The Phils 2

Trip Start Aug 26, 2007
Trip End Aug 25, 2008

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Flag of Philippines  ,
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A Google earth, God's eye view of the Philippines shows it as thousands of tiny spots floating on the ocean. It looks like a land of coasts, thousands and thousands of convoluting, sinuous beaches demarcating the smashed pieces of island that make up the country.
From that stratospheric perspective, this land of such little land looks easy to navigate, a place to dash quickly around. The sort of place one can devote two measly weeks to, and still see plenty.
I decided to eschew those endless miles of coastline. Coasts are not such interesting places when you're travelling alone. Colonial towns, cities, remote villages - these were my target. How hard could it be to move between them?
Though those smashed fragments of land number around seven thousand, I planned to stick to just one, the big one, Luzon. It had plenty of coast line, but it also had Manila, and old Spanish towns, and Taal volcano, and apparently there was still room in there somewhere for some stunning mountains.
How deceptive this one island proved! At least to me, who looked down on it, arranged in two inadequate dimensions, and presumed I could conquer it. The first bus ride out of Manila lasted through the night, and deposited me in the middle of nowhere in the dusky grey of pre-dawn, the only cold hour of the day. A second bus ride trundled further north, back into the heat and light. I woke once to find the dishwater sea slapping at the curb. By the time I reached Vigan I had been travelling for an entire night, and had covered only centimetres of that endless coast.
Vigan is a languid town, a relic town. Long after Spain has been subsumed by European Uniformity, Vigan will remain as a preserve for an older Spanish way of life. Once upon it was crossroads in the Pacific, a place where the Spanish galleons sailing west from Mexico could meet with Chinese merchants to trade. Since then history has left it behind, too remote from Manila to be worth a train line, or a public airport, overlooked by industrialisation and business. Its fields of sugarcane, rice and corn are worked by hoof and hand, more relics of an earlier time.
I arrived in time to experience the stifling heat of the day, in time for a long Sino-Hispanic lunch and a siesta in the cool of the family home, the entire town and its fleet of tricycles and scooters growing quiet and drowsy. When we ventured out in the afternoon to visit artisan workshops, a colonial church and a museum, we found that half the town hadn't arrived for work that day, still at home sleeping off the effects of the mad zarzuela or town theatre performance of the previous night. The entire town seems poised on the edge of a sleep that will last forever, the sleep of futurelessness, the eternal siesta.
If the town is futureless it is important for being so. UNESCO has recognised it as such. In its siestas, in its Spanish-named festivities, in its local dialect - Ilocano, a divergence from Tagalog, the official national language, the language of Manila - in its street stalls selling Latin American empanadas filled with South-East Asian ingredients, in its squat white churches and crumbling bell-towers, and in its elegant dishevelled Mestizo district, it is one of the best preserves of Spanish colonial culture I have ever seen. Walking its streets is like walking a museum Latin American history. Everything is reminiscent of Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, New Orleans, but with added Oriental flourishes.
Vigan stands almost alone in the Phils as a historical site that has not required reconstruction. The ravages of World War Two somehow skipped the town. The colonial-style mansions of the rest of the country here are actual, authentic colonial mansions here. History has worn away at them, added its individuating marks, but the elegance of the architecture remains, the ground floor a cool, stone cellar, the upper floor all latticed wood and high ceilings, admitting much breeze but little light. Walking the town in the evening was a delight, most of the people having gathered for the ongoing events of the town fair, the old streets left cool and quiet and bathed in pools of soft lamplight.
In the baranguays or districts around the old town centre, workshops produce handicrafts by traditional methods. There is little reason for these industries to continue, other than out of fidelity to the past, and a lack of anything else to do. At the weaving workshop only one lady had bothered to turn up for work, clunking away rhythmically at her huge, rough loom, producing endless colourful table-runners and place mats.
The pottery workshop - a big empty wooden building with one functioning wheel - was lost in mountains of its wares. Great tumbling piles of pots were stacked or thrown around the ground, more than will ever be purchased, a surfeit sufficient to provide the entire world with these relics. And yet the wheel continues to turn, there being nothing else to do but to keep producing, to prove that the pots are local made, to try and turn a livelihood out of the infinite clay of the region. The entire town is decorated with these pots, every pathway delineated, every garden decorated. And still the surplus increases...
The baranguay that produces basi - a local, potent sugarcane wine - is trying to raise the status of its product, and bring it to the nation. It is a doomed initiative, the drink so rough it will never have merit as anything other than a curiosity of yore. A great horizontal tree trunk served as the crank for the sugar cane mill, a deep and miry ring around it showing the path beat by buffalo or tractor to crush the cane, to extract to the juice, the make the drink. Great pots were boiling, everything around them scorched black, the heat intense, the bark within them turning limp and releasing its flavour or colour or whatever property it offered into the crude and unfinished vintage.
We went searching for the place where a local, healthy, vegetable-based ice cream is produced. After a long drive out into the farms, towards the mountains, we found the guy who produces the ice cream resting by the roadside after a long afternoon in the fields. He wasn't producing any ice cream because he didn't have a freezer. He could only make it for special order.
Vigan is the kind of place where much time could be easily spent. In a day and a half I had seen all there was to see and had still had time for multiple siestas, to change a tyre, to go to a birthday party, to eat constantly, and I had never moved faster than a slow amble. Time flows slow and thick in this place, left behind by the chaotic careen of the greater world.
As much as I would love to have stayed, to have surrendered to the peace and languor of the place, my tight schedule wouldn't allow it. I was discovering how misleading these tiny isles could be. Even my seemingly humble schedule was far too rapid; it afforded no time to enjoy the slower rhythms and paces of life.
And my next stop, just up and into the mountains, so close on the map, required another long journey into the night, and a several-hour wait in the dead of night in the steep-streeted city of Baguio, and then another long and winding trip, into the morning, along the narrowest and most precipitous of 'highways', drawing me far up into the quiet roadside villages of the magnificent mountains that had been hiding invisible within my map.
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