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SAMAR TRAVEL GUIDE #SPARKSAMAR | A Couch Potato Traveling to Samar

Samar Travel Guide

SAMAR TRAVEL GUIDE | Or a personal narrative of doing it |  A NOTE FROM JONA THE WITCH: I’ve been away from the Philippines longer than my heartbreak. Yet, this modest of a digital space for ramblings still got some  media trip invitations. With Ha Noi, Viet Nam as my current Point A, it’s either I declined or asked someone to have the fun. The latter is a happier option. So here is  Danielle, a self-proclaimed couch potato, took the challenge of stitching stories after stories of the places she found herself in.  

I: Concerning a Couch Potato

Coming from a family of homebodies, I have never been one for adventure. With paranoid parental guidance, I still lack three skills every adventurer should have: (1) the ability to swim in water one can’t stand in, (2) the ability to scale and climb trees, and (3) running for one’s life without tripping. I grew up in a quiet rural city where the sugar and rice grow aplenty and no tourist cross, a tropical Shire if you will.

That being said, adventure came to me as adventure does to all people: unexpected and overwhelming. A couch potato doesn’t travel very far on their own volition; my lengthiest travel route is an eight-hour bus ride from work to my parents’ home to university with a short ferry ride between the islands of Cebu and Negros. On this route I would pass places people would take pilgrimages to see; but I never got off the bus, I watched lighthouses, Spanish churches, whaling coasts, and mountainsides slip past the bus windows with nary a second thought.

Samar Travel Guide

Samar Travel Guide | Photo by #SparkSamar

It was on one of these unassuming trips that I received my “Call to Adventure.” I sat in a ferry in the middle of the narrow sea when I was called up by friends. One of our former professors, Miss Bering, is in need of a writer to go on a Samar tourism media expedition on her behalf. My inner hobbit said no, I had events planned out for the week. It was too urgent, too soon, no time to pack properly or apply for travel insurance. But running out of mobile data, egged on by well-meaning friends, and a little bit seasick, I made a hasty application.

Within twenty-four hours, I was accepted as an substitute adventurer.

II: Eastward Bound

I coordinated with the organizers and before I knew it I was out on a 4AM flight bound for Tacloban. I had packed what little I could, three days worth of clothes in a small gym bag and my daily backpack. From what I gathered in the itinerary sent to me, there was going to be quite a bit of hiking and swimming. A small bout of dread coursed through me; what have I gotten myself into?

The media event was part of #SparkSamar, a tourism campaign by the Samar Tourism Department to showcase their natural and community-based travel spots

The small passenger plane was sleepy and almost empty in the dead of night. For the first time in my life I was sat in the front row of the plane, which happened to be right next to the emergency exit. Hour one in the journey and anxiety was already flooding me as the attendant explained emergency procedures, I was alert and awake, poring over the instruction card while the lady next to me dozed off.

When I was sure that the plane wasn’t going to crash on me, I let myself sink in the chair. Within the hour, the pitch black sky that peered through the windows was broken by a ribbon of orange light fading into teal and blue. The plane landed at 5AM, the tarmac of Tacloban airport was bathed in a display of pre-sunrise skylights.

Samar Travel Guide | Photo by #SparkSamar

Samar Travel Guide | Photo by #SparkSamar

I waited for my companions in a food shop across the small airport, buying a cup of sikwate, a type of hot chocolate made from cocoa tablets. They arrived from Manila two hours later, their only identification of me being my pastel pink backpack. Angelo, our guide, found me waiting at the side of the road and I boarded the coaster on the way to our first destination.

III: San Juan by the Bay | Samar Travel Guide

Knocked out by the early morning flights, every blogger and writer in the caravan of two coasters were asleep by the time we crossed the famous San Juanico Bridge, the longest bridge spanning over seawater in the country. I’ve only heard of it in passing, a Philippine landmark ingrained in thought but never really thought of for my part. It the main truss bridge viewed from Leyte alone was massive, a graceful steel structure arching over the strait. It was painted red, a bright cranberry red contrasting the mangrove forests that flanked it.

The first stop of the day was the San Juan Floating Restaurant and Boardwalk By The Bay, which describes itself as ‘the first floating restaurant and boardwalk in the province of Samar’, best viewed at night when the fireflies swarm along the oxygen-rich mangrove forests, unfortunately for us, who had brunch there instead.

Samar Travel Guide | Photo by #SparkSamar

Samar Travel Guide | Photo by #SparkSamar

From where the coasters parked, guests are given two options to reach the floating restaurant: the bamboo boardwalk through the mangroves or ride a large, roofed skiff. Still suffering from morning jelly legs, we decided to save the boardwalk for after the meal and lounged in the skiff. It looked like a Filipino living room than a raft, it was rectangular, made of bamboo, with sofa-like benches lining the sides, a table down the middle and pink lace cafe curtains along the sides.

Attendants rowed us through the mangrove forest, islets popping up over the olive-green water here and there, teeming with flora. In the low tide, the mangrove roots could be seen, countless and stilted, forming numerous arcs, like upside down branches lifting the trees to the height they would be when the tide rose.

The floating restaurant itself was stilted, reminiscent of Filipino water houses and fish farms. Colorful kayaks were docked along the boardwalk for guests who might fancy rowing out into the wide green river and even a netted area in the water for casual swimmers, all in view of San Juanico Bridge.

An array of local dishes were waiting for us at the buffet table, several kinds of grilled fish and meats, shellfish soup, rice in all its shapes and colors and an array of fresh fruit. Locals are employed by the restaurant, the cooks are self taught and home grown and local fishers and row-men who know the river and the mangrove forests by heart are brought in as water guides. The community guards the river, guides outsiders to in to show them what delights hide beyond the mangroves, and now it provides for them, too.

Samar Travel Guide | Photo by #SparkSamar

Samar Travel Guide | Photo by #SparkSamar

We chose the boardwalk as our path back to the vehicles. Over water and thought he mangroves, the walk took about half an hour at a leisurely pace. It was high noon and the sun was bright, the sky vibrant an almost cloudless. The caretakers bid us goodbye before disappearing back into the river forest.

IV: Sohoton Eco-Lodge, Caves and Land Bridge | Samar Travel Guide

Crossing the nearly endless viaduct of San Juanico and finally touching down on Samar Island, we reaches Sohoton Visitor’s Center and Eco-Lodge in Basey, sitting by Kadak-an River. Like a scene from a Regency film, attendants line the entrance, rushing forward with parasols to guide us into the lodge. Inside the main bamboo and nipa mansion waited freshly brewed tarragon tea, plucked from the herb garden right outside the window.

The guides instruct us on river safety for our trip downstream to the caves and natural land bridge before giving the floor to the local tribe. Dressed in black and dandelion, the Mamanwa Tribe enters with brass and cow-skin drums led by their chief, Jennifer Cabadongga, a petite soft spoken woman who explained the cultural performances to be shown to the guests.

Their elder, a senior woman entered in a shuffling dance, followed by the children who then sang in their mother tongue, Waray. Another tribal member, who later introduced himself as Jason Calinawan, showcased a wide vocabulary in birdsong mimics. They brought with them an array of their traditional jewelry that mostly feature the seeds of the sibukaw fruit. The craftswoman explains to me that the fruit was traditionally used as soap leaving the large smooth seeds for crafting beaded wear.

Samar Travel Guide | Photo by #SparkSamar

Samar Travel Guide | Photo by #SparkSamar

Once we said our thanks for the cultural exchange we were guided down to the riverbank to a steel raft. Our guide is Larry Rambacod, and ecologist, caver and vice chairman of Sohoton Services Cooperative. He explains the composition of the cave and the river, according to him the sedimentary nature of Samar creates countless caves and colorful cliffs.

Kadak-an River is also known as Golden River, according to Larry, because of the yellow ochre color the water turns into after rainstorms because of clay deposits. This solid yellowish color plus the sunlight reflecting on the water’s surface gives the river a golden sheen.

As we go downstream the lush nipa and coconut banks give way to limestone cliffs, the water gurgling against the sides of the raft. We reach the drop off to the caving area, an almost secretive pocket of the river surrounded by the white cliffs, leafy trees and rocky islets. Larry told us that in revolutionary times, Filipino rebels used the cliffs and caves to their advantage, rolling down boulders to strike American forces that dare go downriver to find them.

We trekked a small distance to the caves, the path halfway paved. I wore my discount aqua shoes by suggestion of a well-traveled friend so I can go through land and water with the sureness of bare feet and protection of closed shoes. The cave entrance was dry as bones being so high up in the cliffs.

Speaking of bones, Larry divulged that early cavers and expeditions found bones littering the cave from both local burials and later on war time cadaver disposals. This spooked several guests, though my macabre historian heart was delighted.

The cave floor was flat, compacted earth with stone jutting in places. I saw stalactites and stalagmites for the first time in my life and ran my hand across the ancient walls as we stepped into the dark. Larry led us from cavern to cavern with a lantern in hand, everyone wearing white safety helmets, following him like ducklings as he explained the stone within

Larry showed us a type of stalactite called drapery due to their curtain-like forms. He knocked on them, each curtain emanating a surprisingly bell-like note, much to the gasps and awe of the present crowd. Only guides were allowed to touch the limestone drapery as they were relatively fragile.

Hidden within the deeper caverns are deposits of white calcite, glittering from microscopic crystals and dissolved metals that make up its whole. Larry warned us not to touch the glittering sediments.

Samar Travel Guide | Photo by #SparkSamar

Samar Travel Guide | Photo by #SparkSamar

“Most of these rocks used to glitter,” he said, “But once touched, they darken from brown to black…early explorers damaged a lot of the crystals and some even sawed them off to sell.”

Flashing a borrowed lantern in the darkness, I saw countless blackened walls.

Upon exiting the cave we had lunch a few yards away from the main cavern entrance, a Waray singer serenading us with an acoustic guitar. His name is Bebot Versoza and along with other Waray singers, the tourism department hired him to perform at the site to keep folk songs alive. His six-year old son sings along, trying to learn the words cheerfully as the nearby caves echo their music.

The boatmen gathered and we were guided down to the river once more, to the colorful kayaks that awaited us. We are assigned a boatman each and we were brought downstream to the Natural Bridge.

Paranoid and unprepared, I asked a better traveled blogger, Christine, to stash away my phone in her waterproof bag. All I brought with me were ziplocs and I had no idea what type of water damage I can meet downstream.

The kayak ride was surprisingly peaceful despite my fear of splashing from rocks. It was a leisurely ride, cliffs rising as we went further. The boatmen expertly maneuvered around islands of rock and the ever swaying water current. A limestone arch blocked the view and we went under it. The reveal was like something out of an adventure movie. When the limestone glided past and the river opened up, there the bridge stood, a high arch of rock with an upside down world of stalactites in its ceiling and a whole forest on its roof, lit by sunlight from both ends but kept its illuminated shade underneath.

As the boatmen rested under the shade we wandered about, thankful for the low tide as it gave us solid ground to stand on under the bridge. I marveled at the stalactite ceiling. Snapping a photo of it did not do it justice, taking a video broke its dimensions and depth. One small shift in my footing and it looked utterly different. It looked almost alien that it was easy to imagine David Bowie strut upside down along its pillars in his Labyrinth costume.

Samar Travel Guide

Samar Travel Guide | Photo by #SparkSamar

I sat for a while counting the different kinds of stone on the exposed riverbed, seeing shades from dark red to olive green, from smooth to downright trypophobic. My grandmother (possibly the only natural adventurer in my family) once told me that some rocks are alive and some were dead.

Somehow I felt every pebble and stalactite underneath that bridge breathed.

| This is first of three parts  |

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Danielle Balanga

Danielle Balanga graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communication from the University of the Philippines Cebu. An aspiring writer, she currently works as an artist's assistant and toymaker. For collaborations, email her at daniellebalanga[at]gmail[dot]com.

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