Happiness after Yolanda in Eastern Visayas

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In Photo: The island-provinces of Eastern Visayas are all connected by bridges.

Story & photos by Gretchen Filart Dublin

In 2013 Supertyphoon Yolanda—Haiyan to the rest of the world—brought with it a storm surge that swept away over 6,300 people in Eastern Visayas.

The Palo Metropolitan Cathedral and mass grave has over 300 buried Yolanda victims.
The Palo Metropolitan Cathedral and mass grave has over 300 buried Yolanda victims.

In the Palo Metropolitan Cathedral mass grave—just one of many across Leyte—only a few hundred are identified. Many remain missing to this day. Every November 8, as the region commemorates the Yolanda calamity, social media is flooded with messages from loved ones asking the lost to come home. Conversations with locals often lend themselves to anguish.

But Filipinos are renowned for faith and resilience, a trait that the people of Eastern Visayas carry deeper than others. Despite haunting memories of the deluge, locals find a way to open doors to opportunities that wring beauty from such a bleak tragedy.

Interestingly, tourism in this archipelagic region has risen tremendously since Yolanda happened. Department of Tourism (DOT) Region 8 administrative officer Brett de los Santos recalls how Leyte, particularly Tacloban, suffered from months of no electricity and water, hunger, looting and the stench of the dead—and how it was, ironically, the arrival of Yolanda that put then-unpopular Eastern Visayas on the map.

Guitar-shaped Lake Danao in Ormoc
Guitar-shaped Lake Danao in Ormoc

“Before, we had a really hard time promoting tourism here. But after the international community saw the disaster on the TV, there was an increase of about 300 percent in tourist arrivals,” he said.

Was it hard for Eastern Visayas to rise from the ashes? Not as many would imagine, de los Santos commented. He shares that only a year after the tragic storm, Samar, Leyte, and Biliran have recovered “more than 100 percent from the devastation”.

Into the heart of Eastern Visayas

Deni's Point at The Ulot River Torpedo Extreme Boat Adventure
Deni’s Point at The Ulot River Torpedo Extreme Boat Adventure

A 45-minute AirAsia flight to Tacloban—the gateway to the region —showed us how the Waray blitz tragedy. Then, we cruised over the 2.16-kilometer length of San Juanico bridge onward to a humble culinary institution in Samar. Bahay Kubo, a family-owned business at the Santa Rita junction, prides itself in serving smoky, coconut-infused native chicken. Their sweet chayote and bananas, paired with salty fish and mango salad, is an amazing introduction to Samar’s cuisine as one overlooks San Juanico bridge. Gastronomy, it turns out, is a pleasure that people take seriously in Eastern Visayas. From Bahay Kubo, we discovered many notable Waray restaurants, like Calle Zaragoza in Leyte, a colonial-style outfit that serves good-for-sharing Filipino and Western meals under P200, such as crispy tenga and bulalo. I cannot imagine disliking any of a dozen dishes served to us in this family favorite.

There is also Jo’s Milagrina in Ormoc, whose economical boodle meals combine the most loved components of Filipino cuisine, such as itlog na maalat at kamatis and inasal na manok at liempo. Here, patrons can sample the best crispy kangkong in this side of the Visayas and view live chickens in kitschy glass partitions.

If you are craving for artisan coffee and cheesecakes, Lorenzo’s Cafe fronting the Ormoc City pier is worth visiting. For great chops and pie, find Big Roy’s Resto in Palompon. A celebrity favorite, this streetside Western restaurant offers delectable specials, such as fillet mignon and Angus roast beef.

However, my most memorable dining experience takes place in Canaan Hill Farms and Honey Garden, where we ate blue rice and flowers for lunch. There are plenty others that are grown in the farm, including endangered plant species, like malaigang and lomboy. Organic meals—all homegrown from fowl to garnish—are served in a breezy hut uphill, surrounded by Mount  Suiro and Coalargo Bay. Guests also learn the art of planting and harvesting their own plants and mingle with meek sheep.

Eastern Visayas’s off-the-books surprises

Just a few minutes away from Canaan Hill Farms and Honey Garden is Tinago Falls, a relatively unknown 80-feet cascade in Barangay Caibiran. Swimming in its bone-chilling basin, surrounded by tall, vegetated limestones, one cannot help but marvel at the idea that water-loving tourists will never run out of activities to explore here.

Another such activity is the Ulot River Torpedo Extreme Boat Adventure in Paranas, Samar. This exhilarating 10-km ride takes you from Barangay Tenani to Ulot River’s rapids and whirlpools aboard a six-seater torpedo boat—a long wooden canoe without outriggers that is navigated manually by an expert guide.

It was wet and drizzling as the boat buoyed through the current for an hour, leaving us soaked from sole to head. The whole route spans 90 km, passing by small cascades, caves, and an eagle sanctuary (ulot means monkey in Waray, a staple diet for the Philippine Monkey-Eating Eagle, the first sighting of which was recorded in Ulot River), but the ride culminates at Deni’s Point, where you can freefall from the boulders to a torrential stream.

There’s also Lake Danao—previously Lake Imelda—in Ormoc, a tranquil, guitar-shaped lake that rests 650 meters above sea level. Rich canopies loom over the lake, and the water is fresh and nippy. If the sun gets too hot, there are floating huts for resting.

Heartwarming stays

“Since Yolanda, more and more hotels, restaurants, spas and tourist transport services have been opening their doors,” de los Santos commented.

Indeed, even The Oriental Leyte Hotel on Palo’s Red Beach, which was left derelict after the storm surge, now boasts an elaborate and upscale space, with Asian-themed suites that are risen two floors on the shore. There is no trace of calamity, especially as one watches sunrise and the tides from the seaside lounge or while enjoying a finely crafted Asian buffet in Samsara, its in-house restaurant.

Even in heavily damaged places, such as Tacloban, hotels like the chic XYZ Hotel and family-owned Hotel Estrella, flourish more than ever. Both offer skyline bars that overlook the city as you enjoy bespoke cocktails.

In Ormoc coastal respites, such as Sabin Resort and Ormoc Villa Hotel, share the same vibrance. In both outfits, guests are treated to luxurious pools amid beautifully landscaped gardens. The hotels receive as many business travelers as families, thanks to their capacious meeting rooms.

De los Santos credits Eastern Visayas’s fast recuperation to the communities’ concerted effort to rebuild and help. “There was really bayanihan during Yolanda. Everyone was helping everyone.

Those who have excess relief goods give theirs away to neighbors, so did those who have sari-sari stores. Even those who looted shared food without hesitation when asked,” he intimated. It also helped that businesses showed unwavering cooperation to the rehabilitative efforts initiated by local government units, who, along with non-governmental organizations, worked round-the-clock to restore order in Eastern Visayas.

“Apart from relief operations, we at the Department of Tourism are also involved in monitoring and education to ensure all businesses are well-informed of contingency plans in case something like Yolanda happens again. We go across the region with consultants to conduct seminars and workshops on disaster reduction, water conservation, evacuation and environmental changes for hotel owners and their staff so that everyone is well-prepared,” de los Santos added.

Finding happiness after the storm

Exactly three years after Yolanda made Eastern Visayas nearly unsalvageable, we headed to Palo Metropolitan Cathedral’s mass grave. In the air, elegies resounded along with the jarring reality that on the cathedral’s grounds, hundreds of Filipinos laid to rest. The air was somber, even if very few cried.

Our bus treaded the streets, where candles sparked against the night all the way to the MacArthur Landing Memorial, where a candle-lighting ceremony was being held to commemorate the departed. At the park, a mass was held, candles were lit and shaped like a cross, and people flew paper lanterns, chanting gleefully as they flew upward to the moon. In a world where it’s often harder to forget pain than to rejoice in happiness, I have expected to see nothing but sadness and pain in Eastern Visayas. But instead what I saw was hope, and fortitude. I saw how the Waray, like the rest of the Filipinos, are unwavering in their pursuit of happiness even after despair has claimed much of the journey.

“Somehow, the uneasiness and pain will always be here,” said de los Santos placing a hand over his chest. “But the Waray always finds ways to find the positive amid the dark.”

Samar, Biliran and Leyte can be reached by flying into the Tacloban Airport. AirAsia flies three times daily from Manila to Tacloban.

Image credits: Gretchen Filart Dublin

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