More fun, but…
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - April 26, 2019 - 12:00am

The mayor of Malay town in Aklan, which has jurisdiction over Boracay, was ordered dismissed this week by the Office of the Ombudsman for the environmental mess on the resort island.

Mayor Ciceron Cawaling and his licensing officer Jen Salsona were dismissed for gross neglect of duty, conduct unbecoming of a public official, and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of public service.

The two may challenge the order in court, but they will probably have to vacate their posts ASAP – unless they secure a court temporary restraining order.

The move should put local government executives on notice about their responsibilities in protecting travel destinations. I’m waiting for authorities to set their sights on other destinations such as Baguio City and Pagsanjan.

*      *      *

Visiting Pagsanjan on Maundy Thursday, I found the falls and riverboat ride as enjoyable as ever. The rapids aren’t as fun when the water level is low. But summer, I was told, is the time to take the raft to the cave behind the falls, from where you can see the water cascading down from the mountain like a curtain.

The government-accredited boatmen or bangkero are as skillful as ever in propelling the fiberglass canoes through the rocks and the metal bars over which they can slide.

Past the gorge strewn with boulders and rocks, however, the river opens out to the confluence of the Balanac and Bumbungan rivers in Pagsanjan, where resorts are located. You can clearly see sewage coming out of pipes in several of the resorts, and spilling into the river.

This part of the river, where the boat rides start, was chockfull of water lilies and aquatic weeds.

A large message in the middle of the river junction warns visitors not to become victims of overpricing. The current rate for a boat ride per person was painted on concrete: P1,250.

By the time I saw this, however, my boat ride was coming to an end and the canoe was approaching Lolo Tuge – one of a few resorts accredited as a docking area for the boat rides and authorized to collect fees by the local government. And I had already paid P1,350 per head.

The price of P1,250 was also painted in large characters on Lolo Tuge’s wall facing the river. I was not issued a receipt, and tickets for the ride were handed over to the boatmen to give to an authorized collector upriver near the falls. When I asked why I was charged P100 extra per head, a woman at Lolo Tuge told me it was the entrance fee to their resort.

Besides this, the bangkero (two per boat) wouldn’t settle for anything less than P250 each as “tip.” Where does the P1,250 go? According to the bangkero, it’s mainly divided among the local governments of Pagsanjan, Lumban and Cavinti, through which the river runs from the falls. Lolo Tuge gets a share while the boatmen get fixed fees per trip. Each of the 987 accredited boatmen is limited to one trip per week.

The bangkero’s work is backbreaking, and they can be quite entertaining. Ask them if there are monkeys in the forest and they would point to each other. What about crocodiles in the river? They would point to the ticket collector upriver. It was better when the falls was under the jurisdiction of the Department of Tourism, they said. With no LGUs fighting over a share of the tourism revenue, the boatmen got bigger pay.

So you wouldn’t mind giving the boatmen a generous tip. But where does the P1,250 go? Shouldn’t a substantial part of it go to those who actually labor to make the boat ride fun? That’s a lot of money simply for local taxes and fees.

The boatmen said they got bigger pay when the river and waterfall were still managed by the Department of Tourism. Now that the LGUs are bickering and Cavinti, where the waterfall is actually located, wants greater say over the site, the boatmen must rely on the kindness of tourists for their subsistence.

Such stories, the overpricing plus the sewage spilling into the water in Pagsanjan, take some of the fun out of the experience.

*      *      *

The other spoiler of fun was the infernal traffic in Laguna.

Ayala Land has opened a bypass road that runs alongside its hilly Greenfield Estate in Barangay Bucal, allowing motorists to bypass the horrid traffic in the main hot springs resort area of Los Baños.

Before you reach the bypass to and from Pagsanjan, however, you have to crawl along the narrow national highway. It was like getting stuck on EDSA on a stormy payday Friday night.

Those going to eastern Metro Manila can take the opposite route around Laguna de Bay. It’s a scenic drive through Paete and on to Pililla, where a wind farm operated by Alternergy has become a top tourist destination.

Those coming from southern Metro Manila can take the new C-6, which runs from Lower Bicutan to Taytay, Rizal. From there, motorists can either drive through the artists’ town of Angono, or take the more picturesque, winding road through the hills of Antipolo to reach Tanay, where the fun disappears from the drive as you run smack into another EDSA-type traffic on both directions.

On Good Friday, there were so many people on the road that the waiters at Rambull’s, a popular native lechon restaurant by the lake, slaughtered two cows to meet the demand for one of its bestsellers, bulalo. So much for Lenten no-meat fasting.

*      *      *

The 27 wind turbines from Spain, each 125 meters tall (like a 33-story building), produce 54 megawatts of power that provide electricity to 66,000 households in Metro Manila.

Opened only in 2016, the wind farm now has a Visitors’ Center, set up by Alternergy in cooperation with the World Wide Fund for Nature. The center provides information on how the facility works and the benefits of clean wind energy. There are rows of souvenir shops around the viewing site, providing jobs and livelihoods to local residents.

There is no entrance fee, and the site reportedly draws some 130,000 tourists during Holy Week. So Rambull, which did brisk business at the start, must now contend with new competition posed by the top fast-food chains.

Along the way you can pick up the sweetest honeydew and melons, all grown in Rizal. Enjoying them once you finally get past the traffic and reach home, you will remember the fun, but the hassles will linger.

CICERON CAWALING OFFICE OF THE OMBUDSMAN
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