In Pantukan, both the living and the dead ride the habal-habal

PANTUKAN, Compostela Valley - A habal-habal negotiates the road to Sitio Panganason-B in Barangay Kingking, Pantukan town in Compostela Valley province, site of the April 22 mine disaster that left 14 persons dead and nine others missing. MindaNews photo by Ruby Thursday More.

PANTUKAN, Compostela Valley (MindaNews/03 May) — In some towns of Mindanao, the sight of motorcycles is a sure sign that some of its remote areas are barely inaccessible by four-wheeled vehicles.

Although there are villages that can be reached using four-wheel drive vehicles, many would still prefer to ride the more reliable “habal-habal,” a customized single motorcycle that can carry several passengers along with their bulky cargoes.

Every town or province has its own design and customization of habal-habal. In the provinces of Agusan del Sur, Agusan del Norte, Compostela and South Cotabato the most popular motorcycle used is the Honda TMX 155cc.

In this town, however, smaller motorcycles like the Honda TMX are less popular compared to the Kawasaki KMX 125cc, a sports-type single
motorcycle. Habal-habal drivers here prefer this type of motorcycle because of its performance and maneuverability given the road conditions going to the remote villages.

But aside from transporting passengers and grocery supplies, habal-habal driver Virgilio Gamot told MindaNews that their motorcycles are also used as “ambulance” in times of emergency.

Gamot said he could no longer remember how many times he had transported patients who were already in critical condition. “Naay ka-usa na gikan sa Sitio Panganason na pasyente na himatyonon na pero nakaabot ra gyud mi sa ospital. Kasagaran kanang ma atake sa high blood. Kaluy-an pud nga makaabot og masalbar sila namo, (One time I carried a patient from Sitio Panganason who was already dying but we managed to reach the hospital. Most of them suffered high blood pressure. We’re blessed enough to have saved them)” he recalled.

It takes at least an hour from Panganason to the town proper. But during emergencies, Gamot said, it would take less than an hour to transport the patients.

The 45-year-old driver said they would sometimes tie the patient to their bodies especially if s/he is already weak while a relative riding another habal-habal would just tail them.

“Wala may makasaka dire na ambulance o naa bay sakyanan didto sa taas na andam mag-karga dayon pababa. Dili makakaya ang truck kay maabtan tig tatlo ka oras panaog usahay labi na daot gyud dalan, (There is no ambulance or another vehicle up there that could readily carry the patients to the lowland. A truck won’t do as it would take three hours to go down given the bad road condition)” said Gamot, who started driving habal-habal when he was 20 years old.

Cadaver transporter

Aside from the patients, he said they would also transport cadavers from the remote villages to the funeral parlors for embalming.

“If somebody dies in Boringot, Panganason or any other place, the drivers would try to get there first since the pay is high, P2,000 per body. In addition, the funeral parlor would give P500,”  Gamot, speaking in the vernacular, disclosed with a chuckle.

In most cases, the dead would be tied and wrapped around the driver’s body to prevent it from falling, he said.

Some drivers would install wooden planks at the rear of the motorcycle and have the dead lain on its back. The body would be wrapped in either blanket or plastic sheet.

Habal-habal drivers plying the gold-rush sites of Panganason and other nearby areas can carry up to four persons only along with their baggage. They usually charge P300 for each passenger. If the baggage is as big as one person, they would also charge the same rate.

Toto Molles, 38,  said the drivers are already accustomed to transporting the dead from the barangays to the town proper.

“Ang uban di mokarga kay mahadlok pero kami na karaan na, karga gyud mi kay panginabuhian man namo ni. Pero usahay maka-lingi pud kay basin mawala ang patay ba or ma-unsa ba kaha, (Some are afraid to carry the dead but we the older ones do it for economic reasons. But  sometimes we would look back to make sure the dead body is still there or nothing happens to it)” quipped Molles who started driving habal-habal when he was 14 years old.

Molles has been ferrying passengers using his sports-type motorcycle for over a decade already.

During the landslide tragedy at Sitio Panganason-B, all of the cadavers retrieved from the site were transported using the habal-habal. The bodies were wrapped in body bags and tied to the wooden planks at the rear of the motorcycles.

The tragedy left 14 persons dead and nine others missing.

The habal-habal drivers also hauled rescuers and soldiers to the landslide site.

Gamot said it takes about an hour and 10 minutes to Sitio Panganason at a speed of 50 to 60 kilometers per hour. He added that their motorcycles have been modified to increase power.

“We call it rebore, to increase power.”

When journalists flocked to the area on the first few days of the tragedy, the habal-habal drivers charged P1,500 per motorcycle for a daylong trip.

It is a like rollercoaster ride going to the site since some portions of the road are carved from boulders.

Landslides occasionally block the road. The drivers said they would sometime wait for several hours and even for a day until a backhoe arrives to remove the dirt and rocks.

While some portions of the road are also slippery due to mud and water that flows from the natural springs and ball mill shops just beside it, particularly near the gold-rush sites.

Drivers pay a “toll fee” to the private landowners since some portions of the road were carved from their farmlands.

“They are authorized because it is a private land. We are paying a total of P63. But when we are commissioned by the local government, we are exempted,” Gamot explained.

Different provinces, different habal-habal modifications

While habal-habal drivers here are only modifying the machines, in Agusan del Sur habal-habals are installed with wooden planks on the sides so that they can carry up to 10 persons along with their baggage.

While some habal-habal motorcycles  are fixed with a roof made of tarpaulin and wood, some are fitted with improvised windshields using plastic sheets and wooden frames.

In South Cotabato, they are commonly plying the remote villages in Lake Sebu and T’boli.

Unlike in this town, habal-habal drivers n South Cotabato prefer Honda TMX and installed with iron grills on the sides to be able to carry up to seven persons. (Keith Bacongco / MindaNews)