DOWN MEMORY LANE…
…a dirt lane
…at an average of 15 mph!
We just took a three-day, two-night ministry trip to visit some Palawanos down south (see our News blog f
Here, I will just describe exactly what the travel was like, since it is so different from what the words “road trip” might bring to your mind! This blog will be longer than usual. If it seems too long, I apologize. But it won’t take you as long to read as it took us do the trip!
DAY ONE: GETTING THERE
We figured the road might be too rough, or bridges might be out, so we opted to go “public” (i.e. take a bus) instead of driving our truck the 150 miles each way. We used to take similar buses south to our mission center on the east coast back in the 1980’s. Now we were going to go down the less developed west coast in 2009.
The youth group from Puerto left the day before we did for their 5-day ministry trip. We were only going down for the “Palawano outreach day,” and then coming back before their return.
It’s best to travel in the cool morning as much as possible, so we were going to take the first trip, which was to leave at 5 am. We went to bed early, but didn’t sleep much. Got up at 3 am, having mostly packed the night before. Grabbed coffee (“vitamin C” means caffeine, right?) and a bit of bread, pulled our packed lunch out of the fridge and away we went.
Our luggage consisted of:
- two day packs with our clothes, etc.
- a small bag with our lunch
- a cardboard box packed with mosquito nets, blankets and sleeping mats
- a box full of Palawano Scripture portions and song booklets
- my guitar in a backpack-style soft case
- a box with some food to share with our host family
- a box full of plastic Coke bottles filled with drinking water for us
- two 5-gallon containers of drinking water (for the youth team)
This is the provincial Philippines travel norm.
Since we had so much cargo, I drove Donna and our stuff to the bus terminal north of town, about 5-10 minutes from our house. I dropped her off and brought our truck back to the house. Then I walked out to the street and caught a trisikel (a motorcycle with a sidecar, the Puerto Princesa “taxi”) back to the terminal.
We waited with other passengers on comfy wrought iron benches for the bus. As we at there listening to a young male passenger play annoying music on his cell phone (no earphones… he wanted to share!) we wondered if all the crowing roosters in boxes around us would be fellow passengers on our trip. Filipino men love roosters and travel with them. And the child’s storybook tenet that roosters crow at dawn is a myth. They crow 24/7 (I guess it’s dawn somewhere, right?)
Anyway, the “5 o’clock bus” showed up about 5:20 and we all boarded and got seats. This was not a Greyhound tour bus (see the photo.) It was the typical provincial bus where the owners don’t put much into it because it gets beat to death on the rough roads. So this is a sort of homemade body, slat seats with a little padding, plywood shutters that can close the window against rain. It is not air conditioned (unless you count having the windows open.) All the seats get full, the aisles are full of cargo (in fact the driver had to crawl in and out his window. He could not reach his seat via the aisle.) The legroom is so minimal that Donna and I have to sit at an angle with our knees in the aisle. So we sat across the aisle from each other. I was on the” 2-person” seat on the right side, and she was on the “3-person” seat on the left side (note “person” here is defined as “FILIPINO person,” i.e. about half our size.)
It was almost 6 o’clock when the bus started out. The first part of the trip went pretty smoothly. The “cool” morning air (hey, it was under 85!) in our hair, and the whole experience brought back memories of so many similar bus trips with our kids (and even MORE cargo) back in the 80’s. It’s a funny thing, but the whole bus can fill up and even have people standing in the aisle, and no one will sit by us. Those big white people are just too scary, I suppose. Not we mind have the seat to ourselves. I did have a drunk guy who was drunk/bold/crazy enough to sit by me for a short while. Not much coherent conversation there (plus, I was turned at a angle away from him, whereas he fit just fine in the window seat, since he matched that definition of “person” (see above).
About 2 hours later we stopped for fuel in the town of Narra. The gas station had 13 (yes, thirteen) cats. Interesting! Then we stopped a minute down the road at a little “restaurant” and had some coffee and breakfast. Donna had arroz caldo (rice porridge with chicken) and I had Mr. Donut. Yes, gone are the days of the little boys surrounding the bus selling native snacks. The bus stops now have Pringles, Diet Coke and Mr. Donut.
About 2 hours later, at 10 am, the bus reached the town of Quezon on the west coast. We stopped for a bathroom break and to unload and load passenger, as Quezon is a hub for people going north or south on the west side. Soon it was vroom vroom and we were of again, making good time for our destination. We’d gone about two thirds of the distance now, but only half the estimated time, as the road from here on out was unpaved and would get rougher the further south we went.
Finally, we got to the the town of Rizal. We circled around by the open market to drop off and pick up passengers. Then we stopped at the Municipal Hall along the highway to drop off and pick up more passengers. Then vroom vroom we were off again…
…for a little while. About a half hour down the road, the bus broke down. Normally this is a blown tire but this time it was something more serious. It wasn’t something the frequent “vulcanizing” (roadside tire patching) shops could handle. A bolt had sheared off under the bus and they did not have a spare. The driver sent one the “boy” (each bus has a driver (who drives… period), a conductor (who gives tickets and takes money… period), and a “boy” who loads luggage, changes tires and everything else. The boy caught a ride with a passerby back to Rizal to try to buy the needed bolt.
We sat by the side of the road for about an hour and a half. Finally, somehow, the driver and conductor got impatient enough and figured out a way to fix the bus and we drove off. The “boy” eventually caught us and wasn’t too happy being left behind. Well, at least now they had the bolts he bought as spares for next time!
So we got to the little town of Sicud about 5:30 pm.
We stayed with Filipino Christians in their simple home. They gave us the master bedroom with a wooden bed (no mattress). It was the best they had, but hard (literally!) on our old bones. There was a “squatty potty” in a little outhouse, and a screened off bucket-and-dipper bath area.
DAY TWO: PALAWANO MINISTRY
The next morning we got up and went to visit the Palawanos interior. The ministry aspect of this trip is in our News blog, and this is just the travelogue…
First, we walked about an hour and a half along a gravel road to reach the beginning of the trail into the mountains. Just as we got there it started raining, so we took shelter for a little while under the roof of a threshing floor along the road. Then we hiked about a half hour through rice paddies, where the trail alternated between balancing along the narrow packed-mud dikes that separate the paddies, and slogging through mucky lows spots.
Then we started uphill. Up up up UP hill. There were three ridges to get over. Each one meant a steep climb up a narrow trail for a half hour or more. Then a treacherous descent where you you hang onto branches and vines, hoping you won’t lose your footing and go down like Jack and Jill must have done.
We’re in a little better shape that we were a couple years ago, but we’re not triathletes by any means. This hike was tough. We got out of breath and the muscles in our thighs hurt. After we reached the top of the first ridge and stopped for a short breather, Donna realized she wasn’t going to make it. Two more climbs to reach the village, a quick visit there and then immediately hiking back just wasn’t going to be possible for her. So she turned back and hiked downhill to the road and caught a trisikel back to the house. While her heart valves limited her walking, her heart bravery was totally up for going back alone (much to the shock of our Palawano guides who never hike ANYwhere alone.)
As for me, I would have turned back, too, if I could. But the whole trip depended on my meeting the Palawanos, translating for the Puerto Youth, and distributing the Scripture portions. So…
The rest of us continued on over the next two ridges, across two small rivers (one waist deep and a little swift.) We finally reached the village and had a great time there. We had lunch (rice, noodles and hard boiled eggs) and a meeting. The youth group sang the Palawano songs I had taught them and they gave testimonies. I taught from Ephesians.
We were there maybe an hour and a half max, then headed back home!
The hike back home seemed to go quicker, but wasn’t any easier. The uphill climbs had my thighs shaking and the downhills were hard, too. My consolation was that the Puerto youth (city kids), who ranged from 19 to 26 were not exactly skipping over the surface of the mud like Middle Earth elves, either.
When we reached the gravel road, we were able to catch rides in trisikels so that eliminated the long walk down the road.
The next morning, Donna and I headed back to Puerto a day ahead of the youth. We wanted to catch the “first trip” (again, a supposedly 5 am bus), so we got up at 4 am. Since the town of Sicud only has electricity from 6-11 pm, it was dark. There were no ceilings and only partial walls in the house where we were staying, so we had to pack up our bedding and mosquito nets and the last of our things by flashlight, so we wouldn’t wake the rest of the houseful of people.
It was raining softly as we walked the 1/3 mile to the terminal, carrying our luggage. We had a little less that we brought down, as we’d eaten the food and left the Scripture portions with the Palawanos and the water with the youth group.
At the bus terminal we got some coffee at the little “cafe” (more like a booth) there which services the passengers. We sipped our Nescafe classic 3-in-1 and chatted with the proprietress and her other customer. He asked Donna, “You’re the one who had to walk back yesterday, right? You couldn’t make it to Pengdan?” The trisikel driver grapevine was alive and well!
The cafe owner told us, “The bus isn’t leaving yet.” We asked how she knew. She said, “The driver (who sleeps in the bus, by the way) always comes here for coffee first and he’s not here yet. Plus,” she said, “they’ll wait for daylight so they can tell if the flooded river is too deep to cross or not.”
So we waited. Eventually the driver came. By then, there were so many passengers and so much cargo on the bus that he had to crawl in through the window just like the other driver had.
We drove in the cool morning back up to Rizal. This time, however, we spent an hour in the market area while several tires got “vulcanized.” Then we drove on up the road until we reached the flooded river.
The bridge was washed out and the river was too deep for the bus to cross. So all the passengers (and their cargo) had to get off and be shuttled across the river on a bamboo raft… two or three passengers at a time. For some reason, they made the raft only 3 sticks of bamboo wide, so it wasn’t wide and flat and stable. The pilot (raftsman?) pulled us to the other side by holding onto a rope which was strung across the river about chest high.
When our turn came, we put the boxes on the raft. It didn’t matter if they got wet. Then we squatted on the raft, hoping to keep our clothes dry. I had the guitar on my back and a carry-on which should NOT get wet on my lap. Well, as we reached the middle of the river, the raft tipped and I started to lose my balance. I grabbed the raft to find it slick as an oiled pig. With the guitar adding weight, I toppled right off into the water. Thankfully, the water was only waist deep so I as able to keep the carry-on dry. It wasn’t fun to hear the hoots and squeals of laughter from the crowd on the bank behind us, but I just ignored them.
Then when we reached the other bank, Donna made a tactical error. Not wanted to walk the length of the tippy slippery raft, she just hopped off… right into a deep spot. So she was soaked from the waist down, wearing a jeans skirt. I was wearing my heavy wet Levis.
We climbed the bank, gathered our luggage and then I helped Donna change. She had some dry clothes (pajama bottoms, actually… with Mooch from the Mutts cartoon on them… very cute, if not exactly stylish! So I held up a towel and created a “virtual changing room for her.” She had a dry top, too. I had no dry clothes, so wet jeans it was.
We boarded a jeepney. Google “jeepney” if you don’t know what this is. The main thing to understand here is that it’s a vehicle made to haul passengers and cargo, with benches running lengthwise in the back, with passengers facing each other. Oh yeah, facing each other without much room between your knees. We headed up the road in the jeepney and it kept picking up passengers. I’d say this jeepney had seats for maybe 20 people. At last count we had 58 people riding the jeep, with 6 of them sitting on top. Remember those 6 people. We’ll get back to them. There were also 5 little boys, about 6-8 years old, standing in the “aisle” between everyone’s knees. Standing there holding the hand rail over their heads for the whole two hours or so of the trip.
But the little boys got a break in the middle because the jeepney broke down about an hour up the road. We all got off and Donna and I dug into our snacks (always carry food when traveling here!) After about 45 minutes, they had fixed the jeepney and all 58 of us got back on.
About an hour later we were hitting the outskirts of the town of Quezon. And the 6 people on top (remember them? I asked you to…) well, there were still up there, which is illegal. They wink at this “supplemental” passenger idea out of town, but as vehicles enter the town, those 6 people are supposed to somehow find space inside. But they were still up there and we got stopped by a policeman. So we all waited while he wrote the jeepney driver a ticket. We were just far enough from the terminal in Quezon to not want to walk and to be willing to wait for the jeepney to move on.
At the terminal, we boarded a “shuttle.” This is the new travel phenomenon on Palawan. Small vans that carry passengers. The good seats were taken, but we didn’t want to wait for the next shuttle. So Donna got a middle seat and I had the “jump seat” near the door (the one that folds up so passengers can get in the back seat.) Leg room was questionable at best, but the shuttle had good air conditioning and they were (to our great surprise) playing mellow music, instead of disco or techno remixes of Peter Paul and Mary.
About 4 hours and one lunch stop later, we got to Puerto. We were sad that they didn’t stop at the gas station with the 13 cats, but we’ll get over it.
When we got to Puerto it was raining. We caught a trisikel from the terminal to our house and WE WERE HOME!
Showers felt great. Our bed with the mattress was wonderful. We went to Bible Study that night and the dinner was nice. Did I mentioned that the mattress was wonderful?
We felt a little like Hobbits who had been “There and Back Again.” I was also tempted to put this story to music and give Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant and Masacree” a run for its money.
So two breakdowns, 20 hours of overland travel and nearly 6 hours of hiking to spend an afternoon with those Palawanos. Was it worth it? After seeing their faces when they received the books of new Scripture portions, I’d have to say, “yes.”
It was a great trip. We were so blessed to see those Palawanos in Pengdan again and to make new friends in Sicud.
But we probably won’t be going there again next week.