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Postcards from Samar: A Sunday stroll around Calbayog City




“Hey Joe!” Shoe repairers at work in the shade

Greetings and maupuy nga kulop, from Calbayog City in Samar Province, heart of the Waray-Waray.

You may recall that in my last article, I wrote about travelling from Cebu City to Calbayog via ship. So here we are now, in this large seaside town, with its laid-back, country feel even though it’s called a city. It is the gateway to Northern Samar Province and home to almost 200,000 people. Off and on over the past 20 years, it has been home for my family and I also.

Calbayog sits on the remnants of mangrove marshes and nippa (sago palm) swamps, which originally made up the landform along the coastal areas of much of Samar Island. Accordingly it is flat and prone to flooding, made worse by the high annual rainfall of three or more metres and a limited dry period.

The other common geographical feature is the limestone ridges and hills, which are home to many caves and spectacular waterfalls. It is well known for marine products especially smoked fish called Tinapa.

Although most of the population of Samar lives along the coast, there are still some quiet unspoilt places to enjoy

To get to Calbayog from Manila you have three main options: by air with both major airlines running flights every day; by bus; or by car. Or, if coming from Cebu, you can choose by air or by ship. From the south, it will be by car, or van or bus from Tacloban City. All routes and methods can suffer the vagaries of weather, with seaports closed, airports shut down and roads sometimes blocked. But that’s all part of the excitement and unpredictability of living and travelling in these islands. It’s more fun in the Philippines, right?

From the air, Calbayog, and outlying barangays and villages, stretches along the coastal highway north and south. A cluster of five smaller Islands lies off the coast, each with sizeable populations living on them. Inland, there is little sign of habitation — just large, forested and grassland areas, with few roads connecting them. Huge tracts of land that seem to be unoccupied or sparsely planted with coconuts, stretch forever it seems.

At the end of World War Two a number of Japanese soldiers fled to these inland areas such as ‘Seven Hills’ and stayed there for many years. The last one was ‘captured’ sometime in the 1980s. It is thought to also be the refuge of rebel groups like the NPA or communist party. Though this seems to be sporadic in nature.

Calbayog… the name is not complementary in its tone, and it does not easily roll off the tongue like ‘Samar’ does for example. The name Calbayog is thought to have originated from a place called Taboc, which was rich in Bayog trees. The folklore says these trees were cut down and used to make Cal (lime) from seashells and coral. The Spaniards are blamed with having conjoined these two words and called the place Calbayog.

It really is a charming small city, with its old Spanish buildings and quietly efficient way of going about its business. It is developing rapidly and now dealing with a population explosion, squatters, loss of agricultural land to housing, environmental degradation, unemployment, gambling, migration from the hills and islands and drugs.

Underneath all of this is widespread poverty, which comes from a rural economy based on fishing and marine products, construction labour, rice, copra and forestry and not much else. Hand to mouth existence, with a happy-go-lucky mentality, not focused on planning and long-term solutions, at the household level in many cases. It’s all about survival. Typified by farmers with severe inputs and cash constraints, many landowners with vacant plots and resource-poor fisher-folk at the mercy of the climate and the sea, with no regulation on catches and conservation.

Development: A new mall under construction

But now we have the edifices of modern commercialism in town: Jollibee, LBC, coffee shops, Metro Supermarket and in construction an SM or Savemore mall. So the city is going places and there is talk of a major airport overhaul. And the city and the people seemingly have a tempo, an aura that says ‘we will get there’ despite all of the problems we face. A trait, to my mind, common to much of the Philippines and Filipino people by and large.

One Sunday morning I drop my wife and kids at church and stroll around for an hour. The Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral dominates the city centre and sits right alongside the National Highway. The church was built sometime in the 18th Century, or perhaps later, and repaired many times since then. This is evident from the multi-coloured building materials of bricks, limestone and cement, but the original construction was in limestone block.

Outside the church motorbikes and Timbol lie in pockets of shade, and cars and tricycles block the sidewalk. Drivers and riders languish in the shade or smoke as they patiently wait for the service to begin and finish. Every corner or slot of shade is taken, from the sun that beats down upon them. Almost seeking them out it seems as punishment for not going to church.

The fashion of church wear says a lot about the age and grace of the people who wear the clothes. There seems to be two main groups. The older set who get dressed up with dresses and skirts, good shoes and floral pattern blouses for the women and for the men, long pants, shoes and sleeved shirts. Then the younger set, the millennials and those with less style perhaps. They favour jeans, T- shirts and sneakers. But at least no one was seen wearing singlet, shorts and slippers, which is common in Australia even at church, sad to say.

St Peter and Paul Cathedral

From the church I head north towards my destination of the seaport area. Along the way I am tempted (almost) by a food stall selling hamburgers for 20 pesos each. At least tempted to find out what’s in them. I mean, for a start, is it really meat or something else that once lived and died mysteriously? But they are off the menu and I will have to go without, and I think my stomach and lower bowels will be happy about that.

I stop momentarily at the intersection near the Rosales Bridge that crosses the narrow tidal river that leads to the seaport. I can hear horns honking, whistles blowing, the put-put of motor bikes, loud speakers blaring adverts, people talking on cellphones, people shouting, bells jingling and babies crying. Overhead, the spaghetti pasta-like tangle of wires, power lines, cable TV lines and telephone lines, lies propped up by itself and a few thousand cable ties. It looks like cooked pasta left to dry in a pot, sticky and mangled. Elsewhere it is neat and straight and tidy, like spaghetti pasta is in a box before it is cooked.

Colourful: The seaport

I walk over the bridge and onto the promenade of the seaport itself, with its steps leading to the water and dozens of Bancas (motorised, outrigger canoes) of all sizes moored to the steps. The names of the boats and their bright colours call to me and beckon me to go with them. The Trinity Joy, Leovelynn, Cherival, Shalum and so many others.

From my side a voice enquires, “face towel sir?”

Shortly after I come across a group of men playing with roosters, caressing them and preparing them for battle. “Hi Joe, where are you going?” they enquire.

“I’m swimming to Tacloban,” I reply, and they don’t seem to doubt it.

Despite the warm and sunny day, the vibrant colours of the boats, and the clean smell of fresh fish floating in the air, the seaport has an aura about it. And not a good one. With lots of ‘standbys’ hanging around waiting to pounce on someone’s fortune or misfortune. Not a good place to be after dark. Little wonder the police station is based here.

I head back to the church and my family, and greet them as they emerge into the hot sun. Calbayog, the City of Waterfalls is not a tourist mecca, but it is an appealing stopover for tourists, who want to see parts of Samar still unspoiled by so-called development and just enjoy a slower pace of life for a few days.

Well I hope that this article was entertaining and informative for you. If you want to read more of my writing and novels please visit my website and novels section here. Cheers for now.

Nic Richards lives in Samar province with his family. He works in international development assistance, is an agriculture expert and writes novels. Black Hearts, Gold Warriors is his second novel and is an action adventure that ranges from Mindanao to Vietnam and plays out from the end of World War Two to the start of the new millennium. His debut novel, Gold of the Generals — a tale of the hunt for wartime treasure in the Philippines and Papua New Guinea — is currently being revised and will be re-released soon. For more information, visit nkrichards.com.