I KNEW it would take us long before we got there. I tried to exhaust myself during the day so I could cut the 12-hour travel short by sleeping.

My companions—Ate Jayme, Ate Lynda, Paul, and Reyann were already dozing off. In minutes, I found myself curled up on my seat in a bus going to Tuguegarao City, Cagayan.

I woke up chilling with the low-temperature climate. In an hour or so, the bus made a stop-over. Nueva Vizcaya, one of the signs read.

The kind bus driver suggested we get something to eat. According to him, there would no longer be any stop-over. My companions inevitably fell for the bait. Soon, I was dragged into a carinderia nearby for a morning soup.

I woke up with a subtle tap on my shoulder. It was perhaps Reyann’s gesture of telling me that we were almost there. Light was already piercing through my cloth-covered window. I pulled up the blinds and the endless green fields greeted me. They all looked the same to me, but there were perhaps a hundred different shades of green for a Cagayano.

A tourist like me would not have guessed that there was a little city that lies in a vast sea of green. Tuguegarao City looked like any other center of education and commerce, with its buildings and establishments that could also be found in Manila. Minus the people, I did not think I would miss Metro Manila at all.

Finally, the bus found its destination. We unloaded it shortly, both in anticipation and exhaustion. We waited for our hosts from the Louisian Courier. Their staff had invited us to lecture at St. Louis College’s region-wide version of the Inkblots Journalism clinic, Penstroke.

After sometime, one of the Courier’s associate editors, Ice, arrived at the station.

We checked in at Candice Hotel. Instead of sharing a room with the girls, I shared a room with Louie and Reyann. Paul and Reyann could not agree on who gets to sleep on the single bed and who gets to sleep beside Louie. Both of them got their single beds, while I got a quarter of a double. I shared the bed with Louie, who was thrice my size.

I was taking my time in front of the mirror after a long-desired bath when Choo-bee, the Courier’s editor in chief knocked on our door. She came to fetch Louie. He was going to tour around the city with Timmy, another lecturer from Holy Angels University in Pampanga, sportscaster Quinito Henson and his wife, Menchu, the lady we fondly called “Tita Maggie” for her popular noodle commercials. He finished his lecture a day earlier so he was free for the whole day.

My other three companions were taking too much time refreshing themselves. Reyann and I decided to go ahead. His lecture would start anytime soon. We went downstairs and met Ice in the receiving area. Reyann told him about the change of plans. Ice readily agreed.

The next minute, Reyann and I boarded a van to St. Louis College. MX, the Courier’s consultant, and Emilson, the other associate editor, accompanied us, while Ice stayed behind.

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We reached St. Louis in less than five minutes. We went straight to the hall where Reyann proceeded with his lecture. Reyann wanted me to take part in the discussion, but I really did not have anything to do there, so I decided to come with MX instead. He would be going back to the hotel to fetch the other three.

When we reached the parking lot, the van had already left. We rode a tricycle to go back to the hotel. Ate Jayme, Ate Lynda, and Paul were still not finished when we returned. While waiting, I had a little chat with MX and Ice at the receiving area. They were drawing me into the magnificence of Tuguegarao and of Cagayan—its over a dozen kinds of pansit, its milk candies, its famous Callao Caves, Buntun Bridge, and of course, Cagayan River—when Paul arrived. Ate Jayme and Ate Lynda came in next. We were set for breakfast.

MX and Ice thought of giving us a breakfast at Jollibee, but I told them that we would greatly appreciate it if they would give us a one-of-a-kind treat, like one of their exotic pansits, maybe. I would not like to leave Tuguegarao without tasting all of the more than 12 kinds! After all, what was the use of being in the “Pansit Capital of the Philippines”?

They heeded my request. The next thing I knew, I had an order of Pansit Cabagan on my plate. It was good for a first taste, but was too heavy for breakfast. I wanted a juice for a drink, but the place did not offer anything but softdrinks. But I had pineapple juice, anyway. Ice was so kind to go out of his way to buy me one.

When we finished eating, Ate Jayme, Ate Lynda, and Paul had their first trip to St. Louis. MX and Ice escorted them to the lecture hall, as I came treading after them. I was just too excited for the tour in the afternoon to come into the hall. I stayed behind the room before it and examined how far we had gone in one of the maps there.

In a few minutes, Reyann’s lecture was finished. He joined me in the room for his late breakfast. I was still figuring things out when Ice came in and helped me out. The workshops on newswriting and feature writing for another group of participants would be starting any minute. We needed to go to the venue in another building to facilitate the session.

Reyann and I divided the group into two. He handled those interested in newswriting, while I handled those interested in feature writing. After giving his group instructions on their writing activity, he returned to the lecture hall for an open forum, as I was left on my own. It was good that Ice came into the room and kept me company. He told me facts and stories that lured me into his world some more.

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According to Ice, Callao Caves, if I remembered it right, has more than a hundred openings. Mankind has explored only 12 of which and only three were opened to the public. Its most famous opening is the one that has a chapel inside. Masses are held there during special occasions. One has to crawl in a narrow passage for two hours to enter another opening, and to climb a moderately steep height to reach another.

Soon, the workshops were over and I was on my way to Callao Caves myself. Reyann, Ate Jayme, Ate Lynda, Paul, and I hesitated at first since we were not properly dressed. We should be wearing disposable clothes and be ready to get dirty. Yet, we still went ahead for the experience. We were to join Louie, Timmy, and Mr. and Mrs. Henson for lunch there. We boarded a van with Made and Tal, who were our tour guides this time.

An hour must have passed before we finally reached Callao Caves. It took us almost 300 steps to climb the mountain on cemented stairs to get to the cave’s first opening. Most tourists stopped halfway to rest, but we did not waste a minute. We were too eager to see Tuguegarao’s pride before our very eyes.

When we finally got to the first opening, we braced ourselves for the grandeur of the enormous concavity on top. It directly illumined the chapel below. There were droplets of water as we walked further on murky soil. I opened my hands and felt the indoor rain on my palms.

I wanted to go further into the next opening, but my companions did not want to. They were sensible enough to remember we were not dressed for the occasion. We did not have any safety gear with us, even a flashlight to fight the darkness inside. Besides, we were getting late for lunch.

We went down the cemented stairs of the mountain and rode a boat down the country’s longest river, Cagayan River. The other guests were waiting for us on the other side. Louie, in his colorful sarong, met us on the riverbank. He led the way to the hut where we were to eat lunch.

We surveyed the length of the Cagayan River after eating. As the boat traced the stretch, I battled against the current and dipped my fingers into the lucid running water. The water’s slightest contact with my skin caused the rest of my body to rejuvenate.

I felt the wind blew a kiss on my cheek. I closed my eyes and captured the scene before me. I opened them again and tried to remember every detail left of the ride. It was not long until this circumstance turned into another memory.

We headed to St. James Parish Church in Iguig, a town after Tuguegarao where a famous tableau of the 14 Stations of the Cross is frequented by tourists. The Church, which faces the picturesque Cagayan River, was established by the Dominican fathers who Christianized the region.

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By 5 p.m., we were back in Tuguegarao. We had an hour and a half free to refresh ourselves before they fetched us for dinner. Reyann and I decided to spend the hour strolling and shopping. We did not come back to the hotel empty-handed.

The staff of the Courier arrived at around 7 p.m. They took us to Residencia Café, literally a restaurant at the back of a residential house. It was overlooking the Cagayan River. By the way it looked, that was where the river started. The six of us and the staff of the Courier spent time beside the river while waiting for our food. At Residencia Café, they only cooked the food the moment you ordered it. And they served it well. More than anything, this was the only place I knew where they served flavored water. We all decided to have breakfast there the next day. That was the longest dinner I ever had. There was just too much to talk about. It lasted until almost midnight.

I woke up chilling. Louie used most of the blanket during the night. I caught a cold. I looked at my watch. It was already 8 a.m. We were supposed to meet the Courier staff at 7 a.m. at Residencia Café and had breakfast with them and Mr. and Mrs. Henson. The couple would be leaving for Manila at 10 a.m. We hurried and eventually arrived there fast enough. There was only Mr. Henson, sharing his juicy sports gossips with the group. We sat with the group and had a lively breakfast with them. Soon it was 10 a.m. and Mr. Henson had to leave. The Courier staff accompanied the couple to the airport.

The six of us were on our own until lunchtime. We decided to drop by the St. Peter’s Cathedral, another church established by the Dominicans, two blocks away from our hotel, before packing our bags and then checking out. We would leave Tuguegarao that night. But before we do, we would be paying homage to the miraculous Lady of Piat in Piat, Cagayan.

After eating bulalo for lunch, the Courier staff—Choobee, 2s, Sugar, Liz, G-zel, Sofi, and Shobe, took us on a jeepney ride to the miraculous Lady. It was more or less than an hour drive from Tuguegarao. We passed by the Buntun Bridge, once the longest bridge in the country, now only the second to San Juanico Bridge.

When we reached the miraculous Lady, we unloaded the jeepney in singles. Every one of us went alone in prayer. We all had our own concerns that were beyond our control. We surrendered them to the Lady.

Sitting by the window on a bus back to Manila, I wondered, what was it with Tuguegarao, Cagayan that made it hard for me leave? It did not have a sea that I loved and hated at the same time. But then again, it had a river that led to it.

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