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If the Philippine countryside were tapestry, it would be woven with patterns of water, mountain and sky. The bus from Manila to Tacloban in Leyte, an island in central Philippines, wends through 900 kilometers of this tapestry's lovely design.
The bus rolls out from a crowded terminal where vendors peddle assorted comforters for the 24-hour journey: fans made from palm fronds, menthol candies, bottled liniment. Passengers mill about, tugging children along and lugging cans of biscuit, thermos bottles and other provisions. The bus leaves past noon with an army of friends and relatives in attendance; a warm send-off is part of Filipino tradition.
After only a short drive southward, the city's noise and grime already seem so far away. The silver-grey waters of Laguna Lake glisten in the sun, girded by the blue of distant hills. Soon the legendary Mount Makiling emerges. Its form, resembling that of a reclining woman, gives the landscape a languorous look. Through the centuries, large prosperous towns rich in history and lore have thrived in this mountain's shadow.
By the roadside, bamboo stalls peddle fruits, fresh coconut and lambanog, liquor made from sugar cane and guaranteed to knock out the uninitiated. The bus driver, unable to resist, stops to buy an armload of pineapples.
The countryside gets prettier the farther the bus drives from Manila. Streams weave curly paths through coconut groves. Women in cotton sarong wash clothes by riverbanks. Occasionally, a fire tree in bloom stands out amid the greenery.
The afternoon sun lights up the faded pink of a church built centuries ago by Spanish colonizers. Banahaw, the sacred mountain, home to mystic cults, seers and healers, looms in the horizon.
The landscape changes as the bus follows a winding road, a grey ribbon wrapped like an ornament around the coconut tree-covered hills. The sun peeps through trees and birds,-disturbed by the engine's whirr, flutter from the bushes. At one point, the bus climbs up a hilltop clearing which reveals a breathtaking view of Tayabas Bay and its little islands.
Farther onward are the towns at the scenic foothills of the great Sierra Madre mountain range. Houses made of bamboo and nipa sit in the shade of tall coconut trees. On a rock by the roadside, a young man is perched, strumming a guitar. Outside a hut, three elderly men gather to talk, one of them caressing a fighting cock the color of fire.
At times, the tapestry unfolds in more ornate design. The highway bisects the coast so that there is the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. Fishermen's huts standing on bamboo stilts line the shore. On the bay sail little boats with outriggers. By dusk, the bus reaches Bicol, the peninsula that juts out of the southern tip of Luzon, the largest of the Philippines' 7,100 islands. The bus traverses the peninsula at night, passing village plazas where the local folk gather for a dance or a basketball game by gaslight.
It is a clear evening. The tapestry is woven now in the colors of night, ornamented with the silver studs off stars and the flickering lights of fishing boats where the road grazes the coast. Before dawn breaks, the bus drives past Mayon volcano, its perfect cone still shrouded in the mists of night.
The sun begins to rise from behind a ridge of mountains. Matnog town at Luzon's southernmost tip lies at the foot of these mountains by the edge of the San Bernardino Strait, a narrow waterway that separates Luzon from the cluster of islands known as the Visayas. There the bus is loaded onto a ferry that will cross the strait to Samar island, whose rugged mountains are already outlined in the horizon. Out in the sea, sunburnt children bob up and down the water like seals, diving for coins thrown at them by ferry passengers. Fishermen paddle frail boats, occasionally coming to shore with a fresh haul of fish or crabs, their claws still biting.
The ferry sails easily through calm green waters, past islets fringed with pristine white-sand beaches. The bus is unloaded at the bustling little town of San Isidro and from there, it drives, snakelike, up and down the concrete highway that alternately traverses Samar's mountains and scenic coastline. The bus stops for lunch at a small seaside restaurant that serves raw tuna in a sauce of chilis and coconut milk, fresh prawns in tamarind soup and boiled fat red crabs. The journey continues, followed now by the smell of the sea and of fish drying under the hot sun.
For miles it is nothing but coconut trees and the sea, until the road goes inland, its path entwined now with that of a wide green river. The scene turns pastoral. A village of thatched houses from whose balconies hang hibiscus and ferns. Rice paddies and corn fields on mountain slopes. Farmers planting rice in age-old rituals, bending down in knee-deep mud to embed seedlings on the paddies.
Then it is the sea again and in the distance, the sharp peaks of Leyte's hills. The bus crosses the San Juanico bridge that spans what is said to be the narrowest strait in the world, the waterway that connects the islands of Samar and Leyte. Built at the height of Imelda Marcos's whims, the bridge is concrete and steel, shaped to form the initials L and S, standing for Leyte-Samar.
The bus heads for Tacloban City, the capital of Leyte Province, driving down a seaside avenue with its view of the Visayan islands, shimmering, beckoning, in the afternoon sun.