Monday, November 7, 2011

Bouncing to Bacolod’s Beat

Wearing a real smile, not a smirk, in the face of difficulties can be a tough act. Not for the people of Bacolod, known as the City of Smiles, whose beams shine through even during tough times. So spirited are these people that they’ve managed to mount a festival amidst the economic crisis in the 1980s that was spawned by the sharp decline in the global price of sugar, the major commodity produced by the island of Negros.  

That event—celebrated by Negrenses as a collective affirmation of hope and triumph against all odds—features a grand street parade where the townspeople troop to the streets to watch masked dancers clad in flashy outfits, swaying to the rhythm of popular Latin beats in an epic display of gaiety, glam and grandness. Today, that celebration has become a much-awaited festivity held every October: Masskara Festival.

Masskara is actually a fusion of two words, “mass”, referring to people, and the Spanish word for face, “cara”, or “kara” as spelled in Pilipino. Literally, the festivity means “a mass of happy faces”, bearing similarities to the internationally-known Mardi Gras, the French name for various celebrations held all over the world before the fasting and religious obligations of Lent. “Fat Tuesday” in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA and “Carnaval” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil are among the more famous versions of Mardi Gras. 

Unfortunately, I missed Bacolod’s own Mardi Gras during my first visit to the City of Smiles five years ago. Thus, I promised myself to fix the schedule of my second coming so I can witness the event.

As fate would have it, an invite to the festival unexpectedly came my way middle of this year, thanks to my buddy Juju’s best pal—who else but, Minnie, who’s become my good friend, too—who wanted to show us what Masskara is all about. Without thinking where I’d get the needed resources for the trip, I committed myself to it.

In the many weeks that followed, Juju and Minnie carefully mapped out the details of the group’s sojourn to Bacolod. Finally, last October, our friends from Manila and Davao trooped to Sugarlandia, joining over a million people from various parts of Negros, the country and the rest of the world in celebrating the most flamboyant masquerade party that side of the Philippines. 

If love’s lovelier the second time around, then a second coming to the City of Smiles must be lovelier, too. That’s what crossed my mind the moment our ferry docked at the city’s seaport after a half-day journey that required us to travel by air, land and sea. To my surprise, the rigors of the trip didn’t get the better of me. That time, my mind, body and soul were preoccupied with one thing: to bounce to the beat of the city’s renowned festival. 
From the pier, our gracious hosts led by Minnie took us to our respective hotels to deposit our bags. Then, they drove us to nearby Silay City for a sumptuous lunch in a resto called “Sir and Ma’am” (whatta name!) serving delectable home cooked turo-turo fare that included—hold your breath—inasal na manok (roasted chicken), lumpiang ubod (spring rolls sans the wrapper), pangat (laing in Bicol), kaldereta (beef stew) and the house specialty, lechon kawali. Too bad, we forgot to order puto manapla

Having filled our tummies, we spent the rest of the day exploring Silay and its neighboring city, Talisay. While basking in the beauty of the different tourist spots we visited, it suddenly occurred to me that my second coming to Bacolod is gonna outclass my first. True enough, it did as the days unfolded!

Later that night, we took part in a street party courtesy of the Electric Masskara, one of the major competitive events of the weeklong celebration which showcases glitter-clad street dancers, elaborate floats and giant papier-mâché puppets in a seemingly endless parade and revelry all over the city’s major thoroughfares. We  were joined by other Bacolod chums, Jim (Minnie’s better half), Bob, who brought along his wife, Betty and, of course, Mia.

Now on its fifth year, the glitzy after-dark event has been expanded to three venues. One was at the Tourism Strip along Lacson St., whose two sides were converted into a long stretch of stalls offering food and drinks. It was there where our hosts treated us to a splendid dinner of fine Japanese cuisine as we watched from a comfortable vantage point the street dancers as they strutted their stuff. The other venues of the Electric Masskara were Bacolod Public Plaza and Rizal St. 
From the noisy street parade at Lacson, our hosts spirited us away to a noisier venue, Club Sibeeria, one of Bacolod’s hippest party hubs, which boasts of having some of the hottest dance tracks and the most engaging DJs in town. There, we sipped to our hearts’ content and let those happy feet stump to the beat of the club’s mixes which consisted of the latest R&B, hiphop, disco and techno-pop tunes. Whew, the party has reached fever pitch when we called it a night. Or was it day already? LOL!

Good thing, I managed to keep my sleepy eyes wide open all the time we were at the club. Otherwise, naughty Juju would have taken those compromising shots he’s notorious for posting in Facebook for everyone to cheer and jeer at. LOL!

We woke up late the following day and had brunch by the beach in the outskirts of Bacolod, again, courtesy of our hosts. More eating, talking, laughing out loud and snapping. How I wish Saturdays were always like that…no punishing pressure, just pure pleasure.

In the afternoon, we went back to town to catch a glimpse of the most anticipated highlight of the festival: the street dance parade and competition, which is divided into two categories, school and barangay. Competing groups danced to the beat of the official Masskara tune, which reminded me of the theme from “The Phantom of the Opera.” Dancers swayed to this upbeat tune all the way to the town plaza where the final showdown took place. Too bad, we didn’t get to see the announcement of winners. 

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Like any festivity, the fuss, fanfare and fun of Masskara Festival’s weeklong celebration had to come to an end. Just like the previous years, this year’s event, I learned later, also ended with a bang. All told, the Bacolodnons have another feather in their caps. And when it comes to pomp and pageantry, they’re really a cut above the rest of us Pinoys. That holds true to our hosts who left no stone unturned just to make our visit to the city a blissful one.

So what are you waiting for? Kari na sa Bacolod, folks!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Roaming around “The Ruins” of Talisay City

There lies in one of Negros Occidental’s newly formed cities the remains of a rundown mansion owned by the heirs of one of its sugar barons, which is fast turning into a spectacular tourist magnet known as “The Ruins”. 

Built by Don Mariano Ledesma Lacson sometime in the early 1900s in memory of Maria Braga, his Portuguese wife, the century-old house—or what’s left of it—is considered by some to be the Philippines’ little version of India’s Taj Majal, which is a testament of one man’s undying love for his departed wife. 

Word has it that the mansion used to be the largest residential structure ever built at that time. It was also embellished with the finest furniture, chinaware, paintings and other works of art. Also, one of Lacson’s daughters maintained a lovely garden with a four-tiered fountain fronting the house.

All its grandeur, however, was reduced to ruins when guerilla fighters during World War II burned the mansion so that the Japanese forces could not use it as their headquarters. For three days, the fire ravaged the whole house, gutting its roof, floors and woodwork.

Even so, the structure has withstood the test of time primarily because of the huge steel bars and the A-grade mixture of concrete used when the house was built. One of Lacson’s sons was said to have supervised the construction, seeing to it that everything was done in accordance to the family’s specifications, including the A-grade concrete mixture and its pouring.

In recent years, the present owners of the estate must have realized the tourism potentials of this ancestral house in Talisay. Thus, they restored and opened it to the public, eventually transforming yesterday’s fabulous abode into today’s favorite venue for weddings, pictorials, debuts, picnics, reunions and other gatherings.

Having heard so much about this tourist attraction, my friends and I explored the renowned rubble during our recent visit to Bacolod. From Silay City, we traveled southward to the neighboring city of Talisay where the ruins are located.

A sucarcane plantation in Talisay

There are two routes that tourists can take to reach the place. One is thru a potholed macadam road passing through a sugarcane plantation in Talisay and another via a middle-class subdivision somewhere in Bacolod.

Our hosts were not very familiar with the streets in Talisay so we ended up taking the rough road (that’s less traveled, I supposed) all the way to the mansion. It was a bumpy drive but we enjoyed that helluva joyride just the same. 

On the way to our destination, we chanced upon a group of sugarcane plantation workers known as sakadas who were busy harvesting in the field. We stopped to ask one of them for directions to the ruined mansion. After giving us the route, the fellow and his colleagues willingly obliged when we requested them to pose for us. Wasting no time, we took advantage of that rare countryside scenery and kept on clicking our shutter buttons.

When the plantation photo op was over, we drove some more before we finally saw what we came for. From a distance, the ruins of Lacson’s mansion looked like the scaffolding of an unfinished house. At close range, however, it seemed like the refurbished ground zero of some demolished structure.

After paying the entrance fees, we began exploring the place. On the remaining walls, I noticed several photographs and other memorabilia, explaining the Lacson family as well as the house’s rich history. Inside, a number of tourists were busy milling around the old mansion that reeked of nostalgia, mystery and intrigue.  

Outside, we noticed the sprawling garden with a large fountain to boot and headed towards it. I wondered if this was an original structure or just a replica. Many people were around that time, taking snaps of themselves with the garden and fountain as background so we patiently waited for all of them to leave before we started taking our shots.

It is said that the magnificence of the ruins come into full view during late afternoons when the rays of the sun hit the hollow frames of the structure, turning its pale hues into golden yellow. Taking our refreshments, we patiently played the waiting game just to capture the seared spectacle at its best. And when the shooting began, we really had a blast.

Whether one is a tyro or a pro, the ruins of the Lacson mansion are undoubtedly a photographer’s delight. I just wished we had more time to snap at the structure at different times of the day, perhaps from sunup to sundown. Oh, well, I guess a second coming’s in the offing.  :D

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Moving up to Negros Occidental's Mambukal Resort

Sitting at the foot of Mt. Kanlaon, the 24-hectare Mambukal Mountain Resort is considered the “it” hideaway in Negros Occidental since the ‘70s. It’s said that you haven’t been to the province if you didn’t make it to the resort. Nestled at 366 meters (1,200 ft) above sea level, anyone who visits this popular hideaway would surely have a great time bonding with Mother Nature.

So, what can nature lovers expect from this resort that’s just 45 minutes away from Bacolod City? I found the answer when I visited Sugarlandia recently. Together with friends from Manila, Davao and Bacolod, I moved up to Mambukal for a short but sweet visit, a welcome break from the hullabaloo of the festivities we attended in the City of Smiles.

From the city, our group composed of Juju, Jojo, Jim, Bobby, Minnie, Letty, Lily, Marisa and their kids drove all the way to the municipality of Murcia where the resort is located. En route to that town, we were treated to a picturesque vista of the countryside whose unspoiled images made me prouder of this country. It was a relief to see that there’s still so much rustic beauty in the countryside that is largely unscathed by the inroads of unbridled development. I just hope they’d remain that way for many more generations to appreciate.  

When we reached the resort, Mambukal was overflowing with people from all walks of life because of the long weekend break brought about by the celebration of the Masskara Festival. It was evident though that the resort can accommodate everyone because of the presence of several amenities such as picnic huts and cottages, a dormitory and lodge for those staying overnight and a camping ground for those who want to pitch their tents.

Since it was almost lunch time when we got there, the first thing we had in mind was food. It’s a good thing that the resort has its own canteen where you can order fresh meat, seafood and other delights and have them cooked anyway you want. With that taken care of, we went on exploring the resort.

Because of its proximity to one of the Philippines’ most active volcanoes, Mambukal has a good number of sulfuric springs that are said to be therapeutic. In many of its rocky parts, sulfuric water gushes out naturally. To collect this water, the resort’s management laid pipes that channeled it to a huge pool where people can enjoy swimming in it.

Tourists are also lured to the resort because of the series of seven falls that supplies cool spring water to its swimming pool and boating lagoon. The water from the falls is said to be coming from a huge mountain stream that’s being fed by various water channels. Together with Juju, Letty and the girls, Ira,  Alyssa and Paola, we attempted to scale the seven falls of Mambukal, with the help of two guides whom Juju hired to assist us in our trek into the rainforest where the falls are located.
Going to the first waterfall was quite effortless. After that, the winding trail leading to each of the other six falls became challenging to negotiate. One false step and you could fall flat on your face in the narrow, slippery footpath. I think it was quite harder for me because I had to keep my balance what with all the backpack, camera and tripod I was carrying that time. Good thing, there are handrails that people could hold on to at some parts of the path.

Pressed for time, our group only managed to make it up to the third falls. Also, our guides discouraged us from climbing any further as the trail upward had become treacherous due to the heavy rains the night before. Even so, snapping at three of Mambukal’s lovely cascades was more than enough for me. The excursion really made my day.

pic courtesy of S. Paner
Aside from the sulfur swimming pool and seven falls, the resort has other tourist attractions that the adventurous would surely love: boating lagoon, slide for life, canopy walk with hanging bridges, rock climbing wall, to name some. For me, however, it’s the trek to the seven falls that I’d consider the definitive experience for anyone who goes to Mambukal.

Though we only spent a few hours in the resort, there’s something I learned about it which I’d treasure for a long time: whether you go swimming by the river, dipping into the sulfuric pool, trekking into the rainforest, taking pictures of the seven falls, or simply watching water rushing down the cliffs above you, Mambukal can give you the much-needed breathing space from the cares of the world. Or, in my case, a sought-after mental respite from the whirr and whirl of the workplace.