Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Express trip under the shadow of Mayon & Bulusan volcanoes

Note:  This photo-essay appeared in the 06-12 Jun issue of the FilAm Star, 'the newspaper for Filipinos in mainstream America,' published weekly in San Francisco, CA,  This author/blogger is the paper's Special News/Photo Correspondent in the Philippines.

Mount Mayon from the left side of the Daraga Church. Woman figure shows her carrying red sili, said to be the Bicolano's favorite spice.

Our first option was to take the Bicol Express to Legazpi City, Albay, and the return trip on board one of the deluxe sleeper buses that ply the Maharlika Highway non-stop to Manila.

We did not know that the Philippine National Railways had cancelled all train services “due to ongoing repairs” and, as they implored, for us to bear with them until the Mayon Limited and the Bicol Express get running again.  For now, it’s only their Metro Commuter that keeps their choo-choo of “a storied past, a challenging present, and connections to the future” chugging along the rails from Tutuban to Laguna.  PNR, in fact, has not deleted their press release about resuming their Bicol runs “starting March 16, 2012.”

Thus, we flew to Legazpi, taking advantage of the budget promo of one local airline company. Our destination actually was barangay Tongdol of Irosin, Sorsogon to represent the family in a civil wedding. This would formalize a union that has already borne the marrying couple two young sons. The thirtyish groom was our personal driver more than a decade ago.

Bulusan Volcano from the wedding venue in Tongdol, Irosin, Sorsogon.

A very dear fraternity brother working in the city was off for the weekend with his family in Pio Duran.  He lent us his service vehicle and his driver for our Bicol sojourn.  He also gave us the key to his house in Daraga where we had a good sleep before the long haul to Irosin in the morning.

The driver knows the Bicol road system like the back of his palm, which made zipping through the Albay and Sorsogon towns under the shadow Mayon and Bulusan volcanoes, respectively, hassle-free and very relaxing .  He cued us on the interesting places we should see along the way, and he’d ask every now and then if we’d like to stop at what he thinks are beautiful sights to capture with our camera.  

We departed Daraga after the Sunday morning mass at the antique town church.  We took the national highway up to Sorsogon City.  Since we would be stopping by Bulusan Lake, he went another way, the coastal road that strings the town of Bacon, Prieto Diaz, Gubat, Barcelona, and Bulusan, from where we veered toward Irosin, the only inland town of Sorsogon, after cooling off at Bulusan Lake. All in all, we traversed around 160 kms of paved roads, some parts gravelly, with thick, lush green plants on our right, and the blue of Albay Gulf and the Pacific Ocean on the left.  There were portions where we drove under the canopy of branches of trees planted on both sides of the road. There was one instance when we stopped by the beach to chat with children enjoying the ankle-deep ocean waters at low tide.

Transporting pamaypay to the market (left). Pamaypay in various colors (right).

Fans, hats and sleeping mats.  Before hitting Sorsogon, we passed through barangay Bascaran of Daraga, where many hauling trucks were waiting to load, or were being loaded with Bicol region’s iconic handicraft products: pamaypay (fans), kalo (hats) and banig (sleeping mats). 

Bicol is endowed with indigenous flora for the raw materials of handicraft makers: karagumoy (Pandanus simplex) for hats, bags and mats; anahaw (Livistonia rotundifolia) for fans; and buri (Corypha) for hats.

What caught our fancy were the fans painted in several colors. We talked to one seller who actually collects from the weavers their unpainted products, which he then paints following the orders of the bulk buyers.  We learned from him that the demand could go as high as 10,000 pieces during the peak season.  

Nature tripping.  Rising 7,500 feet above sea level, Mayon Volcano was a looming presence during our tour of the Legazpi City and nearby Albay towns. It was the picturesque greeting card we saw from the window as the airplane descended for landing.  The sky was cloudless when we arrived; it was truly magayon (the Bicol word for beautiful) and passengers couldn’t help but pause for a selfie with the nearly perfect cone as background.

Bulusan Lake.

We noted that Bulusan is a hot subject these days. The volcano is not about to rumble and blow its top. The grumbling is from the anti-geothermal groups in the neigboring communities. We noted opposition to tap geothermal steam in the area for electric power.

 Bulusan volcano is not as high and majestic as Mayon but it sits in the heart of the national park named after it, a forest land teeming with flora of many different species.  

The park’s main attraction is Bulusan Lake, around 2 kilometers in circumference and 335 meters above sea level (masl).  We had our lunch break here surrounded by forest trees, shrubs and ferns, the green waters of the lake in view, and cicadas chirping all around.  Actually, the park management is tempting visitors to conquer all three lakes in the park: Bulusan, Aguingay, higher at 940 masl, and Blackbird’s, highest at 1,565 masl.

Young Bicolanos on their way to their favorite fishing sports by the bank of Bulusan Lake.

We could have gone trekking around the lake using the pathway of concrete slabs flanked by thick green foliage from various flora, which the guides said would not take an hour to complete. Kayaking on the placid green waters was another cool option.

We trekked part of the way though by joining a group of young men with fishing rods on their way to their favorite fishing spots.  We found some men on small boats casting their fishing nets a short distance away from the bank. 

Fisherman paddles his boat to a spot where he will cast his net.

While waiting for the young men to boast of a squirming catch on their lines, we spent some time with a honey collector nearby as he extracted sweet syrup from beehive fragments.  He said that this is one of the things he does for a living: roaming around the forest to smoke out beehives for the sweet honey.

Historical and spiritual detours.   Our quick Bicol trip gave us throwbacks to history starting with our departure point: the Church of the Nuestra Señora de Porteria (Our Lady of the Gate) on top of a hilltop in Daraga.  This church is more than 200 years old, and it was declared a Cultural Treasure by the National Museum in 2007 and a Historical Landmark by the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCAA) the following year.

Cagsaua ruins. Early this year, Albay province held Dos Siglo to commemorate the second centennial of the destructive Mayon eruption in 1814.

It has been painted with lime coating to protect the exterior side from further erosion.  The church facade and bell tower are rich in sculptured ornamentations like saints and other religious symbols, which are properly identified in the documentation of the preservation project.

This antique church reminded us of the ruins at Cagsaua, result of the violent eruption of Mayon on 01 February 1814.  As told by the historical marker on the ruins, the people of Cagsaua opted in July of that year to incorporate themselves with Daraga.  Hence, Cagsaua today remains a part of Daraga.  Early this year, Albay celebrated Dos Siglo to commemorate the destructive volcanic eruption two centuries ago.
Another candidate for declaration as heritage site is the church of Barcelona, Sorsogon, which  was built in 1874.  Across from it on the other side of the road are two ruins of stone buildings--the presidencia and the school—that date back to the Spanish colonial times.   According to popular stories,  Spaniards of yore gave the town that name to keep alive their memory of their city of origin.

The centuries old Daraga Church, a National Cultural Treasure.

When we returned from Sorsogon, we revisited Guinobatan, Albay to look for food items. In the search, two monuments caught our special photographic attention:  the Rizal Monument at the town plaza park and the Christus Regnat (Christ the King) monument facing the Church of the Assumption. 

We found the design of the pedestals closely similar.  The four women figures at the base of the monuments gave us the thought that these two works could have been designed and built by the same artist or group of artists.

Because of similarities in structure esp. with the four women figures, the Christ the King and Rizal monuments in Guinobatan appear to have been designed by the same artist or group of artists.

The standing allegorical women at the Christ monument are named after the cardinal virtues of Justicia (justice), Fortaleza (courage), Prudencia (prudence) and Templanza moderation. On the the hand, the four Rizal women are seated. The three that we were able to discern symbolize the arts, education and justice.

Culinary treats.  The theme of the welcome arch of Sorsogon province is seafoods symbolized by the crab, shrimp and mussel sculptures there.  A big crab is also atop the rest area building at Pepita Park, Sorsogon City.  Sad to say, there were no seafood meals during our dash through the province.

A giant white rooster along the road in Irosin. Across the street is the San Pedro barangay hall with a statue of the saint in front of it.

There was also nothing spicy in the wedding/fiesta menu, none of the traditional regional fare of laing and the so-called Bicol Express. 

The groom had a 100-kg pig butchered for the occasion, which an all-male cooking brigade headed by the popular village chef transformed into several dishes at the temporary kitchen in the backyard.  There was chicken and ubod cooked in coconut milk but this was not an entree in the menu.  It was served for dinner, and this was our first taste of this Sorsogon dish.

We watched closely the tutongan, where a live charcoal was embedded in the platter of grated coconut to produce smoke from the burning portion.  The set up was covered for some time so that the grated coconut would acquire the smoky smell and flavour.

The grates were then mixed with the pig’s blood, filtered out and pressed to extract the coconut oil. The diced pork meat was not sautéed but went directly into the mix of blood and coconut oil for the cooking.  Tutongan sa dinuguan was truly a culinary delight, and we had several helpings of it during the dinner.

Back in Albay, we had to hie off to Guinobatan for the thumb-size longanisas of garlicky or spicy red flavours.  Several packets of both flavours plus the pili nuts, sweetened and salted, made up our limited airplane baggage for the customary pasalubong for the family back home in Manila.

Town signage under construction.

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