Sunday, 7 October 2012

Dante Varona Unchained at San Juanico Bridge


I remember when I was growing up in our old neighborhood in Paranaque, there was this tricycle driver whom everybody calls "King". He has disheveled features: long black beard and a semi-handlebar mustache that matches to a thick hair that appeared to haven't felt the sweep of a comb for years. He has an air of a mysterious man who doesn't talk much, but was widely known for having a short temper--especially if you pay him a 20 peso bill for a 1 peso tricycle fare. There were murmurs going around, probably made up by adults to scare off kids like me, that he was the mysterious stuntman named Dante Varona. Urban legend says that after Dante Varona jumped off from the highest point of San Juanico Bridge, blood flowed out of his eyes, ears and nose and was almost feared dead. Afterwards, he vanished into a recluse under the guise of a new name and profession.

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I was too young to know who Dante Varona even though at an early age, I was already fond of action movies. Channel 9 used to show a lot of these old action films starring Eddie "Lagalag" Fernandez, Fernando Poe Jr and his wide array of "me against a thousand Japanese" WWII movies, Lito Lapid, Jess Lapid, Jun Aristorenas, Joseph Estrada, the anting-anting movies of Ramon Revilla Sr., all of them but none of the films starring Dante Varona. I remember the day when my then Sibika at Kultura teacher, taught us about the different landmarks around the Philippines. When she mentioned and showed us the picture of San Juanico Bridge, I almost raised my hand and wanted to tell the class how I know someone who jumped off from that bridge.


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Since then, I slowly realized that King and Dante Varona were two different people, as Dante Varona later made a comeback in Philippine movies during the early 90's starring in the action films of Eddie Garcia--and King remained as the shadowy tricycle drive in our neighborhood. After a few years, we left our house in Paranaque and settled into another city. I've never known what had become of King—the temperamental Dante Varona of my childhood, without the life threatening stunts.

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During my trip to Tacloban a few months ago, I made sure to walk through the entire 1.34 mile length of San Juanico Bridge. It's not a very long distance for rambling, so my pace was brisk and calculating, giving me enough time to enjoy the view and feel the tremors that occurs after each speeding bus and vans passes by. I took a van-van from Tacloban to Basey, Samar where I had my late breakfast and walked around the town for an hour. On my way back, I took the van-van going back to Tacloban, but this time I alighted just before it cruised by the start of the San Juanico Bridge from the Samar side.

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I went past a few armed policemen manning their sentry at the foot of the bridge. They saw me with a camera hanging by my neck. One of them, a lady cop clutching an armalite rifle was my seatmate on the van during the trip earlier to Basey. She recognized me and asked if I'm going to take pictures. I nodded at her and said 'Yes'. Both ends of San Juanico Bridge has an outpost manned by heavily armed policemen. I didn't know the reason behind it, but I'm guessing, the bridge is a really cool landmark nobody wants to see being blown up by terrorists. But I'm sure, that's quite a far-fetched scenario and all of these was just for additional security purposes.

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I will spare you the history of the bridge as one click at Wikipedia will do the trick. I must say though, after its construction in 1973, it became renowned as one of the few engineering wonders of Asia. Right at par at where Philippines was at that time—when it comes to architecture and engineering: the Araneta Coliseum, the Philippine International Convention Center--being the first convention center in the Philippines. Those were the years when architectural, engineering and art-related structures blossomed, but sadly tainted by human rights abuses and massive corruption by the few families who ruled our country back then.

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Approaching the center part of the bridge, I stood up at the highest point, presumably where the real Dante Varona took his career and legend defining leap in the movie "Hari ng Stunt". I stared down at the waters while the ground trembled as vehicles passes by. I can feel the bolt shooting up my body reminding me of my fear of heights. For a second there, the thought of leaping crossed my mind, which I quickly swore not to entertain again, unless I have a bungy jump rope tied to my body for safety.

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The San Juanico Strait, as viewed from the bridge is really impressive. I saw whirlpools forming below me, a speck of mangroves and tiny islets here and there. There is that satisfaction knowing you are sandwiched by two provinces: Samar and Leyte on both sides.

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"Welcome to Leyte" says on one side and "Welcome to Samar" says on the other. The bridge is a fitting symbolism to what everything in this world are ought to be. No land is far away, and everything is connected, bridged together like brothers and sisters, lovers, and what haves. The bridge comes like a metaphor defining closeness to each human being—despite differences in religion and philosophies in life.

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As I reach the end of San Juanico Bridge at the Leyte side drenched in sweat by the scorching sun, I stopped by a small restaurant and ordered an ice cold soda. While replenishing myself with a thirst quenching drink, I thought about the Dante Varona of my childhood and wondered if he ever found a way to take his own leap of faith. I asked that same question to myself too. Well, a leap of faith is something I must take soon. When? The answers aren't crystal clear yet, but I vow to keep an open mind for its eventuality in the near future.

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This post is an entry to the Pinoy Travel Bloggers' Blog Carnival for October 2012
The theme for this month is "Memorable Walking Tour"
This month's Blog Carnival is hosted by Glenn Martinez of Traveler on Foot