Jan 19, 2015

Our Journey to see Pope Francis

A week before Pope's arrival in Manila, our original plan was to take a short flight to Cebu. Travel to Camotes Island on the same day and fly out to Manila the following day to see Pope Francis. That was the plan but it took a major turn while in Camotes Island.

It was the 15th of January 2015, we took a short morning flight to Cebu. To get to Camotes Island, we headed to North bus terminal located in Subangdaku. From there, we took a Bantayan bound bus and told the Conductor ( Driver's assistant) that we will be alighting in Danao Port which is the main jumping point to Camotes Island. It was supposed to be an hour ride but it took 2 hours to reach Danao Port because of traffic. We just missed the 2:00 pm ferry to Camotes Island and because of that, we have to take the last one which is scheduled around 5:30 pm. We were busy taking pictures and checking mails, unaware of a possible storm brewing near Leyte and Visayas region.


At exactly 5:30 pm, The ferry sounded its giant horn twice to signal departure. They closed the bow gate and the deck vibrated more heavily as the propellers reversed. Boat's travel time will take about 2-3 hours depending on the sea's temperament. I have sea sickness so we opted to spend some extra cash on tourist class tickets for comfortable seating and air-conditioned. The sleep caught up with me easily because I took something for motion sickness. I always took motion sickness tablets during boat and bus trips to avoid Nausea and stomach cramps. I'm a certified Bonamine addict!

I was in my deep sleep when I was awakened by a gentle rub on my shoulder. It was my hubby who was trying to wake me up and told me that " The sea condition is not that good" It was like riding a giant teeter-totter in the middle of the sea and I could hear the howling sound of the wind through a narrow opening near the sliding door. I was terrified!

Just before reaching Camotes, the captain in his masculine voice announce through the speaker mic that he had to ditch the original docking port to a new one 6 kilometers away from Poro for safety reasons. We arrived past 9:00 pm, and made our way to Santiago Bay resort which is quite far from the port.


The following morning, we were scheduled to tour around Camotes before going back to mainland Cebu in the afternoon. That was the plan, we were supposed to fly out from Cebu to Manila and catch a glimpse of Pope Francis there. After a quick 2 hour tour around Camotes, we pack our things and head to the hotels reception to settle our bills. We were informed that Joomlia shipping vessel had just cancelled their Cebu-Camotes route because of incoming storm "Amang". We were devastated when we heard it. Aside from getting stranded here for days, Our chances of seeing the Pope is slim or we will not be able to see him at all.


We sat on a patio with sad faces near the reception area and check Pope's schedule. My hubby was scanning Pope's itinerant and Viola! He will be in Tacloban the following morning. We contacted our Habal-Habal driver and asked him if there's any way we could reach Ormoc by boat. According to him, there is a ferry boat that leaves 12:30 PM bound for Ormoc. Without any doubts we took the chance on going to the port. We arrived around 12:00 noon but there was no boat there. We almost gave up and decided to go back to Santiago Bay Resort. As we were about to board the motorcycle, a man approaches me and offered Php 600 per person to Ormoc. I politely ask him, what kind of boat do you have? He answered " Yang maliit na bangka ma'am na may blue tarp na bubong" ( That small boat with blue tarp roof). We inspect the boat closer and my hubby thinks that it can withstand. The weather looks promising and the outrigger is fitted with double floats. We finally decided to board it and bid farewell to our habal habal driver.

Ormoc is just an hour away from Camotes Island


The boatman filled the tanks with petrol and with us are two local passengers who are also bound for Ormoc. They provided a huge tarpaulin to cover our bags from the sun and to avoid from getting wet during the journey. The wind is picking up, the boatman and his two assistants waste no time in preparing the boat. The first 15 min of the journey was calm, it was like driving a car in nice paved road. Few minutes later it was like driving in a road full of potholes. We encountered 4-5 foot swells and the boatman will sometimes turn the engine off to avoid damaging the katig (a float attach to the outriggers ) . It was terrifying, I have bad memories on boat rides reminiscing our ordeal in Bantayan. I just hang on and pray for safe passage.

Updated 2015:

A boat bound for Camotes sinks off Ormoc. They were 8 dead and many survivors. Another boat capsizes from Danao city to Camotes you can read the news here. We survived but exhausted! The boat dock in a mangrove village in Merida 20 kilometers from Ormoc City. It can't cruise close to shore during low tide so we have take our shoes off and walk our way to the shore. The sandy and murky bottom of the mangrove have pointed roots erected so we have to be extra careful not to get cut or risk having an infection.


Quite starving and exhausted from the trip, we looked for food or some thing to chew on at nearby stores along the road but unfortunately there was none. Moments later a bread peddler on wheels pass right in front of us. Truly God sent, we almost empty the tray. We hail a jeepney to Merida proper and boarded another jeepney bound for Ormoc City.

A unique "Trisikad" (Cycle Rickshaw) in Merida, Leyte


We asked the jeepney driver to dropped us off at Ormoc's bus terminal. The last bus to Tacloban was about to leave when we board it. It was full of passengers, it's like a bag full of chips ready to pop out. Good thing the drivers assistant let me squeeze my way in because there are no more seats available. There were around 30 passengers standing in the aisle of the bus including me and my hubby.

Before reaching Palo, we witness the severity of the storms impact that happen last 2013. Due to the ferocious winds, leaves of the trees were stripped and some were uprooted. There are still signs of houses razed to the ground due to the strong wind and the "storm surge". I'm in a continual loss for words, it was truly heartbreaking. Some school buildings were reconstructed by Tzu Chi foundation, one of Taiwan's foremost humanitarian NGO.

News Update: Biggest housing project for Yolanda survivors inaugurated by Tzu Chi Foundation.


We reached Palo around 6:00 PM, one of Leyte's municipality severely hit by the storm. Wooden barriers are being installed along Pope's route to prevent people and devotees from blocking the motorcade. We passed by Palo Cathedral, a church built in 1596 by Jesuits were a group of devotees and locals hold a vigil for Pope's arrival the following day. It became a cathedral on March 25, 1938 and was severely damage by Typhoon Yolanda last 2013.

An hour later, we arrived in Tacloban. There was a little bit of traffic because they were starting to implement road closures along the Pope's route. From a distance, we saw Robinsons Mall in Tabuan. We alight from the bus then walk for some 20 meters towards the mall. We had our dinner at KFC and ordered a meal for 4. That's how hungry we are :-).

Pope Francis standee at Robinsons, Tacloban


We came from a long trip, tired and dreaming of a good and hot shower. Upon checking some hotels online, all the hotels in Tacloban are fully booked. My hubby even tried to look for hotels, cheap motels, inns and transient spaces around the city by foot but still no luck. Well I guess we have to beat the night somewhere else.


We exited the mall and found ourselves a good spot to spend the night. The Parking Area! We need to find a place to lie down because our body was about to shutdown and in dire need of sleep. Luckily, we found ourselves some nice carton boxes to use as a mattress. Our heartfelt thanks to Robinsons Tacloban for letting us stay near the main entrance of the mall. To the security guards, for giving us protection throughout the morning by cordoning the area with steel barriers. We sometimes ignore homeless people along the way, to be able to feel the homeless , you have to experience it and we have. It ain't easy to sleep in a piece of cartoon box in a cold breezy night.


Just before hitting my makeshift bed, My hubby was checking his weather feed and Typhoon Amang had just shifted its direction towards Eastern Samar. There is a 50/50 possibility that Pope Francis or CAAP will cancel the trip according to the news. Quite frustrated but we have to remain positive and optimistic.


It was 4:00 am and a strong light source tore me out from deep sleep. I saw a news reporter with his video guy filming and taking photos at a distance. Our makeshift bed is positioned just few meters from the lady with a black skirt.

Photo by: Raffy Tima's Twitter Account


As expected, the weather begins to behave badly because of the incoming storm. We have to vacate Robinsons premises as advice by the Police and took shelter in a nearby office building which is infront of Robinsons. With nothing to cover ourselves from the rain, we brought with us the flatten carton boxes we used as a mattress to cover us from the wind and rain. If someone will sell an umbrella for Php 1,000 we will definitely buy it. That's how hard our situation was during that time.


Our bags had no rain cover so we decided to talk to the security guard at a small office building to leave our bags. At first he was unsure but after he saw our wet camera bags he let us in. I thank him for his generosity, we didn't get his name though but I know he will be blessed in many ways for helping other people.

Then we met this two great people. They are Yolanda Survivors, Ariel and Genevieve. They share with us their ordeal during the typhoon but I can't share their story here because they want to keep it private. We exchanged mobile numbers and they even offered us a room at their house if we decided to stay in Tacloban for a day or two.


It has been raining for hours and I could see office signs sway back and forth due to the strong winds. At exactly 8:45 am, we just heard from the locals nearby that the Pope had just arrived at the airport. We were overjoyed, excited and unexplained feeling of happiness. Pope Francis will still hold a holy mass at an enclosed area where a crowd of hundreds gather to welcome him. It was estimated a thousands more were waiting for him on the streets. A moment of anticipation is built as hours passed by.

At one speech Pope Francis said...
"I don't know what to say to you, but the Lord does know what to say to you. Some of you lost part of your families. All I can do is keep silent. And I walk with you all with my silent heart."
Many wept by what Pope Francis said. After the mass, he will then proceed to Palo to have lunch with the survivors of natural calamities and bless the Pope Francis Center for the poor.


Finally, we heard sirens from a distance.We saw Pope's mobile begin to appear from a distance. I was setting up my camera to take footage of him, but then decided to see him in my own eyes. I could not contain the squeal from my lips when he came into view. I waved to him along with thousands of others. His face shows the kindness of God, his wave was like " Don't worry God is with you all the time"

After he pass, the feeling of joy and happiness from taclobanons, some cried and that did me in. Tears welled up in my eyes as well, It was a precious moment that me and husband will cherish forever.

                                                A single souvenir photo of Pope Francis


Weather is getting worse, we just heard a while ago that a young girl volunteer died in a scaffolding accident during the mass. A sad news but I know she's in a good place right now. We got our bags from where we left it then head to the terminal. Rain was pouring hard, good thing we found some good transparent ponchos left by the volunteers. Road closures are still in effect so we walked for 3 kilometers to get a pedicab (cycle rickshaw) to the DUPTOURS van terminal. I highly suggest DUPTOURS shuttle services. There van units are new, they also have a small lobby for waiting passengers and a small toilet where you could change your clothes and do your stuff. Fare cost around Php 120.00 per person for the three hour journey to Ormoc.


We arrived in Ormoc around 3:00 and head towards the Ocean Jet ticket office for Cebu. We were standing in line and they inform us that they had just cancelled all trips because of the gale as per advice by the coastguard. I guess we have to look for a place to spend the night near Ormoc's Port Terminal. We've seen few small hotels and inns in the area but we chose Asia Novotel. They have spacious clean room, comfortable bed and large tv for Php 1,200 per night. We later find out that the Pope's visit have to cut short after the pilots of Philippine Airlines flight 6011 advised the Papal entourage to leave Tacloban as early as 1:00 PM because of the storm near Samar.

The following day, the storm warning for Leyte and Cebu is lifted. Upon hearing the news, my hubby quickly went to the port terminal. I was packing my bags when he call through my phone. He said that they had lifted the storm signal but still no go for sea vessels because of gale.

On our third day, hubby woke up early and went to the port to check things out. He later sent me a message through my phone that I have to prepare my things because the coastguard had just lifted all warnings. He called me through my phone and said that Oceanjet and Supercat passengers who had already return tickets and have reservations are given priority so we opted for a shipping line plying Ormoc - Cebu route. Im not stating any shipping company names as of this point for confidentiality reasons.


As he was standing in the long line at the ticket booth , the security in-charge had announced that the ship is almost full and they can only accommodate 70 passengers more. He count the persons in line and thank god my hubby was the 72nd person. Upon reaching the booth, the ticket lady informed us that the air conditioned cabin with bed is full so as the non-air conditioned cabin. The only available is the economy sitting for Php 315.00 per person. We have no choice but to take it.

We boarded the ship around 7:00 pm. Economy sitting benches are littered in every corner of the ship so we have to find our seat assignment which is next to a thrash bin. How unlucky, our seat assignment was next to a thrash bin. We put our bags and put on some layered clothes on because it's gonna be cold when the ship starts to sail. Moments later, a ship crew dress in white uniform and black pants approach us and secretly offered a bed inside the air-conditioned room for additional Php 200.00 each. He will then return after random checking of passenger tickets.


We left the port around 8:30 pm bound for Cebu. He returned after checking the passenger tickets with his cohorts. They offered us a much bigger room - a first class cabin. We just have to add Php 700.00 for the two of us, that's an offer I can't reject, first class cabin cost around Php 3,200.

We arrived in Cebu at around 4:00 AM. That's Mactan bridge from our cabin window.


Our Leyte journey was some kind of a different experience. Yes, we met ordeals along the way but it was nothing compared to the ordeals of the Yolanda ( Typhoon Haiyan ) survivors. We coveted to see Pope Francis and we did, not in Rome or Manila but in a special place called Tacloban.

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