Nostalgia in Negros Occidental

Sandwiched between larger and older Iloilo City across the Guimaras strait, and younger and more scholarly Dumaguete across the Kanlaon Mountain range, the city of Bacolod somehow manages to distinguish itself from its sister cities through sheer attitude. The more devoted denizens of Bacolod proudly maintain that their beloved hometown is more antebellum than Atlanta and more genteel than Geneva. And they’re not really all that far off. At its peak, the province of Negros Occidental, of which Bacolod is the capital, lay claim to a glittering social scene revolving around the incredible wealth generated by the vast plantations or haciendas that blanket the boot-shaped island. From this milieu materialized a rarefied bubble in which float sugar barons, debutante balls, and opera nights, which neither history nor entropy have completely burst.

Respect and Remembrance

As a community, the Negrenses hold their heritage in high esteem, maybe more so than most Filipinos. This is most evident in the attention and care given to the museums dedicated to the province. Located in the old agriculture building close to the capitol building, the Negros Museum is an unusual historical and humanities museum in the sense that, instead of displaying antiques and artifacts, it showcases the ongoing saga of the people of Negros Occidental. The tale begins with the main and permanent display of a reconstructed batil, a wooden sailing vessel used for passengers and cargo at the turn of the century. The batil contains artifacts and reproductions of the type of goods that were exchanged between Negros, nearby islands and foreign lands.

The story flows onward by highlighting the province’s role as the “sugarbowl” of the Philippines, with displays depicting sugar production, the role of the ordinary plantation worker, and even the lifestyle of the legendary Negrense haciendero or plantation owner. There are also exhibits focusing on such themes as the Chinese in Negros, the Catholic Church, and the folksongs and folktales of the island. Smaller galleries flank the main hall: the Cinco de Noviembre exhibit highlights the Spanish colonial era, the Sports Hall of Fame, and a gallery for changing exhibits. In the museum’s north wing is the Jose Garcia Montelibano Toy and Folk Arts Museum, the only one of its kind in the Philippines. Containing about 2,000 toys and folk crafts collected by Mrs. Montelibano all over the world, many of the toys are in mint state. The display is arranged anthropologically with each section telling a story, from simple, basic toys to the most complex mechanized creations.

Nostalgia buffs can get their fill of family heirlooms and religious relics at the Museo Negrense de La Salle. Maintained by the prestigious private Catholic school, the museum preserves vital documents, photographs, and cultural artifacts related to the history and culture of Negros that have been donated by its most prominent families. During our visit, the museum was featuring the legacy of the illustrious Vargas family, particularly the mementos of their late matriarch, Lourdes “Nena” Vargas-Ledesma. From there, we were then warmly welcomed to the estate of her son Eduardo Vargas Ledesma Jr., which prides itself on maintaining one of the world’s largest breeding farms for fighting cocks, and also an interesting display of centuries-old urnas, colorful religious figures collected from all around the Visayas.

Sweet Sojourn

As the sun began to set, we proceeded to the picturesque town of Silay, home to no less than 31 heritage houses of varying degrees of grandeur and antiquity. The dwindling twilight lent a rather spooky air to the storied town. It was easy to imagine the ghosts of Silay roaming the stone streets and ancient structures, haunting the vestiges of the sugar boom’s belle époque, biding their time till the next spectral ball. Thankfully, the Romanesque domes of Silay’s San Diego Pro-Cathedral were ablaze with light and life, as the devout townsfolk giddily prepared for a religious procession, much like their ancestors must have done for generations.

As we sped back to the city for the evening, sweeping tracts of sugarcane spread out on both sides of the highway, inescapably reminding us of the backbone on which the island’s society rests. Although the pace may be slow and the pleasures simple, things still seem to be carried out with a certain sense of style. Even the local dialect of Hiligaynon, unquestionably the Philippines’ gentlest-sounding language, has a sweetly romantic lilt to its cadence.

The sugar baron’s swagger that profoundly permeates the city’s lifestyle is never more obvious than after nightfall. Like exotic nocturnal creatures, the Bacoleños break free from their daytime responsibilities (or lack thereof) and flit into the lively clubs, cafes, and casinos that all cater to the appetites of a town that has learned how to live well and live high and never forgot its lessons. Where else but in Sugarland can you expect a smorgasbord of the most scrumptiously elegant pastries and desserts? And the Ledesma’s fighting cock farm notwithstanding, the Negrenses do love their chicken, grilled to perfection preferably in the traditional Bacolod inasal (literal translation: “cooked over the fire”) recipe which entails a lot of garlic, calamansi juice, and annatto. Once stuffed with sweets, brewed coffee, grilled meats, and liquor (not necessarily in that order) Bacoleños customarily take a leisurely stroll round the rectangular reflecting lagoon in front of the capitol building, or down the main thoroughfare ofLacson St.

Bacolod is a city that likes to keep its mysteries shrouded, and the decadent goings-on at the private parties thrown by some of Negros society’s finest are the stuff of international legend, and interested visitors should dearly hope to be invited for a glimpse into this privileged circus. Or wait till October, when in an ironic display of public passion, the city hosts the yearly Masskara Festival, like a rowdier version of the Venice Masquerade with a Filipino twist – all the masks come with a big smile. But knowing the Negrenses, the faces concealed behind the masks are sure to be smiling even wider, safely smug with their sweet secrets.

Getting There:

Bacolod is located 45 minutes South of Manila by plane. Commercial flights are available daily. If flying in to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila you will have to change planes for the 45 minute hop to Bacolod. A new airport of international standards opened in Silay in 2007.

-text and photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2007.

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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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