Between a Rock and the Deep Blue Sea

The chapel is a miniature version of Paoay Church (Photo courtesy of Luis Francia)

One advantage of travelling on the narrow plains of the Ilokos is that you can be as close to the sea and never be far from the mountains. This topography has meant far less land and fewer resources for its inhabitants than is true for the rest of the country. Hence, Ilokanos are well known for their frugality and, evident in the towns and barrios, their neatness, indicative, to my mind, of a deep-seated appreciation of what they have.

The Ilokos faces what is traditionally called the South China Sea, but which I choose to call the West Philippine Sea, in solidarity with Manila even though I usually am critical of the national government. The People’s Republic (hardly that) of China has been acting like the big bully that it has accused the United States of being, claiming almost all of that body of water and essentially making a water-grab.

And even now it has delineated airspace over islands controlled by Japan as its Air Defense Identification Zone, in line with its contention that it owns those islands, irking Japan and the U.S. and provoking South Korea to issue its own demarcation. The truth is, China has been for a long time now a capitalist and imperialist power.

Looking out on these calm waters off the Ilokos coast last summer, geopolitics were furthest from my mind. All I sought, along with my wife Midori and mother-in-law Akie, was to be away from the hustle and bustle of Metro Manila — a temporary respite, to be sure, and all the more reason to enjoy our stay at Sitio Remedios.

The only concessions to modern-day amenities are air-conditioning and wifi.

Established in 2006, the two-hectare resort is in Currimao, between Laoag to the north and Vigan to the south, a welcome antithesis to the Boracay model: a Babylon of beaches, babes, and bars. Sitio Remedios bills itself as a heritage village and for good reason: guests stay in houses — yes, house s— instead of cabanas, bungalows, villas, or concrete block hotels, but actual, fin de siècle two-storey houses made of hardwood, WITH bannisters AND wide mother-of-pearl windows. The furniture is colonial-era: four-poster beds, complete with cotton kulambo (mosquito net), lounge chairs of rattan, and wooden santos (religious icons) peering at you. The only concessions to modern-day amenities are air-conditioning and wifi.

We were billeted at Balay Batac, fifty yards from the surf and a horizon that seemed limitless. The accommodations are intended to remind guests of, in the words of its website, a “more genteel era” — even if one doesn’t actually have those memories but knows enough of the past and browsed through books to possess some sense of what that past might have looked like.

These structures are not cheap, ersatz ones. The owner, Dr. Joven Cuanang, a serious art collector, and the architect Rex Hofileña, designed the place so that seven such houses flank Capilla San Miguel, to form Plaza Manzanilla. Fronting the capilla (chapel), a miniature version of the Paoay Church (its nickname is “Baby Paoay”), is a century-old tamarind tree.

A view of the Western Philippine Sea from Balay Batac (Photo courtesy of Luis Francia)

The idea is to make the visitor feel as though he or she wandered into a Brigadoon by the sea — complete with flowering bushes, narrow, rectangular lotus-filled pools, and an al fresco dining area by the pool: from water to water to water.

To remind you that you are in fact in the twenty-first century, the good doctor displays contemporary art on the walls of the different houses by such artists as Emmanuel Garibay, members of the Saling Pusa collective, Ben Cab, and the photographer Wig Tysman.

Sitio has a multitude of virtues, from delicious, gut-busting meals sourced from local produce, meats, and fish, to doing its bit for the environment. For instance, no trees were cut in the building of the resort. No pesticides are used in the growing, on an adjacent three-hectare plot, of vegetables. And the fruits we had were only those in season: watermelon, jackfruit, and citrus. The doctor has also banned the burning of litter and leaves.

Above all, the place is blessed by the absence of karaoke.

There are garden chairs and tables where one can sit, read, have a beer, and in the evening take in the night sky and its canopy of stars. I have never understood why anyone wanting to ease the pressures of urban living, to unwind and if need be engage in navel gazing, would want to fill the air with rank amateurish singing and decibel levels loud enough to propel the dead — and annoyed guests — from their resting places. Why the need to compete with the reassuring sussurations of the sea, with the nocturnal calls of the tuko (gekko)?

Being the off season, we were the only guests, fortunate that the monsoon rains hadn’t as yet begun. And when we ventured to do some local sightseeing no hordes of tourists impeded us. We had the run of the Paoay church, with its magnificent buttresses somehow reminiscent of Javanese temple architecture. The same was true of the restored Juan Luna ancestral home in Badoc but alas, only reproductions of his art were on display. Then again the Spoliarium would simply be too monumental to fit in there. But mostly we were content to stay at Sitio, eat our fill, go for a dip either in the sea or in the pool, read, and laze about. Balm for body and soul.

Crisologo Street in Vigan, with the author and his wife Midori (Photo courtesy of Luis Francia)

Crisologo Street in Vigan, with the author and his wife Midori (Photo courtesy of Luis Francia)

In Vigan, an old trading center claimed for Spain by Legazpi’s grandson Juan de Salcedo in 1572, we stayed at the Hotel Felicidad, in the heart of the colonial district, now a World Heritage Site. While the boutique hotel is a new addition to the old quarter, its exterior is a refurbished version of the original 18th-century façade, and the unfailingly polite and friendly staff a throwback to that gentler era. With modern facilities and an old-world ambience, Felicidad is a block away from cobblestoned Crisologo Street, closed to vehicular traffic, except for horse-drawn calesas. We hired one to bring us around and pay homage to the ghosts of history, there in the restored ancestral home of the Singsons, the dominant political clan of Ilocos Sur, and of Padre Burgos, the mestizo priest whose unjustified execution in 1872 by the Spanish, along with Padres Gomez and Zamora, radicalized the generation of José Rizal and the Propagandists.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, with its Chinese stone lions, still dominates the central plaza, as it should. The city has expended considerable time and money in keeping the past a vital and an inspiring presence, including strict guidelines in the restoration of buildings. But too many commercial enterprises ringing the plaza, from fast-food franchises to clothing stores, mar such laudable efforts. It is difficult to imagine being in the 19th century when confronted by the golden arches of a McDonald's.  

We capped our northern odyssey by going up via Naguilian Highway to Baguio and Asin, to the Bencab Museum, where we were guests of the National Artist Benedicto Cabrera whom I have known since the heyday of the late, lamented Café Indios Bravos in the 1960s. Ben’s museum is one of a kind, with its sterling collection of traditional Cordilleran art, I daresay one of the finest in the world. The only word I can think of to describe many of these pieces is that clichéd but nonetheless accurate word, “timeless.”

Bencab Museum on the right, the residence is on the left (Photo courtesy of Luis Francia)

Bencab Museum on the right, the residence is on the left (Photo courtesy of Luis Francia)

The setting is just as unusual, perched on a mountainside, with the artist’s home and separate studio and a dojo — where we bunked down at night — flanking the museum. The property extends to the facing mountainside, bisected by a waterfall and stream rushing down to the West Philippine Sea. On that side, the trees are untouched and a walking path built so one can trek there and get excellent views of mountain ridges deescalating towards the sea. The grounds on the museum side have been terraced for gardens, greenhouses, vegetable plots, coffee trees, a duck pond, and koi pools — all visible from the museum cafè. One sees a few traditional Igorot houses that have been brought here and reassembled.

Each morning Midori, Akie, myself and Ben would walk down to the bridge that spans the stream and walk up the other side, conversing on a variety of subjects, with Ben playing the role of guide. It was the kind of walk that both sharpened and refreshed the senses, and made us eager for a hearty breakfast, generously provided by Ben, with freshly brewed mountain coffee.

From bathing by the sea to a carriage ride in a 19th-century urban setting to the bracing air of a mountain trek: simple pleasures that alas had to be abandoned for the bus trip to the complexities and disappointments that lay in wait in the increasingly ossified Metro Manila.

Luis H. Francia

Luis H. Francia

Luis H. Francia is the author of "Eye of the Fish: A Personal Archipelago" and the poetry collections "Museum of Absences" and the soon-to-be-released "Tattered Boat". He writes an online column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.