Friday, May 15, 2009

Magical, enchanting Loboc

When you’re feeling depressed and need to get your mind off personal problems or problems of the benighted state, or when you just want to get out of the dreadful metropolis of smog and traffic and ugly billboards, hop into a Tagbilaran-bound flight. There are now seven of them each day, PAL, Cebu-Pacific and Zest-Air. Ten years back, there was but one flight, and it wasn’t even daily.

And if there is any president who could truly be considered pro-tourism, it must be Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Not only does she travel so often, and how! To her eternal credit (O ayan, may sinulat na akong maganda. Some readers twit me for having nothing good to say about Dona Gloria), and I’ve seen it with my own eyes, she has pushed for tourism like no other president since Ferdinand Marcos appointed the late, and well-loved “Sunshine Joe” Aspiras. Over the past few months, I have been to Batanes, Palawan and Bohol, all of which are tourist destinations. And Gloria has prioritized the kind of infrastructure that tourism badly needs, in these provinces at the very least.

I am sorry if I will not give her full credit for Boracay. The improvements that have made that island’s carrying capacity quintuple in the Gloria years (from 120,000 in Ramos’ last year to 630,000 visitors last year) were a continuum from FVR and Erap. My predecessor Ed Joaquin at the PTA, along with then DOT Secretary Mina Gabor started the water and sewerage system projects for Boracay. I implemented these, and managed to get further Neda-IC approval for a solid waste management facility, all funded by the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation (formerly OECF). These were inaugurated during the time of Dona Gloria, with hold-over PTA GM Nixon Kua, my successor at PTA, opening the gate valves along with Dona Gloria. Management of these facilities have been mangled by Kua’s successor, and now, PTA has sold the assets to the private sector. But that’s a long story.

I mention Boracay as an example because it was the cooperation of the national and local governments during the Erap regime that resulted in not a few infrastructure projects which the PTA, the DPWH, as well as the DOTC jointly undertook with the full funding support of President Estrada. Then Governor Joben Miraflores of Ibajay even deputized a common friend, Art Alejandrino, a Pampango whose wife is from Kalibo, to push and push for Boracay in these agencies. As a result, and in a frenzy of construction, we got DPWH to widen and improve the road from Kalibo to Malay, DOTC to construct jetty ports in Malay (Caticlan) and the nearest tip of Boracay, enlarge the Kalibo airport terminal, and eventually lengthen its runway, while PTA went full steam on the water and sewerage projects. (I went as far as lobbying in Malacanang for the shift of the Panay International Airport from Sta. Barbara in Iloilo to Kalibo in Aklan, but then Senate President Franklin Drilon prevailed). Governor Joben, now lone district representative and I discussed even more plans, but Erap’s presidency was cut short.

I made that long digression to highlight what has happened to Bohol, where my good friend Nonoy Torralba, one-term governor during the time of President Cory, laid out all the development plans, including the financial feasibilities, that would turn his beloved province into the bustling tourism destination that it now has become. Succeeding governors, my friend Rene Relampagos and the incumbent and soon-to-retire Erico Aumentado, to their credit, faithfully lobbied with whoever was in Malacanang, to pursue Nonoy’s plans. The plans and their implementation, in fairness, were given full support by President Gloria.

So off I went weeks ago, upon the invitation of a friend, to a short working visit to Tagbilaran, followed by a day and two nights of tourist pleasure. Now let me tell you about a town called Loboc.

Forty minutes away from the airport by land, past historic Baclayon and the seafood eateries of Albuquerque (which Boholanos irreverently shorten to Albor), thence the small town of Loay where the Loboc River meets the Bohol Sea that fronts Northern Mindanao to its south, is the quaintly charming town of Loboc.

I have been to Loboc twice before --- first on an inspection trip bound for the Corella tarsier sanctuary that the PTA supported, and the Chocolate Hills where we were incorporating plans at the time. Then, smitten by Bohol, I once brought my family for a private weekend, and took a lunchtime river cruise along the Loboc River. It was nice, relaxing, but very far from the Loboc River experience I had last.

Loboc is also famous for its children’s choir --- angelic voices almost as good as the Vienna Boys’ Choir, the difference not being a shortage of talent, but a far lesser measure of public support, and a dearth of real marketing effort.

It is also rather notorious for a genuine “bridge to nowhere”, a span constructed by obvious dolts during the Marcos reign, where one end began on a bank of the river, with the final destination aimed straight at the centuries-old Loboc parish church. Residents were horrified at the travesty, but the DPWH went on, insisting that it was the church which ought to be demolished to give way to their contraption. Mercifully, good sense and the Cory presidency stopped would-be demolition.

My friend told me we would be dining at the Loboc River. Yes, dining, at seven in the evening. And indeed, that was possible now, for a Loboc River cruise is now day and night, and oh, what a magical and enchanting experience a night along the river is.

First off, you board the rafts on a well-organized system in a modern, Balinese-inspired terminal equipped with spic-and-span restrooms (would that they always remain as spotless). Nimble foot or clumsy foot, you need not worry at getting soaked as you board your numbered raft. The concrete banks become easy steps which usher you into waiting bamboo and wooden rafts. After a sumptuous dinner, the raft begins to move, and you get enthralled by beautifully, tastefully emplaced and wonderfully colored orbs of light emanating from the coconut and tree-lined banks of the river. There is green and yellow up-lighting and softly colored blue, purple and orange transforming the banks of the river into a dreamy landscape. Believe me, nothing can be more enchanting. None of the garish China backyard-made uglies that dot the once-beautiful City of Manila, or the diamond-shaped and outer-space kitsch that the mayors of ever-ugly Pasay and newly-ugly Paranaque have made of the once-upon-a-time famous boulevard by the bay.

Then you stop by a makeshift bamboo pier, where a group of some forty youngsters of various ages, helped by a few old ladies in native garb, serenade you with Visayan ditties and an occasional English song, with ukelele’s, guitars, and handmade bamboo percussion accompaniments. So very honest entertainment, so very clean fun, so very sincere hospitality.

And finally you reach the small waterfalls, rightly but not brightly spotlighted, as if unwilling to disturb the nocturnal creatures, be they birds or insects, whose natural habitat the river’s banks are. The boat turns back after a 2.8 kilometer upriver drive and some forty minutes of sheer magic. Only to discover that the good mayor of Loboc has another surprise for his guests. In a small but well-equipped hall within the river cruise terminal compound, the Loboc Children’s Brass Band was set to perform for us! (Yes, the children’s choir has expanded to three groups, voice and band). Young kids, male and female, from seven to perhaps fifteen, performed on stage some twenty musical numbers with a rousing New York, New York finale that got the small audience stomping its feet in absolute delight.

Now let me tell you how all these came about. Because it is a story of one man’s vision and determination, and how he harnessed good souls and a proud townspeople to rally behind that vision.

Leon A. Calipusan was a small businessman in 2004 when his constituents elected him mayor of Loboc. This is the second year of his second term. But as soon as he became mayor, he was enthused with a vision of beauty for his native town. The river cruise, its main attraction only because Lobocanons kept their river clean and preserved the trees and foliage along its banks, was about his only natural resource.

And then came a good man, my friend Carlos Chan and his family. Plain tourists when they went to Loboc, they soon decided to put their money where their heart truly melted. With Calipusan enthusiastically rallying folk labor, the Chans lighted the banks in such tasteful manner, with their private funds. Carlos, patriarch of the clan that parlayed their father’s original Liwayway gaw-gaw (cornstarch) business into an empire that now produces the Asia-famous Oishi snacks, with sixteen factories in China, and a few more in Vietnam, plus the headquarters in Pasay and Cavite, undertook the lighting project simply out of an appreciation of natural beauty and friendly townsfolk.

The Balinese-inspired boat quay and terminal was also tastefully designed by a Zobel-commissioned architect, and Carlos Chan likewise donated the pavilion where the Loboc Children perform their world-class recitals.

I am sure Carlos or his son, my friend Larry sourced the orbs and lights from China, where he has been appointed special envoy extraordinaire for investment promotion, but hey, these are private funds, and no tong-pats adorn their acquisition. You see, in this country, the more garish, the more tasteless, the greater the tong-pats likely have been. Just look at Pandacan and Paco, Nagtahan and Roxas Boulevard and its recent additions to tastelessness, and weep the cry of otherwise proud and cultured residents of the once-beautiful pearl of the Orient!

Mayor Leon Calipusan got his townsfolk, “bayanihan” style, to donate their labours, and have gotten their strict cooperation at preserving and maintaining Carlos Chan’s gifts.

“Who pays for the electricity and the upkeep of the terminal?”, I asked the genial and oh so humble mayor of Loboc. “The municipio”, he proudly beamed, and then explained --- “when we took over, the LGU’s income from the river raft rides was a mere 600,000 pesos a year. You see, for a standard fee of 300 pesos per passenger, the municipal government gets 50 pesos. Last year (2008), the municipio’s share was 18 million pesos. I expect to surpass 20 million this year, even more”. The Saturday that we were there, Mayor Leon asked the terminal manager how much the day’s income was, and it was 120,000 pesos!

Now what happened to that “bridge to nowhere”? Mayor Leon has converted it into a well-lit hanging-garden type of park, from where residents could do a leisurely paseo, and the municipio rents it out also for outdoor parties, al fresco.

Once before, Vicente “Ting” Paterno, former BOI Governor, former Trade and Public Works minister, former senator, a gentleman of the old school who rues at how the beloved land has become so benighted through the years, remarked before us that “there are gems of good leadership in the local governments.”

Leon A. Calipusan is one such gem. Lucky are the people of Loboc, with their children’s talents and their pristine environment, that they chose the best among them, to lead them.


DJB Rizalist said...

I'm an old but silent fan of your writing as well as real life experiences, at some points of which my own path has crossed, though we perhaps did not know it. I am glad to see you have been online and predict all will be very soon as the newspapers are dying from the effects of ecoloy, economy and ideology.

Anyway, maybe we can have many interesting conversations, and others ought to know of your literary efforts here.

Dean Bocobo