Reading, Writing, Walking
Friday, April 25, 2008
IN LOVE WITH ILOCOS by Romina E. Gapol
The trip appeared to start on the wrong foot and looked like it was heading for doomsday. It was Holy Tuesday, and the five of us joined the throngs of people, fellow chance passengers relying on extra buses, who were all heading for Laoag, Ilocos Norte that night. After what seemed like eternity, our turn came to board the bus (de luxe, with CR, the sign said), exactly an hour since we arrived at the Maria de Leon terminal in Sampaloc, Manila. The bus left at 9:45 pm, thus signaling the beginning of what was to be a nine-hour trip. Looking back, I do not know which was worse: standing in line for an hour or sitting your way through a nine-hour bus trip. In between listening to my Swing Out Sister CD and catching glimpses of a movie about a giant python devouring its victims, I finally fell asleep. The bus was to make several stops, both intentional (as is their standard procedure) and unintentional (the driver loved taking yosi and pee breaks…but hey, he’s the one driving and I’ve no right to complain...who knows how many trips he has made that day?). To my dismay (and everyone else’s), each time there was a stop, a couple of old ladies would break out in peals of laughter. They could not stop getting a kick out of being stuck in the toilet inside the bus. So the next few hours went like this: bus stopped, old ladies cackled, toddler looked for dada, manong smoked while the passengers stretched, yawned, peed, complained about the old ladies and ate noodles in no particular order. Everybody is happy.

After negotiating the zigzag, the bus made its final stop in Ilocos Sur, at a shop that sells bibingka and brownies. Passengers groggily went down to buy pasalubong for their folks. At last, we were nearing the end of the road trip. Or so I thought. It would take another two hours before we arrived in Laoag at 6:45am, Holy Wednesday. I abandoned hopes of getting some shuteye and just looked out the window. The sun was just beginning to bathe the landscape with its golden rays. It was something straight out of a postcard: mountains that seemed to kiss the great blue sky, rows of neatly planted tobacco and rice, farmers plowing the fields with their carabaos, and cows and goats serenely grazing. We passed through quaint little towns that still had remnants of old Spanish glory. People were sweeping the streets and watering their gardens. I realized that people have been probably doing this routine since the olden times, when roads were still made of dirt and karetelas were the only modes of transportation. But wait, other than this nostalgic feeling, there was something more primal: I was hungry.

We stayed in a farm situated in the outskirts of Laoag City, a town called Bacalad. It had a little carinderia by the road, which sold haybol and miki Batac. We had the chance to sample the former, which was basically their own version of beef noodle soup. It was really tasty, there are plenty of beef chunks (and not the measly beef slices that we are accustomed to in Manila) and the broth is made from real beef. Too real in fact, that if you don’t stir your soup, you’ll have a thin blanket of lard in no time. This is certainly not for people watching their cholesterol levels. All this goodness for (ka-ching) twenty-five pesos! It’s just weird though that as we made our way back to the house, there were cows mooing so loudly as if to make us guilty for eating one of their kind.

When one visits Ilocos, you must be prepared to confront and embrace history, both ancient and fairly recent. That afternoon, we visited two of the oldest churches in the country: The Batac Church built in 1587 and the Paoay Church built in 1593, also recognized as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO. One can’t help but marvel at how these churches have retained their grandeur through the years. Not only are they pieces of evidence of Spanish rule in the country, they are also great testaments of the Ilocano faith.

Of course, what is Ilocos Norte without its most famous son, the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos? For a province that claims to be the land where great leaders are born, Marcos may very well be its most renowned ambassador. Right across the Batac Church is the Marcos Museum. Ironically, the place that houses the late strongman’s body and memorabilia is very austere. It is more Ilocano in outlook (very simple), a stark contrast to the grand (some say outlandish) lifestyle they had been known for. The museum traces the meteoric rise of Marcos’s career as a statesman and pays homage to the ideals nurtured by the former leader. We were fortunate to catch a glimpse of his body that day. There were so many visitors that the museum opened it for public viewing. It was a creepy experience, the kind that leaves you with goosebumps. The room was very dark (although not cold) and the only light came from the center of the room where Marcos’s body lay. The Gregorian chant playing in the background was the final element in this eerie orchestra. I was half-expecting the doors to suddenly shut, leaving the stunned visitors trapped. Then again, that was only my wild imagination getting the better of me.

We woke up early the next day for a sidetrip to Vigan. It only costs ninety pesos to ride an ordinary bus from Laoag to Vigan. Believe me, waiting for the bus to leave is easier than say, waiting for the bus to move along EDSA. The drivers probably understand that the passengers do not have the luxury of time to wait for passengers that will never come. Besides, there are plenty of passengers waiting in the other towns, as this is their only mode of transportation going to Vigan. Bumpy roads are a thing of the past so one enjoys a smooth, relaxing ride.

After two hours, we finally found ourselves in the bustling center of Vigan, Ilocos Sur. As we all know, Vigan is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a haven for historical conservationists. It has often been said that time seems to have stopped in Vigan, and rightfully so. The Arzobispado, St. Paul’s Metropolitan Cathedral, Plaza Salcedo and the whole stretch of Calle Crisologo (where souvenir and furniture shops abound) attest to the 300+ relationship established between Spain and the Philippines. It is also home to the Terracotta Red Clay Industry, Abel Iloco Weavers and Native Delicacy Makers. However, Vigan also fuses the old with the new. The blood of commercialism pumps new life in this bustling town, albeit through “old” veins. The mall and several fast food establishments were made to look like old buildings, lending a modern touch to its old world look. Tourism is also booming, judging from the number of local and foreign tourists alike who don’t seem to mind walking through this timeless place in the heat of the sun. To make the most out of your trip, make sure to visit the Ilocos Sur Tourism Information Center for brochures and useful tips.

On our last day, we visited Suba Beach, hoping to go for a swim. Instead, big waves welcomed us. So we just contented ourselves with walking along the stretch of coastline and waiting for the great white foam to reach the shore and topple the little sandcastles. Time seemed to pass by so slowly, one wishes to stay there forever and listen to the constant sound of the waves that is sure to lull anyone to sleep.

We also had the chance to see the sand dunes nearby: great mounds of sand constantly being formed and eroded by the wind. Yes, that’s right, sand dunes in our own backyard. And you thought they only exist in Africa.

Our last stop was the Ilocos Norte capital of Laoag. We had our pictures taken at the capitol, which looked almost, if not exactly like the one in Ilocos Sur. The people there were kind enough to give us brochures about the province. We also visited the St. William’s Cathedral and its Sinking Bell Tower, which was strangely a street away. I strongly recommend spending some time in downtown Laoag as the various sights are just a stone’s throw away from each other. Other sites worth visiting are the Tobacco Monopoly Monument, the Marcos Hall of Justice and the Museo Ilocos Norte.

Ilocanos seem to like eating al fresco. The plazas in both Laoag and Vigan have sections solely devoted to selling its famous delicacies like bagnet (deep-fried pork meat), empanada (a filling combination of vegetables, eggs, and longganiza wrapped in rice batter and deep-fried), bibingka (rice cake) and tinubong (a delicacy made from rice, coconut and brown sugar cooked in bamboo tubes over coal) among others. Both dining establishments are well-maintained as Laoag and Vigan boast of being two of the cleanest and greenest cities in the Philippines.

The whole Ilocos experience is all about satisfying the senses: the rich empanada filling dipped in sukang Iloko, the crunchiness of bagnet, the smell of freshly roasted chicacorn and the aroma of miki Batac and haybol, the feel of abel and old wooden bauls. It is all about the sight of old churches, magnificent sand dunes, and imposing provincial capitols, and appreciating the art of burnay making; of the merry clickety-clacks of the calesas around town and the wonderful mélange of animal sounds that greet you each morning. It is about the Ilocano smile that welcomes each visitor. It is about rubbing elbows with other tourists, foreign and local alike. For a moment you are united because they, like you, are also there for an authentic Ilocos experience.

The phrase Umay kayto manen (Come again.) will probably best sum it all. Ilocos is forever mysterious, luring everyone to come back and discover more of her hidden treasures. It has taken me a decade to come back, yet I yearn to return soon and partake more of what she has to offer. I would like to visit the beautiful beaches of Pagudpud, the old watchtowers that dot the coastlines of the two provinces, the public markets and the numerous museums. I would like to continue my journey of discovering more gustatory delights. I am proud to say that I’ve been there twice and still loving it.

It was another eight-hour trip on board the Fariñas bus. The people seemed to have been resigned to this lengthy journey and brought out their pillows and jackets with dreams (nightmares?) of Manila looming in their heads. Once again the bus was filled with luggage, pasalubong for the folks in Manila. I was happy to have survived the Ilocos trip. There were no cackling old ladies in the bus this time. J
It is timely to read your piece as I'm a week away from my trip to Vigan and Pagupud. With your satisfactory food trip, sight-seeing and sun-soaking, I bet I'd be crying your article's title even before I head back home. =)

I'm just curious, who were you with on your trip?

You mentioned this is your second time to go to Ilocos. Did you go to the same spots or to the ones unexlored yet? I guess that can be a good angle to try if you're considering to revise.
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