop) costs Php1800 per boat. Since each boat can carry 5 people at a time, the cost can easily be shouldered. The downstream ride ends in a fall surrounded by boulders, the lower banks of which serve as picnic areas. The most memorable parts were jumping on the falls (I did 5!) and seeing a Philippine eagle along the river. They said seeing an eagle is a sign of a rich forest, and that’s a feat for the people behind SINP. I don’t have any photos of the TORPEDO ride though, nor much of Paranas town proper — sad :( (but a good reason to go back!).
Our next stop was Calbiga, further south of Paranas. Calbiga is a small, quiet town any regular walker can tour on foot. The highlight of the Calbiga stop was a side trip to Lulugayan Falls, our local version of the famous Niagara in Canada. Getting to the falls was difficult since we had to trek quite a long way literally on bare feet. It was raining when we got there so we had to contend with the muddy path, easier without footwear. But the effort was well worth it.
While in Calbiga, fellow KG member Sab and I also sent out a postcard each. The people of Calbiga were super friendly (one was even willing to usher us into her house while waiting for the rain to let up!) and ready to pose for the camera. It was unfortunate the homestays were cancelled — we were supposed to be assigned foster homes with local residents for our overnight stay. We also drank cola-mixed tuba on our last night in town, and the small gathering also served as a farewell party to our guides kuya Rex and ate Joan.
Calbayog City was our next destination, and the trip took three hours from Calbiga. Calbayog is one of the major centers of Samar (the other being Catbalogan City, which we passed through on our way north). The highway followed the western coastline of Samar, so we had a good view of the sea throughout our trip. The streets were flooded with tricycles and pedicabs of many types and capacities. Prior to the show, we tried to hunt for a souvenir shop for 3 members who were leaving the following day (Desai, Bryan, and ate Myx), but since we didn’t have the time to tour the place, we headed to the local wet and dry market. At night, after the show, we went to a souvenir shop called Tutik’s where we got to meet the family and the person behind the name of the shop. After that, a few of us walked around the city for about an hour, around 5 blocks total. Calbayog was quiet after hours. My kind of place :D
Calbayog was followed by a string of municipalities in Northern Samar, the first of which was Allen. We were greeted by the young and very active mayor at the Municipal Hall and his staff, a pair of beagles at the hostel we stayed in, and a generous view of the sea. Allen was supposed to be a free day, but we offered to perform at a barangay fiesta in exchange for the gracious welcome they gave us. After lunch, we walked around the town center for a few hours. We dropped by their elementary and high schools, ate halo-halo (first time I had one with cheese!), and saw a buhay-na-bato on its way to dominate the main thoroughfare. Allen is a sea port municipality, which was why their streets were thrumming with life. Ate Jil, a KG member and a Waray, also remarked that the Winaray of the locals were quite different, and that they grasped Tagalog sufficiently.
Capul was the most memorable. I rode the habal-habal (a motorcycle modified to accommodate 3 riders plus the driver) 4 times; witnessed and danced at a barangay fiesta; and listened to a few locals sing their folk songs in their unique language. The afternoon workshop and subsequent performance was very exhilarating, and I felt the excitement of each participant in our activities. Capul is a 45-minute boat ride from Allen. The mayors of Allen and Capul mentioned that dolphins sometimes swim the strait, although we didn’t see any (again, I’m taking this as a sign of a future visit!).
I guess it’s pretty obvious from the number of pictures that I loved Capul. It wasn’t just the places we visited, it was also the people. And I would love to hear Abaknon again, especially their songs.
Next stop was Palapag, at the opposite end of northern Samar. But before heading there, we stayed overnight in Catarman, the capital town of the north. Kuya Romy gave us a short tour of the town proper that afternoon. Catarman has an airport smack center of town, and despite the diversion road, motorists and pedestrians still use the road bisecting the runway. Since the airport only supports 2 flights per day, the road is often open.
Traveling to Palapag was a singular experience because we spent half of the 30 minute trip following a river via a boat. Getting there involves maneuvering through the muddy waters, and the shores of the river are dotted by many small barangay. Once on the other side, we took a 15-20 minute ride to the town proper. We were welcomed by the beautiful and regal mayor of Palapag and her staff. The ruins of the old Palapag church was the highlight of town, and it served as the venue of the workshops and the show that night. I enjoyed performance night in Palapag because of the level of engagement we had with the audience. The venue itself was simple and intimate, and brought us closer to our audience.
Before leaving for Catarman the next morning, a few of us managed to walk to Talolora beach. It wasn’t the easiest “20 minute” walk, but going there was worth it. We gave up walking on our way back, and rode tandem on motorcycles for Php20.
Catarman was the last stop of the Cultural Caravan in the Leyte-Samar tour. We were welcomed by the mayor who provided us lodging in their summer house near the University of Eastern Philippines campus. The mayor’s mother herself looked after our needs in our short stay.
As member of Kontra-Gapi, it was a privilege to be part of the tour and to leave our brand of service to the people of Samar — the audience, participants, guides, LGU mayors, staff and members and everyone who took part in making this happen. There wasn’t much time for souvenirs in the roughly 10 days I spent in Samar. But in the few days I had in the island, I found a thousand reasons to convince myself to return some day. If you ask me, the experience (and the pictures!) are more than enough to bring back home.
* Local article from Leyte-Samar Daily Express on Samar Island Natural Park and its attractions