It’s more fun in the Philippines (travel tales)

Published March 7, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Jaime Laya


General Pedro G. Dumol invited me to be on the Board of the National Electrification Administration when I was B.A. Professor at U.P. That was in the early 1970s when NEA, newly created by President Ferdinand E. Marcos, was actively organizing cooperatives to bring electricity to power-less communities.

The program received massive support from the national government and USAID and light bulbs replaced coconut oil lamps, gaseras, Coleman lamps, and candles in many places. Switch-ons and loan signings were big events and General Dumol often arranged for board members to be present. Those and later official travel as head of other government agencies brought me from Batanes in the north down to Tawi Tawi in the south.

Capt. Roberto H. Lim made the arrangements and we spent a day at Fuga Island north of Luzon. It was so unspoiled then, with live coral in shallow water four feet away from the guest house beachfront.  

TIME AND TIDE a Coleman lamp and a Batanes pasture (Google images)

Batanes was beautiful with its rolling grasslands. I noticed ground-hugging trees on the left of hills and slight elevations. Obviously typhoon winds blew in from the right so trees grew on the sheltered left side.

From Basco we drove to Mahatao on a road so scenic that someone exclaimed it was exactly like Italy’s Amalfi Coast south of Naples, considered one of the world’s most beautiful places and declared in 1997 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We visited a picturesque mission church where we paid our respects to an ancient Spanish friar in the convent library that was lined with tomes that must have occupied the friars assigned to that lovely, lonely post. In another town were the evocative ruins of a church dedicated to Santa Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins who went on a Holy Land crusade.

About 1,600 kilometers south of Batanes is Bongao, the capital of Tawi-Tawi. It’s on a small island so close to Sabah that pigs reportedly swim from one to the other; both places are Muslim so pigs are safe. Bongao had pristine beaches on a clear blue sea. The island is so small that one could quickly circumnavigate it via a narrow road. At that time the island had only two passenger vehicles but one day, there was a terrible accident.

Another memorable trip brought me to the charming town of Gasan, Marinduque. The people were so hospitable and newcomers were welcomed with a ceremony called “putuñgan.” Visitors would be seated in a row and ladies would dance to traditional music, at the climax of which a crown of flowers would be formally placed on each visitor’s head. After an elaborate dinner at a private home, entertainment was provided by an old lady playing a native harp.

Not all trips were moonlight and roses. Congressman Jose “Popit” Puyat, NEA PR officer Mary M. Joaquin (mother-in-law of General Ramon Farolan), and I were on a small plane headed for Tandag, Surigao del Sur on a Surigao Electric Cooperative II loan signing. The plane’s right wheel broke off on touchdown. Thanks to the pilot’s presence of mind and steady hand, the plane did not turn turtle and explode and luckily, there was a large water-filled ditch along the runway and that was where we ended up.

Another time, the plane was circling an island airstrip and we were all looking out the left windows without noticing that the right engines were spewing black smoke. We landed safely but we had to wait hours before rescue.

Actually I caught the travel bug early. My mother was a history teacher and was into real estate investments. She combined all these with child rearing and, on many a weekend, my sisters and I were in Laguna looking at old churches and land that Nanay was considering. I have no idea where they are but somewhere we have a lansones orchard, property with hot and cold springs, and a hillside on which a church rose without our knowing.  

Still fresh is the sight of Mount Banahaw (or is it Mount San Cristobal) from San Pablo’s Sampaloc Lake and the treasure-filled church of Paete. We visited Pañgil church when it still had a magnificent gilded retablo and the church of Majayjáy before its silver treasures were sold off and its azulejos tiles were replaced with bathroom marble. Nanay’s running lectures went into high gear at Rizal’s house in Calamba and at Magdalena church with the cement replica of a sombrero where Emilio Jacinto once lay bleeding.

I later had non-virtual brushes with history in the making.  

One was during a YMCA-organized Baguio conference for high school students. Sightseeing at Dominican Hill, we boys were shooed off by priests then in residence. YMCA members apparently including us were considered heretics and were unwelcome. That was also when high ecclesiastics decided that Swan Lake and Don Quixote were too lascivious and outlawed ballet classes. Vatican II might have put paid to that.

Then when I was in college, I attended UP Baguio summer class and stayed at the Patria dorm on Session Road. About 20 of us were on cots in a large room, including Jose Ma. Sison and Oliver Lozano, who went on to high places in their respective careers.  

When classes ended, I joined a UP-organized trip to Banaue, a Dangwa busload of noisy teenagers. We left early morning and were on Halsema Road the entire day. It was a narrow dirt road with a steep rocky mountain on the left and a steep cliff on the right. I was on a right-hand window seat and spent the whole day breathing dust and leaning away from the long drop. It was so dusty that everyone had white clothes, faces, and hair by the time a rice terrace came into view. We groped our way into an empty schoolhouse, out again downhill to a rocky brook to wash off the day’s dust and sweat, and back to the schoolhouse where we thankfully sacked out on the bare floor.

I’m now a softie and can’t believe how I enjoyed that trip to Banaue and that I sat dozing off on the steps of an overloaded overnight train to Legaspi to see Mayon Volcano and Bulusan Lake amid forest primeval without building or boat in sight.  

With creaky knees and bleary eyes on top of the pandemic, the farthest away I’ve been recently have been friends’ homes in Tagaytay and Punta Fuego and in the back seat of an air-conditioned car with Spotify playing Mozart. Truly time and tide wait for no man.

Comments are cordially invited, addressed to [email protected]