Northern Disclosure: Ilocos Norte

a spot of zen — in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

Some of the best trips are borne from a minimum of preparation and a maximum of indiscretion. Planning an almost last-minute trip up to Ilocos Norte during the busiest time of the year is not the least stressful mission one can undertake, especially with foreigners in tow. It seemed rather foolhardy already, exploring longganiza land, famed for its pork sausages and dishes, while dragging along a Jewish friend. Defying the Holy Week rush, braving bumpy bus and tricycle rides, shrugging off dodgy weather, and coping with the peculiarities of Ilocano cuisine and culture, we persevered, arrived in one piece, and by Jove and Jehovah, resolved to have fun!

the foam can be deceiving — in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

Laoag, the provincial capital, is a sleepy, simple city, a cozy, convenient pit stop from which one can plot out a game plan for the region. We spent a night at the comfy, friendly Palazzo De Laoag to recover from the tiring trip, get our bearings, and run some errands. For our first proper meal in Ilocos, we trooped to local culinary legend La Preciosa to try out some authentic Ilocano cooking. The funnily-named Poki-poki, a dish of eggplant sautéed with eggs, onions and tomatoes, was a hit among our quasi-kosher little party.

the ilocos sky and surf change with the winds — in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

The next day in our adventure, we continued north to the crown jewel of Ilocos Norte – the beach town of Pagudpud. My previous tour of Ilocandia had only taken me as far up as Laoag, so this stretch was just as fresh to me as my foreign charges. As each town whizzed past our windows, we’d catch such show-stopping sights as waves crashing dramatically into cliffs, wide green swathes of rice and tobacco fields, the majestic lighthouse at Cape Bojeador and the windmills at Bangui. As we crossed over what seemed like a low hill, descending into a lush valley, the very air and light seemed to change. This was not the dry, dusty Ilocos Norte that textbooks teach, but a tropical coastal ecosystem all its own, an island within an island.

holy hole.

Reaching Pagudpud proper, we crammed ourselves into a tricycle and vroomed in the general direction of the beach. Whizzing down a narrow but solid road, picturesque hills, farms and flowers on either side, we had to dodge the odd water buffalo or farmer laying out rice stalks to dry, the grains forming golden sidewalks by the wayside. The resorts soon started mushrooming along our path. We caught glimpses of the coastline and the tops of palm trees, but the surf remained just a sound. So we dodged souvenir stands and scaled sand dunes, finally skidding down onto the seafront. And there she was…

Saud beach, immortalized incognito by Filipino cinema through many a melodramatic romance or cheesy musical extravaganza. But my movie memories paled in comparison to actually standing on this sunny spot, the smell of the South China Sea filling my lungs. Although never quite achieving the level of popularity and development as other Philippine beaches, there’s still something special about Saud. Even during peak season, with hordes of infant young building sandcastles and shrieking on banana boats in front of the main drag of resorts, it’s only a short stroll from its center to secluded coves and isolated stretches of beach, where you’d be lucky to stumble upon a lone fisherman or hermit crab. Wherever you choose to chill out along Saud, the windmills of Bangui spin lazily across the horizon, mesmerizing one into a quixotic daze. It was around that point, hypnotized by the whirl, when we decided to stay an extra day.

paying their respects to the religious figure

Maybe we could have just bummed on the beach indefinitely, but the rest of Pagudpud had a few more postcard-ready sights worthy of mention. So back into the trusty tricycle we go, the tight squeeze and twisty turns tempered by the bracing coastal breeze and wide blue sky overhead.

Kabigan falls

First stop on our hop was Kabigan Falls, a must-do if the tourism brochures were to be believed. There’s a mandatory paid guide for the hike up, and we got a particularly Nazi-like escort who kept up a no-nonsense pace as if she were leading us to a concentration camp. But as a young sage/popstar recently sang: “Ain’t about how fast I get there. Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the climb!” I guess “Fraulein Falls Guide” was no Miley fan, so dutifully trudge up we did, clear streams and cows rambling calmly beside us, cloud-capped hills looming in our faces, with enough vividly-colored vegetation in every direction to get green burned into your vision. The 1.2 kilometers of exhilarating scenery along the way made the falls themselves seem almost like an anticlimax.

Patapat viaduct, scene of many a dramatic shoot — in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

it may be blue but it sure ain’t calm. Maira-ira beach

Heading back down, the pressure of finding our way up gone, we hiked down at our own pace, breathing in great lungfuls of the fresh, moist air., practically smelling the oxygen. Next tricycle stop was the Patapat viaduct, yet another spot that lends itself well to cinematic purposes (a popular Korean TV series filmed its big romantic climax here). This elevated stretch of highway hovers 31 meters above Pasaleng Bay, snaking along the Cordillera Mountain Range for 1.3 kilometers. The view of tempestuous sea against towering stone, dramatic clouds brushing the peaks of forested hills, is truly Wuthering Heights-worthy. From there we motored on through a series of striking rock formations, eventually arriving at the vaunted blue lagoon at Maira-ira beach. Smaller and more secluded than Saud, Maira-ira’s attraction used to be its undeveloped isolation. But for good or ill, commercialism has crept into this once serene and secret spot. Several many-roomed resorts have sprung up just over the past couple of years and are seeing brisk business. Whereas before you could lie on the sand and hear nothing but the surf, now the lagoon resounds with laughing vacationers, howling in glee as the strong currents carry them back and forth like a carnival ride. Throughout the coast, we saw waves of all shapes and sizes, some powerful enough to challenge even top surfers.

the waves come in

But it’s body-boarding that seems to really have caught on, with bronzed mermen tirelessly throwing themselves into the water again and again, trying to catch that perfect patch of surf. As sunset falls, the restaurants and bars turn on their night lights, parents tuck in their tired kids, and the adults sit out under the stars for dinner and drinks. Nowhere near as bustling as Boracay or Puerto Galera, evenings at Pagudpud are more wholesome than fulsome. Depending on your outlook, you may either be pleasantly or disappointedly surprised at the dearth of foreign backpackers or big tour groups. We did stumble upon some raucous shows and impressive live music during our stay, but this was more the exception than the norm. For those bewitched by this northern siren, the beach, the breeze, and a beer are all that are necessary to bliss out.

– text and photos by Jude Defensor. first published in What’s On & Expat Newspaper, 2009

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Bohol: The Heritage Beyond The Hills

Bohol is beautiful. Its beaches are lined with powdery white sand, and remain largely unspoilt by the junk and sleaze marring other more renowned island destinations. Its rivers, falls, wildlife parks and wooded areas reveal landscapes that could have come out of a fairy tale or a tropical jungle fantasy. And there really is nothing more one can say about the Chocolate Hills except that you have to see them for yourself.

There is enough scenery on this small island to make your jaws drop and eyes melt many times over. The people are no less of a treasure, the Boholanos are welcoming, courteous, helpful, and honest. It is no wonder then why the island’s popularity has been booming. The resorts are crawling with tourists, mostly foreign and wholesome, with families or retirees making up the bulk of the vacationers. Good, clean, quiet fun is in abundant supply, one of the most popular daytime activities appears to be lying down in the sun and reading a book, although more strenuous activities such as hiking, diving, and dolphin-watching also have their enthusiasts. A party scene does exist, but it’s not so in-your-face as elsewhere. There are a handful of hard-core backpackers hanging around, but most of the young people on the island originally came for more than just some R&R. On any given day you can meet German dental students on a medical outreach program (from whom one can learn that there are no Bavarian donuts in Bavaria), members of the US Peace Corps (surprisingly game for in-depth discussions of Philippine society and politics), and young missionaries from Canada (very pious and very polite).

The Boholanos appear to be truly mindful of the aesthetic value of their homes and public spaces. They all seem to have agreed to make their houses and streets as clean and pretty as possible. Almost every front yard is tidy and almost all the roads are lined with trees and ornamental plants. Most newly built modern homes at least acknowledge the province’s architectural heritage and try to pay tribute to the more classic structures by incorporating a few of their design elements. Boholanos seem to be not only very good homemakers, but good homeowners as well. There is a palpable respect for the gifts of the past, heritage buildings are preserved and cherished. While the distribution of riches may be not as dense as in Vigan or Silay, Bohol can still be proud of a lovely collection of stately old houses and buildings dotting the landscape. The heritage churches of Bohol alone are a subject worthy enough to fill entire books, or at least a separate feature. With all of its natural beauty it could be easy to miss the architectural treasures scattered throughout the province. Just when you think you’ve had your fill, out pops another wonder.

Driving through the island of Panglao, on the road from the San Agustin church, a vision of a gleaming, elegant bahay-na-bato, standing amidst a lush garden, surrounded by fields of green, is sure to catch one’s eye.  Displaying true Boholano hospitality, Mr. Agustin Cloribel was kind enough to welcome us into his home and allow us to enter and photograph this as yet unheralded architectural gem.

The Cloribel house was built in 1926, and its structure was originally designed by a Spanish architect in the classic two-story bahay-na-bato style. The lower half of the house, called the zaguan, may have been used to store the family carriage in the old days. The main entry door is definitely large enough to admit a horse or automobile. The Cloribels currently utilize the space to stable their motorcycle, which is a favorite means of transportation among Boholanos. It now also serves as an informal receiving area.

The main living area is on the upper level. Large windows surround the second floor, taking advantage of the cool Panglao breezes. The window sashes still feature the original sliding panes of capiz and wood, ready to be shut tight during storms. Vents above the windows, protected by the roof eaves, let air in even when it’s rainy. Small shuttered windows below the large windows, called ventanillas, are screened with grillwork and can be left open when the large windows are closed.

The family patriarch, Gaudencio Cloribel, was a respected judge and friend to such notable historical figures as former president Carlos P. Garcia. The chess table on which they used to play still stands in the sala, although because a few pieces from the chess set are missing, it now serves mostly as a coffee table. The majority of the furnishings around the house are original pieces from the 1920s, but since they have been maintained so well they don’t look like timeworn antiques at all. The Cloribels are particularly proud of their “programmable” piano, powered by rolls of punched-out paper, it’s a real collector’s item from the turn of the last century. The handsomely crafted wooden scrollwork, panelling, and hardwood floors seem to have come straight out of a museum, and go perfectly with the sepia-toned photographs, mementoes, and portraits that hang on the walls. Mr. Cloribel points out that the ceiling used to boast of ornate carvings, remnants of which still encircle the base of the ceiling fan. But before they had the carvings taken down, they carefully photographed everything to ensure that its original form may someday be accurately restored.

Except for using concrete to reinforce the stone portions of the structure and upgrading the electrical wiring and plumbing, Mr. Cloribel states that the house has never really undergone any big renovation or restoration work. He asserts that it now still looks pretty much like it did when it was first built. The family has always taken care that the house stays clean and gets a fresh coat of paint when necessary, and that the grounds and garden are kept up and manicured. Although numerous members of the Cloribel clan have settled elsewhere or gone abroad, they still make it a point to come together at their ancestral home every year during Holy Week and other holidays, thus ensuring that the heart of the Cloribel house beats strong with the pulse of several generations.

Finding an authentic bahay-na-bato has become increasingly elusive, especially one that is still being kept alive by the original family’s descendants. A lot of these ancestral houses are left to decay and be preyed upon by vandals and salvagers. The shared memory of the quintessential Filipino home, part of our national identity, is being worn away, torn down, or carted off to be sold for scrap. We must realize that protecting the legacy of the past is not a futile exercise in nostalgia, but a crucial task in defining our culture. The efforts of the Cloribel family and the province of Bohol show how Filipinos can live and progress in harmony with the land and its history. Sea and sand, hills and rivers, wood and stone, all these have come together in Bohol to build a place the entire country can be proud of.

-text and photosby Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manila Bulletin, 2004

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