NOTE FROM JONA THE WITCH | This is the second installation of Danielle Balanga’s field notes from her sponsored trip to Samar for Backpacking with a Book. She represented this humble blog. You can read the first part of her Samar Travel Guide on BWAB. Here are three more interesting things to do in Samar.
Tuckered out from a day of constant movement, everyone fell asleep en route to town. It was night time when we reached Lola Rosa’s Inn, a local historical site.
The black and white house stood, pristine and frozen in time. It stood by an equally old Spanish style road, narrow and paved, the whole street meant for walkway rather than vehicles. It was both modern and vintage, the wooden structure reinforced by metal and steel. It stood out from the rest of the street that sported early 19th century housing style of decorated wood, grayed by time, sun and rain.
A welcome desk, which was originally a law office desk greeted us in the veranda and we were given keys to our rooms. The original house was extended at the back and upwards, the deeper you went in the inn the more modern it got. Glass display cases stood in the entrance hall filled with the Quimbo family’s heirlooms, mostly religious artifacts like rosaries, prayer books and Catholic statuettes, but also Lola Rosa’s glass cosmetic containers and personal effects like her fans and journals.
I was bunked up in Room 2, right beside the entrance hall and a part of the original house. Paintings hung in the room by local artists depicting late 19th century life in the provinces. The upper sections of
The house was built on the land originally owned by Lola Rosa’s parents, Margarita from Calbiga in Samar and Carroll, an American soldier from Tennessee who stayed in the Philippines after the Spanish American War in 1898. She inherited the lot and built the house that stands today with her husband, Lope Quimbo, a lawyer who topped the National Bar Exams in 1938 (the newspaper clipping still hangs in the Inn gallery today). By all accounts, Lola Rosa was a homebody, she raised seven kids and was a cheerful housewife who liked cooking, sewing and keeping her household in order.
I wandered the halls, inspecting the displays. The thing with old houses is that even furniture are artifacts. The Quimbo family, who kept the basement as their living quarters, welcomed us into their kitchen to fix ourselves tea and coffee. When we wandered back up with our drinks, I continued checking out the items that can be freely handled by guests. There was an ancient french press by the sink, next it, shoved to the side, was a vintage Singer sewing machine. We have one back home, owned by my grandfather’s grandmother and previous researched equipped me with the knowledge of the Singer serial number engraved on each of their originals. The serial number database, which is accessible online, told me that the one Lola Rosa owned was manufactured in 1926, two years after she got married as a sixteen year old.
Down the counter I found an old sungka board on the hall kitchenette. It was a dark antique hardwood, two carabao heads carved on either end.
I invited our guide Angelo to play; he said he didn’t know how to, that made me more eager and taught him how. We sat down on the floor in the main hall, counting cowrie shells and setting up the board. I taught him how to play the old mancala-style game the way my grandmother taught me in my childhood spent indoors, dropping shells in each pit of the board, hoarding them to win. Soon the others gathered round to watch, play or learn the game for themselves, the cowrie shells clinking away int the night.
Morning came with breakfast at a local eatery overlooking the river. The sun was just rising and I can’t remember the last time I saw sunrise, not counting my early morning flight the day before. Food came quick and food went fast into hungry stomachs.
Hurrying to the pick up site in Calbiga, we transferred for our cushy transports and into a dump truck that was previously used for roadwork. The coaster carried us as far as the road wen and the truck did the rest. I went first climbing a stepladder, my sense of adventure catching up with me.
Already in the truck were faculty and staff of Samar State University, off for a surveillance of the falls and the nearby caves. Also on board was Miss Lea Rafales of the Calbiga Tourism Office to guide us to the mountains.
It was a bumpy ride across the limestone path, the riders bouncing up and down as the truck crossed boulders. We held on to the sides of the vehicle hoping not to spill like beans. Most made good fun out of it, having to duck real low when passing electric wires that have yet to be rerouted.
“You’re one of the first to go,” Miss Lea said, holding on to her hat, “Commercially, that is. People usually trekked or motorbiked to the falls…more media people are coming once we finish up the path,”
She told us of a few adventuring celebrities already booked for Calbiga’s falls and caves. People immediately jested if they could camp out and wait for their arrival.
We reached Barangay Literon, the drop off point for Lulugayan Falls. From there, it was a thirty minute walk to the waterfalls. The path was lined with concrete slabs to make the trek easier, previous adventurers had to walk through mud, so I counted myself lucky.
The path followed against a wall of earth overgrown with ferns and miniature ficus, flowering vines peeping over the edge as the river flowed on the other side. The closer we go to the falls, the wilder the path became. Trees leaned over, almost as if they were curious to see travelers in their midst. The air got colder as the roaring water got louder. In some areas the wild river have softened the ground once more and some of the concrete slabs slipped off.
Getting to the falls was half of the walk, even when it stood right in front of you. The rain that feel the night before made the water level rise and Lulugayan looked absolutely furious, gushing water like there’s no tomorrow, the complete opposite of the serene blue falls pictured in the magazines.
“It’s temperamental,” I overheard someone say. Cottages were still being built and the workers were struggling to cement blocks in moving water. The area was so far out of reach that the only way they could haul blocks was traditional by way of carabao and cart.
Lulugayan Falls cascaded down in pure white water, keeping a steady mist about itself that definitely drenched everyone within fifty feet. It was a difficult climb to the viewing area because of the water getting everywhere and the guides warned us not to wade into the water, even calf-deep the current was strong enough to sweep away a full grown adult.On regular days people could swim about freely.
The water mist was a daily occurrence in the immediate are about the falls and it was so soggy that I found a whole ecosystem in a dead stump.
With the water too vicious to wade into, we turned back quicker than expected. I spent the excess time examining flora on the way back, identifying a few ferns, a fig tree (which was a local food source for bats), and the countless gotu-kola plants growing along the water like a million green umbrellas. They bloomed downstream where the water calmed down and flowed into a still green once more.
The trip was so far had been relatively leisurely, only my endurance was being challenged. I was pretty excited, even singing Tolkien’s Walking Song when I found myself alone on the trail, my companions either too far ahead or way behind me. Perhaps sensing this, the adventure amped up on my second day in Samar.
After the falls, we rode down south to Paranas. Checking the itinerary I read “TORPEDO Extreme Boating”. All that walking along the riverbanks and endless balancing on the bouncing truck made my legs feel like jelly already.
What if I fall into the water? I wouldn’t be able to wade to safety. I imagined white water, a boat tipping and the suffocating embrace of water.
“It won’t be that extreme,” Christine corrected, “Besides, we’ll have life vests.”
Life vests, right. I had learned to trust life vests only that previous summer and I know a basic sort of frog paddle to propel myself around. Our previous water excursion was leisurely more than anything, peaceful kayaks on a still river. From the pictures, Ulot River was anything but peaceful. In the tourism photos, riders were pictured always in the middle of either screaming or laughing in the white water.
The concrete road winded into the mountains, the sky cloudless and the sun shone nearly white in the spotless span of blue.
Fields turned into hills and mountains, the road following them upwards, and within two hours we reached Paranas.
We were welcomed into a small welcome hut where less than a hundred bright orange life vests hung ready for use. We gathered around for a safety briefing.
Ulot River National Park used a special type of boat they call the torpedo, a longboat with the capacity to carry eight passengers at once, almost resembling a dragon boat by the way the seats are placed one right in front of another.
Meanwhile TORPEDO in all caps was another thing, an acronym for the park’s guide system: Tour Guide and Boat Operators for River Protection and Environmental Development Organization. I later found out that several of the guides used to be former loggers employed by the tourism effort to preserve the park. With more job opportunities, nearly all of the local loggers stopped their lumbering efforts.
Like in previous spots, locals are employed by the tourism spots to safeguard the ecosystems and make use of their homegrown knowledge of the area.
We were led down to the wide river, which was blue and still, the rocky ground gently sloping down into the freshwater.
“The ride downstream takes thirty minutes, back up, an hour,” the guides explained as they pulled up the brightly colored torpedo boats to shore. The whole media party fit into two boats and we were off quickly.
There were three guides for every five passengers: one steered at the bow with a wooden oar, one back in the stern manned the engine and another right by him ready to scoop out water from the boat once we reach the rapids.
The still waters quickened when the riverbed became uneven, rocks jutting up, forming shelves that made water slip downwards in quick bursts. The first descents made even squeal and screech as the water splashed the bow, bucket filling the boat, the third boatman quickly scooping it back out into the river.
I had stashed away my phone in Angelo’s waterproof bag and it seemed no one at all would risk their cameras in the raging river. The size of the boat made it feel safe enough fro me but it rocked from side to side almost threateningly, everyone gripping their handles inside the boat for dear life.
The riverbanks became wilder, rain forests taking over the coconut groves, vines draping from the trees as limestone cliffs rose topped in lush greenery like primordial set pieces for monster movies.
With every splash came a scream a gasp, but the deeper into the wilderness we went, the more we were prone to laugh and cheer for the rapids. I was surprised to find myself excitedly peering over people’s shoulders so I can brace myself for the next bump in the water, now a brilliant blue.
The row-men knew the water well and steered us into the rocky banks. The stones reminded me of construction site rocks, the gray kind that were crushed into gravel.
“Are these rocks sold commercially?” I asked the boatmen as we disembarked onto the rocky shores.
“No, ma’am, this land is protected,” they responded.
The rushing river disappeared between the white boulders big as houses that overtook the path. This, along with the bright water and the forests that flanked it made the place look like the River Anduin from Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I eagerly climbed the dry sedimentary boulders, imagining myself to be a light footed forest elf on a dire mission; at least until I reached wide slippery gaps and a guide had to come over and help me cross.
“Where are we going?” I heard someone murmur as we kept walking, all we knew is that this was a boating trip.
I climbed over the rocks, finding the river once more. The great boulders trapped the water and form a kind of funnel, making the water gush right in the middle in a roaring, foaming stream. There were other guests along it, jumping into the wild waters, their bright orange vests disappearing before they popped back up downstream, carried so far in such a short time by the speeding water.
We trekked further down where the water was calm enough for us to ford the river before rounding up to the other side where we can join the rock jumping into the white water. People egged each other on, hesitant to take the leap.
Atop the boulder where I stood and peering down into the gushing water below, I was terrified. My basic instinct was to stay still, self preservation overcoming me.
One by one my companions took the leap, the orange vests disappearing into the foam, swallowed by the river, before popping up several yards away, carried by the current to calmer waters.
“You just have to swallow your gut instinct,” a guide told me. My knees were shaky and I fidgeted in my spot, letting another guest go before me. Jump. Splash. Pop.
“I can’t swim,” I stammered.
“If you’re too scared, ma’am, I can jump in with you,” said the guide, taking hold of the hand at the back of my safety vest.
Terrified, and a little embarrassed, I let him count down before letting myself leap off the edge.
Hitting the water was quick and softer than I expected. I’m sure if I was able to keep my eyes open I’d have seen the riverbed by how deep I sunk. And when I came up, my nostrils were filled with water, a burning sensation up the back of my throat as I coughed, the vest carrying me off upright. The jump spot was already so far away.
“See!? You’re safe!” the guide said as he was carried downstream ahead of me, hands up to show me that I was floating on my own.
We caught a rope tied across the river, pulling ourselves to shore. I cleared my nose as I dragged myself back to my companions still at the rock jump off.
They gave a supportive cheer when I came back, checking if I was okay.
We sat, watching the others take their turn to leap into the river’s bubbly embrace. The sun shone down, drying us out quicker than expected, the rock dry underneath us.
I wanted to be brave and adventurer. It was my chance. I ran and leaped off the edge. Before I hit the water I heard people hooting and cheering before the water muted everything.
When I bobbed up I was disoriented, water up my nose again and I saw a guide swimming after me.
“You don’t know how to jump!” he scolded with a laugh before grabbing me by the vest handle again before I could get trapped in the whirlpools at the corners of the rocks.