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A story on the joy of slow travel

The long way home

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Rodel H. Concha 

The old way of doing things has become the new must-try thing. Like “slow food” that comes from heritage recipes. Or a dress made-to-order, not ready-to-wear. Or furniture that’s custom-made for a space.

The currency to pay for that is time, and a few thousand pesos too.  The take-away is more than just ownership of the product, it’s the good feeling of an experience.

If you are into trying this kind of experience, it’s time to try slow travel.  Take the longer way to a destination – to your hometown or to a holiday.  Drive, roll on to a ferry, drive some more, eat a packed home-cooked adobo and rice, talk to locals, nap under a tree by the highway.

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Rodel H. Concha waits to be allowed to go down to our vehicle parked at the cargo area while the ferry docks at the Caticlan port at 3 a.m 

The whole travel experience is called “RORO” – a term which means you have chosen the less convenient way to reach a destination.  At the ports, you mention that to the marshals who guide you to the lines and to the unbelievably narrow parking spaces allotted for each vehicle in the ferry.  That tells him you will be driving on after you disembark.

If you arrive at the port late, or if the marshal fancies you, he’ll direct you to board last, so that you will drive out first, and drive on an open highway, without the hustle of trying to overtake vans and ten-wheelers. And yes, motorcycles too, which have joined the RORO travelers in groups.

The road you will be following is known as the Strong Republic Nautical Highway (SRNH), a term I don’t hear much anymore.  This 919-kilometer highway which connects our islands was opened to the public in April 2003, a project of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. There are now the Western Nautical Highway (which we took), Eastern Nautical Highway, and the Central Nautical Highway.

I love to travel the RORO way, so without hesitation, I agreed to join my brother Rodel Henares Concha to drive to Bacolod City, despite my busy schedule. If there’s such a category as “RORO fan traveler,” I’d be listed among the top ten.  Even before the opening of the SRNH, we – the staff of Cruising, Manila Bulletin’s motor travel monthly magazine, would have regular “cross country drives” to have material for feature stories. (The Cruising Road Team was composed of Aris Ilagan, Anjo Perez, Johannes Chua, Chris Datol, Maryann Conde and me.)

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Smooth sailing from Batangas port to Calapan port. 

The opening of the SRNH established the schedules of the buses connecting to the RORO ferries, making them somewhat more regular than it used to be.  When we started Cruising, missing a ferry connection meant being stranded in an island for days.

It became irregular again during the last year of the pandemic, when restrictions were eased allowing sea travel, but that was understandable, so we patiently waited for the “maybe 2 a.m., maybe 6 a.m.” trips.

Last week, we traveled seamlessly from Quezon City to Bacolod City in 25 hours.

The Skyway was a big factor in cutting travel time to Batangas Port.  Although we had to crawl through the traffic at Quezon Blvd, it was clear and easy all the way to the SLEX exit and into the STAR highway.  We left my house in Quezon City at 12:15 p.m. and entered the port at 2:45 p.m. We caught the 3 p.m. FastCat to Calapan, Mindoro and waited patiently for it to sail off at 4:10 p.m. for unknown reasons.

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Habit took me to the economy class on the top deck where the air and the sunset were pleasant company to an urban resident.

That’s where the experience started.  A group talked loudly in my native dialect (Ilonggo) about friends, parties and clothes, even briefly about a fashion show. A man behind me nodded off to sleep, his head resting on the steel wall.  Like everyone else, he managed to sleep despite the unfriendly steel benches divided by steel bars to fit a regular frame.

Many passengers mingled and talked to strangers seated beside them.  “Are you married?” I overhear a man ask the woman-vendor standing behind a counter selling coffee and snacks.  “Don’t run!” – a mother warned a toddler trying to walk away.

The dialects segregated the groups.  Tagalog spoken by the Luzon residents, Ilonggo and Kinaray-a by those on their way to the Visayas.  It’s where north meets south.

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At the beginning of the journey,  ferry staff secure the vehicle wheels. 

The afternoon rolled to sunset, then the night.  A slight drizzle cooled us but not enough for rain jackets. The lights of Calapan City came nearer so we went down to board our vehicles.  We would be driving out first.

Ahead of us stretched 120 kilometers of the SRNH leading to Roxas Port (officially known as the Port of Dangay in Roxas, Oriental Mindoro). Today, it is easy to navigate the route with gadgets in the cars and in our mobile phones. As usual, we did not stop for dinner at the many fastfood stores in Calapan because that would take away at least an hour from our travel time.  An hour deep in the SRNH, we found a small fuel station where we parked and feasted on home-packed dinner of tapa, eggs and rice.

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Inside RORO 

The navigation gadgets worked well, and the highway markings were all there, so it was an easy drive through many zig-zags with very sharp turns. It was also a good time for conversation, for getting to know the life of my “baby” brother who had slipped behind the wheel of the Fortuner only hours after arriving from a family vacation in Vietnam. Much throughout the trip, I enjoyed his stories on Hanoi and Halong Bay. It was a travel within a travel session.

Since we knew the schedules of the available ferries at the Roxas port, we proceeded to the Starlite Ferry office to purchase our tickets for the 11 p.m. RORO to Caticlan, Aklan. Another RORO operator advertised his ferry as leaving at 10:30 but we declined.  Best to keep with our plan, which turned out for the better as Starlite left before 11 p.m. when its cargo space was fully loaded, while the 10:30 ferry started loading only at that time.

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Private vehicles park, rear first, at designated spaces in the cargo area. 

Unlike the seamless drive-in process at the Batangas Port, there’s what I call a ritual at the Roxas Port. After marshals inspected our tickets at the entrance, I had to go down and walk a narrow path bounded by houses to the office of the Philippine Coast Guard for a clearance.  Then go to a counter to pay an amount (I don’t remember how much) for arrastre. The man behind the counter said I should hurry as the ferry was just waiting for us.  It was 10:20 p.m.

The ferry was then almost fully occupied with trucks and vans neatly parked side by side, except for a large space in the middle which the marshal said was for a ten-wheeler that will arrive soon.  When it did, the driver  expertly parked it, rear first, into the narrow allotted spot, its rear mechanism giving off a loud “Atras! Atras! Ay, buhay pa ko! Hahaha!” (Backward, backward, ay, I’m still alive!) – to the delight of all who were waiting to finish the boarding requirements.

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Mobile phone map guides us through the Strong Republic Nautical Highway. 

A uniformed staff (this was a first for me), met us at the side of the cargo hull where we left the Fortuner.  He inspected our tickets and escorted us to the business class lounge, a luxury I allowed in this trip so we could sleep for the long drive across Panay island.  This would be a four-hour ferry ride.

We were about the third to drive out of the vessel, after a Hilux and Montero.  It was 3:15 a.m. and we made our way out of Caticlan with darkness veiling the usual view of the blue sea and Boracay Island.  The next hours till sunrise was a drive that trusted Rodel’s skills and the navigation gadget.  The woman’s voice of “warning, sharp curve ahead, to the right” was our guardian angel through the many road works that must cause traffic during the day – adding to the travel time of tourists on their way to Boracay.

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We reached Dumangas Port in Iloilo at nearly 10 a.m. and waited in line for the next RORO.  The man with the clipboard (the most powerful man at any port) allowed us to board the second one that came.

We reached Bacolod City at a little past 1 p.m., paid a fee to pass the port, then crawled through traffic to reach Rodel’s house where we had a late lunch and engaged in slow conversation.

The slow and long way is an experience only for those who have time. — Pinky Concha-Colmenares

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Credit belongs to: www.mb.com.ph

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