By Train to Legazpi and Back Again
The 4:40 train to Legazpi City pulls into Blumentritt Station at about 4:50, a noisy, lumbering iron behemoth that, like the station, has seen better days. Folks clamber onto the passenger cars clutching duffel bags and bayongs tied up with cord and herding their children through the car doors. Crates and bicycles and ice chests wrapped in newspaper are hauled up into the cargo section together with boxes and other oddments. Nobody cries “all aboard!” but the conductor blows a whistle. A horn blares and the train chugs forward. From the window I see the platform of Blumentritt Station fall away sideways as the train gains speed. I giggle like a little kid in excitement. I’m on a train!
Nineteen years ago, I buried my attention into Paul Theroux’s travel classic The Great Railway Bazaar. It wasn’t even the actual book, just the condensed form featured in a battered Reader’s Digest. The rails promised adventure and romance, taking you to sights unseen and experiences unfamiliar. I was hooked.
However, for a variety of trivial reasons, I managed to procrastinate through almost two decades, secretly wanting to escape the doldrums of daily life via rail yet always denying myself the experience. To provide a surrogate, I would often ride Metro Manila’s elevated commuter trains, taking the Line 1 from EDSA to Carriedo or Line 2 from Ayala Avenue to Cubao. When the third line opened up fast, easy travel from Katipunan to Recto I was overjoyed and often viewed Aurora Boulevard from my swift, lofty perch. Still, that great adventure to parts unseen (by me at least) via cross-country train remained elusive.
Elusive, until my editor gave her approval to do the story I had pitched. Finally, at a loss for excuses, I found myself on a De Luxe seat beside my long-time travel geek buddy Jeryc on a train to Albay in the Bicol Region. Would railway travel live up to my expectations? We were determined to find out.
Right On Track
Two trains regularly ply the Manila-Legazpi-Manila run – one has air-conditioning, the other does not. This week, the air-conditioned train was scheduled to leave on Friday. We were setting out for Legazpi on a Thursday. Hot though it was, the passenger car wasn’t as bad as I expected. When your ticket says De Luxe, it means that your seat reclines, a small measure of comfort that was well appreciated. Each station gets an allotment of De Luxe tickets, giving you guaranteed seating. I’d heard the stories about our trains being dilapidated, decrepit dinosaurs, and they skirt pretty much close to that but aren’t quite ready for extinction. There’s still some life in these trains and a little spit and polish should do wonders. Except perhaps the toilets, which need to be bombed with napalm and replaced anew.
Before you reach open country, you first navigate through the dense urban sprawl of Manila Metro with scant centimeters of clearance between train and shanty. Should you ever want a serious case of tetanus, just press your palms against the train’s wire mesh screens to let rusty corrugated metal roofs lacerate your flesh to ribbons. Apart from keeping your arms and hands attached to your body, those mesh screens also serve to protect you from projectiles that invariably get thrown at the train, from bags of garbage to rocks to fecal matter. Any hurled fluids, however are going to hit their mark. This is the time-honored way some railway residents express their gratitude for your disturbing their peace. In the times when you aren’t ducking for cover, you get a half-second glimpse into the lives of the urban poor through their windows and doors, getting to know what TV shows they watch or what songs they like to sing on community karaoke machines.
At just P355 (USD 6) per ticket to the end of the line, the train is a cheaper alternative to most bus lines. Many, if not all, of the passengers aren’t traveling for their leisure. Save for Jeryc and I, there are no backpackers, thrill-seekers, sightseers or obvious tourists, just simple folk commuting home or to visit relatives. The mood is generally quiet, people minding their own business and talking in murmurs. When darkness falls, everyone starts finding a position comfortable enough to sleep in.
Once the sun goes down, there isn’t much to see out the windows. The countryside is lit too faintly by moonlight so your eyes get to wandering inside the passenger compartment. Overhead, the dim fluorescent bulbs attract all sorts of flying, crawling bugs. The spiders which weave their webs on the train ceiling are having a fiesta. Across the car, you see someone’s grandmother, crouching between two rows of seats and glancing around furtively for any sign of the conductor. After a minute she stands up with a tabo full of urine in hand and pours the contents out the window and you know that you aren’t imagining it because it’s happened three times. Weary feet are propped on armrests, old men snore away, dead to the world, and children who are too young to sleep observe you curiously as you snap photos in low light. It’s going to be a long night.
In that unsleep you experience in long-haul redeye trips, what happens around you registers only as brief vignettes. You sort of remember them but the edges are blurry. In the back of your mind, you notice that the food vendors who hawk their wares up and down the aisle have changed, probably at the last station. Their vests have turned from red to blue, but their faces seem the same. You question whether they’ve just changed costume. The menu, too, shifts slightly and now, instead of instant coffee, you’re able to enjoy a hot cup of salabat (ginger tea)with your penoy (hard-boiled duck egg). When the vests change to green you vaguely remember buying a pineapple pie. As you pass each station, you blink awake and wonder where the hell you are. Hondagua, Baao, Gumaca, you could be in Cuba for all you know. Eventually, you fall into a sweaty, draining sleep, rocked gently and not so gently by the motion of the train.
If the journey was the point, the destination was a mere taste. After more than half a day of swaying to the clickety-clack of the rails, dodging potshots and taking snapshots, we arrived at Legazpi City, literally the end of the line. The tracks terminate against an immovable concrete barrier, a period, rather than an exclamation point, that seem to state “you may go no further.” But, with five hours to kill until the train would start its journey back, we decided to hoof it and see what we could see in the brief time available.
Legazpi stands in the shadow of one of the most famous Philippine landmarks, Mayon Volcano. It’s this colossal beauty that draws tourists to Legazpi, aside from the pili nuts. For an unobstructed view of Mayon, we head for the Cagsaua Ruins, a parish church buried by rocks and lava in 1814, killing townspeople who had sought shelter within its doors. To get there, you ride a jeepney to Guinobatan and ask the driver to let you off near the ruins. You then take a short tricycle ride from the main road to the park gate. While the history behind it is fascinating, the ruins themselves are overshadowed by the awe-inspiring enormity of Mayon. From this vantage point, the volcano fills up the horizon. Clouds drift against its peak and you think the mountain is playing hard to get. As you gape at Mayon, children armed with toothy grins and grimy faces come up to you and ask for money point blank. Even if you wave them off, they follow you around. Jeryc and I relish the view for a while and decide against going to Daraga Church, famous for being made up of volcanic rocks. What if we miss the train? We sided with caution and made our way back to Legazpi.
The train to Manila leaves Legazpi Station at precisely 3 o’clock in the afternoon, which gives you roughly three hours of daylight before that looming darkness once again takes hold. This gives you ample time with which to enjoy the countryside. The Bicol region is immensely beautiful, green fields and rice paddies all around, punctuated by tin roofs as you pass through populated areas. You see the hustle of commerce at the train stations as cargo changes hands. A swift peck on a husband’s cheek sends him off as he takes the train back to the big city. Kids at play jump up and down the train and pose gamely for the lens.
Seventeen hours to Legazpi, five hours there and another seventeen getting back to Manila. Sounds crazy and perhaps it was. I took that trip to see if travel by train would fulfill its promise of romance and adventure. I’d say it delivered half. If you want to experience travel of a different kind, go overland by train to Legazpi City. When the northern line to Agoo opens up, by all means take that train too. Whether you tote along your mountain bike/hang glider/spelunking gear/wetsuit or just an extra shirt, your adventure starts even before you get to where you’re going. Romance, hmm, you won’t find any Russian divotchkas here, nor truffles and wine in the dining car. You can’t even take a proper piss. Perhaps in time, with a little help from train enthusiasts and transport authorities, both promises can be fulfilled. For now, I’ll take the one.
The train pulls into Espana station a little past eight AM. My hair is greasy as is my skin. A bath would be nice. My rump is a little worse for wear and I find aches niggling at various parts of my body. I’m back in my world, an hour away from a clean bed and a toothbrush, and 48 hours away from my work desk. I step off the train, bid adieu to Jeryc and end my little adventure. Nineteen years of waiting and it’s just what I was looking for and exactly what I needed.
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