The last gasp of summer
PENMAN - Butch Dalisay () - June 16, 2003 - 12:00am
A couple of weekends ago, just before the summer officially came to an end with the onset of the rains, I went on the last great day-trip adventure I hadn’t been on yet, and drove over to Real, Quezon, just before Infanta on the Pacific coast.

To be honest, someone else did the driving – I have a driver now, a fine fellow named Cris, and he was actually the one who suggested that we join the rest of my staff who were already in Real on their first outing (what we used to call an "excursion," back in the days when it meant buying a straw hat with something like "Tagaytay" plastered on it in red felt letters) in four years. A meeting the day before in Los Baños had held us back, but with a long, empty Saturday looming ahead, who could resist the lure of the ocean? Cris – who had been to Real many times – regaled me with stories of fresh catches of seafood being offloaded on the shore, for the lucky visitor’s delectation. I had heard similar stories from my buddies in the Volkswagen Club of the Philippines, who regularly drive their Beetles to Real (in what you might call a convoy of the willing) to give their machines – and their reflexes – a good workout.

I’ve always been intrigued by this side of Luzon, which is as lush and green as the countryside can get, but which hardly figures in most Metro Manilans’ weekend plans. We think nothing of dashing to Tagaytay or Nasugbu or Subic and even Baguio, but Quezon still seems a tad too adventurous. Many years ago, on a lark and with a Toyota Land Cruiser to carry us around, some friends and I had done the lakeshore drive, where you go around Laguna de Bay from Antipolo to Tanay then Paete and Pagsanjan, on to Calamba and back to Manila on the expressway.

Every city boy and girl, I think, should do this at least once, if only to realize how breathtakingly lovely the Filipino countryside can get barely an hour’s drive from one’s roach-and-rodent-infested apartment – and, conversely, how marvelously we’ve succeeded in mucking things up. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m a diehard, irreformable city dweller myself, and I get loony when I stray too far and too long from the familiarity of throbbing neon, petrol fumes, and manhole covers. Three days under the palms munching on skewered squid is pretty much my limit – and then I start looking for corned beef. But a day or two out in the country can do wonders even for the most incorrigible urbanite, as a reminder of what scholars older than your grandfather called our "prelapsarian" (there’s your word du jour) days, back when we ran around buck naked without getting too excited about it.

I’d always wanted to get to the Quezon side of things and actually tried to do it once, investing three hours into the journey until I had to admit (having silently realized it an hour earlier, but sullenly driving on like a real man) that I’d taken the wrong road. The right road, as Cris would show me as best he could at four in the morning, was not the one going straight to Tanay from Masinag market, but the leftward one at the very end of the Antipolo scenic route, the one that winds past Padi’s Point and all those fruit stands.

I prefer going to places at the crack of dawn, whether it’s Subic or Sydney at the other end; it gives you a full day to spend, and there’s nothing like breakfast in situ to start your sojourn with. The only problem is, you can’t see a thing on or along the road. By the time the sun came up, we had gone past Morong and Teresa, Rizal, places I wish I knew better, and were zipping past Pililla. We were going high up a mountain, where the air was cool and clean enough that we could turn off the air-conditioning; far below us twinkled the lights and cooking fires of the waking city. I discovered that the first town in Laguna on this side was Mabitac (about which more, later), followed by Siniloan, which starts low on a plain then rises to the Sierras, along a winding road flanked by groves of mango, jackfruit, and mahogany.

We reached the beach resort at around 6:30 a.m. – Real, at this point, was 116 kilometers from Manila – just in time for breakfast of dried fish, tomatoes, and bagoong. It was high tide, and black water obscured much of the beach – which, I was assured, stretched out far into the distance; looking even farther out, I could see the blur of Polillo Island on the horizon. The resort was located where a river joined the sea, and a beached kayak hinted at more challenging adventures upstream.

I was never much of a beach person, although I love beach picnics; I got my toes wet, then promptly feel asleep under the breezes. When I woke up I organized a sortie to Infanta, about half an hour away, to take a look at the public market, where most good things in small places usually end. I was rewarded with a huge bag of boiled peanuts and white corn for less than a hundred pesos, and an impression of Infanta’s many-balconied houses. By the time we got back to Real, the day’s catch had come in, and roadside stalls hawked all manner of seafood, from leaping suahe to gargantuan squid. I loaded up on the suahe and the biggest ulang I’d ever seen in my whole life – both of them proscribed by my low-purine diet, but what the heck; I get uric acid every day, but not this nicely. After lunch, an ice cream vendor found his way to our group, offering native cheese and macapuno ice cream; the office boss treated his staff to all the ice cream they could eat, and the bill came out to all of P95. But what surprised me more was the vendor’s polite but insistent refusal to keep the change; this truly was another world.

Having more work ahead, Cris and I left around 2 p.m., and this time I enjoyed every detail of the ride, and understood why people weren’t flocking to Real in droves. Oh, did I forget to mention that there’s no cell phone signal (neither Globe nor Smart) in this part of Quezon, and not a gas station on the road from Real to Siniloan? You could vanish for a week up in those mountains, with no one the wiser (and the presence of an Army camp in the middle of nowhere tells another story, as well). The road itself was in great shape, among the best you can travel on anywhere in the country. The earth was so ruddy that it looked like it would bleed at the prick of a shovel. This earth nourished the giant ferns and the old trees used for the folk-art furniture that seemed to be Siniloan’s main enterprise. Here even the shanties were made of sawn-up logs. Small ponies, weighted by baskets on both sides, tiptoed through the woods.

My cell phone signal returned with a vengeance, announcing a flurry of messages, somewhere in Siniloan, although I kept losing it as we went round the mountain’s shoulders. Somewhere between Mabitac and Pililla, framed by bamboo and tamarind, was the most spectacular view of Laguna de Bay and its environs; as I took in the view I was besieged by a flock of kids, and I walked away with slices of nangka and bags of quail eggs for souvenirs. As the bonsai gardens of Pililla fell behind us and we hit Antipolo’s holiday traffic, the quaintness of the day also began to recede, awaiting another Saturday in another summer to be revived.
* * *
I got curious about Mabitac, which I had never heard of before. I did a Google search on it, and found a very interesting article from the archives of the magazine of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, about an obscure "Massacre at Mabitac" over a hundred years ago. Here’s an excerpt, slightly edited:

"A village located in Laguna Province on Luzon Island, Mabitac was perfect for entrapment. A causeway connected the village to Siniloan, a garrisoned town one mile to the west. That mid-September, the road was covered with water – at some places waist-deep.

"The flanking rice fields were submerged under water to a depth ranging up to eight feet. Enemy trenches cut across the causeway and were dug inside a hill, as well.

"An estimated 800 Filipinos, commanded by Gen. Juan Cailles, manned the trenches. They were armed with an assortment of rifles – Krag-Jorgensens, Mausers and Remingtons. Holding an overwhelming strategic and tactical advantage, the Filipinos were well prepared for the onslaught to come.

"Comprising the Army assault team were 142 soldiers: 45 federal volunteers of Co. L, 37th Inf. Regt. and 97 regulars of Co. L, 15th Inf. Regt. The volunteers were seasoned tropical campaigners, but none of the regulars had ever been under fire – they were raw recruits who had arrived on the islands just days before.

"Sent ahead to reconnoiter, an eight-man squad under 2nd Lt. George Cooper ran into a hail of bullets 300 yards short of the breastworks. Nonetheless, they fought their way forward. Cooper ‘coolly, ably and gallantly led his men,’ recorded 1st Lt. Thomas R. Harker of Co. L, 15th Inf. ‘At no time in the action did he hesitate. He was killed within 50 yards of the enemy’s works.’ Apparently, all the other squad members also were ultimately killed.

"The main force bogged down several hundred yards shy of the trench lines. ‘On account of the depth of the water on either side of the road, it was impossible to deploy the company at any time,’ wrote Harker. ‘The men in front were in constant danger of being shot by the men in their rear.’ Since they did not exercise fire control, the men quickly exhausted their ammo….

"Fighting on the levee had lasted one hour and 20 minutes; casualties were severe. Ten of the Americans’ bodies initially disappeared under the water, but were later retrieved by local villagers.

"All told, the two units engaged sustained 21 KIA and 23 WIA – the second highest U.S. casualty toll in a single action of the Philippines War. The 15th infantry suffered 71% of the deaths. It was later learned that one Lt. Col. Fidel and 10 of his Filipino companions were killed, along with 20 wounded.

"Gen. Arthur MacArthur put the best face on the defeat. He cabled the War Department: ‘The attack was pushed from the front with great pertinacity,’ adding that ‘33% is a profoundly impressive loss, and indicates stubbornness of fight, fearless leadership of officers, and splendid response of men.’

"But Maj. Gen. J.C. Bates of the Department of Luzon was far less glowing in his assessment. ‘As the officer who was responsible for this mistake gallantly atoned for his error with his life,’ he stated in an after-action report, ‘it is deemed charitable as well as politic to drop a veil over this matter rather than to give any publicity that can be avoided.’"

Well, thanks to a weekend joyride, now I know.
* * *
Send e-mail to Butch Dalisay at

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