Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Butuan City: Flying High Direct to the Balanghai

I have long wanted to be back in this city for I vaguely remember anything about it. I was first and last there when I was just 11 years old some eons ago. That was when my father agreed to take me along on one of his business trips. Thus, when I chanced upon a weekend with nowhere to go and nothing to do, I said to myself “Butuan, here I come”!

Booked a flight, scanned the web and asked around on what to see and where to stay… in no time I was able to produce a very ambitious itinerary that included the environs of the city! Of course I knew I could not have done them all, but as I always do, better pepper my itineraries with more options than find out one day in a city with nothing else to do and nothing else to see. I was not as excited on this one, I must admit. What with all the news of heavy rains and floods. Plus the knowledge that there was neither a festival nor any kind of event to watch! Still I went for it and I now say, I cannot but thank me hehe! I loved the discoveries!

Going there
Of course it was via Cebu Pacific’s “zero fares”! Lately I have come to realize they sometimes control my life – that is when I have nothing in mind to go to and all of a sudden they publish those promotional fares? Without shame I say “I grab them and grab them voraciously” hehe! At times I am even tempted to go see Lance Gokongwei and beg him to stop those zero fares because my co-workers and family are already complaining of my incessant “out-of-towns”! But it’s only a joke! The truth is I thank them for making me fulfill the dream of being able to see many a nook in this beautiful archipelago of thousands of islands!

At check-in, I did not ask for a seat, I just let the agent do what she wanted to do. I was surprised to see she gave me 12D – it is by the exit with extra space for my legs. It is non-reclining though, but I can’t remember if there was ever a time I reclined my seat on a domestic flight! So, good seat! Delayed take-off because of traffic at the tarmac and the crew apologized for it! Whoa! Probably because those were other Cebu Pacific flights that caused the traffic?! Hehehe!

Arrival procedures
Oh the airport is still the same as it was years ago. No need to imagine, if you have been to a domestic airport in the Philippines, that’s almost exactly how Butuan’s airport still look like – a long flat building where you arrive at one end cuz the other end is departure, right?! That’s it. Then the porters approach you so you can give them your baggage tags and they’ll retrieve those as you hang around. But if you have none, you just go straight out.

Welcome to Caraga!
Here is a WOW! I approached the tourism desk just to check out really what might be there. I was surprised to see it manned by a tourism bureau staff with his ID in full view and he was extremely helpful! So I asked him some questions. As we spoke, here was another WOW as he said to a couple of Europeans “just hang on a second sir, I will attend to you, but do please listen to our conversation as you might have the same questions”! Wohoo! And that was in English! This dude is obviously gay, probably the reason why his desk is festooned with all the pamphlets and brochures and everything about Butuan, the whole region and various tourism service providers that a visitor might need. You know the orderliness and meticulous eye of artistic gay folks?! Well, let’s tell the tourism bureau to employ the likes of this guy hehe! He is good, a pride for Butuan! I am sorry I got so engrossed in his stories and very useful pointers that I forgot to take a pic of him and/or his tourism desk, aaargh!

Ignoring the usual hassle!
Butuan City has no true cabs as of yet but men would be waiting just outside the arrival area and call out or even press on you to take a taxi. Just like in other cities/towns where there are no real taxi services yet – what they mean is for you to take a ride on their own private cars for a fee. When I asked, the quick reply was P300 with only me in the van. I said no and moved on to find the jeeps bound for the city. As I was walking, the man said “okay two hundred” I did not turn but went on walking as other men accosted me to take their tricycles. There it was, the jeepneys (actually multicabs) line in wait just at the exit of the airport’s parking lot – and it’s just about 30 or 40 meters of walk circling the parking lot. I hopped on the next available jeep as it waited for more passengers. Hey, I saw some passengers hire one of the jeeps for just them as there were about 5 of them plus three or four who met them at the airport. That was practical and good for them, I thought.

My limo ride and more
Okay now, as the multicab waited for more passengers, I told the driver to drop me off at the Barangay Libertad Crossing going to the Balanghai Shrine! Yey! How did I know that? From the dear vibrant tourism officer over at arrival area! I gave P20 to the driver. As he handed me a P5 coin he explained saying “sir flat rate kami P15 to the city at P20 sa terminal” (we charge a P15 flat rate to the city and anywhere along the way while to the bus terminal its P20). I just nodded, and I think I was not smiling when I received the P5 coin. Why? Because the driver seemed guilty and further advised me that if I wanted, I could walk a few meters more down to the side of the main highway, since the jeeps passing there going to the city charge only P12. So this time I smiled (almost a chuckle, I think) and said “ok lang”. Come to think of it, I was even tempted to return that P5 coin but I might have looked like too pompous hehe!

I think Butuan is a city of friendly people. Or was I just too lucky that day?! As soon as the multicab started to roll (I was seated beside the driver up front) Mr. Driver also started pointing to me some of the interesting places that we passed by (though I can’t remember them now except the military camp). Hey, I did not ask him for any of those info, he just happily merrily went on and I listened! And after a big bridge, when we reached the “crossing” at Barangay Libertad, he even waved his hand at oncoming vehicles so I could cross the road and told me to ride one of the tricycles lined there. His last word, “sir, pagbalik paduong city, sakay ka sa R4” (sir, coming back to the city, ride R4). Hmm I did not quite understand that but did not also take it seriously as I was excited to see the Balanghai Shrine.

Getting to the Balanghai Shrine
Soon as I crossed the road, I went for the front-most trike-in-waiting but he pointed me to the next. Hopped in and told the driver I was going to the Balanghai Shrine. He said okay but asked me if we should already go on a special trip or wait for other passengers. I asked how much and he said P20 if I was alone for a special trip but only P8 if we waited for other passengers. And so I said “let’s go”!

Just a tip for those of you who might be going there… the Balanghai Shrine is not near, so don’t be worried if you think you’re taking too long. It is actually about 1.2 kilometers from that corner. How did I know that?! BTW, if you are coming from the airport, there are no visible signage that will indicate the way to the Balanghai Shrine, so remember to tell the driver about that corner. But when you cross the road, look up and to your left before riding the tricycle. There is a clear directional sign. So I took a photo of that one, thus, I know that it is more than a kilometer away! You can only see that sign if you’re coming from the city but not from the airport!

Okay back to my trip. The tricycle driver was engaging enough too! Sensing that I could speak his dialect, he was quite ready and knowledgeable to share with me some snippets about the site/shrine. The part that I liked most was: the remains of that Balanghai were actually not excavated from where the building stands but some meters away in that area. And that, the boat was not found in a coastal rim but a bit upriver where the land was wet with marshes and bakawan (mangooves) but now developed as modern-day aqua farms. Whoa! And he said he has not finished high school! I asked him his name and he said he was Rambo Cuenca! We laughed at his name and we both agreed his father must be a movie fanatic!

At THE Balanghai Shrine
On arrival at the shrine, I paid Rambo the agreed P20 but told him that if he wanted to wait for me, I won’t take that long in the shrine (for I knew there was nothing much to see or hear). He happily agreed (so he could get another P20 on my return?) and even said he will accompany me and tell me of the many things inside the shrine since there will be nobody in there except a guard as it was Saturday. Thus, I said “that should be great” and we both went in via the grassy frontage. You guessed it! Upon entering the little building of a shrine (no entrance fee), the lady guard stood up from what seemed to be a fine slumber and said (in English) something like this “ser, no one prom museum, but ok to see around, please write your name in da geesebuk, no pictures”! I smilingly said “ok ra 'dai, gi-ingnan na ‘ko sa city tourism nga ikaw ra diri ‘ron kay nanawag ko”! Her reply: “aw ok ser, Filipino di-ay ka?” (take note of the F hehe). And I jokingly reverted: “dili oi, bisaya ako”. As we all laughed, Rambo told her he will be my guide. And so I started to look at things with Rambo annotating my tour!

Now, what really is this place? Let me not tell you anymore since its all over the world wide web. I would like to tell more about my experience/s. First off, the thing that seems to be the base (like a backbone) of the boat IS the “shrine”. It is encased in a big glass cage with vents or holes at the upper portion to probably let air either in or out. My take was… why so? Will that glass enclosure (with sand artistically/realistically spread out at the bottom) in any way help to preserve that relic? Rambo said, so that people don’t go touching it anymore.

Also enshrined in glass are wooden coffins that look too heavy. There are a lot of stories about those coffins says Rambo, like they are not at all related to the boats, that they come from a different age but excavated nearby, and so on.

Then at the back of the building, there are a lot of pieces and fragments of the boat that are just laid on a big make-shift plywood shelf – in open air. I went near them and ah.., there I realized how great our ancestors were at boat building. Imagine this… a Balanghai hull is not made of just one solid wood like you would imagine canoes or little bancas in some remote provinces where they just carve the middle part of a trunk. Balanghais are enormously bigger, so naturally even with lush forests; our forebears wouldn’t have been able to find big enough and long enough solid trunks for their purpose. Thus, a Balanghai hull is made of strips of wood. Easy, right? NO! In their time, there was no plywood or any similar product. So I could just imagine at how hard it must have been producing just one long strip of wood. There were also no carpentry tools like we have today, so they must have relied heavily on bolos to cut wood. There were no nails, tacks, staplers nor bolts then. Thus, the many holes that you see on those pieces of the olden Balanghai remnants.

Imagine this, you have two pieces of wood boards (tabla) about 20 feet long (or more) that you need to stick together (side-by-side) so they can be part of the boat’s side. So, make holes on the narrow sides (with what tool, I don’t know), then you make wooden pegs, insert them on the holes so that the two boards will stick together. Repeat all the steps until you are able to create the boat. Ah, remember too that the boat must be in the beautiful form that tapers off at one end and that it should be able to hold the Datu and his warriors. Wow! There were also no sealants in those times, what could have they used to prevent water from seeping through? They probably used sap of trees like rubber. Oh hey, I now remember, I still see sap being collected in Samar nowadays. I think they call it “Salung”. That product is sometimes used as sealant or sometimes as candle.

I wonder if the modern Filipino can be challenged to get wood from the forests and attempt to make a Balanghai the way our forbears did it. Am sure 5 years down, it’ll still be not a boat! Anyway, now I feel deeper for our ancestors and why their rotting boat excavated from a marsh should be enshrined in glass. Mighty craftsmen!

Okay, end of show! I still had to be in the city to roam more, find my hotel and eat lunch. So I told Rambo I must go and he drove us in his trike going out to the main road. I told him though that my next target was the regional museum. And he was ever helpful to tell me to take only the jeeps marked “R-4” which meant “Route 4” because he said it will pass by the regional museum! Ah now I remember what the jeep driver meant with “R4”. Getting off at the corner, I gave Rambo P50. Breakdown: P20 going to the Balanghai, P20 coming back and P10 as tip for annotating my otherwise solitary tour. Not bad, right?!

Let’s go!


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