It was called the 839 San Isidro Express.
It was old and rickety, with cracked leather seats and pink tinted windows. Decals of saints and Jesus fraternizing with the children lined its metal walls and somewhere in the secret recesses of its overhead bins wafted the faint yet cloying smell of drying fish.
This was our Rocinante for the day.
Passage on board the 839 San Isidro Express from San Rafael to Puerto Princesa cost P60.00 per passenger. Abbey and I had canvassed the rates of various airport transfers and had found the following: P6,400.00 (from an online agency); P2,500.00 (from a local company); and P2,000.00 (from our resort). Because I refused (on principle) to pay such exorbitant fees for a simple, one-way transfer, Abbey and I ended up in a waiting shed on the North National Highway where, we were told, we could “commute” to the airport at a fraction of the prices quoted.
We were also warned that the waiting could stretch indefinitely. (“At what time should we start waiting if our flight is at 8:30 pm?” is what I asked one of the resort staff. “You should start waiting at 12:00 nn Ma’am.” I stopped asking questions after that. “Let’s just leave at 4:30 pm,” I told Abbey blithely.)
Thirty minutes after we’d left the resort, I started worrying. Few buses and vans rattled past, and none of them seemed remotely interested in carrying passengers. I’ll wait fifteen minutes more, I told myself. If we don’t get a ride by then, I’m returning to the resort and ordering a transfer.
This is where we waited. Along with a dog. And several chickens.
Five minutes before my deadline expired, Abbey spotted a clanking and rattling dust cloud on the horizon and I waved an arm tentatively. Several yards after it had passed us by, the 839 San Isidro Express screeched to a halt.
We barely made it to our seats before the driver stepped on the accelerator and we lurched merrily on our way.
If there was a countryside, Abbey and I barely saw it (though the window next to her was large enough to cause her concern; “I could fall out of that hole,” she told me worriedly, and spent the next 70 minutes gripping the iron bar in front with white-knuckled hands). The driver hurtled towards the provincial capital with a jovial indifference to safety, mortality…and, well, gravity. We careened through hairpin turns, jolted over humps, floated over bridges and honked at everything that remotely looked like it could slow us down.
My theory is the windows doubled as emergency exits.
And so, Abbey and I bounced and slid on our cracked leather seats, while the little boy next to me—a young local who couldn’t have been more than eight years of age—sat quietly and stoically, apparently welded to his seat through the sheer force of his solemnity.
“I have to say,” I told Abbey through clenched teeth, “this is the most excitement we’ve had since we got here.” She shot me a look that said, “If you like the excitement so much, why don’t you sit next to the window?”
About 70 hair-raising minutes later, we clattered to a halt at the San Jose Terminal and exited the bus with admirably steady legs.
“How much from here to the airport?” I asked the tricycle driver who’d accosted us. “P120.00 Ma’am,” he replied. “That’s the same as our bus fare!” Abbey hissed into my ear.
Apparently, there was no beating the value of the 839 San Isidro Express.
Commuting. Definitely more fun in the Philippines.