AS THE sky, dying, flicked a last streak of color—the somber orange of a tropical bird’s wings—in the small window of the plane, I was gripped with joy that only comes with the certainty of arriving home.

Although it was my first time to visit Ilocos Norte, it was already a well-constructed place in the country of my mind. It took root initially as the aroma of pinakbet my Lola Ines would cook over slow fire, the occasional Ilocano words that crept into family conversations and finally progressed into actual stories my Lola would intimate during lazy afternoons. It was the place where she was born and raised. It was also where she fell in love and married my Lolo Eduardo who, sadly, I never got to meet. Seeing good prospects in living in Manila, they took what I imagined to be an arduous journey from the northern landscape offering a vista of interlocked mountains down to the streets of the capital humming with a flurry of activities. They clearly wanted a better life. This was before World War II dropped its menacing shadow across the land.

The plane finally touching ground, I was quizzical. Do I really believe that some images would strike me as familiar? Am I investing too much expectation on this trip? What does it mean to me, ultimately, of covering the ground where my Lola, decades ago, had walked as a young lady?

I, together with a delegation of lifestyle writers covering a Museo Ilocos Norte benefit dinner dance, arrived at Fort Ilocandia Resort, a charming hotel located in the capital city of Laoag. Of Spanish-Moroccan architecture, it is built specifically to be bathed by light: brick walls, sinuous stairways, arched entrances, long halls, bay windows, a square of a well-manicured garden where an exquisite fountain lets fall melodic dribbles of water. I searched for my room, unpacked my bag, and rested.

The morning that greeted me was splendid. The halls which seemed eerie the night before merrily basked in the daylight as a chorus of birds sang in the tiled roofs. The garden, with its assortment of flowers, bristled and the fountain took the glow of a monumental glory. I was ready to explore Ilocos Norte as a deeply personal expedition and also as a way to pay homage to my Lola who, a year before passing away, took a last trip to the province of her birth.

Salt, lighthouse and sea

Watching the scenery roll by, I was struck by how the city looked the same as any other. The rows of houses with trees in front of them, the asphalt road, the bridge along the expanse of a dried-up river, the downtown with its church, plaza and market: they make a representative picture of a city in the countryside.

But Ilocanos have an identity all their own. Known to be hardworking and frugal, they could survive in the most difficult condition. I had seen this with my Lola who went through two World Wars, early widowhood, and the challenge of raising five children, but still managed to live a respectable life, with the help of the sewing machine that she used until her late 80s.

There is something in the Ilocano spirit which is resilient, even defiant. History points out that the Spanish colonization was never completely successful because of the revolts organized by the Ilocanos against their colonizers whose highlights include the Dingras Uprising (1589) and Pedro Almasan Revolt (1660). The Ilocanos aredescendants of two of the greatest heroes in our history: Diego and Gabriela Silang who unwaveringly fought against Spanish rule with a series of well-organized battles.

The voice of history quieted down as the bus entered the countryside with its sweeping rice fields. We were in Pasuquin town to observe the process of salt-making, traditionally a family business in the town. Entering a makeshift hut, I was immediately piqued by the whiteness of already refined salt. It shimmered like pure snow. On the vats was the brine which was cooked by husk-fed fire and stirred by a manong. It would take about half a day before the brine would turn into salt that were good and white enough for kitchen use. The process of salt-making is every bit painstaking and crude. That’s why I cannot imagine anyone with little patience doing this job. The Pasuquin salt-makers have actually found a way of cutting on cooking time. Instead of brine which they have to source from the nearby beaches to as far as Pangasinan, they now use unprocessed rock salts from Australia, which they simply cook into seawater to become refined salt.

Next stop was Burgos town where I saw a lighthouse that faithfully corresponded to what I had imagined it to be: proud, solitary, and romantic. It’s called the Cape Bojeador lighthouse which, because of its well-designed tower, pavilion, service building and enclosed courtyard and its privileged perch on a hill called Vigia de Nagparitan, is one of the most beautiful in the country.

Climbing towards the balcony tower and seeing the mechanism of light and mirrors, I was afforded a breathtaking view of a sweeping forest, a jagged precipice, and the intoxicating blue of the South China Sea. A pinpoint of metal bobbed on the sea, a ship on its way to God-knows-where. I was happy to know that the lighthouse is still operational, this time with reduced duty as a warning station. The lighthouse keeper Mang Reuben holds guard in a monastery-like structure, a job that requires the same patience as a salt-maker’s, but is more leisurely since the view is no doubt refreshing to the soul.

Before departing for the next stop, the organizers led us to a foot of the hill where a thick forest covered the kiln where the bricks used in the construction of the lighthouse had been baked. The kiln was covered with soil and young trees by those who discovered it so that it would be safe from the probing eyes of treasure hunters. A few bricks, obvious clues, were strewn on the area, presumably those deemed imperfect to be part of the lighthouse. This year, the lighthouse which still looked stunning despite time, and graffiti done by crazy tourists or impetuous lovers, will be 114 years old.

If seeing the lighthouse was to touch base with a vestige of the past, seeing the windmills, also in Burgos town, was to be connected with the modern. Dotting the town’s coastline, the windmills, white and with three slim blades each, didn’t appear proud, solitary and romantic at all, but very busy, rotating efficiently and converting the force of the visiting tradewinds into energy which lights up Burgos.

The last stop for this day was Pagudpud town, the “Boracay of the North,” which was popularized by Tribune Life columnist Armida Siguon-Reyna through the stunning location shoots for “Aawitan Kita” and the movies she produced.

But before taking a full view of Pagudpud, the delegation had a fabulous lunch at Apo Indon, which offered to us a buffet of well-loved Ilocano dishes, fresh catch from the sea, and kakanin.

If Boracay is tidy and docile, Pagudpud seemed to me unruly and untamed, but no less bewitching. Its curving shoreline, biting winds, jutting rocks and infamous undercurrent give it a shadow of the primal. I wanted to venture into the sea, to feel its heavy tug on my body, to let the salt sting my skin. But dark clouds percolated rain, and soon it was drizzling. I dipped my foot into the water and in my mind I swam. I hope the next time I visit this famed beach, it would be in a better weather.

‘We built this city’

In visiting a new place, what intrigues me more is its city or town rather than its landscape or ocean. It is through the city where the soul of the place is revealed, and where its inhabitants, caught with the ongoingness of life, invest it with their habits, thoughts, feelings, hopes, failures, definitions on how it is to live.

That’s why visiting the main feature of Laoag, which is the Museo Ilocos Norte, nicknamed “Gameng” (an Ilocano word meaning “treasure”), was one of the paths through which I could intimately know my roots. Housed in a former tabacalera warehouse, the museum intensively features artifacts, hunting and fishing implements and local products. As I walked along the exhibit area, it came to me that the museum obviously takes pride in the craftsmanship of its people—the Ilocanos, Yapayaos, Itnegs and Igorots. In fact, the museum received the Alab ng Haraya from the National Commission on Culture and the Arts for its “gallant efforts in cultural awareness and preservation.” As I scrutinized pieces of cultural treasure, a trio sang exquisite Ilocano songs on the second floor, which was reminiscent of the house where I lived with my Lola.

Climbing a flight of stairs made of wood was familiar, as well as the capiz windows, the sewing machine in a corner, the long table made of wood, even the kitchen with its banggerahan, an area where to sun plates and glasses. My Lola, perhaps to combat homesickness, made her house in Quezon City to resemble a traditional Ilocos domicile.

What touched me in the rooms immensely were the photographs in black-and-white, snatches of the old life. One was a snapshot of what seems like a row of soldiers, their legs crossed, their gaze fierce and unaffected. Another showed a group of women, garbed in the fashionable dresses of the 40s, who seemed to be having a good time posing for the cameraman, as the municipal hall stood behind them and a swing, recognizable in a corner, provided a moving innocence to the scene. Whoever they are, wherever they are, God bless their souls.

Leaving this area of the museum, I was greeted by the museum shop, the outsized book detailing the history of Ilocos Norte, an exhibit of dresses made from the well-known Iloco fabric inabel and a series of red dividers plotting the history of the museum which, during the time of my visit, was celebrating its fifth year. Museum-goers were asked to write their personal history alongside the museum’s with a chalk. I wrote, under 2001, this: “May 23, 2001: Ines Gabriel Arcangel, an Ilocana since birth, passed away.”

The organizers, generous to show us around the city, brought us to Dap-Ayan Ilocos, which featured the province’s products according to municipality, the Tobacco Monopoly monument, the Sinking Bell Tower, the very busy Laoag market teeming with hand-picked vegetables. And concluding our trip in this city caught at an intersection of the historical and the modern (it has now fastfood joints whose neon signs contrast starkly with the the slow-paced setting), we rode on kalesas, which regularly ply the streets of Laoag.

What provided a cornerstone in this otherwise frenetic journey from one tourist spot to another was the visit to Paoay Church, an imposing and massive structure located in an otherwise sleeper of a town and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The façade, almost triangular in shape and defined by little turrets and arched entrance and windows, looked obstinate in the fierce contention of a 12-o’clock sun. The buttresses on its sides seemed to be the muscles supporting the bulkiness of the whole church. Referred to as Earthquake Baroque, because it was made to withstand the strongest tremor, the church fluidly combines elements of the Baroque, Gothic and Oriental styles.

Inside, however, the church certainly felt like hallowed ground. Silence seemed to vibrate inside the soul while the sunlight, unable to saturate the interior with its intensity, entered stained-glass and ornately-grilled windows, dripping on the wood benches, on the altar, and on the nave. Visitors, quieted by the silence and muted light, spoke their prayers quietly. I knelt, closed my eyes and uttered my own.

Leaving home

After a sumptuous lunch at the residence of Gov. Bongbong Marcos who, together with his wife and two sons welcomed us with warmth and conviviality, and a brief rest at Fort Ilocandia, I was ready to conclude this homecoming of sorts.

Although I am yet to visit the actual place where my Lola was born, and talk to my relatives about the unfinished and blurry parts of her stories, as a way to be grounded with an aspect of myself inevitably rooted to this place, this initial trip clarified mistaken clues and provided the details that I sorely needed to enter our collective narrative as a family. It is only by completely inhabiting that place of stories will I be able to move on and map out my own place in the world, hopefully with the same bravery and faith with which my relatives claimed Ilocos Norte as home.

Before the plane lifted and rushed into the night and a tumble of stars, I took a last glimpse of the place which, once a upon time, contained the dreams, ambitions, fears of my grandmother, her siblings and their parents, and concluded that as much as Ilocos Norte was outside the small window of the plane, it was also tucked safe in the quiet region of the heart.

Montage Vol. 9 • February 2006


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