this story was originally published in the philippine daily inquirer on January 15, 2008.

IT WAS FOR ECONOMIC REASONS—AND SIGHTSEEING— that we embarked on a land trip to Leyte. The airfare for the five members of our family seemed unreasonable, and knowing that the route from Manila to Leyte was scenic, we began the long drive on the 23rd of December, expecting to arrive at our ancestral home in Tanauan, Leyte, on Christmas Eve.

Although I had the privilege of traveling abroad several times, I never thought there were places in our own country that could be at par with what I had seen in America and Europe. Happily, I was mistaken. As we passed through Bicol, the Ateneo de Naga campus reminded me of Yale University, and their life-sized, Filipino rendition of the Nativity scene could compare favorably with the statues in Rome. The Daraga Church, built on top of a hill, with a magnificent view of Legazpi City made me recall the Sacre Coeur Basilica in Paris. The Cagsawa Ruins left me awestruck and filled me with a sense of history and melancholy, like the feelings I had when I saw the ancient ruins in Greece.

After seeing these sights, we spent the night at the marvelous Home of the Clergy in Sorsogon, reputedly one of the most beautiful clergy residences around the world. We were able to stay there because the bishop, who lives there, is my Dad’s friend. We slept peacefully, happy and content, not knowing what perils we faced the next day.

On the 24th of December, at 6 a.m., we boarded the RoRo that would take us from Sorsogon to Samar. The hour-long boat ride was an experience, since it was my first time to see so many cars and buses cramped together at the bottom of a boat. The passengers had to endure a terribly choppy ride over the rough sea.

We arrived in Allen, Northern Samar, after 7 a.m. Having eaten breakfast, we began the nine-hour drive to our hometown.

The roads in Samar are by far the worst I have ever seen across the globe. The cement and asphalt are gone, and there are more potholes than flat surfaces. It did not help that the heavy rains that day covered the potholes with water, rendering it impossible for my Dad to tell if the holes were deep or shallow.

After about 40 minutes of driving, we struck a pothole so deep that our heads banged against the roof of our van. Seconds later, the alarm signaled that the oil level was low. It didn’t take too long before the oil gauge indicated empty. The impact had cracked open the crank case of our van (where engine oil is stored), and the local mechanics we asked for help could not come up with a quick fix. The part had to be replaced, they said.

We spent all nine hours of the day before Christmas stranded in the middle of nowhere. Since our whole family subscribes to the same cell phone service provider, which had no cell sites nearby, we were isolated. Residents told us that we were in Barangay Palanit in San Isidro, Northern Samar, and in an area where several hold-ups and murders had taken place. With the help of the residents, the mayor’s brother and the policemen and soldiers who came to provide us security, we were able to find a truck that would transport our van to Tacloban City even if it was Christmas Eve. We were also able to hire a van that would bring us to our hometown.

We were able to finally continue on our trip at 7 p.m. Because of the terrible, terrible roads, we could not go faster than 40 kph on the average. Thus, when the clock struck 12, we were still struggling in Samar. We had to celebrate Christmas on the road.

I wonder what the governors and congressmen of the Samar provinces are doing about their roads. The Pan-Philippine Highway was constructed to connect Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao through a continuous road, but alas there is hardly a road to speak of in very many places in Samar. The owner of the car repair shop in Tacloban told us more than 50 vehicles were brought to his shop in December alone with damage like our van had suffered.

Good roads are a common feature of First World countries. How can our beloved Philippines achieve the efficiency and productivity it aspires for if it has roads such as those in Samar? Trade requires good roads. Samar and Leyte are rich in agriculture, but how will the produce be transported to Manila and other places if the roads remain in decrepit condition? Tourism requires good roads. Since we pushed through with our plan of touring the whole of Leyte during our vacation, I learned that just like Bicol, the Visayas boasts of sights that are at par with those I’ve seen abroad. But how can these places be visited and appreciated by tourists, both local and foreign, if they are made unreachable by bad roads?

Because of our bittersweet experience on that trip, I will never forget last year’s Christmas. I’ve seen the grandeur and beauty of our country but had to suffer so many inconveniences to do so. I’ve seen fixers do their thing at the ports. I have felt fear in some places but also enjoyed the hospitality of our people. I have seen soldiers and policemen rushing in to help in our time of need. I have experienced isolation and being far away from my comfort zone in Manila. And I have met so many relatives for the first time. This was truly one Christmas that I will always remember.

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