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Passage to Calbayog City, Samar Island

Calbayog from abovePhoto courtesy of Pinas Muna

An expat’s account of the phenomenon that is local shipboard travel

At 6 p.m. we arrive at Pier One in Cebu City with our van load of suitcases, food, toys, hardware items and so many other things that you cannot buy in a small coastal city in the Philippines. My wife sends a text message to Rodolfo – our trusted porter, the one who can get us through smoothly and quickly onto the ship. He soon appears and takes charge. I stand by idly and take in the scene. Forklifts moving around like mechanical rats, sniffing here, picking there, transferring loads to ships. Buses ply people to the waiting ships, each person clutching stuffed plastic bags, bottled waters, swollen suitcases, children, and takeout food. Thank goodness hand-carry baggage limitations do not apply to ship travel. Not yet anyway.

Calbayog from abovePhoto courtesy of Pinas Muna

Calbayog from abovePhoto courtesy of Pinas Muna

Reliable economy

Our ship of the line is the MV Iloilo, a roll on, roll off (RORO) vessel. Not rollover as some would say referring to the shallow hull and flat bottom. She rides quietly to her moorings, with dirty black smoke belching rather frequently from her insides. Painted in the uninspiring custard yellow across all decks, with a pale blue water line marking, and the red letters of Cokaliong shipping line. She can carry officially 653 persons, mostly in economy class.

And when they say ‘economy’ class they really do mean that. Steel framed double bunk beds, with fiberglass-like mattresses, flow through air conditioning (courtesy of nature), and a toilet to passenger ratio that is challenging. Tonight we are traveling with 18 others in the business class section. This is air conditioned, with doors that separate it from the tourist class section, also air conditioned and capable of accommodating 156 passengers.

With a much better toilet to passenger ratio. On top of the official human cargo, from my observations, she can carry at least 100 roosters (which never stop crowing), several hundred week-old chicks, a few hardy cats, and probably a 1000 rats. She is 78 meters long, 15 meters wide and about 2770 tons, built in 1978.

This is not my first trip with this ship, nor my first time to travel from Cebu to Calbayog. In the past 20 years, I have made the trip at least 50 times. And on much worse ships than the MV Iloilo. In fact, I have to say that overall, the MV Iloilo is a reasonably comfortable and clean ship, and safe and reliable.

Cacophony of sound and light

Soon we are underway and making way, as we leave Cebu harbor. Our thoughts and stomachs think of food and eating, and we find our way to the dining room. The room is a large cafeteria-style layout with about 50 diners and others inside. Not crowded at all, which is both surprising and pleasant. At one end, the galley and serving area is laid out ready to serve its extensive menu of boiled eggs, steamed rice, potato chips, chorizo sausages, cracker biscuits, soft drinks, and beer. And yes water as well: for drinking, for noodle soup, or for the exotic three-in-one, or five-in-one instant coffee blends. As in much of the Philippines, the food pyramid concept of nutrition is missing a couple of layers, especially the fruit and vegetable parts.

At the other end of the cafeteria, two televisions are mounted to the wall, separated by about six feet. They are competing with each other for people’s attention it seems to me. Why else would they both be on full volume, on different channels and producing noise that is akin to the high pitched screaming of slaughtered pigs or an imminent invasion by aliens from outer space. Next to the two TVs sit two banks of games slot machines, with spinning symbols, flashing lights and over excited youths doing their best to murder as many people as they can (on screen of course) within 60 seconds.

And last but definitely not least into this cacophony of sound and light comes the masterpiece— the Karaoke machine with its own sound proof or privacy chamber.

Except it’s neither sound proof nor private, and the occupants are doing their best to let everyone else in the room know that they should be on the TV show Pilipinas Got Talent.

I close my eyes and take in the sounds. Lots of hisses, squeaks, gongs, laughter, booming, smashing, and other really strange sounds. Bam bam, whoosh whoosh, rat tat tat. From the Karaoke chamber, a woman’s voice straining to reach the high notes of a love ballad floats over the top of it all for a brief moment, before the tinny, raucous shouting of a frantic TV reporter drowns her out. Behind me, kids screaming, noisy scraping doors opening, TV adverts flashing video clips and making lots of undecipherable noise about hair products, laundry soap, minute noodles, magic pills and miracle financial plans.

If you could taste this mixture of sounds, I would call it sweet, sour, savory, chunky, lumpy, tart, acidic frothy, and indigestible. It used to be hard for me to eat in this atmosphere.

As if my stomach muscles were cramped up. But now, I can as I am conditioned to it, able to eat and adapt to this cultural trait of shipboard travel. As I finish my meal, I close my eyes again briefly and this time pick up even more disturbing noises. Yep… sounds like the aliens have landed on our ship, and making their way now to the cafeteria. Time to head back to business class and close the doors.

Nicholas (Nic) Richards lives in Samar province with his family. He works in international development assistance, is an agriculture expert, and writes novels. He has written and published two novels to date. “Black Hearts, Gold Warriors” is his second novel and it tells the tale of the hunter and the hunted across the exotic and dangerous landscapes of Mindanao and Vietnam, from the close of WWII to the start of the new millennium. It is an action adventure spiced with historical fiction and romance, with wonderful and heady scents and sounds of life in the colorful and vibrant world of Southeast Asia. Nic’s first book called “Gold of the Generals,” is being revised and will be re-released early in June 2017 and it is a wonderful story of the hunt for war loot and treasures in the Philippines and Papua New Guinea.

You can find out more about him at www.nkrichards.com