Friday, May 15, 2015

Inside heritage

A CLUSTER of mangoes ripening outside the window greets our morning. The fruits are within reach. If I hold out my hand, it would be like plucking pale suns.

Vigan in Ilocos Sur does not disappoint tourists. From March to May, peak time for travel, finding rooms to fit a modest budget may be a challenge around and near Plaza Burgos.

It’s worthwhile, though, to stay within the area. A few steps away is Calle Crisologo, stocked with all the handicrafts and local delicacies to satisfy the serious tourist, who must haul back home “pasalubong (souvenirs)” for families and friends to show they’ve traveled nine hours from Metro Manila to reach this far in Ilocos Sur.

In Plaza Burgos is the 441-year-old St. Paul’s Cathedral, open to sightseers from morning till night. There are rosaries, icons and other religious items for sale under the high vaulted ceilings. For the social media generation, there are unlimited opportunities for selfies in posing with Spanish-era relics and paintings.

Ringing the plaza are all the familiar comforts offered by the major fast food outlets. One’s favorite “halo-halo” may no longer be available near closing time (from lack of shaved ice or ingredients) but the crews’ willingness to serve customers way past nine-thirty says much about Vigan, positioning itself as a heritage destination but willing to adapt to the demands of a market in search of novelty but expecting all the creature comforts of metros.

After you’ve given shopping and sightseeing a rest, you might want to slow down and watch the other side of Vigan. Strolling down Calle Crisologo at dinner will not always mean nearly walking into the pictorial of Chavit Singson sharing the spotlight with a parakeet (no, the bird didn’t answer to the name of “Manny”).

If you show more interest beyond asking for the “last price,” “Abel Iloco” sellers will talk about the century-old tradition of hand-weaving that produces the fabric, which gets softer, thicker and heavier with use and washing.

And yes, the St. Paul’s Cathedral fills with parishioners who are not posing for selfies. Hearing an entire mass in Ilocano, which I don’t understand, is an unusual communion, the incomprehensible somehow inexplicably palpable.

Like other places that rely on heritage as a tourism come-on, Vigan has food and culture as staples. Aside from “bagnet,” Ilocos “empanada,” Vigan longganiza, and “Abel Iloco,” the city’s attraction is in its old houses, converted into inns.

We stayed in one such place, constructed in 1840. Staying in a place that’s like a museum is not for everyone. Two husky men checking in before us asked a staff member if there was a resident “multo (ghost)” and answered their own question. The heavy ornate furniture and floor and staircase made of narra slabs made me feel like an interloper, with less right to be there than any being hovering unseen in the corridors.

But old houses have their charm. Walls are thick, as if more than a century ago, the residents knew already to build a barrier to keep out the incessant buzzing of tricycles. Gardens are lush but retain their individuality, every creeper and blossom a throwback to days when windows were wide and unbarred, inviting one to take a look outside. Smell the flowers. Pick a fruit. Value what’s passing and gone too soon.

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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 19, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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