Tripping around Calbiga: Best of Samar Leyte

TRAVELIFE Magazine Contributing Editor Gabby Malvar recommends some awe-inspiring trips around southern Philippines.

Viewed against a humiliating retreat from the Japanese Imperial Army, General Douglas MacArthur's "I shall return" declaration was more a hopeful pledge than a guarantee, a grand promise if there ever was one. But taken in the magnitude of the context it was made, he could be forgiven were it not carried out. But in Palo, Leyte, his promise was indeed fulfilled. On Red Beach, several kilometers south of Tacloban, he landed with the might of the American Liberation Forces.

The memorial celebrates his return in the very shallows his boots treaded on and his swagger was retrieved. The bronze replicas of the liberators are gigantic. Depicted 1.5 times ratio, it perhaps celebrates larger than life heroics, though statesman Carlos P. Romulo still appears vertically challenged despite the enhancement. Also interesting is that one of General MacArthur's staff looks like he was sculpted in the likeness of former president Ferdinand Marcos.

Staring out to sea, I visualized the coast lined with warships and tenders, guns pummelling the beach, covering amphibious carriers ferrying soldiers raring to reclaim what was lost. Situated nearby was the simple Rock Garden of Peace with accolades immortalized in stone markers. Dusk is the best time to visit, when the mood turns solemn. The statues are silhouetted against the Pacific's failing light and their shadows are sombrely reflected on a quietened pool. Liberty came not without cost; best we reminded ourselves constantly.

Traverse troubled waters via the San Juanico Bridge

When San Juanico Bridge was completed in 1973, critics of the Marcos administration considered it to be a wasteful white elephant, given the lavish disbursment for underutilized infrastructure. Finally attempting the two-kilometre crossing almost 40 years after it was inaugurated, I noticed that traffic was indeed composed of but a mere handful of vehicles.

It is an undeniable feat of engineering nonetheless, regardless of its merits or impractical costs. Connecting the sister provinces of Leyte and Samar, the bridge curled at several points over seawater and a functional arch-shaped truss design was incorporated in its longest section, providing overall an impression of a roller coaster.

The San Juanico strait is in a constant state of agitation, as currents massed and frothed up the water. Boats bob frequently between the concrete bases that supported the spans. Lush islets swarmed by wild birds, are surrounded by fishing pens. These are among the many picturesque views displayed during the drive along the viaduct.

If one is heading to Samar anyway (as I was), there is no need for a separate side trip. You will take the bridge. 

Marvel at the creativeness of Basey's banig weavers.

Top quality mats are displayed in several stores around Basey town. But to see them being made, you have to head to a cave in the lethargic barangay of Basiao, at the southern point of Samar, an hour and a half's drive from Tacloban. Although just off the main highway, I had difficulty finding the exact location. There were no signboards or to point the way. Fortunately, the locals were very helpful.

Under the cool shelter of a low-ceilinged rocky overhang, the womenfolk come together almost daily to weave mats from dried, dyed tikog grass. Tikog grass turns brittle and breaks easily in warm temperatures. For weaving, cooler conditions are therefore required. The shade under the cave furnishes the perfect setting.

Weaving entails patience and attention to detail. The weavers deftly intertwine every strand of grass, following established patterns to craft intricate designs. As the work is repetitive and tiresome, the weavers in all likelihood gather and interact to break the monotony. Indeed, I observe them in conversation as they go about their work, their fingers moving almost instinctively, not missing anything. I found them accommodating, good-naturedly entertaining all my questions.

Banig may not have the same prestigious ring as T'nalakcloth or Pina. But make no mistake; neither the craftsmanship nor the quality is second rate.

Feel the emotional uncertainty of a country at war in Balangiga

Further east of Basey and another hour's drive is Balangiga, a small, nondescript town with fishing as the primary livelihood. When I arrived, it appeared as a place where nothing seemed to happen. Its history however, is anything but uneventful.

Balangiga is the scene of one of the Philippine-American war's bloodiest encounters. The American fort in the town was attacked by machete-wielding Filipinos, killing most of the soldiers of Company C of the 9th Infantry.

Dressed in women's clothes, guerrillas infiltrated the garrison early in the morning and hacked the soldiers with machetes (bolos) as they were having breakfast. Over 50 American servicemen were killed. In retaliation, Gen. Jake Smith ordered his troops to "transform Samar into a howling wilderness." Said he, "I want no prisoners...the more you kill and burn, the more you please me."

The province was transformed into a living hell: villages were razed to ground and people were indiscriminately killed. Yet apart from a court martial and dismissal from the service, Smith received no other punishment; a slap on the wrist from President Teddy Roosevelt.  I was unsure whether the term Balangiga massacre pertained to the ingenious, vicious garrison assault, the resulting carnage let loose on the population, or the butchering of justice with the mere brushing-off of atrocities directed on innocent civilians.

In the centre of the town plaza, an interesting memorial re-enacts the siege of the barracks; this scene alone justifies the side trip. The expressions of America troops surprised by a ferocious force stay frozen in perpetuity. Unlike the Leyte memorial where the participants are portrayed dignified, those immortalized in Balangiga are rendered unflatteringly. Palo, Leyte and Balangiga, Samar, on the opposite shores of San Pedro bay, showcase both states of the love-hate relationship between Filipinos and Americans.

I wanted to hear the tolling of the church bells - legend hold that they signalled the attack - but they were appropriated as war booty and now reside in a military base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I hoped we would get them back someday.

Immerse yourself in Lulugayan Falls' easy waters

Water runs from Lake Kalidongan all the way to the Calbiga River, a length of approximately 14-kilometres. It follows the land's ever-changing contour, occasionally creating rapids when encountering rocky beds; and cascading waterfalls as heights are negotiated.

Of all its manifestations, Luluguyan falls is the most stirring. It stretches 50 meters across yet hurtles down a relatively short drop, either as strong gushes or trickles through slots of varying sizes, into a natural sink overflowing with bluish-green water.  It has neither the width of Niagara nor the power of Victoria but it captures the imagination with its quaintness, evoking similar emotions when one wanders leisurely around a bonsai garden. 

Beautiful Calbiga is best accessed from Tacloban, capital of the southern Philippine province of Leyte. A variety of memorials, historical places, natural attractions, and man-made marvels are reasonable drives away from both Calbiga and Tacloban.

Barangay Literon, 15 kilometres off a junction at Calbiga is the staging point of an effortless 10-minute walk to the waterfalls. Calbiga is a two-hour drive from Tacloban along the western coast of Samar.

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