Romblon, queen of unspoilt

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It’s not one of the first places that come to mind when you think of summer destinations. Considered the marble capital, Romblon is the RO in MIMAROPA, which I’m now convinced is the better looking sister of CALABARZON. I mean, who beats Palawan here, right? Our friend Rob invited us to take this trip. Cebu Pacific just opened flights this year to this archipelago. See, that it was an archipelago in itself was a pleasant surprise!

Anyway, so it’s an archipelago: there are 3 big islands that make up Romblon and several smaller ones like the beautiful Cresta de Gallo (more about it later). Your plane lands on an island called Tablas. Romblon, Romblon (the capital) is on an island called Romblon (imaginative nomenclature, Romblonanons!). The last big island, perhaps the least reached by government funding, is called Sibuyan where infrastructure development is just starting.

Sibuyan for me offers the most true-to-form island living. Let’s start with the unpaved dirt roads that felt like storm waves our little tricycle maneuvers over. The views transition from endless coconut tree farms carpeted by lush wild grass to huts with wide, mango-tree dotted backyards. Then suddenly opens into rock-sprinkled, road-level rivers snaking the edges of the countryside and emptying out into the sea in the horizon. Locals walk aimlessly carrying woods or fuel on their shoulders, but no one’s in a rush to arrive.

To the souls drained by the concrete, the urban and the corporate, we are so drawn to these scenes. On Instagram, we call this “island vibes.” But come and wonder if the locals are savoring this life as much as their city dwelling counterparts make it seem to be. Are they perhaps bewildered that we covet their way of life when for all we know, as is the case of our economic profile as a country, they are trying to make ends meet. To some, a laid back life is laid out by lack of access and lack of choice.  But we can’t deny that longing inside of us: the one that seeks daily explorations and a return to simple joys. I’m certain everybody, travelers and locals alike, seek a kind of simplicity, with a lot intention, slowness and quiet.

Tablas Island

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On Tablas island, we headed straight to Aglicay Beach Resort in the town of Alcantara, 30-minutes by trike from the airport on paved road and 15 minutes on dirt. Never mind the dirt when the cove and its turquoise waters started appearing behind the bushes. The resort features a hill that commands a great view of the cove. The beach has white sand and the water has a sandy bottom all the way. At dusk, a throng of starfishes came by to visit the shore. At night, they were all up there sparkling in the skies.

Early start the next day to go to Calatrava, a coastal town 2 hours by trike from Alcantara. You can hire a boat to go island hopping in Tinagong Dagat, Lapus Lapus Cove and Paksi Cove. Tinagong Dagat has some amazing karst formations that you can safely explore. Lapus Lapus Cove has a lot of El Nido feel going on. A goat welcomed our arrival. Nice white sand beach.  I was stung by some water creature that felt like it wrapped around my forearm and an electric current ran through my arm. Like the creature and I had a spark! We felt a connection! Minutes later I had a rash. It went away after an hour or so. As for Paksi Cove, skip it. We heard it was purchased by a foreigner to turn into a resort (a tacky one, tbh) and no wonder the second you step on the island, you will be welcomed by a staff asking for an entrance fee.

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Romblon Island

From San Agustin port, it was a one hour easy pumpboat ride to Romblon, the capital, not surprisingly the most developed town we’ve seen during the entire trip. Inns and hotels line the port area. The plan was to go to Sibuyan first so that we can make it to the return flight on Tablas on time. But we missed the single trip to Sibuyan so we had no choice but to stay the night in Romblon.

Romblon has all indications of a sea port town even in the old days. Three big ships were docked at the port. Shipmen roam around and ready to spend a night or two before sailing off again. Food stalls dot the outside of the port and mixes in with the local market. There were marble trinkets shops on the other side of the restaurants for souvenir hunters.

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Bonbon Beach is a short 10 minute ride by trike from the town center. The driver just dropped us off by the side of the road with barbed wire gate swung open.  We ventured into a grass land, with no sight of a beach. A construction site on the left where men were busy building what we would later realize can be a future resort or hotel.

Then a few minutes later… a secluded, undeveloped, unspoilt, deserted (these words came to mind in bursts in a period of 60 seconds) shoreline with powdery white sand, blue-green waters appeared from the horizon! And then look, there’s a fucking sandbar. The sandbar connects to a fucking smaller island. And looking at the direction of the 3pm sun, it’s about to fucking set behind the sandbar. What is this amazing place! And why is no one selling me a fucking room for two or a mango shake. I felt like a fucking Columbus.

We settled in by laying my sarong on the sand under the shade of a bush and a few coconut trees, and savored Bonbon Beach before it turns into a Boracay in a few years.

Sibuyan Island

Another early morning the next day to catch the RORO ship to Sibuyan Island. The agenda for Sibuyan is but one thing: Cresta de Gallo Island. With a little bit of worry (fine, quite worried!) about missing our flight back to Manila because scheduled boat transfers only happen once a day, we ventured with some hope that we can find a way to go back to Tablas in time (spoiler alert: we did!).

The big ship docks at the Magdiwang port in Sibuyan. You will need to ride a jeepney (scheduled one to two trips only per day) that will take you to San Fernando town. OK, so the jeep will cramp a total of 40 people inside and about 10 or so topload style. We were lucky to secure seats inside. Two hours of alternating cemented and unpaved roads.

We reached Seabreeze Inn past noon, the first and oldest lodging place in town. It’s very homey, made even homier by the family of the owner, a retired teacher who told us stories about her family, her business and Sibuyan. The place used to be a beer garden when her husband was still alive. They changed it to a lodging house when she realized they’re too old to keep up a drinking place that closes at 2am.

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You can also take a dip at one of the cleanest rivers in the country called Cantingas River. It used to enjoy the first place honor, said the locals, until some random river in Palawan took the spot. You can also trek Mt. Guiting-guiting, said to boast one of the most dangerous trails in the country. There are also several beautiful waterfalls in Cajidiocan.

So  it’s another early morning start for our island tour the next day. We left Seabreeze at past 6am and got to Cresta de Gallo an hour and half later. It first appeared like we have the island all to ourselves. But there’s actually several boats already docked on the other side.

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Cresta de Gallo is two islands connected by its famed sand bar. What made the sand bar unusual was the way its shape connects the two islands: it zigzags. Its relative seclusion from the touristy circuit of our islands adds to its character. The people who were there with us were mostly Romblomanons themselves who were just on vacation. There is one family inhabiting the island and they collect a minimal fee for “maintenance.” Unfortunately, we saw a lot of trash in some parts of the island. We stayed for less than 3 hours only, a shame. But we have to find our boat to Romblon. If you go, I think it’s best to stay up to 4 or 5pm so you can have a nice sunset ride back to Sibuyan.

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After two hours of a punishing tricycle ride at high noon coasting along dirt roads, we reached the coastal village of Agutay, the town where we’re hoping to book an uber-fisherman. Our incredibly helpful host and driver, Kuya Jun, found a pumpboat docked on the shore in front of a beach shack. The fisherman immediately jumped to the proposal to take us to Sablayan, the village just across the sea on the island of Romblon.

An hour and a half of cruising on glassy, super calm waters, the boatman deposited us in some random shore backdropped by towering coconut trees. A river on the right empties out into the sea.

How to get to Romblon
Cebu Pacific flies every other day to Tablas Island. If you have more time, you can also take a RORO ship from Batangas and you have an option to start in any of the 3 Romblon islands.

Where to stay
We didn’t book any room the whole trip other than the first night in Aglicay Beach Resort. We didn’t have any problem finding rooms either. But maybe a different story on peak times. We stayed at DRA Hotel in Romblon and Seabreeze Inn in Sibuyan.

Continue your trip
At the southern tip of Tablas, you can take a pumpboat to Carabao island, which is just a another boat ride to Boracay. Then the rest of the central Visayas is open for your taking.

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Elisa and the salvation of Batad

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The bus terminal in Banaue stood at a cliff with a view of the just-rising sun. Local men huddled outside the terminal, their lips red with nga nga, a mixture of betel nut fruit and leaf and apog, lime powder. A middle-aged man wearing a down dark jacket spat on the sidewalk. Elisa, our guide in Batad later that day, said chewing betel nut is like smoking. The fruit, along with caffeine, alcohol and nicotine, is a stimulating substance. “Pampainit din daw ‘pag malamig,” she was told it can help add warmth to the body when it’s cold. And most days are cold in the mountains.

The morning air was crisp when we stepped out of the bus. Not as cold as I imagined but enough to know you are 5,000 feet above sea level. From the terminal, you will be taken to a restaurant where you will wait for at least 2 hours and while at it, choose your breakfast from the menu quickly waved at you by a staff. “Let’s wait for other passengers to arrive,” someone commanded. I sniffed it: tourist trap.

The place had a veranda with a view of the village and the river below. The town, while still very tranquil in metropolis chaos standards, had woken up. The river flowed flatly for around 200 meters before it turned left near a cluster of boulders, gushing into white water and sending a sound of a murmuring river up in the hills to the houses and up to where we are. The sun was beginning to burst behind the hills in front of us. White pigeons dived towards the boulders in the river then circled back in flight. I took it all in and suddenly, I didn’t mind the business interest behind what led us to this place. Nine hours away from Manila, this was the change of scenery I wanted. My plate of fried rice and longganisa for breakfast also just arrived.

When textbooks and guidebooks talk about the Banaue Rice Terraces, they refer to two terrace clusters that are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List. They are located in the villages of Bangaan and Batad. These heritage sites, Elisa shared, are 2,000 years old, as old as the Christian tradition. This was based on the estimates made by pioneer archaeologists Henry Beyer and Roy Barton on how long they think it took the Ifugaos to build the terraces in their current scale. But newer studies were refuting this theory and dating the world wonder to a more youthful 400-500 years old. Ifugaos were said to be planting taro on smaller terraces before the Spanish arrived. Relics from Kiangan, the oldest village in Ifugao, revealed abundant evidence that people here subsisted on taro, not rice. The new theory suggests that since more people had moved to lowlands due to the impact of the Spanish colonization, the demand for rice had increased. This prompted the Ifugao ancestors to expand the size of the rice terraces to meet the demand.

Our intention was to go to Batad and stay a night at the village. From Banaue, it was a 45 minute jeepney trip to Batad. Here, you will have your first chance to topload a jeepney. Toploading is throwing yourself on top of the roof and sitting and holding onto steel rails for dear life. I promise you, you will have the best seat in the house. No kidding. When they said sometimes it is about the journey, this is what they mean. You can also topload on your jeepney ride from Banaue to Bontoc and Bontoc to Sagada, if you plan to to visit these places after Batad. I tried it from Banaue to Bontoc and I don’t know what other modes of transportation can top that in my book.

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Batad is a place to explore slowly. Life is slow here. To reach Batad village, there was a light to moderate 30- to 40-minute trek from the jeepney’s drop off point to the village where the rice terraces are. On your way, you can catch glimpses of what it takes these small businesses in the village to keep their inventories stocked for visitors. They buy their goods—those that can’t be sourced from the village—from Banaue at least once a week, hand-carried, on foot.

A sari-sari store with knives and souvenirs on display signaled our arrival to the village. People were taking photos a few meters past the store where you can see an open view of the famed “amphitheater” rice terraces. But this was not the picture in my head. During the trek Elisa confirmed that the one in school textbooks was the one in Bangaan, not this one. This time of the year, the terraces looked dry and barren. Batad harvests rice in June and December. February is the time for farmers to start planting. April to May and October to November are better months to visit for the lushest green colors. It turns to gold too as harvest season comes closer.

 

The trek to Tappiya Falls has two routes. The longer route will take you to the summit of the “amphitheater.” You will come down towards the midsection of the rice terraces which takes you on a downhill trek towards the river which then leads you to the falls. The second, shorter route takes you through the midsection straight away. This should cut your trek time by 2 hours. The waterfall was huge, strong and impressive; the waters biting and refreshing. But I think all treks are created equal: all the pain is tolerable on your way to your destination but it’s nearly regretful on your way back. So the key is to take it really slowly. Pause frequently. Admire the grand and the small creations around you. Share stories with your guide.

Elisa, my guide, was a mom of four. She would have them one after the other, consecutively. “Mahirap ang family planning,” she said when I asked her if the four children are enough. The walkway along the rice paddies were getting narrower. Elisa’s husband is also a tour guide and had just finished touring his guests a few minutes before we started ours. She can work for at least four hours touring guests now that the kids have grown up a bit. She said most people in the village are now tour guides. There may only be a handful of young people who want to continue farming. Many had moved to the bigger cities around the Cordilleras to work office jobs, like in Baguio. She was unsure, her voice lowered, when she herself wondered what will happen to the rice terraces if no one in the new generations will want to plant rice. She was hoping UNESCO or the government will do something about it. She spoke about UNESCO like a savior.

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The village at the base of the amphitheater came back into view. They said UNESCO had given money to preserve that village, Elisa said, pointing to the clusters of both modern and hut houses at the bottom of the mountain. While there are several Ifugao huts that dot the village, distinct in their cogon thatch roof, there are bigger structures that are eyesores. One cannot blame the house owners, she was quick to say. Descendants of the ancestors who built the rice terraces still lived in the village. Their families had grown and require bigger, more private rooms like in the modern houses. The Ifugao hut is not enough as a single-room house: all of entertaining, eating, sleeping and everything else are done in the same room. UNESCO was supposed to provide budget for at least repainting the modern houses with maybe brown. Shrugging, she seemed naive about where the preservation money had possibly gone. I think the modern houses can be relocated in another part of the village. The village at the foot of the mountain can be strictly dedicated for cultural and visual preservation.

Elisa is a relative of the owners of Rita’s Mount View Inn, a 43-year old guesthouse with a restaurant with an unobstructed view of the rice terraces in front and mountain range on the side. Germaine, the inn manager and daughter of the owners, is Elisa’s cousin. They had more money to put up Rita’s Inn, she said, adding those with money are lucky to have small tourist businesses. Elisa’s family lives in a more modest house just beside the inn. Inn’s guests looking to go on a tour are referred to Elisa and her husband. The standard rate for the long route is 800 pesos per tour and 600 pesos for the shorter trek. The challenge is there are generally more guides than visitors and due to the physical and time demands of the trek, a guide can only do one, at most two treks to the Tappiya Falls per day.

She knows everyone in the village. She does. She chatted with almost everyone we came across with—the old farmers planting rice in the paddies, the young mother at a sari-sari store close to the river, her fellow guides at Tappiya, the souvenir shop owner that sells local handicrafts. It’s the case for everyone, she said. Everyone knows everybody in a small village like this. It rained shortly before arriving at the guesthouse. We passed by a small farm and I wanted to cut a big taro leaf to use as an umbrella. What a gift to see the surroundings after a rain. It changed to a moodier personality when the clouds coated the village with rainwater.

We called it a night at 8pm, after a refreshing but mountain water-cold shower. I woke up at 3am, then at 5am, before the alarm buzzed off in the middle of the soundless pre-dawn Batad. Germaine’s dad was already busy burning some woods at the outdoor kitchen.

I waited for the light to break behind the mountains. When it did, it shone the first rays to the amphitheater, signaling the start of a new show. Birds cooed. Motorcycles revved from a distance. Dew sparkled on the foliage.

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On our way out of the village to trek back to the jeepney pickup point, I saw Elisa, wearing the same shirt from our trek the day before. But in a different light, in an alternative role in the story of Batad. She was inside a newly constructed sari-sari store near the entrance to the village. She greeted the new visitors who had just arrived and bid goodbye to those who were leaving. We wished her well as we turned towards the trail.

How to get to Batad
From Manila, you can take an Ohayami Trans bus which leaves daily at 9pm and 10pm. You can book online. It will take you approximately 9 hours to get to Banaue from Manila. You can also opt to go to Baguio first, then from Baguio to Banaue.

Where to stay
There are many guesthouses, inns and homestays in Batad. Often, you don’t need to book in advance as cellular service is poor to nonexistent. There are places that offer overnight stays in a traditional Ifugao cogon hut. We stayed at Rita’s Mount View Inn, in a basic room (with a view to boot).

Continue your trip
From Banaue, you may go to Bontoc, Sagada or Baguio.

Scenes from Art Fair Philippines

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Updated Feb 23, 2017

I was looking at the Perfection installation when the lights flickered and in a few seconds, the guards streamed in the booth and started announcing that the show was over. It was 9pm and I barely covered half of the 7th and last floor. Not surprising was the audible, collective gasp from the weary and thick Saturday night crowd.

I had not seen that much people in this city so interested in art. The fair features galleries spread across three floors of the The Link parking building across the Ayala Museum. For students of Makati, that’s a massive collection of free art; other students pay P50. For regular folks, that’s P250. One movie ticket, one unusual weekend. Why not.

Two floors down, in the first gallery, I felt like entering a jam-packed train, sliding my body into crevices  just to either get in or, for the most part, get out. People were taking selfies. Beautiful people were streaming in, looking so cute in their fashion blogger ensemble.

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One of the things I liked a lot was The Crucible Gallery particularly the geometric, abstract and minimalist work of Junyee and Gus Albor. Big, contemplative murals of Elmer Borlongan and Ferdie Montemayor of Pinto Art Museum were also definite highlights. The glass sculptures of Ramon Orlina takes you in a reflective dimension too alluring to pull away from.

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What I didn’t expect and perhaps my most favorite piece owing to its humor was the rather empty, pencil-lined boxes on the wall of Lyra Garcellano. It had captions like “A Particular Red Painting That Complements the Leather Coach” and “A Beautiful But Fake Caravaggio Made in China.” Baka hindi pa naikakabit, remarked someone behind me, maybe they were yet to put these up. Nope, that’s it.

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Rainy Lunar New Year and dumplings

The Binondo district turns into an exhilarating cultural destination on Chinese New Year’s Day, even for locals. It was likely the best day to visit for a full Chinatown effect. The crowd was thick and the lines were long at popular spots . It took us more than two hours at Dong Bei just to sample their dimsum. It was very good, yes.

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Binondo, established in 1594, is the oldest Chinatown in the world. Unlike actual cities in Asia that celebrate the lunar new year by visiting loved ones in the countryside, people flock towards Binondo for the festivities and business likely booms better than any other day of the year. Strolling down the bustling Ongpin was a sensory overload; the name of the street alone evokes scenes from Rizal’s Noli me Tangere. The Filipino saint, Lorenzo Ruiz, was a Binondo local.

The district is a super foodie destination which sparked many a Instagrammable food crawls. Located towards the end of Yuchengco street, get a filling of Dong Bei‘s freshly prepared pork and kuchay dumplings and xiao long bao. The most delicious lumpia at New Po-Heng, on Quintin Paredes, works very well as either an appetizer or dessert (because of the sweet sauce).

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Island of the gods

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Koming, our host at Ketut’s Place, was explaining the ornamental door that featured Rama and Sita, the protagonists in the Indian legend Ramayana. “Do you know Ramayana? Yes, that is Rama… Sita. Just like Julia… Roberts.”

He meant Romeo… and Juliet.

He was giving us a little tour of the different parts of a typical Balinese household. There is the ceremony building, where cremation and weddings happen. There is the parent’s home, the room that featured Rama and Sita, said to be reserved for copulating. If you see your folks sneaking out of the main house to go to the honeymoon room, you know they’re gonna do the dirty.

There’s the temple. The temple is the most interesting, mystical, ethereal part of the compound. Koming said most Balinese traditional houses have temples or shrines.  It is where the spirits of their ancestors are believed to be staying while waiting for reincarnation to kick in. Owners of the family land are also not supposed to sell their properties as the spirits of their ancestors will be “confused” when they reincarnate to a different set of people around. It is believed to bring bad luck to the family.

The little tour was followed by a sumptuous traditional Balinese dinner.