Thursday, May 8, 2014

Nostalgic about Negros Occidental (Part 1)

“When time permits, we take it down and think of days long past. Our hopes, our dreams, our heritage, all safe and made to last.” 

Bacolod City Government Center
These lines, which I came across while looking for something relevant to begin this post, seem to capture something I’ve always believed about our past and our history as a people. That’s why when time and treasure permit me, I try to revisit the past in destinations that are off-the-beaten path if only to learn more about our heritage.   
Negros Occidental Provincial Capitol

Very few of these places I’ve visited have tugged me at the heartstrings. These are destinations that have etched indelible marks deep in my consciousness, evoking nostalgia whenever I think of them. Destinations that have given me that rare feeling of being so welcomed and so well treated. Destinations that have made me feel as if I’ve never left home even though I’m several islands away from home. In many ways than one, Negros Occidental made me feel that way.

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A sugarcane plantation
Known as the “Sugar Bowl of the Philippines”, the “sweetest” province in Western Visayas (with all due respect to its sister province, Negros Oriental, whose main product is also sugar), produces half of the nation’s total sugar production. 

NegOcc is home to around fifteen sugar centrals, with the largest ones found in Bago, Kabankalan, La Carlota, Murcia, Sagay, San Carlos, Silay, and Victorias, to name some. Victorias, also happens to be the home of the largest sugar mill in the country.   

Located on the western side of Negros Island, the third largest in the country, NegOcc has long been one of my highly desired destinations. The culture vulture in me first had a rare chance of making a rather quick sojourn into its capital, Bacolod, while I was on a vacay in nearby Iloilo City in 2007. Imagine my chagrin, however, when I lost the one and only memory card containing all my snaps from that escapade! Geez, that distressing incident left me in the doldrums for weeks!
Masskara participant
Fortunately, I was able to return to the City of Smiles in 2011 when I, along with several friends, attended for the first-time the internationally renowned Masskara Festival, the Philippines’ version of Brazil’s Mardi Gras. Celebrated by Bacolod and the rest of Negros Island, Masskara is the Negrenses’ collective affirmation of hope and triumph against the odds. (For more about the festival, visit my post at
Our hosts also took us to Silay—touted as the “Second Museum City” of the country next to Vigan—and to Murcia where we frolicked at Mambukal Mountain Resort. (For more about this, check That escapade also enabled us to take a peek at Talisay’s most sought-after destination, “The Ruins”. (For more about this, read my post at http:

One of Mambukal's seven falls
Having had very little time to explore the cities of Bacolod, Silay and Talisay during that previous sortie, I felt the urge to stage a revisit. From what I’ve gathered, there’s a plethora of heritage landmarks that are worth exploring in each of the historic places. So, after so many starts and stops, I’ve arranged an exciting weekend wandering in NegOcc this summer if only to satisfy my yearning for heritage walks and photo shoots in the three above-mentioned cities.  

The Ruins
For this sojourn, my Bacolod buddies fulfilled most, if not all, of my great expectations and then some more. Not only did I get to return to the cities of Bacolod, Silay, Talisay and the municipality of Murcia, I was also able to visit Victorias City and the town of Manapla. All in all, it was a short but sweet (pun intended!) sojourn that had me exploring four cities and two towns. The recently concluded nostalgia-filled exploration is truly one for the books!

After fetching me and fellow travel junkie, Letty, and her daughter, Abby, from the Silay-Bacolod International Airport, our hosts, Minnie and hubby, Jim, brought us to Victorias City. Seeing the city for the first time didn’t impress me right away until Jim drove us around Victorias Milling Company (VMC) which is located inside a large compound somewhere in the city. Regarded as the Philippines’ largest sugar refinery, VMC is said to be second to none in the world as “the largest fully integrated sugar mill.” 
Sprawled on a 7,000 hectare hacienda, the Lucio Tan-led company fascinated me the moment we entered its guarded premises. Minnie mentioned that everyone is in the midst of preparing for the celebration of VMC’s 95th anniversary, which was founded in 1919 by sugar baron Don Miguel Ossorio. She and Jim then led us to a brief tour around the vast compound. Whew, it’s my first time to step into a hacienda—no less than VMC at that!—so the experience really thrilled me no end!
Church of the Angry Christ
A peek at St. Joseph the Worker (on Labor Day at that!) inside the VMC compound stands as the icing on the cake of my visit to Victorias. Also known as the “Church of the Angry Christ”, it features an unusual work of art that became the butt of controversy when it became public. Created by Filipino abstract expressionist Alfonso Ossorio in 1950, this one-of-a-kind mural of “The Angry Christ” first gained international renown when it was featured by Life Magazine.

Alfonso Ossorio's mural of the Angry Christ
Decades before The Da Vinci Code became controversial, the tiny church had irked some conservative segments of the Roman Catholic Church for its depiction of an angry Son of God (in contrast to the traditional concept of Christ as a merciful God) and its unusual interpretation of Catholic saints as brown-skinned Pinoys. But Jesus did get angry at the temple, if the events in Matthew 21:12 were to be the basis. I supposed Ossorio must have drawn his inspiration from this.
Chimneys inside VMC
Incidentally, the works of Ossorio (who’s one of the heirs of Don Miguel) are on display at various American art museums.

After a spin around downtown Victorias, Jim drove us to Manapla, whose name allegedly came from the name Manang Pula. Later, it was shortened to Manapla, which has remained so until now. Mind you, there’s more to this quaint town in NegOcc  other than the sweet-tasting puto or rice cake that also bears its name, which, for me, is the perfect handmaiden to my fave dinuguan! The delicacy is also most heavenly when paired with my other comfort food, La Paz batchoy!

Chapel of Cartwheels
Arguably, one of the most exciting parts of my visit to Manapla is the tour around the Chapel of Cartwheels, a unique house of worship standing amidst the sprawling Hacienda Sta. Rosalia. I was puzzled by the name until I laid eyes on the structure. Instead of wood or concrete, cartwheels were used as the church’s walls. Instead of marble, an old mortar served as water stoup. Instead of fine glass, broken glass fragments in assorted colors adorned the windows. It was simply awesome!

What impressed me most about the church are the cartwheels that were creatively fashioned to give the building a different look; the altar which is made out of a huge centuries-old boulder; and the religious images, particularly the image of the Crucified Christ, that were etched out of wood. 

A mortar used as water stoup

Shaped like the salakot, the traditional wide-brimmed hat used by farmers, the church’s roof also caught my fancy. Wasting no time, I took several snaps of Manapla’s unique house of worship.

Gaston Mansion
From Minnie, I also found out that the town is home to an ancestral mansion which I recalled seeing for the first time in one of Peque Gallaga’s obras maestras. The highly-acclaimed film director, who now lives in Bacolod, shot several scenes of his award-winning classic movie, “Oro, Plata, Mata”, in the stately house that’s proudly standing in the sheltered confines of Hacienda Sta. Rosalia in the town of Manapla. Intrigued, I prodded my hosts to take us there.

Known as the Jose Gaston Mansion, the house used to be the abode of one of the sons of Yves Leopold Germain Gaston, a Frenchman who married a Batangueña and then settled in Negros Occidental. The pioneering Gaston is credited for modernizing the province’s sugar industry after he introduced the first horno economico (steam run iron sugar mill), a technology that allowed him to produce sugar in large exportable quantities (

The sprawling estate seemed abandoned at the time we were there. So, we took the chance to snap ourselves while the owners were away. I learned later though that no diligent sugar magnate lives there anymore. But a devoted servant of God does—retired Monsignor Gigi Gaston, whom I caught a glimpse of for a few seconds while we were roaming around the Chapel of Cartwheels. It was a quick and mesmerizing encounter that I haven’t had time to click my Nikon!

(to be continued)

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