Story and photos by Elmer V. Recuerdo / Correspondent
CALBAYOG CITY—The images of the 1980s evoke a quaint picture—mysterious, almost magical—for an urban place.
A breathtaking view of the sea, clear rivers that invite a trek up to its source, hills that have natural cuts to show a seemingly hand-painted wall and majestic waterfalls that are lot more beautiful than what you see in tourism brochures.
People talk in hush, a stranger will surely invite a different kind of stare, friendly and inviting, yet with some hint of caution.
First-time travelers to Calbayog City at that time would oftentimes get advice from people who are familiar with the place to take extra precaution: Do not buy food peddled on the streets, bring your own water, avoid looking on the eyes of the people and never accept an invitation from a person with missing philtrum, that indentation below the nose and above the upper lip.
Despite the warnings, though, it is difficult to not be drawn to this city if only to get a slice of experience on what exactly is communing with nature means.
For sea lovers riding on a car, the whole 50-kilometer to 60-km stretch of shoreline of this city is a spectacle of panoramic experience—vast blue water with kids frolicking on the shore, fishing boats plying a route, fishermen haggling with traders for a decent price for their catch and some nicely built huts standing along tall coconut trees.
The rivers, as seen along the thoroughfares, are exquisite, but what is visible is comparable only to the proverbial tail of a dragon. In the 1980s most residents were reluctant to bring a visitor to follow a river up to its source—usually an equally beautiful waterfall—for fear of earning the wrath of a darahog, or elemental. In fact, some of Calbayog’s waterfalls were discovered only at the turn of the century—two were found just last month.
On a quick glance, one can easily say Calbayog caught all the blessings—rich marine resources of Samar Sea, naturally beautiful rivers, caves and waterfalls, vast fertile agricultural land and hardworking and friendly people. Yet, for a long time, the city was underdeveloped—not until the last two decades.
For some time, Samar island, as a whole, was often described as a sleeping giant not only for its size, but more of its lethargic economic stride, amid abundance of natural resources. Calbayog City, on its part, had often been likened to a maiden that is too shy to shine.
FAST-FORWARD to the present time, the place still looks familiar, with the blues and the greens, but alongside are concrete structures, paved roads, organized traffic and well-lit parks that indicate a booming economic activity.
“Calbayog is a growing city,” Mayor Ronaldo Aquino said. “We are doing face lifting, widening the road and improving the drainage system to make Calbayog attractive to investors.”
Aquino said his dream for his constituents is simple—to be able to provide the basic needs of the city residents and create jobs so that they no longer have to leave the city to look for a greener pasture.
The city has passed an investment code that provides a five-year moratorium on business taxes for new companies that will invest in the city. Already, a new Gaisano mall set to open this year will employ up to 500 workers. At least 80 percent of them would be residents of the city as part of the agreement. Robinsons Land Corp. is also planning to put up another mall, once it is done with an ongoing project in Tacloban.
A Cebu-based shipbuilding company is also considering putting up a new shipyard for building and repair near the newly established Calbayog City port. Two car companies are currently constructing display centers to enhance visibility and capture the market of Northern and Western Samar.
Calbayog serves as the commercial, industrial and fishing hub of Western Samar. In 2014 it generated an income of over P77 million, the third-biggest among cities in Eastern Visayas, derived mainly from production in fishery, abaca, copra and coconut oil processing. Currently, there are 14 banks operating in the city.
Aquino said the focus of his present administration is to improve the ecotourism potentials of the city. Three ecotourism destinations have been identified as priority areas for development—a dive site in Pawikan island (named after its turtle-shape), Bangon Falls and Malajog Beach and zipline.
A P130-million budget had been earmarked this year alone for the improvement of the facilities in the three sites, including concreting of roads, improvement and beautification of Malajog bridge and construction of trek. Part of the budget comes from office Rep. Edgar S. Sarmiento of Western Samar.
The sites are already showing potentials to attract tourists to the city. Last year 13,000 tourists visited Bangon Falls based on their tourist logbook. The Malajog zipline already had 7,000 zippers in the first nine months of its operation.
“This is way too cool,” said Ched Quirante, a student from Tacloban who came to try the zipline on a weekend. “You don’t have to go to Bohol anymore. Where else can you find a zipline that goes from a mountain going to an island and crossing a sea?”
Doing it right
MERLA Rosalado, a former dean at Christ the King College and a resident of Calbayog for 41 years now, witnessed how Calbayog transformed from a rustic community to an urban city. She recalled that way back in the early 1980s, transportation was a very big problem that at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, it was almost impossible to get a ride to Tacloban City.
Rosalado believed rapid development only started after the Local Government Code was passed in 1991, when local government units were given more power to set their own direction in governance.
“Local government units were given the opportunity to determine how they run their city, what direction to take,” she said.
She added the law paved the way for the construction of farm-to-market roads and other road networks in the city that made transport of goods a lot easier.
“Before, farmers would have to walk for as much as 12 hours to bring their harvest to the market,” she said.
Another drawback for the city’s development during that time was the seemingly political polarization not only in the city, but the whole Samar province.
Rosalado recalled anecdotes of that time. “When somebody dies, the first thing asked is whether the dead is a Liberal or a Nacionalista. It is not about the background of a person whether the dead comes from a family with known illness.”
She said even religious processions are not spared of politics—people would identify carriages of religious icons based on personalities that go with them, whether they are supporters of Liberal or Nacionalista.
“I am amused and just listen to their comments. They make good topics in classroom discussions,” she said.
Aquino agrees that too much politics was a hindrance to the city’s development in the past. He said one factor that works in Calbayog is how the mayors continue projects implemented by their predecessors, at least for the last three city administrations.
“I continue the projects of the previous mayor and only make some modifications to enhance the plans,” he said.
Nicholas Chan, past president of Greater Calbayog Chamber of Commerce and Industry, agrees much of the development of Calbayog City comes from the strong leadership of the administration.
“A lot of these depend on leadership, and for us in the business sector, it is importance to have political confidence and how the people perceive the leadership to be. I hope this continues,” he said.
Chan added there is still a need to develop facilities and infrastructure to improve the city’s chances of being an important tourist destination.
“We have beautiful rivers, more beautiful than Loboc. I hope we can develop what we have, the virginal nature that we have here,” he said. “We need to develop our infrastructure. We have beautiful falls but you cannot get there, you have to walk 30 minutes or so.”
Religion and mysticism
CALBAYOG City is rich in history, culture, religion and a dose of mysticism. While most of its residents are deeply religious as shown by a great number of regular churchgoers, tales of mysticism and paranormal happenings are also common fare. Some who believe in the paranormal say Calbayog City holds one portal to the enchanted city of Biringan, a story always laughed about, but believed by many.
Calbayog City is the third-biggest city in the country in terms of land and water area. It’s land alone, 880.74 square kilometers, makes it the sixth-biggest city in the country by land area. In the 2015 census, Calbayog City has a population of 183,851, the third most-populous city in Eastern Visayas.
The early history of Calbayog is deeply associated with the spread of Catholicism in the Philippines. Calbayog started as a small settlement, run by the Jesuit missionaries, referred then as Jibatang by Jesuit chronicler Fr. Ignacio Alcina. Due to flooding, the settlers were transferred to where the city proper is now located.
During the Spanish era, Calbayog, as a town and a parish, was composed of several villages, the most populated of which were called visitas. Calbayog grew from visita and became a pueblo (town). In 1785 Calbayog became a separate parish from the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the parish priest of Capul.
On April 10, 1910, the Diocese of Calbayog was created by virtue of the Papal Bull of Pope Pius X. The diocese was responsible for the religious and spiritual growth of residents of Samar and Leyte islands. From the Diocese of Calbayog, the other dioceses in the region were created on a much later date.
Calbayog became a city on July 15, 1948, when then-President Elpidio Quirino signed into law Republic Act 328, otherwise known as the Charter of the City of Calbayog. Its first set of city officials was inaugurated on October 16, 1948.
Calbayog City has come a long way since then. It is no longer shy to shine.