Matnog – Trying to Uncover Matnog’s Charm
As much as I enjoyed the ride to Matnog, I have to say that it took some time and effort to uncover Matnog’s charm – if, in fact, I ever did. This was not an unusual occurrence. Some towns just work. Things go smoothly and they strike me as pleasant places. I set off as Doug the Hunter/Gatherer and, with a bit of effort, I locate shelter, and food, and water. Some towns present a more trying and difficult face. Matnog was clearly one of those towns, starting with a 3-kilometer lineup of parked transport trucks waiting for their turn to get on a ferry. This did not bode well for me, I thought. I assumed there had to be a breakdown in the ferry system. Why else would there be such a massive lineup of trucks waiting their turn? These trucks took up all of one side of the road leaving barely enough room on the other side for traffic leaving Matnog. It was on this side of the road, hugging the edge next to all the trucks that I had to cycle. Any time there was a bus or truck or jeepney coming the other way, I had to pull over to the side and lean my bike against these trucks in order to make room for the traffic to pass.
Matnog continued to be rather difficult when I got to the end of the lineup of trucks. I found myself right at the main gate to the port and ferry terminal. There was no opening up of the town into a spacious area where I could get my bearings and catch my breath. No, the road simply went straight to the port gate and stopped, and it is no exaggeration to say that it was total bedlam. This spot was the exit point for every single truck, bus, and private vehicle leaving Luzon and heading for the Visayas from the Bicol Region. It was crazy busy with the usual total absence of traffic lights or street signs contributing to the chaos. The roads were clearly never intended to carry this much traffic and traffic of this size. There was barely room to breathe let alone navigate with my bike and try to turn corners to find my way. My worries about the ferry mounted as I surveyed the scene, but my worries turned out to be unfounded. I made my way to the ticket windows for the ferry and buying a ticket seemed to be no problem at all. In fact, there were three different sets of ticket windows for three different ferry lines, and there was no one at all waiting in line. My informants told me (after much intense questioning by me) that ferries left every 35 minutes and I could buy a ticket for any ferry I wished. I tried to find out if one ferry line was preferable to another – for safety or comfort or for transporting heavily-laden bicycles – but in a typically unfocused and frustrating manner, my informants ignored all my questions. I also tried to find out why there was such a long lineup of trucks waiting when the ferries were running normally. To this question, too, I could get no answer. It’s not that they didn’t understand my questions or my English. As happened in the vast majority of my dealings with Filipinos, I just couldn’t get them to engage in the conversation. I often felt like people were following a script and they were just repeating the words on that script without paying attention to what was said to them. I had a mental image of an engine running at high speed but with the cogs of the drive shaft not connected to anything – not engaged with anything. I tried to insert my words – my half of this conversation – into that whirling set of gears, but they were moving too fast to engage. The cogs kept spinning and the words kept pouring out, but they were words totally unrelated to what I was saying. If I were in a movie, perhaps I’d reach out and slap them to get them to stop and to focus and listen. “Look at me! Look in my eyes! Now listen.” I found it particularly frustrating when I was disagreeing with someone. I would disagree, quite strongly, but my conversational partner would not even notice and would keep prattling along as if I had said nothing at all. It was worse when I was dealing with someone in an official capacity – someone that I needed to get something from. If I lost their attention for even half a second, they would be gone and back to their activities. They would deliver their lines and be done with the script. It mattered not a jot what I said back to them.
Finding food in Matnog was also a challenge. I had not stopped for lunch in Irosin (it had seemed too early in the day), and I could feel a creeping irritability coming over me as I surveyed Matnog and my hunger grew. I still needed to find shelter, water, and information, but I could sense that food was a priority for the challenges that lay ahead.
I rode my bike up and down the few sidestreets of Matnog, each time having to fight my way past massive trucks spewing out clouds of black exhaust. The children were a bit more aggressive in Matnog than in other towns I’d visited, and I started to find their attention a bit annoying as more and more time went by and I saw nowhere that I could get something to eat. I was looking for that one magical eatery – the place that had food and a place to sit. In Matnog, I quickly realized, you take what you can get. If they have food, you grab it. Don’t worry about a place to sit. In my case, though, I couldn’t even find the food. I rode up and down and up and down the streets and each time I found myself yelled at by the children, hemmed in by giant trucks, and surprised by that other feature of the Philippines – the unexpected speed bump. I get that speed bumps are a good idea in residential areas. You don’t want traffic racing by at a zillion miles an hour. So a strategically placed and well-marked speed bump wouldn’t be a bad idea. Unfortunately for me and my sometimes frazzled nerves, both those characterists were completely lacking. I had to keep an eagle-eye out for those speed bumps at all times. They came out of nowhere and when you least expected them. And these were no sissy speed bumps with a gentle incline – a polite reminder to keep your speed down. No, these were big monsters and I dreaded the day (I knew it was inevitable) when I hit one at full or even moderate speed. I’m sure the result would be a bent tire rim at best and a total crash at worst.
Only one contender for food emerged, and this was a nasty-looking place right outside the gates to the ferry terminal. I knew from experience that an eatery or restaurant in such a location is the worst possible to place to go. They would have a captive audience in the people leaving or getting on the ferries, and as such, quality and service would likely be subpar. But there were two food bins in the window, and these were the only food finds I’d seen in all of Matnog. It was eat there or go hungry.
I pulled my bike up to the front and put down the kickstand and applied my home-made parking brake (an essential item on a touring bike). I went inside and to my dismay discovered that one of the trays contained fish parts – mainly heads – and the other one contained some kind of weird noodle meddley. But in true beggars can’t be choosers fashion, I ordered one serving of each plus rice and took a seat.
My misgivings about the place were soon justified. The air was thick with flies – something that I hadn’t seen anywhere else in the Philippines – and the only other customers were three very drunk men, who became very interested in me and shouted stupid and non-sensical things. Finally, the woman serving me was as friendly and attentive as one might expect in such a place – meaning not at all. As I said, it took a while for Matnog to reveal its charms.