Dante Varona Unchained at San Juanico Bridge

When I was growing up in our old neighborhood in Paranaque, there was this tricycle driver who everyone referred to as "King." He has disheveled features, including a long black beard and a semi-handlebar mustache that matches his thick hair, which appeared to haven't felt the sweep of a comb for years. He has the air of a mysterious man who doesn't say much but is well-known for having a short temper—especially if you pay him a 20 peso bill for a 1 peso tricycle fare. There were whispers, probably made up by adults to scare off kids like me, that he was the daredevil stuntman Dante VaronaAccording to an urban legend, after Dante Varona jumped from the highest point of the San Juanico Bridge, blood flowed out of his eyes, ears, and nose, and he was almost killed. He then became a recluse under the guise of a new name and profession.

I was too young to know who Dante Varona was, despite my early love 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, Ramon Revilla Sr's anting-anting movies, all of them except the ones starring Dante Varona. However, I recall my then-Sibika at Kultura teacher teaching us about the various landmarks throughout the Philippines. When she mentioned and showed us a picture of the San Juanico Bridge, I almost raised my hand and told the class about someone I know who jumped off of it.

Since then, I've gradually realized that King and Dante Varona were not the same person, as Dante Varona later made a comeback in Philippine movies in the early 1990s, starring in Eddie Garcia action films—while King remained the shadowy tricycle driver in our neighborhood. We moved away from Paranaque after a few years and settled in another city. I'd never known what had happened to King—the volatile Dante Varona of my childhood, sans the life-threatening stunts.

During a recent trip to Tacloban, I made a point of walking the entire 1.34-mile length of the San Juanico Bridge. It's not a long distance for rambling, so my pace was brisk and calculated, giving me enough time to enjoy the scenery and feel the tremors caused by passing speeding buses and vans. I took a van-van from Tacloban to Basey, Samar, where I had a late breakfast and spent an hour walking around the town. I took the van-van back to Tacloban, but this time I got off just before it passed the start of the San Juanico Bridge from the Samar side.

I walked past a few armed cops stationed at the foot of the bridge. They noticed me with a camera around my neck. One of them, a lady cop clutching an armalite rifle, was my seatmate on the van on the way to Basey earlier. She recognized me and asked if I was going to photograph anything. I nodded and said, 'Yes.' Both ends of the San Juanico Bridge are guarded by heavily armed police officers. I didn't know why, but I'm guessing it's because the bridge is a really cool landmark that no one wants to see blown up by terrorists. But I'm sure that's a far-fetched scenario, and all of this was just for extra security.

I'll skip the history of the bridge because a quick search on Wikipedia will suffice. However, after its completion in 1973, it became known as one of Asia's few engineering marvels. When it comes to architecture and engineering, the Philippines were right on par at the time: the Araneta Coliseum, the Philippine International Convention Center—the first convention center in the Philippines. Those were the years when architectural, engineering, and art-related structures flourished, but they were tainted by human rights violations and massive corruption by the few families that ruled our country at the time.

As I approached the bridge's center, I stood at the highest point, presumably where the real Dante Varona took his career-defining leap in the film "Hari ng Stunt." I looked down at the water as vehicles passed by, and the ground trembled. The bolt shooting up my body reminds me of my aversion to heights. For a split second, I considered leaping, but quickly resolved not to do so unless I had a bungy jump rope tied to my body for safety.

The view of the San Juanico Strait from the bridge is breathtaking. I noticed whirlpools forming beneath me, as well as specks of mangroves and tiny islets here and there. There's a sense of accomplishment in knowing you're surrounded on both sides by two provinces: Samar and Leyte.

On one side, it says "Welcome to Leyte," and on the other, it says "Welcome to Samar." The bridge is a fitting metaphor for how everything in this world should be. No land is too far away, and everything is linked, like brothers and sisters, lovers, and what have you. The bridge functions as a metaphor for human connection, despite religious and philosophical differences.

I stopped at a small restaurant on the Leyte side of the San Juanico Bridge, drenched in sweat from the scorching sun, and ordered an ice cold soda. While sipping a refreshing drink, I reflected on the Dante Varona of my childhood and wondered if he ever found a way to take his own leap of faith. I asked myself the same question. So, I'll have to take a leap of faith soon. When? The answers aren't clear yet, but I'm going to keep an open mind in case it happens in the near future.


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