Travel Lows and Woes: Dungeons
Boracay Island, Philippines
When going on vacations, I never really feel the need to avail of first class accommodations. Most of the time, I book myself on reasonable modes of transportation: not too classy, not too expensive, but not too cheap and crude to the point of maximum inconvenience, either. Besides, if one is on vacation, the least one can ask for is comfortable traveling within a reasonable budget.
One end of summer, I was informed by my former schoolmates that the organization I used to be a member of in law school was having its rest and recreation (R&R) activities in Boracay Island. Every year, this organization conducts its R&R for the present student interns in beach resorts in different parts of the country. And every year, they invite alumni and friends to join their activities for a subsidized fee.
Boracay Island being my favorite island in the country, I took advantage of the opportunity to go there again, this time for a lower cost than I would spend ordinarily. Since we would be traveling in a big group, we were able to avail of discounts and divide costs of food and accommodations among several people. I decided to ask my sister Yvette to join us since she had not yet been there before. The cost was only Php3000 net for each person, inclusive of roundtrip boat fare economy class, complete meals for four days, and room accommodations for three nights at the resort. A bargain, indeed!
And so, psyching ourselves up to visit the best white powder beach in the country (first time for my sister), we excitedly embarked on the boat trip from Manila. Our ship was named Our Lady of Medjugorje, obviously named after her. I am not a very religious person, but somehow, knowing that the ship owners believe in God and at least have the faith to name their ships with those of the holy saints, I felt a sense of security that our trip will be a safe one. (I am not fatalistic either, and I do know that accidents can happen whether your ship is named after all the saints in the world or named after a star or a planet.)
We were about 15 in the group that was to travel from Manila. We were to meet up with the rest in Boracay already. We went through the normal procedure in getting on board. We identified which gate we were to enter, depending on the area indicated on the tickets. I had E-51, which stood for Deck E, bed number 51. The rest of us were also assigned in Deck E with various bed numbers.
Having been in economy class accommodations in other ships before, I already anticipated the inconvenience it entailed. You may get assigned to a bed that is adjacent to the bed of someone you don’t know, and worse someone who snores in his sleep. Or if you get assigned on the upper bunk bed, and the person occupying the bed below you is a total stranger. It is quite awkward to climb down your bed barefoot and seeing the person below you looking up at you as you go down the steps of the ladder. Economy class means no privacy at all. But this time I thought that it wasn’t so bad since we were a big group anyway. Sometimes, knowing several people with you in the same predicament eases the discomfort of sharing a whole deck with other passengers. We could laugh, share stories and spend time just hanging around and let time fly by with your friends.
But as I said, I have experienced economy class more than once before, so I was so sure that another economy class would not be a bad experience.
I was wrong.
The ushers on the ship gave us directions on where Deck E was. When we entered the ship, we were on Deck B. Then we were led to the stairs going down. After one long flight of stairs, we were on Deck C. At that point, we were gradually getting worried. Yvette was starting to be uneasy about going down the flight of stairs. Deck C seemed to be on the same level as the surface of the sea. What she was worried about was that it meant that Deck D was on a level below the sea’s surface. And I guess, we just refused to think about where Deck E would be.
After Deck C, we were led to another set of stairs, and we reached Deck D. At that point, we observed there were no more windows and the deck was dark and dingy. Yvette was suddenly feeling claustrophobic. And we hadn’t reached Deck E yet.
We finally reached Deck E, with much hesitation. As we were moving down the last flight of stairs that led us to Deck E, my friends and I were already contemplating on having ourselves upgraded to the tourist class accommodations. But out of respect to one of the organizers, we followed the path to our bunk beds at Deck E.
At this point, let me describe the kind of ships that are used in the Philippines to ferry passengers from island to island. Most Philippine passenger ships are remnants of Japanese vessels that were not originally for passengers. Some of them were cargo ships converted to accommodate more passengers, specially in the areas of the ships which used to be engine rooms, or bunk areas for the crew, normally below the ship so they have immediate access to the ship’s engines. I think most of these ships were even used for military purposes as well. So one can just imagine a formerly storage area of a Japanese navy ship being filled up with about a hundred or so bunk beds, and converted to what the shipping lines call “Economy Class” accommodations.
Deck E. Two stories below the surface of the sea. Dark. Damp. Oh yes, it was air-conditioned alright! About a hundred or so people cramped inside what could be a gas chamber! How to breathe in that place was beyond me and Yvette, and maybe beyond the rest of our group as well who kept quiet and remained uncomplaining. We imagined ourselves to be in a dungeon. The only door to the area was the big vault-like door, which seemed like ready to vacuum-seal us inside! (Note that during ticket inspection, the ship’s crew, as a standard operating procedure, would lock that door for security reasons to determine if there are passengers who didn’t have tickets.) We felt like the Jews being locked up in gas chambers, or refugees being hauled to safety into a foreign land, which we were prohibited to see from the ship.
So what did we resolve to do? When the ship started to move, Yvette and I, together with a few form our group went back up to the main deck, together with all our backpacks. We chose to discuss the matter in a place where there was more light. When we reached the main lobby of the ship, we asked the crew stationed there if there were available spaces on the tourist class. The tourist class was an enclosed air-conditioned area. Enclosed yes, but enclosed in glass windows. With a view of the open sea. And it was on Deck B. Two stories above the surface of the sea.
Because we insisted that we all transfer from the “dungeons” to the “tourist class” where ventilation existed, one of the organizers had arranged for it. We were no longer in danger of living through the trauma of spending a night inside the dungeons of the ship. We were ready to go on a vacation to a paradise island, without unwarranted worry in our hearts.
At that time, I did not realize how the other hundred passengers who were left with no other option in Deck E were able to survive the ordeal. True that the beds were reasonably comfortable and the area was air-conditioned too. But the cramped space, the absence of any windows, and knowing that we were several feet under water, was more than we could endure. If something was to happen to the ship – a collision for instance – how could people in there be able to survive?
On hindsight, I realize that people when left with no other alternative will take any option that is available to them, without regard to safety…and worse, those who know this, like ship owners, will take advantage of people’s inability to decide what is best for them.