Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Dumbfounded by Dumaguete City (Part 1)

What do former Environment Secretary Angel Alcala, award-winning poet and fiction writer Cesar Aquino, world-class archer Mark Javier, highly acclaimed fashion designer Rajo Laurel and the late filmmaker and national artist Eddie Romero have in common? Well, they’re not only icons in their own fields but also count among the many notable residents of the so-called university town of Negros Oriental—Dumaguete! 

Rizal Baywalk/Boulevard
I never thought that I’d be seeing Dumaguete this summer considering that it ranks quite low in my list of must-see places in the Visayas. A series of unfortunate events, however, kept me from going on a Lenten break to one of the island groups off the coast of Cebu. So when that sojourn went pfft, there I was, scurrying to adjust my itinerary so I could hop into a bus bound for the “City of Gentle People”.

Negros Oriental Provincial Capitol

Cebu South Bus Terminal
Traveling by land via Cebu’s southern coastal road to get to Dumaguete via a short cruise along Tañon Strait fascinated me. I’ve been hearing from fellow adventure junkies that the joyride offers a spectacular vista of the dazzling seascape. Besides, I wanted to familiarize myself with that road as I intend to embark on a visita iglesia to the heritage churches of Argao, Dalaguete, and Boljoon in the future.
 Best backdrop for a selfie

Holy Thursday. At 7:30 in the morning, I was already on my way to the Cebu South Bus Terminal. Throngs are expected to flock there that day. True enough, the queue outside the terminal was almost a kilometer long by the time I got there! This, however, didn’t dampen my spirits. If Jesus marched to his death burdened with a heavy cross, then carrying a backpack, a tripod and a duffel bag was peanuts!

Instinct told me that something fishy was going on when our queue didn’t budge for  almost thirty minutes. I was right! To our chagrin, several Ceres buses plying the Cebu-Dumaguete route were temporarily grounded by LTO officials allegedly due to some problems with the operator’s franchise. Geez, whatta perfect timing, LTO! Didn’t you people notice the infraction days ago? Why only now? I thought.

Patience is the least among my virtues but, surprisingly, I managed to shrug my shoulders, charging the incident to experience. Although the minutes ticked at snail’s pace, I was able to keep my cool despite the heat and noise around me. Just when my patience was wearing thin, two Dumaguete-bound buses finally came one after the other after almost four hours of making us wait! I hopped into the second one.  
By noon, the bus’ engine roared to life and headed towards our destination. En route to the south of Cebu, we were slowed down for almost two hours by heavy traffic in Carcar City all the way to Argao. So, what was normally a four hour trip from downtown Cebu to the port of Bato in the town of Santander, which is the take-off point for vessels bound for Negros Oriental, stretched to nearly six hours!

Sunset over Tañon Strait

Negros Island and Tañon Strait
What sustained me during prolonged journey was the promise of seeing the awe-inspiring visual spectacle of Cebu’s seascape. True enough, I laid eyes on the much-talked about picturesque beauty of that part of the province as the bus carried us past green rice fields, lush forests, humble shanties, lovely villas, white-sand beaches, emerald waters, sutukil restos and whale-watching resorts. 

A fast ferry cruising Tañon Strait
Along the way, I also had a few glimpses of some of Cebu’s heritage churches as the bus meandered through the coastal cities of Naga and Carcar as well as the charming towns of Minghanilla, San Fernando, Sibulan, Argao, Dalaguete, Alcoy, Boljoon, Oslob and Santander. A big bonus I didn’t expect was seeing Sumilon Island. Seen from the bus, that scenic tourist attraction seemed to be beckoning me!

Reaching Bato, our bus grounded to a halt for several minutes, allowing passengers to respond to the call of nature and grab something to eat before embarking on a short cruise aboard the roro (roll-on, roll-off) barge bound for the port of Tampi in San Jose, Negros Oriental. While waiting for the others, I grabbed the opportunity to snap at the fabulous sunset that was beginning to fade into the Visayan horizon.
Before 7:00 in the evening, the barge carrying our bus left Bato and cruised for about half an hour over the placid waters of Tañon Strait. Night had fallen when we reached Tampi where the bus disembarked and travelled for another half hour to downtown Dumaguete. When I reached Hotel Essencia (, where I was billeted, every part of me from the shoulders down was aching.

Nice accommodations at Hotel Essencia
Entering my room, I caught my watch as it struck 8:00 in the evening. Exhausted, I dozed off for almost two hours, only to be awakened by hunger pangs. In minutes, I was downstairs, hailing a pedicab. “Take me to the nearest fast food chain here,” I instructed the driver who took me in as his passenger. Revving up his motor, the young fellow nodded and vroomed his way into the well-lit streets of Dumaguete. 

So, what’s with Negros Occidental’s bustling capital that left me dumbfounded? Let me start with the name which sounds weird to me. I had qualms about going there before given that. Call me silly but, you see, the name “Dumaguete” originated from dagit, the Visayan word for “snatch”! Geez, it must be crawling with snatchers, thieves or worse, kidnappers! Is this how they define “gentle people” now? I once thought. LOL!

Legend has it that the old settlement in the island was prone to persistent invasions of Moro pirates who either grabbed things or kidnapped people to become slaves. When the Spanish conquistadors came to Negros, they gave different names to the settlement. In the course of time, the word dumaguet evolved, which became the basis for what the bustling capital of Negros Oriental is called now. 

Quezon Park

Dumaguete, to my delight, turned out to be the exact opposite of what its name suggests. It’s far from being a criminal’s crib. The world was my oyster while I explored the charming university town or unitown, as some people call it for short. No encounters whatsoever with criminals of lower caliber compared to Napoles and her ilk. LOL! Geez, the city by the bay is one of the safest places I’ve visited in the Visayas! 

What dumbfounding attractions await first-time visitors in Dumaguete? There are a lot actually. Too bad, I can count by the fingers the ones I’ve explored. Good thing, the ones I saw all appealed to my historical, religious and cultural curiosity, making my first ever visit a memorable one. Hitting the road to the unitown remains one of the most exhilarating detours I’ve ever made in my entire nomadic life!

Mt. Talinis a.k.a Cuernos de Negros

Found on the sprawling plains of Negros Island’s southeastern coast, Dumaguete faces the Bohol Strait on the east and Tañon Strait on the northeast. In the outskirts of the city lies Mt. Talinis, said to be the second highest mountain in Negros (next to Mt. Kanlaon). I consider my first morning in the city somewhat providential because I caught sight of the serrated mountain range from my room’s window.   

Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria
Rising some 1,903 meters, Mt. Talinis, also known as Cuernos de Negros (Horns of Negros) boasts of horn-like peaks that have earned for it its nickname. From what I’ve gathered, Talinis is a sought-after destination among mountain climbers, adventurers and nature trippers. Too bad, I’m no longer that fit to scale heights; otherwise, the Horns of Negros would be part of my must-climb list.  

It only took me roughly thirty six hours to explore Dumaguete’s tourist belt because the sites are adjacent to one another. I think that’s dumbfounding in itself; it left me more hours for sleep which I’m in short supply of lately! I suppose that would give other sleep-deprived tourists enough time to choose between snoozing and scouring the rest of Negros Oriental, and perhaps the nearby island of Siquijor.   

Monument of the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartre

Getting around Dumaguete turned out to be a walk in the park for this gadabout. From my hotel, all I did was either hike a few blocks or hop into one of those ubiquitous pedicabs plying the city streets to reach my destinations. Like most small Philippine cities, they’re the common means of public transport in the unitown. Only a few cars roamed around but motorcycles and bicycles swarmed the city.  

Silliman University as seen from Rizal Boulevard

From what I’ve observed, Dumaguete seemed to be living up to its claim as a place of mild-mannered people. I hardly saw the locals clashing in the streets or cussing in public. I’m not sure though if it had something to do with Lent. That Dumagueteños are so civil and congenial could be a spillover effect of living in a unitown. No less than four universities are located in the smallest city in the province!    

Luce Auditorium
To most people, Dumaguete is best known as the home of the first Protestant university in the Philippines and the first American private university in Asia—Silliman University or SU ( Established in 1901, it was named after Dr. Horace Silliman, the American philanthropist and retired businessman who contributed funds to the Board of Foreign Missions of the American Presbyterian Church.

Dr. David Hibbard's monument
Imbued with deep sense of altruism for the country, Silliman shelled out an initial amount of US$10,000 for the establishment of the school he had in mind. Quite a fortune during those times. Soon, the Presbyterians sent one of their missionaries, Dr. David Hibbard, to scout for the location of what would become the Silliman Institute, which they later founded in the town of Dumaguete.

Long before I went there, the 113-year old university had intrigued me. Why did the American missionaries decide to put up a prestigious school in some faraway town in the Visayas? Why not in Manila, Cebu, or Zamboanga? Also, I got curious about SU after hearing tales from some friends who’ve burned the midnight oil in its sprawling campus so I wanted to discover for myself what makes it tick. 
The Amphitheater
Wasting no time, I roamed around Silliman’s vast campus, stopping over at some of its notable buildings I’ve read such as the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium, which was erected in the mid-1970s.  Dubbed for some time as “the largest fully-functioning theatre outside Metro Manila”, Luce (pronounced as ‘Luz’) Auditorium seeks to promote the performing arts—theatre, music, dance and the like. 

Other popular landmarks I found interesting included Silliman Hall, the oldest building in the campus and the entire city; Katipunan Hall, originally a mission hospital that now serves as an administrative building for various academic departments; the Amphitheater, a sunken, open-air theatre that reminded me of the one I saw in U.P. Diliman; and the Silliman University Church.

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Undoubtedly, the Silliman escapade was the crowning glory of my sojourn to the City of Gentle People. Not only did I get to roam around the university but I also found the answer to my question: Dr. Hibbard, who founded SU and became its first president, chose to put up the school in Dumaguete because he fell in love with the town’s beauty and its people’s gentility.

After scouring the vast Silliman campus, I took time to take a peek at St. Paul University (SPU), a private Catholic school established in 1904 by a group of nuns belonging to the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres (SPC). The two other big academic institutions in the city are Negros Oriental State University (NORSU) and Foundation University. Of the four, I failed to make it to the latter due to time constraints.

St. Paul University

Hibbard Avenue
With a student population of roughly 30,000, Dumaguete is a melting pot of students, teachers, scholars, artists and the literati. Being so, it’s expected it to be abuzz with lots of activity. Because it was the Holy Week, roaming around the unitown proved to be a breeze. Traffic was light and the streets weren’t crowded just as I had imagined—the perfect sanctuary for this wannabe Lenten recluse. LOL!  

Where have all the people gone? Since it was summer and a long weekend at that, most of the members of the academic community were probably at home or out on a vacay elsewhere, leaving the streets of Dumaguete to visiting vagabonds like me. Just imagine how helter-skelter everything could have been in the city by the bay had there been classes while I was exploring it! I supposed it would be chaos! :-D

(to be continued)

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