Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mindless in Misamis Occidental

Hitting the road somewhere, anywhere. It’s one of those impulsive things I do to get myself quickly out of toxic circumstances. Like some mercurial meanderer zipping from one destination to another on a frenzied flight, I’m always excited to go mindlessly off the beaten track to discover a thing or two about the different provinces, towns and cities in the Philippines.

Could it be that in my past life I was a devotee of that Roman deity with winged sandals? I guess my track record during these past several years speaks for itself. LOL! 

Whenever those winged sandals possess me, I often head for some destination anywhere in the country’s second largest island. Why Mindanao? Well, there’s something about little known, less visited places in the island that gets me flighty and fancy-free. Perhaps it’s the unpredictability, the peril and the excitement of it all that make random rambles around the island fodder for this footloose adventurer.

Panguil Bay
Recently, I trained my sights up north and headed for Misamis Occidental, or MisOcc for short, in the northwestern part of Mindanao. MisOcc has intrigued me for the longest time, mainly because of its unique name which allegedly came from the Subano word, kuyamis, a variety of sweet coconut which thrived in the area. 

Shaped like the letter D, the province borders Zamboanga del Norte and Zamboanga del Sur to the west and is separated from Lanao del Norte by Panguil Bay to the south and from Misamis Oriental by Iligan Bay to the east.

And what’s so mindless about my sojourn there? For one, I didn’t have an elaborate plan on how to go about with the trip over the unfamiliar terrain (which is uncharacteristic of me). 

Now, that mindlessness gave me the surprise of my life: I ended up at one point traveling by land and sea for nearly 14 hours, passing through seemingly precarious grounds unaided by a road map at that! Even so, I made it to MisOcc and back—in one piece. Thanks to divine intervention and the kindness of strangers. 

So, what tempted me to embark on a solo adventure on the road less traveled one long weekend in August? 

Foremost is the promise of a great historical and cultural experience: seeing some remnants of what can be considered as Spain’s not-so-successful bid to take control over the entire island of Mindanao. Now, that’s a perfect treat for this history junkie who’s on the lookout for some historical find just waiting to be re-discovered. 

Second is the rare chance to explore for the first time that side of the island which I’ve been yearning to invade these past few years. Now, that’s a much-needed shot in the arm for this free spirit who’s been itching to tread on those parts. 

For close to four days, the spur-of-the-moment sojourn had me moving north by northwest of the island, passing through three provinces—Bukidnon, Misamis Oriental and Lanao del Norte (my first time) and five cities—Valencia, Malaybalay, Cagayan de Oro, El Salvador and Iligan, all in Northern Mindanao. In that span of time, I got to explore MisOcc’s three cities— Ozamis, Oroquieta and Tangub—plus the quaint town of Jimenez.

Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral

Uh, just a caveat here: I’m not really sure whether that north by northwest thing I’ve earlier mentioned actually points to my destinations; I’m using them simply because they sounded Hitchcockian enough—yes,  I’m an avid fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces!—to describe my northern exposures which were spiced up with spatterings of suspense from beginning to end. LOL! So, what were some of my exciting discoveries in northwestern Mindanao?

Right after crossing Panguil Bay from Mukas Port in the town of Kolambogan (in Lanao del Norte), I hopped out of the bus and scoured the downtown area for a place to stay. It didn’t take long before I found my inn, thanks to the trisikad driver who brought me there in a jiffy. 

In Ozamiz, I got to see at least two vestiges of Spain’s presence in that part of the island: Fort Santiago, also known as the Misamis Cotta, and the Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral.

After leaving my stuff at the inn, I hiked towards the cathedral which is just two blocks away.  When I got there, a mass was in progress so I just stayed outside and took snaps of the church’s fa├žade whose original structure prior to its major facelift about 15 years ago was designed by no less than National Artist Leandro Locsin in the early 1960s.

Entrance to Fort Santiago a.k.a Misamis Cotta

Initially, I didn’t find anything exceptional about the church’s modern architecture, with the exception of two huge sculptures of St. Augustine and St. Ignatius flanking the main entrance as well as the niched statue of the Lady at the center of the facade. After the mass, I went inside to take a peek. 

Entering the cathedral, I felt a surge of calm engulfing me as I gazed around the interior. Maybe because of the blue and pink colored stained glass windows illuminating the interior with bright shades of blue which had a soothing effect on the eyes.

What makes this house of worship worth any visitor’s while, however, is the musical piece found there—a pipe organ made by German builders that’s touted to be the only one in Mindanao and the second largest in the country. 

From what I’ve read, it has 1,936 pipes, 1,512 of which are flute pipes and 424 are reeds. Its console has three keyboards, two of which are manuals and one pedal. It’s outfitted with an electric blower and is completely noiseless. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to shoot it for I only found out about the pipe organ’s existence days later. Well, I took that as a sign that a revisit to Ozamiz is a must.

If Intramuros has its Fort Santiago, so does Ozamiz. Known as the Misamis Cotta, the fort was put up for two reasons: one, to quell the raids instigated by Moro pirates, which were at their height during the 1750s and, two, to provide a harbor for ships of the Spanish fleet. Built in 1756, it was once called Fuerte dela Concepcion y del Triunfo

Declared a National Historical Landmark by the National Historical Institute, the fort, which is made of coral stones, was restored in line with the city government’s bid to preserve the place as a "cultural heritage site, a pilgrimage destination and a tourist attraction." 

Once a watchtower against pirates and intruders in the 1750s, Fort Santiago, through its lighthouse, serves as a beacon nowadays for both seafarers and fishermen entering Panguil Bay during dark nights.

Aside from this, it is also regarded as a religious landmark of the people of Misamis who have associated it with the shrine of the miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin Mary found outside the wall on the northeastern side facing the port of Ozamiz. The image, which is popularly known as Birhen sa Cotta (Virgin at the Fort), is considered as the city's second patroness.

From Ozamiz, I proceeded to MisOcc’s capital, Oroquieta City. On the way there, I made a quick stop at the town of Jimenez to take a peek at St. John the Baptist Church, which is known for being one of the best preserved Spanish heritage churches in Mindanao. Built in the 1870s, I’ve been hearing so much about this house of worship in MisOcc so I included it in my hastily planned itinerary.

At first glance, the church, which is about a kilometer away from the national highway in Jimenez, appears to be a plain-looking decrepit structure with a triple arched stone archway and triangular pediment embellished with a few bas-reliefs. To fully appreciate why the National Commission for Culture and Arts (NCCA) has gone to great lengths to rehabilitate this little known, secluded church, visitors have to enter its sacred grounds and discover the artistic wonders waiting to be seen and admired.

Inside, a treasure-trove of venerated icons, antique ornaments and other paraphernalia greeted me, particularly the resplendent-looking Gothic retablo as well as the exquisite paintings on the ceiling done in trompe l’oeil, which brings life to that part of the church, creating the impression of a three-dimensional work of art. Seeing those priceless pieces, I readily took out my camera.

I was about to start shooting when a man who introduced himself as the church caretaker approached me from nowhere. To my chagrin, he bluntly told me that picture-taking inside is prohibited. That pissed me off! 

I wanted to tell him, "Are you nuts? I’ve traveled so far to get to this place only to be told I can’t have my pictures?" But I restrained myself. Reason prevailed as I realized I was the one intruding and had no right to demand anything. Besides, I didn’t want to start any tiff inside the house of God.

Still smarting from the rebuff, I left in a huff and hiked towards the highway to catch a bus bound for Oroquieta. Along the way, however, I got lost and ended up seeing a number of fascinating vintage houses. 

Wasting no time, I started snapping here, there and everywhere. Satisfied with my output, I walked on, eventually finding the right path to the main road where I continued with my journey to the provincial capital.

If Ozamiz is the province’s hub of trade and commerce, Oroquieta is the center of its governance. Formed from the Spanish words, oro, and quitar, meaning “gold” and “to take from”, respectively, the city was so named because its early settlers were said to have found and taken plenty of gold there.

Compared to Ozamiz, however, Oroquieta seemed more laidback. As one of Mindanao’s frontier towns, it has retained much of its old-world charm—vintage houses, clean streets, precautious tricycle drivers. Coming from a highly urbanized setting, I was instantly smitten with this city by the sea and found it breezy and carefree.

Oroquieta’s salubrious languor easily infected me the moment I stepped into its public park which offers one of the most magnificent views of Iligan Bay. Its sprawling expanse must be a favorite venue of early morning joggers and late afternoon roamers. It also felt surreal to find a replica of the Eiffel Tower right smack in the plaza! How’s that for a touch of Paris in Misamis?

Rotunda in Tangub City

Tired of roaming around, I sank into one of the benches near the baywalk and tried to lick my wounds resulting from the fiasco of my Jimenez church invasion. While gazing at the blue expanse, I noticed this smiling street photographer and politely asked him to take some snaps of me using my Nikon. He gamely obliged, even giving me the right blocking which yielded good snaps. 

From Oroquieta, I went back to Ozamiz and proceeded to my last destination: Tangub City. Dubbed by its drumbeaters as the “Christmas Symbols Capital of the Philippines”, I found this city quite intriguing so I made sure that I wouldn’t miss the place when I’m in MisOcc. The name Tangub, I learned later, also came from the Subano word, tangkob, which refers to a big bamboo basket for keeping rice.

As a first-timer, Tangub initially struck me as one of those lackluster towns left in the backwoods of underdevelopment. Every December, however, the city transforms itself into a shimmering wonderland at night, bedecked with several larger than life exhibits depicting anything Christmassy such as the nativity scene, Santa Claus and Christmas tree, to name some.  Alas, I got there too early for the start of the Christmas season so there were no holiday symbols waiting for me!

All told, I’d give my mindless meanderings in MisOcc only 8 stars. Why? I have to take away 2 stars because I didn’t get to see the playful dolphins at Misamis Occidenal Aquamarine Park (MOAP) in the town of Sinacaban and ride the mind-boggling ziplines of Hoyohoy Highland Adventure Park in Tangub City. Having missed the chance to explore these two exciting places, I’m missing MisOcc already. :D


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Conquered by Corregidor’s Courageous Past

With one of Corregidor's amazing guns
I can’t remember the exact moment when the idea of seeing some of the country’s old war zones, especially those laden with vestiges of World War II, first struck me. It’s something that seemed to have grown upon me over time. What occasionally crosses my mind though are images of death, destruction and deliverance in the many war movies I’ve seen over the years, which I suspect helped feed my fancy to gravitate towards those former hotspots.

For the record, I’m not some bloodthirsty, trigger-happy fellow brandishing a fetish for guns, gore and glory. But I did fire a rifle! And I managed to hit the target a number of times during our ROTC combat exercises in college. But then again, I’m basically a peacemaker, more of a lover than a fighter.

Even so,  the history junkie—not to mention the photography buff—in me had been insisting time and again that “invasions” of historic places like Bataan and Corregidor should be part of my bucket list. Having visited the Shrine of Valor at the summit of Mt. Samat in Bataan, I thought it would be a historical milestone of sorts for me as a true blue Pinoy if I made it to Corregidor this time.

Corregidor (a.k.a. Fort Mills), one of the major battlegrounds in the Asia-Pacific region during World War II, is the biggest among five small islands—the other four being Caballo (a.k.a Fort Hughes), Carabao (a.k.a. Fort Frank), El Fraile (a.k.a. Fort Drum) and La Monja—guarding the entrance to Manila Bay. Flanked by the equally historic provinces of Bataan and Cavite, these islands fall under the territorial jurisdiction of Cavite City (not Bataan as I’d thought).

Nestled 48 miles west of Manila, the once heavily fortified island fortress, which is known as “The Rock” because of its craggy landscape, is where anyone interested to know about the Philippines’ involvement in the Pacific war can come to reconnect with the not so pacific past. And reconnect I did recently.

The chance to see the Rock came my way courtesy of Manila-based long-time friend, Juju, who accompanied the five of us—Joel, Marisa, Minnie, Luz and Wines—to the tadpole-shaped island one gloomy Saturday morning. Joining a throng of local and foreign tourists, we headed for the historic battlefield, sailing from Manila aboard one of Sun Cruises’ catamarans docking at the pier beside the Folk Arts Theater.  

Cruising for over an hour in the choppy waters of Manila Bay, our catamaran had a tough time dealing with the strong currents which bashed it for the most part of the journey. Alas, the turbulent motions of the boat triggered seasickness among a number of the passengers—including Joel, Luz and me (my first time!). Good thing, I had the foresight to bring along my reliable lifeline—a soothing liniment—which helped tide me over the rough voyage.

Upon our arrival at the island’s pier, all of us hopped into one of the tranvias owned by Sun Cruises. Serving as our tour vehicle, the tranvia is an open-air public utility vehicle plying around Manila during the early American times. It really seemed surreal as we boarded the tram, making me feel like we were about to be transported back in time. As the tranvia meandered through the well-paved roads of the island, I tried to recall some of the things I’ve read about Corregidor’s history. 

MacArthur's monument
Spain was the first foreign power to take control over the Rock during the time of Legazpi in 1571, using it initially as an alternative refuge for Spanish galleys. Given its strategic location, the Spaniards later turned it into a military fortress, an early warning outpost watching over hostile ships, a correctional facility, and a customs inspection station. Corregidor’s name, in fact, was said to have been derived from the Spanish word, corregir, meaning 'to correct' considering its role as a penal colony and a customs outpost for Manila-bound ships. 

It was America, however, who converted the Rock into a seemingly impregnable stronghold that would put to shame the fictional island fortress of Navarone and its formidable guns that are feared for their awesome firepower. In the early 1900s, the U.S. poured millions of dollars to develop Corregidor into a military reservation, establishing an army post named Fort Mills and deploying a battalion of soldier-engineers who worked on the embankments, bomb-proof shelters, roads and trails. 

As part of the Rock’s fortification, the Americans put up an underground passageway known as Malinta Tunnel and installed 23 batteries on the island, consisting of 56 coastal guns and mortars. Initially used as a bomb-proof storage facility and personnel bunker, they later turned the tunnel into a 1,000-bed hospital.  There was a separate fee for the facility tour so our group opted to skip it.

As the tram headed for the middle side and topside sections of the island, we soon found ourselves gasping at the plethora of vestiges from the last world war. I never knew what a “theater of war” looked like until I saw those remnants of aggression that were strewn here, there and everywhere in the island. Along the way, the tranvia made about five stops to allow us to take snaps at the many interesting points in Corregidor: General Douglas MacArthur’s Park, President Manuel Quezon Park, Filipino Heroes Memorial, Battery Grubbs and the Eternal Flame of Freedom Monument, to name a few.

Caballo Island
But what really interested me and my friends were the ruins and artillery found at the topside and middle side sections. Staring at the crumbling spectacles and decrepit weapons of mass destruction, I saw, albeit vicariously, how thousands of Fil-American soldiers displayed courage and gallantry while making one of the most heroic stands against the Japanese.  Surrounded by those stark reminders of armed conflict—heavy artillery, mortars, canons, old barracks, ruined buildings and structures—I  thought about how difficult it must have been for those soldiers to defend the Philippines and how agonizing it was for the country to be entangled in one of the bloodiest military wars ever fought throughout the ages. 

After the fall of Bataan, Corregidor succumbed to the Japanese on May 6, 1942, with close to 12,000 Fil-American soldiers held as prisoners. Three years later, however, Allied forces under the command of General MacArthur recaptured the island, making good of his promise to liberate the country. He and his men thought of using a combination of airborne and amphibious assaults—quite a difficult maneuver considering the island’s terrain—to take back Corregidor. So, on the last days of February 1945, two weeks after executing the strategy and sacrificing so many lives, the Americans liberated the Rock, a victory regarded as the crowning glory of the Allied military campaign in the Pacific.

For more than three scores now, the guns of Corregidor have fallen silent. But the remnants left  in the island still echo with countless tales of heroism that were valiantly displayed there. For this alone, I think generations of Pinoys ought to pay homage to those who gave up their lives for independence and democracy, keeping in mind that the freedom they are enjoying, which, sadly, many seem to take for granted, would have remained a dream if not for the thousands who sacrificed their lives in the Rock during those harrowing days of the Pacific War. 

I once told myself that if I made it to the island, I’d be able to conquer one more historical place in the Philippines. On the contrary, however, it was Corregidor which ended up conquering my mind, heart and soul in more ways than one. Indeed, the island had me at the tranvia. And who wouldn’t? There’s really no choice but to surrender sweetly to the island’s historical charms.

Today, an average of 10,000 local and foreign tourists flock to the island every year. On this score, it can be said that the Rock has succeeded in morphing itself from a war zone to a tourist hotspot. But that doesn’t mean that tourism authorities can now be complacent. For Corregidor to continue attracting more visitors, those managing it must keep on creating more value-added services to shore up the island’s competitiveness in the cultural-historical tourism market.

Why not consider offering alternative rides to the Rock—a hot air balloon flight, a cable car drive, a skydiving cruise, or a helicopter whirl—which would literally take tourists to the next higher level? Any of these would certainly compel adventure junkies to keep on conquering the island if only to experience these joyrides. Now, these treats would surely make Corregidor rock! :D

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