The Village the Highway Forgot

The purist backpacker hates articles like these. They guard their travel secrets like a child guards a piece of candy from an older sibling. Clutched in the palm of their hands and held tightly against their chests the purist holds his secret beach, waterfall, or village, fearing that if his secret is ever discovered his newfound paradise will collapse under the weight of droves of tourists. Maybe it is the purist’s pursuit for something real that causes his paranoia. And I must confess I somewhat agree, it is difficult to find the elusive reality in a beach incorporated by the Raddisson and Hyatt and littered by relentless hawkers.

The Philippines is a natural paradise and an easy place to lose oneself. I’ve lost myself there for two years. From the breezy mountains of Baguio to the sandy playgrounds of the Visayas it is easy to lose oneself on one of its 7000 islands.

Make no mistake, this article is not one of those horrid travel brochures you pick up at an agency run by a gum smacking, talkative woman who views travel as a way to escape her plain origins of Wichita, Kansas. I offer something real. I do it without any reservation or concern that these places will become the next Bali, Boracay, or Koh Samui. These places are far too remote and far too difficult to reach for them to be corrupted so easily. For the persistent traveler, a beautiful gem and life as we have never known it lies ahead. You will find Sprite, Coke, and some electricity here. But you will not find nightlife, movie houses and so many travelers that the sight of one no longer turns a head.

Our journey begins with a shuttle plane from Manila to the provincial capital and heart of the region of Leyte, Tacloban. Most travel books like lonely planet and Let’s Go, pass this place off as an uninteresting and uneventful conglomeration of dilapidated buildings and kamikaze jeepney traffic. They may not be far off from the truth. Even Filipinos view the place as some kind of punishment from God. The very fact that in order to reach the places of isolation you pass through this city is enough to discourage many travelers from the attempt.

Before you build contempt for this place you must not make the same mistake as most. If you were traveling to find a clean, orderly, city run by traffic lights and efficient public transportation you should have just stayed home in Europe or America. Tacloban, more than any other city I have visited, represents the Asian side of the Philippines. While Manila represents the place of the Filipinos fallen dreams, Tacloban is the place where the dreams and the people originate.

From the Tacloban bus station a variety of different buses ranging from the kind with wooden panels and seats so small they make even the Filipinos uncomfortable, to the ultra modern, air conditioned bus complete with televisions and disco balls, will continue the journey north to the Northern Samar capital of Catarman. The bus will pass through some of the most beautiful and unspoiled coastline the Philippines has to offer. It will also pass through some death-trap cities that make Tacloban look like paradise.

First on the list is Catbalogan. Infamous for being nominated the dirtiest city in the Philippines three years in a row. When the bus stops to fill up on gas, hawkers throw their goods into the windows. If you are looking for things interesting and unique, this is the place. As a man who never turns down the opportunity to try something new, I have a stomach iron enough to eat cat, dog, bat, balut (16 day incubated duck eggs) etc. However, Catbalogan is able to offer up things that even I won’t try. They come in all sorts of bottles and look somewhat like soup. The smell is of rotten eggs. The congestion of sidecars and pedicabs and the opportunity to be ripped off at every corner makes this city one that has successfully avoided any attempt to be brought into conformity of Western ideas of order and cleanliness.

If Catbalogan leaves you feeling for the need for a hot shower with good soap, its sister city to the north leaves you with a quite different and unsettling feeling of apprehension. It is almost as if the city of Calbayog is a silent and sinister entity that masks itself behind its wide streets and clean buildings. Calbayog is everything that Catbalogan is not. Orderly, clean, progressive. Oddly enough, I felt it cold and uninviting and would rather find myself in spending the night in a place like Catbalogan than Calbayog.

Two and a half-hours ride more and we have now reached the halfway point to our final destination (are you still waiting in eager anticipation to discover where this undiscovered gem lies?) The transfer port city of Allen is worth a stop if for no other reason than to visit the infamous Santo Bruno.

The story of Santo Bruno is somewhat of a concocted one that has passed through many mouths and ears before it ever reached me. Around 1981, a local fisherman accused the priest of having molested his little girl. The priest of course denied the accusation and warned the fisherman that if he continued to spread the libelous words that he would be condemning his soul to eternal hell. In the far reaches and hill villages of the Philippines, Catholicism takes on many forms as it is blended with the indigenous superstitions. Occasionally the blend resembles voodoo and witchcraft more than it does Catholicism and in the village of Santo Bruno this is apparently what happened. The priest feared for his life so much that he sold a portion of his soul to the devil in exchange for the assurance that if Bruno was ever to try to exact vengeance the priest would be protected and a curse would be past upon Bruno.

For a time Bruno in his simpleness bided his tongue. Bruno doubted his own judgment and accepted the possibility that maybe he had wrongfully accused the priest. But when another neighboring girl issued the same accusation, Bruno’s suspicions were reawakened and in his wrath swore to kill the priest. That night he hid himself in the church and waited for the priest’s return. As the priest passed by the pew where Bruno was hiding Bruno drew a knife and attacked the priest with the fury of an indignant father. But the pact the priest made with the devil was too strong and after a short fight Bruno was killed by a stab wound to the heart from the very knife he had used to try and kill the priest.

Bruno was quickly buried and because of his crime he wasn’t allowed to be buried in the church cemetery. Instead he was condemned to be buried in the cemetery by the ocean with the rest of life’s unfortunate criminals. For a time the story of Bruno was almost forgotten. Bruno’s widow and now fatherless child visited his tomb every day and in so doing became social outcasts of the village.

One morning, when the sun was supposed to come up, the sky remained dark under the heavy cover of a tropical storm. The typhoon ravaged the town and destroyed the cemetery where Bruno was buried. The monster-sized waves washed the graves out to sea. For weeks afterwards Bruno’s widow searched the beach for the remains of her beloved husband. After almost three years of searching, a badly decayed coffin washed ashore containing the remains of Bruno. As the grieving widow raised the lid she discovered that the remains of her husband were miraculously perserved. He even seemed to have gained weight and looked healthier than he had when he was alive. His hair was longer and fuller, and his nails had grown inches. The widow proclaimed that her husband’s soul was still alive in the body but trapped inside due to the priest’s curse. The villagers agreed and helped her carry the body back to the church believing that the condition of the body was proof enough that the priest was guilty. When the priest saw the body of Bruno he was so terrified that he immediately ran to the cliffs above the ocean and threw his body into the sea and was crushed by the waves pounding on the rocks below.

The remains of Bruno were then placed inside the living room of his widow’s hut and the villagers placed on him the priestly robes of a Saint. The new priest declared Bruno a saint and the protector of the village. And there the man still lies for all to see in the living room of his house to this day. The villagers believe that potions concocted from pieces of his fingernails or hair will bring magical healing properties and for a small fee one can purchase these from Santo Bruno’s widow.

I don’t know how much of this story is true, but I have seen the remains of Santo Bruno and true to tale he still lies preserved in the hot and humid tropical environment to this day in Allen Samar.

But on with our journey. From Allen we must catch another bus that travels along the highway until it finally ends, giving way to jungle and rice paddies. Originally the road was supposed to go around the entire length of the island but greedy and corrupt officials pocketed the money, leaving the road about 120 km shy of being completed. And here lies the first of our two destinations. Where the road ends at the pier are boats that will take you across to the island city of Laoang. A short ride in a pump boat takes you to this city that seems more European in nature than Filipino. I have no idea how old this city is but its short steep hills remind me of a mini San Francisco, The buildings are all made of stone. Beyond the city lie some of the most beautiful and unused beaches in all of Southeast Asia.

As beautiful as Laoang is, it is still only a pit stop to the village of Gamay. Gamay is only accessible by boat or foot. It is situated exactly in the middle of the two ends of the highway that could connect it to the rest of the world. However, due to corruption that highway is still a long ways from being finished. Currently the only way to get there is from Laoang where another pumpboat takes you through channels and out onto the open Pacific, rounding the Eastern horn of Samar before bringing you back down to the cove where Gamay lies. Gamay is the local word for small and Gamay lives up to the reputation. No cars are found here in this National Geographic postcard of a town. There are only four cement buildings, The church, the school, the Bayantel and the house of the mother of the congressman of Northern Samar. The first three buildings are nothing special but the last one is worthy of additional words.

The Congressman of Northern Samar is probably one of the most corrupt officials to grace the halls of Manilan political institutions since Imelda Marcos. From his humble beginnings in Gamay he has somehow managed to reach the top echelons of Filipino power. He now owns numerous homes, helicopters, and servants. In exchange for the money he has obtained in shady ways he bought his mother a house. A comfortable bungalow on a hill. If you ever visit this tropical paradise of fishermen and farmers, be prepared to be rubbernecked by the locals like you never have before. Naked children will run out of houses and shout “Amerikano” and then run back inside laughing. If you are Canadian or European, don’t be offended. To the Provincial Filipino, all whites are Americans. It’s nothing personal.

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