An Ilocano son returns

- John L. Silva () - March 29, 2005 - 12:00am
I’ve seen the rugged coastline and turquoise waters of Northern Luzon many times, but always from a plane 39,000 feet above on its way to or leaving Manila. Joining up recently with a Museum Foundation of the Philippines tour of Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur, I finally had a chance to see this section of the country up close.

We had five days to see the sights, starting from the heritage city of Vigan and winding our way–with church stops, roadside shopping stops, and food stops–through Ilocos Norte and further up to the coastline, up to the Cagayan border.

We were led by Maribel Ongpin, the museum foundation’s chairperson, an intrepid leader/guide and an Ilocana from Baguio. She has been on this route many times, stretching back to 40 years ago when there were no paved roads to speak of.

This trip was a re-discovery of my roots. My father was Ilocano; however, my mother’s Ilonggo heritage, particularly language, dominated our home to the extent that my father learned and spoke to us in Ilonggo. Every so often his roots surprised us when, in the company of townmates, he would speak a language different in lilt and tonality. When my father spoke in Ilocano, he seemed a different person; there was a beaming smile, a confidence and a warmth so distinctly his own.

When we stepped off the bus in Laoag and boarded our Fort Ilocandia Hotel van, I heard women vendors milling about. The bus driver said something. Departing passengers chattered. It was all familiar. For the next few days I was immersed in a place hearing my father’s warm voice.

La Preciosa Restaurant in Laoag was our first Ilocano dining experience. On the second floor of this converted 1950s house, we feasted on pinakbet, bagnet and other vaunted dishes of the region. Pinakbet, for one, is a stewed vegetable dish with a dominant piquant taste of bitter melon. Bagnet is deep fried roast pork slices rimmed with fat and skin, which melts in your mouth.

In California, my father drove me on Sundays to fruit orchards in Salinas where his townmates lived in work barracks. They were all older men who weren’t fortunate enough to marry and, after years of picking, never got enough money to return to Ilocos in the big-time fashion they had fantasized.

Dad would make me their son for that day and the men would cook cauldrons of food and pinakbet and bagnet were the stars. I was skittish at first because they had a pungent and oily taste compared to the staidness of Visayan cooking. But my "fathers" cajoled me and when I ate and ate voraciously, the old manongs would chuckle, proclaiming to my grinning father that his son was an Ilocano too.

It was my first time to Vigan and for those with an eye for heritage buildings, this city is pure eye candy. I had thought that the tourist photos of old Vigan centered around one or two streets. It turns out that these grand old houses and buildings were on many streets and stretched many blocks. Driving down a street, it was a hard choice to look to the left or to the right, both sides displaying fine examples of Spanish colonial style stone houses. The wide calesas, still used by locals, pass by frequently and add a picturesque flavor to a snapshot. The main tourist area, Crisologo St. lined in cobblestone, has old houses stretching as far as the eye can see.

There are two excellent museums in Vigan. One is the Museo San Pablo, located right behind the church on the main plaza. It has, for its permanent exhibit, reproductions of original photographs of Vigan taken by a German photographer in the late 19th century. One interesting photo is a shot of the church with its belfry and beautiful old houses and buildings nearby. A local curator couldn’t hide his disdain pointing to a building in the photograph, closest to the church. "That is where McDonald’s is now. They’ve built a copy of our church complete with a belfry."

Sure enough, when I stepped outside this lovely church and saw the imitation across hawking burgers instead of salvation, I congratulated myself and my many friends who’ve been boycotting McDonald’s since it set up a faux colonial burger joint on Balayan, Batangas church grounds. lover of old buildings confronted, for example, with the majesty of Paoay Church, can intuit the genius of the Spanish priest/architect and the indigenous artistry that intervened and displays itself proudly throughout the building.

The grand interiors of many of the Ilocos churches, with their high ceilings that cause one to look up and ponder divinity, make one reflect on how a structure instigates spiritual thoughts. Despite the countless revolts by the natives against the imposition of Catholicism, the grandeur of Philippine churches has played a significant role in why Filipinos embraced a foreign religion.

But now, many are totally ruined, defaced or deformed by their own parish priests and bishops who have taken upon themselves the ill-equipped role of being architectural stewards. Laoag Cathedral, once majestic, now stands roofless and without funds to complete a disastrous plan to replace its wooden beams with a steel roof. Sarrat Church has a façade done up beyond recognition from its original design. One weeps over Dingras Church and its crumbling exterior. A crafty native artisan hundreds of years back was able to sneak in Indic designs here and there and one can almost hear him laughing at his cunning. Today, like me, he must be seething, as the church progresses to ruins, the balustrades reeking of urine.

If there is to be a tourist plan for the region, the churches, like Thailand’s temples, could be star attractions. At the rate it’s going, skip the churches. No intelligent tourist will pain himself to visit structures so mutilated.

The faithful keepers of Ilocos history have been the museums, most notably preserved by the Burgos Museum in Vigan, administered by the National Museum and housed in the home of the national hero and priest. Along with two other reform minded priests, Father Burgos was strangulated by Spanish authorities after the Cavite Mutiny of 1872.

Despite limited funds, the Burgos Museum has maintained the interior of a 19th century house, including a well-preserved kitchen. The museum’s highlight is the series of paintings recording the Basi Revolt. The uprising, capture and eventual hanging of the insurgents is one of the earliest visual records of native reaction to colonialism and the bravery of the Ilocanos.

The Ilocos Norte Museum in Laoag is the finest example of a private regional museum in the country. Housed in the former Tabacalera warehouse in the city center, this lifestyle museum displays artifacts–clothing, utensils, farm implements and varying woven baskets–all well-described and laid out.

In this cavernous brick building, they fitted a two-storey house so you can wander through various rooms and get a feel of provincial life. The temporary exhibitions gallery had an interesting exhibit on the Ulnas, the increasingly rare worksled drawn by carabaos. It is an impressive museum and must not be missed by travelers and museum aficionados. The very best of pasalubongs and souvenirs can be found in the museum gift shop.

Iharbored trepidations about visiting the Marcos Mausoleum in Batac, where the body of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos is displayed. I was an anti-Marcos activist living abroad and on an enemies’ list that prevented me from returning home. It’s been many years now, and the country has unfortunately progressed little after his ouster.

We were ushered into a dark room with a domed ceiling hovering over Marcos’ body, lit up and laid out under glass. A recorded Gregorian chant was playing and an eternal flame billowed at his foot.

The body, his face, his hands invite curiosity and questions. Is this real or is it wax? The face looked different and unrecognizeable. The hair style seemed the only faithful fragment. I had come to meditate on a man that altered a nation. Instead, I encountered a grotesque pitiful sight shorn of any remaining dignity. The sycophants of Lenin and Mao, thinking they could hold on to power by transforming their dead idols into taxidermist creations, have been proven wrong. Likewise with the former president. History and deeds will judge him, his waxed figure notwithstanding.

Our party drove north to Pagudpud and along the way stopped at the Bojeador Lighthouse, a well worn but still very handsome structure on a steep hill.

Climbing 60 steps of a spiral staircase, one is rewarded with a breathtaking view of the coastline, the pounding surf and a deep blue ocean beyond. My mind kept comparing the scene to other vistas. A California coast. Torremolinos in Southern Spain. Oriente Province in Cuba.

A voice in me admonished my silly attempt to frame what I was seeing with sights elsewhere in the world. Here, in front of me, in our country, was a stunning view to behold. And it is simply that.

This late revelation for many like me that our country is so beautiful arose because there is nothing up north to mar and hide its charm. Imagine the delight of driving for countless kilometers on well paved roads (thanks to President Marcos) and the cleanest of surroundings without the garbage of cell phone advertising banners or liquor signs pounded on age-old trees. As we motored along the winding coast, there were long silent moments, each one reveling in the forgotten splendor of our homeland.

In Pagudpud, we stayed at Pannzian Resort, a delightful cluster of cottages on elevated grounds fronting a beautiful bay. The owners, three brothers and a sister manager, have an abiding love for nature and it is evident in the tended garden, the recycled driftwood furniture and the pervasive use of thatch and bamboo throughout. They serve the most delectable meals.

The activities recommended include visits to waterfalls and mountain trekking. A small group in the party opts for a motorcycle drive to Adams, a remote mountain town 40 minutes away.

"We only live once," I tell myself as I clamber on a motorcycle and hold on to my driver as we begin the drive inland. I stick myself with earphones, turn on classical music, and hum a Mozart Andante as we enter a deep virgin forest.

There is a daring spirit accompanied with feeling vulnerable when riding a motorcycle. We drive through mud and rocks and streams and rivers with our vehicle sliding about every so often. My young driver is relentless and cool which makes me stop worrying. Instead, I pull out my camera and daringly snap pictures as we zoom up the mountain.

It must have been the trees, 30 stories high. Or the several waterfalls we passed. Or the children of Adams that danced and posed for me. Or the mothers by the river pounding their clothes clean. Or the sheltering sky. Whichever it is, Betty’s voice comes to mind above the din of the motorcycle’s roar. She’s my New York friend, an elderly soulmate who was upset when I decided to return to my country. It was at a party and a friend had asked why I was returning. Betty overheard the question and remarked, laced with sarcasm and affection, "Oh, this John. He’s going to the Philippines to be a Filipino."

The boundless beauty of Ilocos, a place that bore defiant heroes with a language my dear father proudly spoke. So much more to learn and enjoy about this part of our country. Betty was right on the nose after all.

For more information about the Museum Foundation of the Philippines and future tours, call 404-2685.

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