Catbalogan and Wacky’s Pension House
My day of riding from Calbayog to Catbalogan was only a short time ago, but so much has happened that I have to close my eyes and think carefully to bring it back. It was a beautiful ride through lovely countryside, not quite as nice as the stretch from Allen to Calbayog, but it was still quite nice. At the beginning, the road followed the coast, and it afforded me beautiful views of some distant islands with huge mountains. Then the road turned inland and went up and down a series of steep climbs on its way to Catbalogan. My informants had told me that the real climbs began after Catbalogan, and I decided to spend the night there and tackle the rest of the trip to Tacloban starting the next day.
Catbalogan seemed a much rougher and more rustic place than Calbayog. While I was in Calbayog, I found that place to be quite rough and primitive. But from the perspective of Catbalogan, Calbayog now seemed a paradise of luxury and comfort and easy living.
I had been given the name of a hotel in Catbalogan, but their cheapest room was 1,000 pesos. That is part of a pattern in the Philippines. It has turned out to be much more expensive than I expected, especially as far as accommodation is concerned. The very nice front desk clerk at this hotel gave me the name of some other hotels to check out – places that he said were the cheapest in town. I found they weren’t cheap at all. It seems that my expectations for living costs for this country were not accurate at all. I had hopes for a backpacker level of living, but that doesn’t seem to exist in the larger cities. I have had to adjust my budget upward accordingly. I had hopes of getting private basic rooms for 300 or 400 pesos, but that is very rare. I found such a room in Sorsogon but only after much searching and with luck. Everywhere else, even the most basic of rooms comes at a much higher price. I’ve started to think that I have to adjust my travel patterns so that I end each day in between cities and not actually in cities. The cities, as I have pointed out, have little to recommend them anyway.
I rode around Catbalogan for quite some time trying to get my bearings (a common struggle in the Philippines, too) and find a reasonable place to stay. Another problem for a cyclist is that the vast majority of hotels are located on the upper floors of buildings. There are no roomy courtyards to cycle into. As a rule, I have to leave my bicycle parked on the street and then climb up sets of narrow stairs just to get to the reception desk. Then, if I take a room, I have to carry all my luggage and then the bicycle up those same stairs. At least hotel owners so far have had no problem with me carrying my bicycle up the stairs and keeping it in my room. There is such a fantastically high level of concern for safety and security that they would be horrified if I suggested leaving my bicycle on the street.
I certainly have a different opinion about the perceived dangers in the Philippines. Even Jim, the gregarious American in Calbyog, had a lot to say on this subject. He and his wife had actually seen me cycle through their barangay and he was astonished that I would take the risk and brave the dangers. He said that even if the road to Calbayog was relatively safe, I should be extremely careful on the stretch to Tacloban. He felt it was very dangerous. He even said that if people waved at me and called me over, I should ignore them and cycle on. He was basically saying that I should keep my head down and cycle hard, ignore everyone and just get through it.
My perception of the country, the countryside, and this area is completely the opposite. I have felt no danger at all. The people have been nothing but friendly and polite and gentle and accommodating and hospitable. Lots of people wave me over and when I stop, I am treated with friendliness and nothing else. People shout out greetings and encouragement (while laughing hysterically, I admit). On this most “dangerous’ of stretches, young people shouted out things like “God bless your trip.” I’m told over and over how dangerous it is and how I should be careful, but I have no idea who I’m supposed to be wary of. Jim had even said that the stretch of road to Tacloban was much more remote than that from Allen to Calbayog. He said that there were not nearly as many barangays and that there would be long stretches of open land between them. His words and those of other people brought up images of cycling through thick jungle with armed men lying in wait to ambush me, rob me, and hold me for ransom. If there were such men lying in wait, I can’t imagine where they would be hiding. Far from being isolated and remote, this stretch of road was one solid line of pleasant barangays and farms and homes. There were people everywhere. Homes and buildings lined the road practically the entire way.
And Catbalogan, rough and ready as it was, did not feel dangerous or threatening in any way. At least, not beyond the usual dangers of being hit by a truck, jeepney or tricycle. That isn’t to say that my search for reasonable accommodation went well. The only place I found that listed a room for less than 500 pesos had this room located on the fourth floor while the single common bathroom was down on the first floor in the lobby.
I don’t know that I am being a cheapskate by hoping for cheaper accommodation. In fact, the prices I’ve been encountering don’t seem to fit into the local economy as far as I understand it. A thousand pesos is a huge amount of money to most of the people I encounter. Why then do hotel rooms routinely cost that much? The only thing I can think of is that the prices are skewed by the local market. The Filipinos I’ve seen are not traveling by themselves. They are traveling with large groups of family and friends. And it is a common sight to see more and more and more mattresses being carried into rooms and laid out on the floor for all the people being crammed into them. I have a feeling that the hotel industry reacted to this trend by raising the prices. If their customers were going to put 10 people or more into each room, then they are going to raise their prices to match. And the single traveler ends up payng far too much – in fact paying a premium for being the only person in a room that routinely accommodates five to ten. I could easily be wrong about that, but it’s a possible answer to this riddle.
Another problem is that – for understandable reasons – these towns do not see a steady flow of foreign backpackers. Therefore all the types of accommodation and services that appear to service this market segment have not appeared. To get backpacker type living and backpacker prices, I would have to go to the backpacker areas – places like Sagada. These standard towns in Samar are a very different consideration.
I was considering just leaving Catbalogan altogether and continuing up the road and camping out in the countryside. It probably would have been the wiser course of action. However, just then, I spotted a sign for “Wacky’s Pension House.” Anyplace with a name like that had to be a bit unusual and might come with more reasonable prices. To get to Wacky’s, I faced the usual set of extremely narrow steps. These steps were, in fact, made of wood with heavy wooden banisters and were clearly part of an old house. At the top of the stairs, I found a front desk and a strange little lobby. It was a small area with the desk on one side and an open cluttered area with three doors into bathrooms on one side and two doors into rooms on the other. It was all stitched together by random hunks of wood and metal. It was like four buildings had come together at that point and been attached loosely. There was an open sink at one end with two strange tree trunks on either side, and, as I discovered later that night, a colony of super-sized cockroaches crawling over everything. Rooms were surprisingly expensive in this dump. In any event, they only had one room available, and this was their cheapest room at 450 pesos and it was located on the floor below, meaning I would be facing a walk up the stairs to use the common bathrooms.
A young guy showed me this room. For 150 pesos or 200 pesos a night, I would have been quite content with it. It had a basic bed, a basic table, a plastic chair, a fan, and even air conditioning. There was no sense of home though. Its walls were bits of plywood and other materials sort of stitched together. It had a huge window facing a garbage-strewn balcony overlooking the noisy main street below. It was a dump, but it was the only game in town. Even then, I didn’t take it right away. As I said, I would have been perfectly happy staying in the room. Despite its rough qualities, it was far nicer than many, many rooms I’ve happily stayed in in my life. My problem was the price. It felt too expensive and I felt like a bit of a chump when I considered paying that much.
I told the guy I would think about it, and I walked back outside and stood beside my bicycle considering my options. While I stood there, a friendly though nearly incomprehensible man came up to me and started chatting. He knew I had just come out of Wacky’s Pension House, and he asked me what the problem was. I told him that they had rooms available but that they weren’t very nice and I was thinking about leaving Catbalogan and cycling off into the countryside. Then the man introduced himself. He was “Wacky.” He was the owner of the pension house. I chatted with him a bit more and he amused me so much that I decided to take the room. Now, at least, the room came with a story of sorts, and that made it worth more to me.
I followed Wacky back up the stairs, his giant stomach swaying from side to side ahead of me. He gave me a running commentary on the place, and he pointed out little businesses he had running in tiny offices scattered about the place. It was a classic example of a small businessman just taking advantage of every possible opportunity. In Canada, a business might require a photocopier, and they would rent one or purchase one. Wacky needed a photocopier for his businesses, but then he also charged other people to use the photocopier. So his office equipment essentially became another small business operating inside his other businesses. I’m sure all his businesses overlapped in similar ways.
I paid my room fee for the night and got my key and started the long process of carrying up my bags and bicycle. The one advantage to this room was that it was only up the first flight of stairs and it was large enough that my bicycle could fit in easily. Once I had moved in, I took my bicycle back down the stairs and rode around Catbalogan exploring. I had never taken my bicycle outside in my time in Calbayog, and I think that was a mistake. By remaining on foot, I had explored only a small part of that city and I had missed out on so much of it. It was just so much trouble to carry my bicycle in and out of Imelda’s Lodge. In Catbalogan, I got on my bicycle and rode around as much as I could. I followed the water’s edge down a narrow road for a very long time and found some quite interesting areas. I bought bananas, cooking fuel, and other items I needed along the way. I also rode all around the downtown core trying to uncover any little cafes or attractive places. In this, Catbalogan disappointed me. There was nothing but the usual fast food joints and typical Filipino shops. It had all the rough edges of Calbayog but none of the luxuries – at least none that I managed to stumble across.
Later that night, after storing my bicycle in my room and taking a shower up in the lobby, I went out on foot to explore Catbalogan by night. I did find an outdoor store, and I spent a few happy minutes there checking out their camping gear and other high-tech items. They even had EZ maps of Samar. I would have purchased one (I probably should have) except that I was going to be leaving Samar in a day or two. The map would not see that much use and it cost 160 pesos.
For dinner, I took a break from the Filipino eateries, and I took a stool at a little burger stand. These burger stands are quite popular in Samar. I saw seven or eight of them on just one street in Calbayog right behind my hotel. I had a burger there, too, against my better judgement. I say that because the burger stand was quite dirty and broken down. There was garbage on the ground all around it and I saw giant cockroaches rooting amongst the garbage and even on the bench beside mine. With all that, how hygienic could the food preparation be? But I had one of their burgers – a typically sweet Filipino creation – and my digestive processes survived. In Catbalogan, I ended up having four of these burgers. Three young women were sitting on the stools next to me in a row and sent text messages the entire time they sat there. I don’t think they looked up from their cell phones even once the entire time. I walked around Catbalogan some more after my burgers and absorbed the atmosphere. There was a small cement plaza right in front of the municipal building and groups of people were there skateboarding, dancing, exercising, and just hanging out. It reminded me of similar scenes in Taipei.
I passed a fairly comfortable night in my little hovel at Wacky’s Pension House. The air conditioner kept it cool and despite all the cracks and holes in the walls and windows, the bugs were kept to a minimum. I encountered the real bugs when I got up in the middle of the night to go upstairs to use the bathroom. The sink where you wash your hands sits right beside the two tree trunks sitting inside the building. These, and the floor around them and the sink, were covered in giant cockroaches. Some areas were so thick with them that they appeared to be painted with a new type of mobile black paint. Luckily, these monsters stayed in this area and d