Friday, June 30, 2006

Wellness from the Ashes

The ashes of the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption have settled long enough for vegetation to sprout and flourish, and houses to be built and lived in. From the ruins, Santa Juliana in the town of Capas slowly rebuilt itself into a quiet and charming village of 2,614. Among the little houses and huts of bamboo and grass, a spa complex breaks the overall sense of rusticity. Though modish, it is as charming and serene as the village as to blend in.

In the late May morning, the village was stirred as journalists, travel agents, tourism officials, local officials, police escorts, businessmen and tourists trickled in for the Mount Pinatubo Wellness Spa’s formal opening. With the whirr of a helicopter, the tourism secretary, Joseph “Ace” Durano, arrived and was welcomed by the Korean owners of the spa. By now, Sta. Juliana was getting used to these occasional stirrings and welcomed them. The place is recently being promoted as a tourist attraction, a choice take-off point for a volcano trek.

Previously, the president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself visited the barangay and led 150 trekkers including then tourism secretary Richard Gordon to the crater of Mount Pinatubo to drum up interest in the activity.

The place used to be “barren,” admitted the burly and swarthy mayor of Capas Reynaldo Catacutan. Before the Pinatubo eruption which displaced about 249,000 families, caused about 850 deaths and laid waste to most of Central Luzon, the town and Tarlac in general would garner only passing glance from the bus windows.

The province of Tarlac, located almost at the heart of the great Luzon plain, seems to be as plain as its topography. It is carved out of two culturally rich provinces: Pampanga in the south and Pangasinan in the north. It is thus a junction of Ilocano-Pangasinan and Pampangan cultures. Tarlac seems to have no cultural distinction of its own to interest people, who may at most remember its town Capas as the site of the Death March in which American and Filipino prisoners of war were forced by Japanese forces to walk about a hundred miles from Mariveles in Bataan to this town in 1942.

As a child, the triangular shrine along the main highway only served as a marker and the province only a thoroughfare when going to my hometown in Pangasinan from Manila. Now, my destination was Capas, which began to gain attention with the recognition of adventure trek and climb to Mount Pinatubo as an attraction and tourist draw, and the identification of Sta. Juliana in Capas as a main gateway.

One hundred and seven kilometers north of Manila, Capas is Tarlac’s largest town and second most populous (95,219 in 2000). From the main highway, we passed by the town market, and in barangay Santo Rosario we took a small road passing the barangay of Aranguren, a resettlement area in O’Donnell, the barangays Santa Lucia and Patling. We also passed by a relocated and newly constructed Death March shrine. Along the way, we saw a Philippine military reservation and housing, which is colloquially called Navy here. The area used to hold a spacious United States military base, an extension of the Clark air base in Pampanga. The road ended in Sta. Juliana, about 22 kilometers from the highway.

In the spa opening, the Capas mayor, flanked by barangay captain Felix Dumulut and his staff, was conspicuously delighted with this recent development. To further buoy up the feeling of excitement, he announced that the town would be a city soon. The town’s population has ballooned to 130,000 because of migrations from the nearby town of Bamban and from the province of Pampanga, he said.

Catacutan related that the town has suffered much starting with the non-renewal of contract for the United States base, which had provided revenue for the town with its lease. “Nalungkot kami nang nawala ang base,” (We were saddened when the base pulled out) he said. “Tapos, pumutok ang Pinatubo.” (Then Pinatubo erupted) When the Koreans started to invest, “nabuhayan po kami,” (We are heartened) he concluded, summing up the recent history of the town in simple words.
In recent years, the Philippines has experienced a substantial influx of Korean tourists, keeping the tourism industry afloat during leans months. In Central Luzon, visitors more than doubled in a year from 12,378 in 2003 to 26,175 in 2004. This made Koreans the second most numerous in terms of visitors dislodging the Japanese. Americans, which have been traditional visitors since Clark Field was an American military base, remain number one. Direct flights from South Korea to Clark may been influential in the increase in Korean tourists. In 2004, Korean airline Asiana started mounting Incheon to Clark flights five times a week.

Some enterprising Korean visitors began to invest in structures for their fellow Korean tourists. In 2004, two tour operators, Patton Kim of Hana Tours and Chris Park of Philippines Number One Travel and Tours, from the Philippines-Korea Travel Agency Association sought the help of Ronaldo Tiotuico, Department of Tourism (DOT) director for Region III, in identifying new travel destinations. In looking for alternative to Tagaytay and Pagsanjan, accessible destinations located south of Manila, they went north.

Tiotuico took them for a trek to the crater of the now famous Mount Pinatubo, taking off in Sta. Juliana, and involving almost an hour bumpy traverse through the dust bowl of Crow Valley in a four-by-four jeep and about a three-hour climb.

The Koreans were not the first visitors of Sta. Juliana though. The people of the village had noticed an influx of foreign and local tourists using their place as jump-off point since April of 2000. As a result the local council transformed itself into a tourism council called Sta. Juliana Tourism Council, handling and operating the eco-tourism activity. Now, trekkers register at the council office, get a conservation briefing and donate ten pesos for conservation projects. It is also here where one can get a tour guide. The Department of Tourism then provided the needed structure and promotion, training guides, coordinating with the Four-Wheelers Club of Angeles City for transport, and designing and promoting tour packages. The packages included such activities as off-road adventure driving and marathon, rappelling, biking, nature-tripping, visit to Aeta communities and aerial tour, among others. To date, the village has received about 7,000 Pinatubo visitors.

When Kim and Park finished their tour, they were excited.

“After the trek to Mount Pinatubo, Mr. Kim Became convinced of further developing the volcano and its surrounding areas as major tourist attractions with the local host population as the principal beneficiaries of such an initiative,” Tiotuico related.

The idea of a spa at the village sparked in their heads. After all, it was but appropriate that there should be a place where visitors can bathe to washed off the grime and get a massage for their aching muscles after the trek rather than embark on a more than two-hour ride back to Manila.

Thus with close coordination with the DOT and its developers, the Mt. Pinatubo Wellness Spa began construction in November 2004 and cost about $10,000. Kim and Park formed the company Pull Destination Corporation (PDC) to operate the spa, offer packages and plan for further developments.

Kim, the tall and bespectacled PDC chairman donned in white silk shirt, pledged to continue to support the community and the Philippines in general.

“We will use our energies and resources in bringing in Korean tourists for the rebuilding,” he declared in halting English.
“Let’s not dwell on the tragedy but celebrate the spirit…If all sectors of society unite, everything is possible…Let’s be part in rebuilding.”

“This demonstrates the power of tourism,” answered the young and attractive tourism secretary sporting shorts and shirt ready to tackle the trek. “The place was barren wasteland before because of the eruption and pullout and non-renewal of contract for the United States military base.”

He said that country averages 2,500 tourists a month, and a tourist spends 90 dollars a day. “Imagine the economic activity that tourism can generate,” he concluded, putting added shine to dollar signs in the eyes of many people.

“This endeavor has greatly contributed to our effort of spreading the benefits of tourism in rural areas. Through the spa came doors of job and livelihood opportunities to the people of Barangay Sta. Juliana and its neighboring areas,” he added.

Moreover, the Philippine air force, which now owns the land, would benefit from the lease. The added income would help in the modernization of the air force.

The Mt. Pinatubo Wellness Spa is a welcome addition to the burgeoning spa industry in the country. Spas have begun sprouting all over Metro Manila as well as in othe rparts of the country. At the high end, The Farm at San Benito in Lipa City and Mandala Spa in Boracay Island have received international accolades.

“The image of the Philippines as a health and wellness destination has already gained foothold in the international community,” declared Durano. “This can be proven by the success of our participation in the International Tourismus Borse held last March in Berlin, where we focused on the country’s spa industry, and in the International Spa Conference held early this May in Singapore, where we launched the Filipino spa brand which features our very own hilot (massage) and dagdagay (foot massage).”

The 5,000-square-meter Pinatubo complex houses a spacious airy restaurant where both Filipino and Korean dishes are served, two volcanic ash shower facilities, two circular hot bath tubs, shower stalls, a bar and a souvenir shop. At the center is a large open-air massage area, which can accommodate up to 200 persons. All materials used in the spa are sourced from Mount Pinatubo and its ejecta.

We went to the souvenir shop where 18-year-old Remy manned the counter. Painted in all white, the shop looked extremely neat, stark even, with small stacks of soaps and creams packed in yellow and gray boxes carefully placed on shelves and tables. At the center was a mound of rocks, which sell for P500 a kilo.

“It has magnesium,” Remy shyly pitched in, her first attempt at sales. She was one of the 150 locals hired by the spa as masseuses, guides, souvenir makers and attendants, among others. She said that there were about 300 of them, many just out of high school, who applied. After being accepted, they received a month-long training.

Aside from some souvenirs, the shop offers mostly sulfur-based products: bath sulfur, sulfur essence mask, sulfur mudpack, sulfur salt, sulfur essence cream, sulfur soap, etc. The materials came from Pinatubo, Remy informed us, which were shipped to Korea to be processed and packaged.

Our conversation was cut short with an invitation to traverse Crow Valley and visit the sulfur hot springs in the sitio of Tarukan. We packed ourselves into the hardy jeeps, which could accommodate until five people, and whizzed into the 31,879-hectare reservation, which is used as a firing range.

Army barracks and Aeta shanties perched at the hills just at the outskirt of Sta. Juliana. The vehicles went full throttle into the wide-open field, leaving clouds of ash. Being behind a few jeeps, we were given a shower of ash. The Capas mayor, in his enclosed vehicle, overtook us and signaled to rev up. Our driver left the convoy and made his own trail. As the dust cleared, we saw a beautifully desolate landscape. This could be the landscape of the moon, if without vegetation. On the outskirts, the ash fall and lahar had formed little gray and glimmering canyons, tasseled with grass and its jaggedness continually defined by every eroding rainfall and sweep of the wind. We crossed what used to be a riverbed, spattering mud around. The O’Donnell River, which once threatened the lives of residents during the eruption, now settled into a trickle, veining the parched landscape.

Unknown to many, Crow Valley has been identified as one of the 117 important bird areas (IBA) in the country and among the 206 areas of the Philippine Biodiversity Conservation Priorities (PBCP) under the Philippine biodiversity conservation priority setting program. Yes, there are more than crows here, although we didn’t spot a crow that day. Actually, we didn’t see any other souls for miles except for an Aeta man and his son, going home from foraging.

After 45 minutes of rough and exhilarating ride, we arrived at Sitio Tarukan at the foot of the mountains. Here, the Koreans have built concrete basins catching the water from the hot springs for footbaths. Interspersed were dainty pockets of garden. A grass-roofed shed offered shelter from the daunting sun, soft drinks and eggs for visitors to cook in the hot springs. Kim led the tourism secretary around. It is amazing how they thought of these things, Durano confided to us.

After a short ride, we were then brought to the four-hectare Lake Tambo tucked among hills. A number army tents were pitched on its shore, and a few Aetas were dredging the bottom for snails and small clams. A walkway has been built into the 40-feet-deep lake, which according to Tiotuico, was created by the eruption and had become a catch basin for rainwater. Tambo Lake was included in tour packages, and they had put tilapia and maya-maya fingerlings for fishing activities. Kim had proposed recreational water activities like jet skiing as future offering of the spa.

Upon arrival back in Sta. Juliana, girls in their kimono uniforms were walking along the road as if going to school. But they were converging at the spa to give visitors their own brand of massage. Sprinkled with ash, we thought that a bath and a massage were indeed perfect to cap a drive or trek. After showering and changing into robes, we went to the volcanic ash spa, an uncanny treatment that is only offered here. It consists of being buried under volcanic ash with the furnaces underneath fired up, keeping the temperature high. The complex has two ash enclosures decorated with buntings of Chinese and Japanese characters: one of sulfur and the other salt. Each enclosure holds about 20 tons of ash and sand and can accommodate forty people.

The attendants were now inviting us; they had our pits ready. Upon lying, we were covered with ash, our face with sulfur cream. This Korean treatment is believed to detoxify the body. After 25 minutes of sweating and being buried, we went to the shower stalls and then dipped into the circular bathtubs, which looked more like a fountain with a miniature garden in the middle. The water came directly from the Tarukan springs. After another shower and changing into white tees and shorts, we were ready for our massage. The shiatsu kind is offered here.

The tourism department and the spa had drawn up a trek and spa package, posting it on the tourism website of the region. The package costs US$25 per person and includes a four-by-four vehicle, a trek to the crater or a dip in the hot sulfur pools in Tarukan, foot spa, thermal bath and lunch. There is an additional US$10 for a hot sand bath and US$10 for the massage. The all-inclusive package costs US$45 per person.

At the restaurant, we had our merienda of pancit bihon, pork barbecue and kimchi. The place has assumed the air of a fiesta. Kim and Teotuico were abuzz with prospects, as was the Capas mayor, who hoped to carve the place’s identity from the ashes that has once almost buried them into oblivion.

“Death March is our history, progress our destiny,” he pronounced earlier. In the shadow of the Mount Pinatubo, the people of Sta. Juliana peacefully carve out their lives, now heedful of rumbles, not of the volcano but those of tourist buses stirring the ashes into life.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Matabungkay Memories

The shore of Matabungkay seemed to disappear in the multitude of people and resorts that ranged from rudimentary cottages of bamboo and coconut fronds to unappealing cement blocks of rooms jostling for beachfront space. The whole thing actually extended into the sea with a checkerboard of native balsa, bamboo rafts with little huts on them, anchored and tied to each other like a floating village. From afar, the balsa village looked orderly and even handsome.

Children bobbed in the water with their assortment of floaters. Vacationing men, ruddy from beer or sun took a dip now and then. Vendors carrying bilaos of sineguelas, green mangoes and triangles of rice cakes wrapped in plastic and banana leaves, taho in aluminum canisters and bunches of colorful and tawdry floaters combed the stretch for buyers. The salty scent of the sea was screened by the smoke and aroma of barbecues and squid and milkfish being grilled.

The tide was high at nine this scorching morning in the second weekend of May, the tongues of the sea wiping the latte-colored sand clean of innumerable footprints and lapping at the thresholds of some of the cottages. Then came the lively drumbeats, getting louder by the minute and indicating that this was no ordinary day in Matabungkay. Emerging among the throng, an Ati-atihan group pounded their feet, shook and danced along the shore, their bodies painted in cerulean blue with gaudy headdresses of rooster feathers looking like Krishnas gone tribal. The group, hired all the way from Sampaloc in Manila, arrived in the middle part of the two-kilometer beach where a stage was constructed for the event and showed their tribal-fusion terpsichorean mettle for the finale. It signaled the start of the main event of the two-day Balsa Festival.

At the southern part of the shore, about six rafts were being embellished and fussed about. Several feet away, brawny and swarthy boatmen docked their rafts for the race. The captains positioned his men who held on to their poles poised and ready. Organizers scampered about on the stage. Someone cranked up the microphone and asked the people to stay clear from the race area but the children seemed oblivious bobbing gaily in the waters.

I was at the stage, fanning myself like crazy, surveying the whole shebang and wondering when was the last time I was here. It was ages ago. I was about six or seven. There was no Balsa Festival then, but Matabungkay was a very popular beach as far as I could remember, the vogue vacation spot especially for Manila folks. The beach is accessible to city by a two-and-half-hour drive to the northeastern Batangas town of Lian, to which the coastal barangay of Matabungkay belongs. The barangay was so popular that its name could suddenly ring a bell, while Lian elicited a blank look. It was only now that I learned that Matabungkay was part of Lian, a rather sleepy town with narrow streets and several aging houses. I also learned that the town was once a barangay of the adjacent town of Nasugbu and had a history of barter trading with the Chinese long before the arrival of the Spaniards. Folklore has it that when a Spanish soldier landed on the shore and asked a Chinese merchant the name of the place, the merchant, thinking that he was being asked his name, answered “Li’an.” Thus, the name stuck. The modern town of Lian actually traced its history to Francisco Lejano, fondly called Kapitan Isko, who worked for its segregation from Nasugbu in 1914 and eventually became its municipal president from 1914 to 1917.

These pieces of information swam in my mind with impressions of the town snatched from the bus window trying to anchor on something to form a veritable picture. But these remained peripheral as I passed its houses, its oddly-shaped church, its humdrum storefronts into the road to Matabungkay, hemmed by little fields of rice, corn and sugarcane, where royal poinciana trees in full bloom blazed into my attention. Then, the blue pieces of South China Sea came through the branches and gaps among houses.

Matabungkay was my first taste of the sea. In one of my childhood summers, we packed ourselves into a hired jeepney—me, my family and neighbors, jostling inside with coolers of food, pots and pans—and off we went. I squealed at first sight of a strip of lucent blue sandwiched between the cloudy mottle of white and azure of the sky and the green-and-brown motley of trees and cottages. A cottage was rented, and we children made a beeline to the water, as if we were meant to be with it like the proverbial ducklings. The first thing I did was to dip my finger into the water and tasted it to prove to myself that this was indeed the sea. The sand was sometimes brown, sometimes ashen with streaks of black, but it glinted under the sun. Like the numerous people who were there, we sunbathed, buried ourselves in the sand, grilled tilapia and milkfish, ate sumptuous lunch with our fingers and went back to swim. That was in the early eighties. Since the seventies, Matabungkay enjoyed a great deal of popularity. However, that rapidly declined by the late eighties. Other beaches like Puerto Galera and Boracay became buzzwords.

Matabungkay might have suffered from the competition from other beaches, but more importantly it suffered from complacency and neglect that led to the decline in the quality of the beach and in visitor influx.

Forty-three-year-old Rico M. Violeta had a fond childhood memory of Matabungkay. His family would rent a raft where they grilled fish, ate together and swam around it. Now, he serves as the general manager of Matabungkay Beach Resort and Hotel, a 4.8-hectare complex of swimming pools, gardens, beachfront, restaurant, bar, rooms and villas. Owned by former Batangas governor Antonio Leviste, the resort has been operating for 22 years now and is under the management of Leviste’s sister, Ma. Cecilia Leviste-Antonio.

Violeta joined the resort three years ago and has been tasked to liven up Matabungkay and bring the tourists back. He was given, according to him, “half a year to do it, to try to re-market it to a better position.” Being in the industry for years, creating gimmicks for resorts and hotels proved to be his forte. Surprisingly, Violeta is an aeronautic engineering graduate of PATTS. When there was no position open in his field and not finicky about the kinds of job that were available to him, he applied to be a waiter at the Hotel Inter-Continental in Makati. From there, he rose from the ranks: from waiter to room service manager. He served other hotels here and abroad before joining MBRH and facing its problems.

Recognizing the marketing power of festivals, which were cropping up all over the country and were actively supported by then tourism secretary Richard Gordon, he and the management staff brainstormed and decided to create one. Almost immediately, the balsa emerged as the craft and the symbol around which the festival would revolve.

“This place was known for its balsa,” Violeta said over an al fresco dinner by the shore the night before. Myriad specks of light traced the arc of the shore like a constellation. The rafts floated peacefully within the heaving bosom of the arc. In our yard, foot lights craftily made of lighted candles and sand in brown paper bags marked out the winding paths of the garden. “I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere in the country,” commented he.

Inquiring the old folks in the area about the balsa, he found out that it was not just a touristy thing. Usually measuring ten meters long and four meters wide, the raft was traditionally fashioned of ropes and mature tubes of bamboo, which were aged by burying them in the sand. The process also prevented mites and other pests to eat into the bamboo. It had been used as transport of goods during low tide. But now, the raft is primarily used as a recreational facility by tourists who want to venture out into the sea and spend a leisurely time.

Riding the raft is an experience that is recommended for anyone who is going to Matabungkay. Leona Nepomuceno of the press relations office of the Department of Tourism confided that the beach is ordinary, but when you are on the balsa it is different. She brought in a group of journalists to elicit their support in promoting the place. Finding the beach not really spectacular, they were skeptical and uninterested. But when put into the balsa, they readily changed their mind.

Tourism is the primary source of income in Matabungkay, where there are 220 resorts ranging from modest cottages to the big ones. The major resorts remained to be Kandahar, Tan-awan, Coral and MBRH. Its trade organization is the Resort Neighborhood Association of Matabungkay, Inc. (RNAMI) Beyond these resorts were fields of sugarcane, mangoes, corn and rice.

When Violeta and company approached the local barangay council to sell the idea of the festival, the council was enthusiastic about it. The municipal government was equally supportive, even passing a resolution to have it celebrated every year. Financing the festival though was left to Violeta, who sought sponsorships from corporations.

Violeta and his team also designed the festival program, which included live band shows, a cultural dance competition, the balsa decoration contest and the balsa race. And the cheesy Ati-atihan? The number was included as a come-on, according to Violeta, and served as noisemaker, perhaps to drum up an air of festivity.

The centerpiece, of course, is the decoration contest and the race. This year, which is the festival’s third, the race gathered about 12 contenders. Some were invited from other barangays and towns in Batangas. Violeta planned to make the race a national event, drawing contenders from all over the country. Each raft had one captain and about six men with long bamboo poles that would propel the raft by pushing the poles against the sea bottom. They would race 500 meters to the sea, retrieve a flag and race back to the shore.

After the race, the decorative balsas slowly paraded along the shore towards the stage, garlanding the otherwise dull beachfront. As we sipped sodas, the rafts floated by looking like themed booths in a home and garden trade show washed out by a flood and brought to the sea. They were amusing to look at. One raft gathered all the potted plants they could find to create a tropical jungle effect. A cave was created where a dark-skinned boy in loincloth and with a spear guarded its entrance. At the side, a girl in mermaid costume sat in a giant clamshell. Crowning this creation was a waterfall flowing from the top of the cave and cascading into its mouth. The whole thing was heavy that it was in danger of sinking if not for the men that held it up during the parade.

An old lady beside us was rooting for the other raft of simple Mindanao-inspired concept with shimmering drapery hanging on the eaves of the hut, a frangipani tree punctuating one corner and the family on the float wearing malongs. “You’re okay! Beautiful! Simple!” she cheered. “Will you look at that one. Why, it’s like a jungle.”

At the tail end was a raft fit for Halloween. The heavily draped hut showed a turbaned fortuneteller looking intently at her crystal ball. Outside, a witch was stirring her obnoxious brew in a cauldron. In the heat of summer at the beach, such a scene drifting past you leave you with a surreal feeling.

When the ostentatious rafts were displayed and docked, the dancing lolas entered, giving unique spike to the program. Still nimble-footed and graceful, these grandmothers danced on the sand in their red floral baro’t saya, flicking their fingers and fans into the air and delighting us. Violeta said someone from the barangay council suggested including the dancing lolas in the program, and they had been one of the favorite numbers ever since.

In the lull of the afternoon, I caught up with them, sitting by the shore and under the biggest camachile tree I’ve ever seen and a royal poinciana in full bloom. Like gentle summer confetti, the fire tree dropped its blazing orange petals every time the breeze brushed the branches. Nearby, the pool splashed with children and a stage was being assembled for the night’s live band party.

Munching on wedges of pineapples and donned now in bright red salsa dress for a performance later in the afternoon, these groovy grandmas were a sprightly lot, given to banter and good-natured ribbing. Hailing from Maligaya Beach, Bucana in Nasugbu, they formed the seven-year-old group called Samahan ng Batangueño and were hired now and then to perform at events like fiestas. Fifty-six-year old Vener Villanueva served as their liaison officer. The rest of the group comprised Juana Lopez, 68; Saning Gamez, 69; Luningning Lopez, 59; Caridad Villajuan, 72; Mayli Mercado, 68; Antonia Sable, 68; Juliet Ilao, 54; Gloria Sandelices, 68; Josefina Taborete, 56; and Choleng Albeso, 72.

When I pressed them to tell me some stories, they told me to wait for Choleng who went to buy a pack of cigarettes. When she arrived, she wore a faded brown skirt offset by a white blouse with polka dots as if affirming that indeed Lola Choleng was the life of the party. Lighting a cigarette and giving me a chair to sit beside me, Lola Choleng, who wore her salt-and-pepper hair tied in a bun, asked me what I want to know.

Well, to start with, do you know how Matabungkay got its name, I asked.

“It’s like this: There was this Spaniard…” she started. It was the eternal anecdote about the querying Spaniard and the misunderstanding native again. I wanted to know the punch line of this. So, the Spaniard asked a fisherman mending his net on the shore the name of the place. Instead, the fisherman warned him, “Tabi po, baka matabunan ka.” I didn’t get exactly what it was that the Spaniard might get buried under, perhaps a big bundle of net. So “Matabunan ka” became Matabungkay.

“You know where the name Nasugbu came from? Well, there was this Spaniard…” Choleng continued. Indeed, you must not get Lola Choleng started on these stories. Anyway, the Spaniard chanced upon a woman in her house and asked the name of the place. But then, the rice she was cooking was boiling over. “Ay, nasubo na!” she exclaimed. So, “Nasubo” became Nasugbu.

After a while, the irrepressible Lola Choleng was regaling us with her naughty antics during her young days, “nung dalaga pa ako.” In her amusing and engaging way, she told us how they got into the movie theater for free by hoodwinking the ticket lady and by creating a scene. She would sneak behind a man in queue and pinched his butt. The man turning around to find another man would challenge the other into a fistfight. During the ensuing melee, they snuck into the theater.

Choleng just finished third grade. Perhaps, war broke out and interrupted her education. It seemed that the war years were not a dreary time for her. She remembered vending fruits and sweets, and there were Japanese soldiers around. The soldiers took a liking to the little girl Choleng and showed her affection.

“Do you know how I got married?” she said. “Hay naku, ako’y napahamak dahil sa hilig ko sa halo-halo.” (I got into trouble because of my fondness for halo-halo) At 21, she was being teased about being still unmarried. “Eh, wala akong naibigang lalaki at wala namang naibig sa akin,” she said. Her friends pointed to a man in a store and dared her if she could make him like her. She looked at the young man and found him handsome. So, she agreed to a bet. She must treat them with halo-halo if she failed. Choleng walked up to the man and told him right away that she and her friends were on a bet. She asked him to act as if he was taken by her. So, in the following days, the young man became her companion. Her skeptical friends dared her again. If he was really your boyfriend, he must kiss you, they said. So, the plucky Choleng asked the man to kiss her. The incident created such commotion that led to their marriage.

Their peals of laughter burst now and then, bouncing among the branches and shaking more petals loose. The song “Kanlungan” filled the air and slowed down everything, becoming our soundtrack for the moment. In the heat of the afternoon, people stayed clear of the shore, which looked blissfully abandoned, and huddled in their rooms or in the shade. Noel Cabangon kept asking, “Pana-panahon ang pagkakataon. Maibabalik ba ang kahapon?” The tone dripped of nostalgia and punctuated by a tinge of regret.

But these grandmas seemed to have no regrets. And yes, yesterday can be brought back. Under the flame-tasseled royal poinciana in the heat of the summer mellowed by breeze, the grandmas narrated their pasts, recreating them. And in Matabungkay, people were trying to bring back the glory days of the beach, some perhaps with their memories becoming source and inspiration for making things happen.

Many things are renewable, including memory. As time shriveled petal by falling petal, my memory sprouted new ones, bright and burning.


Published in The Daily Tribune, 18 May 2004

Monday, June 12, 2006

Visions of Borobudur



Caught between sleep and wakefulness about 3000 meters in the air over Central Java, I had a vision: the landscape of heaven. Pearlescent clouds formed like rocks interlocked in an endless and even stretch. Jutting out of the expanse were dark, majestic mountains standing in a neat row like imposing sentinels tasseled with smoke. One mountain, large and proud, stood out of line: Mount Merapi, a disruptive and beautiful figure looming over the province of Jogjakarta, puffing thick smoke and waiting to let out a show of anger. Here, the sky was a blue belt streaked with tangerine ribbons of clouds holding this ethereal plane in place. Somewhere beneath, the sun was starting its slow climb, its rays probing through the clouds and could be seen as little bursts of golden light in this luminous sea.

Flying on Garuda Indonesia from Jakarta, I was beginning to think I was really on the wings of the great bird of Hindu mythology. As if it had seen an escape hole, the plane suddenly dove, piercing through thin membranes of clouds. Jogjakarta was revealed, a city punctuated by green fields and hills and russet terracotta-tile roofs, an architectural legacy of the Dutch who ruled the islands from the 16th to the early 20th century.
At the Adisucipto airport, the sunshine was lemon yellow, and the sticky sweet scent of Gudung Garam, the Indonesian cigarette made of cloves, clung to the air like wild orchids perfuming the morning. Not a morning person and still giddy from lack of sleep, I was easily disconcerted with the crowd, and an initial feeling of uncertainty and apprehension crept up. It was my first time in Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago and also the world’s largest Muslim nation. The last time I was in a predominantly Muslim place was in Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Sur in the southern island of Mindanao and the only Muslim city in the Philippines. We had sizeable police escort. Were those hints of antagonism and suspicion in the eyes of many people that we passed by? We didn’t know. News of extremist hostilities around the world just served as crude confirmation.
The dearth of knowledge made me unsure of myself. I might do something in a wrong way and I might offend. Are they very sensitive and unforgiving about it? Some form of assurance was sought from the striking physical similarities between Filipinos and Indonesians and a shared racial origin.

There to welcome us at the airport was our tall and hefty guide, A-wan, sporting a long hair gathered in a ponytail and wearing batik shirt and fisherman’s cap. His quick and easy manner could dispel any feelings of uneasiness. Stepping into the sunlight, the enthusiasm for exploration and more knowledge took over. There was no other place more apt to start than in Jogjakarta, the educational and cultural center of Indonesia. Along the way, A-wan pointed out the many universities and educational institutions that were virtually in every block of the city. People from all over the country come to Jogja, as they fondly call the place, to study. Not only that but people come to Jogja to marvel at its ancient temples, particularly the Hindu temple of Prambanan and the famous Buddhist temple of Borobudur. “We’ll go to Borobudur tomorrow,” A-wan said.
My excitement surged up. Since I was a kid I was marveling at pictures of Borobudur in books, especially the ones that discussed the “wonders of the world.” The most popular photographic image of the temple shows an open dagob revealing a seated Buddha statue with a backdrop of many more dagobs and basking in the copper glow of the sunset. The image burned in my mind.

This 9th century temple is the biggest Buddhist monument in the world. Standing on a hill, Borobudur was built like a stepped pyramid with six concentric quadrangular levels, which diminish in size as one goes up. The top tiers consist of three circular platforms, where there are 72 stone dagobs (latticed stupas in the shape of hand bells), each housing a seated Buddha statue, arranged around a monumental stupa.
Rising 95 feet from the ground, the temple was constructed mostly using andesite, a dark bluish-gray volcanic stone, mined in the site and in the surrounding areas. It was estimated that nearly two million blocks were used. With the pyramidal base measuring 402 feet long, from north to south, and 383 feet long, from east to west, it covers about 2,500 square meters.
It is not only the massive size that astonishes one, but also the craftsmanship and the labor that went with the building of Borobudur. The temple is full of statues, bas-relief and hand carvings it is said that the relief panels alone would stretch for three kilometers if laid end to end. On the terraces are galleries, open corridors with balustrades carved with 1460 relief panels depicting Buddhist tales and the life of Buddha. There are a total of 432 statues of Buddha punctuating the terraces.
Now, I was several kilometers and a day away from it. Going around Jogjakarta, I was regularly reminded. Many restaurants, shops and hotels incorporate the images and symbols of Borobudur, being one of the most important Indonesian attractions. But none had done it with such elegance and grandeur as the Hyatt Regency Yogyakarta, where we stayed.
Only 15 minutes from the airport, the hotel was hardly noticeable. The environs around Palagan Tentara Pelajar Street looked like the countryside, thick with trees and plants. As the bus lurched into a driveway, the leafy branches gave way to a view of the posh hotel. Visitors were greeted at the Paseban Lobby Court, where there was a lounge and café surrounded by pools. Golden and mottled carps swam around the decorations of water lilies and miniature dagobs serving as lamps. The open café had plush wicker chairs, where one could sip tea soothed by the gurgling sound of the pools and a gorgeous view of the multi-level swimming pools and nine-hole golf course converging into a canvas of sloping landscape of blue and green layers laced with mist. Nestled in a 24-hectare tract and ensconced in lush growth of trees, the Hyatt affected an appearance of an ancient lost temple in the jungle and its terraced look itself is a tribute to Borobudur. Scattered around its network of swimming pools were replicas of ruins around Central Java.
Around Jogjakarta, the indefatigable A-wan led us and talked all throughout the day with a penchant for efficiency of a drill sergeant. Before depositing us to our hotel, he reminded: “Breakfast at 6:30. We’ll leave your hotel at seven. We will be at Borobudur before nine.”
There was a collective groan.
“Okay, breakfast at 6:45,” he said, and there was no respond.
He repeated what he said earlier in the day: “Don’t sleep. You don’t come all the way here just to sleep.”
Indeed. I was not sure if my excitement over Borobudur would let me sleep. But as the Bible said, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

The next day, I woke up with the faint light of dawn dancing on the shiny canopy of palms. A charming letter was slipped under the door. It read: “Upon arrival at the hotel, you will notice the unusual and stunning architecture of the building, which takes its inspiration from the famous Borobudur temple. Observe the many Javanese touches that were used to give this building its unique look.
“Then, be inspired this morning by a bit of sightseeing around the hotel. Witness the various plants and trees that are depicted on the panels of the famous Borobudur temple twelve centuries ago and still exist in java such as pinang jambe (betel nut palm), lontar (palmyra), kecubung (Thorns of plenty) and many more…Have a wonderful memory on this beautiful day.”
The letter recommended Pepes ayam parahyangan (herbed chicken steamed in banana leaves) and Sate lontong ayam (chicken in skewers with rice and peanut sauce) from their bistro. It informed me of an art and culture activity in town: “Wolak waliking Zaman,” painting exhibit by 21 artists in Bantul. It also announced the day’s weather: scattered thunderstorms with temperature high of 36 C and a low of 22 C.
The exhibit sounded interesting, but Borobudur beckoned. Despite the weather prediction, the morning broke clear and sunny. It was already pass nine when our bus sped out of Jogja. Heading northwest, we passed the towns of Tempel and Muntilan. Cropping up at the roadsides were numerous stores selling stone crafts from mortars and pestles to life-size statues of Buddha.
Along the way, A-wan was continuously feeding us information on Borobudur.

“Do you know that the number nine is a mystical number for the Buddhist?” he said. “Look, there are 504 Buddha statues. If you add five, zero and four, you come up with nine. There 171 steps in the stairway to the top. Add one, seven and one, you get nine. There are 72 stupas. Again, seven and two makes nine.”
Before the scenery became mundane, the Buddhist temple of Mendut suddenly came into view by the roadside. Relatively smaller, Mendut is said to be older than Borobudur, built in 824 A.D. by the Sailendra king Indra and contains three big statues. The carvings on its walls depicted stories meant for children.
To my dismay, we did not stopped to take a closer look at Mendut. The temple seemed to serve as a preview of what was to come, further drumming up excitement.
We had entered Magelang, the town where Borobudur was. We had traveled 42 kilometers from Jogjakarta into the geographical heart of Java. A-wan said Borobudur sat inside a 75-hectare park. We would take the second VIP entrance. There were three entrances: the common entrance, from which you would walk about 500 meters to the temple; the second VIP entrance, which entailed a shorter walk; and the VIP entrance, the nearest to the temple.
Even when the bus was going through the road that encircled the park, we did not readily catch sight of Borobudur. Trees grew tall around the area. At the Manohara Hotel and Restaurant located at the foot of the hill inside the park, we saw the dark ashen, spiky figure of the temple at the top. Passing through a low iron gate and climbing up a flight of stairs, I finally came face to face with Borobudur, a massive monument sitting on a brown patch of earth, imagining the time it was built.
A legend tells that the divine architect of Borobudur is Gunadharma, whose profile is said to be discernible in a mountain south of the temple, keeping watch over his creation. Gunadharma built the temple in a single day, after which he laid a curse on anyone who dared to climb it.
Archeologists and historians concur, basing on inscriptions on the stones, that the construction of Borobudur began around 760 AD and was completed around 830 under the reign of King Samaratunga of the Sailendra dynasty, which ruled Sumatra and Java from the 8th through the 13th centuries.
In the early centuries, Indian traders had been traveling to Southeast Asia. Bringing with them the written language Sanskrit and Buddhism and Hinduism, they first went to Funan and then to Sumatra and Java, which were then part of the empire of Srivijaya.
The origin of the Sailendras can be traced to the monument-building Chandella dynasty, which ruled India between the 7th and 8th centuries. It is said that a schism within the family occurred when some members converted to Buddhism. The Sailendras, the Buddhist converts, set off for Sumatra and Java.
To incur divine merits as well as to enhance their stature in the eyes of their subjects, rulers sponsored religious activities such as the building of temples. King Samaratunga built Borobudur and handed it over to the monks, who enjoyed royal sponsorship. The temple became a center of pilgrimage and learning for about 150 years, a short but intense period of Buddhism in the island.
Although the events leading to the abandonment of Borobudur are still nebulous, it is said that the shift of power and population to East Java and the waning of Buddhism might have caused the neglect of the temple. In the13th and 14th centuries, Islam, brought by Arab traders, had largely permeated the island, and Borobudur was fast forgotten until it was engulfed by volcanic ash and thick growths of vegetation.
Now as a tourist attraction, many people come to Borobudur. Someone said that the experience of the monument is much heightened if you are a Buddhist. Since I did not adhere to Buddhism but simply admired some precepts, my experience remained largely cultural rather then religious, but all the same it is spiritual.
I had promised to relish each step and viewing upon arrival, but the giddiness of excitement had me running about, unable to contain the fact that I was indeed in Borobudur. Walking up the stairs, which had plastic mats at each landing, I wondered at the philosophy that went into the designing of the temple. The full details I learned after the trip.
Borobudur’s architecture is a representation of the universe according to Buddhist cosmology. This universe is divided into three spheres called Kamadhatu (the Sphere of Desire), Rupadhatu (the Sphere of Form) and Arupadhatu (the Sphere of Formlessness). The hidden base represents Kamadhatu, the world of the common people characterized by mundane desires and pleasures. The next five levels represent Rupadhatu, which is a transitional phase where man is released from worldly matters but is still bound by the illusion of form. The top three circular platforms represent Arupadhatu, symbolizing liberation from the phenomenal world. Also referred to as Nirvana, the Christian equivalent of Arupadhatu would be heaven or paradise.
Making the whole structure stunning is the huge amount of stone carvings. The base of the temple has 160 panels depicting the doctrine of karma, the cosmic law of cause and effect. A person saying ugly things about another is shown here to be an ugly person in rebirth. Mistreatment of animals will result into being trampled upon by elephants.
The 740 panels of the first terrace narrate the traditional story of Buddha from being born Prince Siddhartha, then seeing misery in the world to seeking and attaining enlightenment. The panels also illustrate the Jataka stories telling the animal reincarnations of Buddha. A notable thing about the Borobudur narrative is the inclusion of the episode in Buddha’s life of not entering Nirvana when he had attained enlightenment and instead choosing to share his insights and preach, here depicted by his sermon in Deer Park in present-day Benares.
What he preached is depicted in the next three galleries: the story of a young disciple named Sudhana in his quest for enlightenment. The four galleries are embellished with Dhyani Buddha statues in their niches, sitting in lotus position and displaying different hand gestures.
A contrast to the other terraces, the remaining upper tiers are devoid of carvings and embellishments. It is but appropriate for a place representing the Sphere of Formlessness. It is here where one can find the life-size Buddha statues in dagobs encircling a large stupa (which usually serves as reliquary and monument).
The Borobudur is actually a three-dimensional study text and guidebook for devotees. The temple was not really a place of worship but a place of learning and pilgrimage. As the pilgrim ascends the monument, he goes through the throng of images, showing the cycle of rebirths. He absorbs wisdom from the stories of Buddha and Sudhana. Having passed through these, he reaches the topmost where he can contemplate with an unobstructed view of the land and sky.
Surrounded by these remarkable panels, I imagined the reaction of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles when he first laid his eyes on it.
During the short British occupation of Indonesia in 1814, Raffles, the Lieutenant Governor of Java who nurtured a keen interest in the local culture, heard of rumors about an ancient monument and instructed his Dutch engineer officer H.C. Cornelius to search for the monument.
Cornelius gathered 200 men. They slashed and burned through the thick vegetation of the mist-laden plains of Kedu and dug up tons of volcanic ash. Multitudinous, strange stone figures began showing up until Borobudur was finally revealed. Coming to inspect the progress of his expedition, Raffles speculated on the past and purpose of the magnificent monument. News of the discovery quickly spread through Asia.
Further recovery projects had been amounted after that. In 1885, Dutch architect and chairman of the Archeological Society in Jogjakarta, J.W. Ijzerman accidentally discovered the hidden base and more relief panels.
Walking through a gallery, I suddenly found myself alone. The sunlight bounced among the canopy of trees. I espied a couple of elephants lumbering past the shrubbery led by two men. The park offers elephant rides. On the horizon, a sheet of gunmetal gray cloud moved southward. I was startled by two maintenance men perched among the statues, wetting the niches with a water hose and scrubbing them clean.
Ironically, the discovery of Borobudur proved to be a threat to its existence. Cleared of vegetation that had served as protection, the temple was exposed to the harshness of tropical weather. Moisture could corrode the relief. Temperature changes caused the rocks to crack. The heavy rains, the worst climatic threat, have an eroding effect. Additionally, the villagers, who were no longer superstitious about the place, saw the monument as a source of building materials. Many statues were taken or decapitated to sell as artifacts.
In the early years of its discovery, Borobudur threatened to collapse in its own weigh. The terrace walls were already sagging and the corridors askew.
The first major restoration was done from 1907 to 1911 by Theodor van Erp, a Dutch army engineer officer. He and his team dismantled the top terraces and the stupas and put them back together again. The sculptures were cleared of moss. However, much work was needed as the galleries were still sagging, and signs of cracks and deterioration kept appearing.
Then in 1968, the newly formed government of Indonesia took in the restoration of the Borobudur as a priority project and launched a campaign to save the monument. Indonesia asked United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) fro help and advice. They drew up a bold plan: to dismantle and rebuild a large part of Borobudur. In 1975, actual restoration work began. The project was a remarkable show of international cooperation. Funding, resources and experts from 27 countries poured in. Supervised by Professor Soekmono, the team included engineers, chemists, biologists, archeologists and other experts in different fields. The monument were taken apart stone by stone. Each stone is cleaned, catalogued and treated for preservation. Then, from huge piles of stone, Borobudur was put together like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.
During the course, new preservation techniques were formulated and there was sharing of ideas and learning among those involved. Prof. Soekmono said, “Borobudur has resumed its old historical role as a place of learning, dedication and training. We might even conclude that the builders of the monument hoped and planned for such continuity. An excellent training program, either for the pilgrim-devotee or for the field technician, is always based on a wish, a fervent wish, that the trainee will achieve what is projected. For the ardent Buddhist it is the Highest Wisdom that leads to the Ultimate Salvation, and for the technician the highest degree of expertise that leads to the appropriate fulfillment of his duty. In both cases, Candi Borobudur is the embodiment of such a deeply felt wish. It is a prayer in stone.”
On February 23, 1983, the restoration project was completed and Borobudur was inaugurated. The cost of the project was estimated at 25 million dollars. After being closed to the public for 10 years, the beauty of the temple could be now enjoyed.
I felt lucky that I was able to enjoy Borobudur. It is fortunate that the temple was not destroyed despite the changes of ideas and beliefs. The Javanese people’s tolerance and acceptance played a role in its preservation. Perhaps it is inherent. Perhaps the rich cross-cultural experiences of Java fostered an attitude of tolerance and recognition of diversity.
Reaching the topmost tier, I wound my way through the beautiful dagobs and was surrounded by young visitors. Here, there were no souvenir vendors to besiege you, but students eager for learning.
I was stalled by a group of giggly girls, students from nearby Muntilan, in their white uniforms with traditional Muslim veils also in white. They tried to converse in the little English that they know and asked me about the Philippines. I wrote some Filipino sentences in their notebooks and was asked to draw a map. Each of them was eager to have their notebooks scribbled on. We exchanged knowledge and took photographs. It was noon and time to go, thus ending the pleasant encounter. I wrote down my address on every notebook and said goodbye.
The girls joined other groups of students and trooped down the stairs, their bobbing heads in white veil began to look like gathering balls of clouds. Among the throng, the dagobs jutted out like dark mountains. Standing near the main stupa, I had a sweeping view of the plain, a green patchwork of fields and forests punctuated by villages. The intense heat was not able to dissipate the mist that lay at the edges, gossamer trimmings to the hills of Menoreh. To the northwest stood the mountains of Sumbing and Sindoro, and to the northeast, the volcanoes Merbabu and Merapi.
Indeed, Borobudur is still a place of gathering, understanding and learning, for the pilgrims and devotees of the ancient times, for the scientists and experts during the restoration, for the students from Muntilan and for me.
Here in the plane representing Nirvana, 256 meters above sea level, with a spectacular view of the plains in the heart of an island of mist, old temples and volcanoes, and amazing galleries of stone carvings beneath, I had a glimpse of heaven.


Published in The Daily Tribune, 18 July 2004