Wednesday, December 31, 2014

“Lakbay Norte 2010:” Re-discovering adventure tourism and its greatest secrets

WE COVERED SOME 1,800 road kilometers in this first-of-its-kind adventure in Philippine media history. 

Put into perspective, traveling that distance would have brought us further north to Taipei, Taiwan (1,160 km away) or to Hong Kong (1,120 km to the northwest). We also could have made a roundtrip journey to Davao City, 960 km southeast from Manila.

Our fantastic voyage, called the “Lakbay Norte (Travel North) Media Tour,” took 22 travel writers, travel bloggers, photographers and organizers on an amazing seven-day, nine-province merry-go-round that showed us what a resurgent Northern Philippines has to offer domestic and foreign tourists. The answer: a lot. Really a lot.

We rode a specially outfitted Victory Liner bus gaily garbed in the warm green colors and graphics of Lakbay Norte. That bus was our motor home for some three quarters of this epic trek that gave us so much sensory and gastronomical input (read too much to see and eat) I still haven’t come down from that incredible “high.”

More than a re-discovery of tourism in neglected Northern Philippines, the adventure again confirmed a long-held observation that long-distance overland travel can be fun if one journeys with companions who want to have a great time; who put their hidden demons on hold and who let the child in them flourish.

Now I really understand why karaoke is such a potent bonding tool in this country: singing your love songs in public is therapy and not just theater. And why a poignant love song can make you cry in the middle of a man-made lake on a sultry afternoon, especially when someone you love won’t love you in return because she can’t.

Vacations are supposed to be about having fun. But I guess a lot of Pinoy tourists seem to have forgotten that since they lock themselves up in their own private cocoons as they travel by bus, plane or ship. The “secret” is to meet people. Trash your xenophobia, smile and the kilometers will morph from tedium into a ribbon of brilliant memories.

Old churches are majestic pictures in stone. Breathtaking natural wonders show nature at its most creative. But only people—the group you travel with and those you meet along the way—can create great memories from a great adventure.

I took more than 400 digital pictures of the journey on my granddaddy Canon SLR. If you think that’s a lot, think again. Our two photographers took over 2,000 shots and the bloggers took over a thousand more, some of which they immediately posted online.

But I relate my photos to the people I traveled with and that’s what makes those photos special. So, many of us became fast friends and bonded. But bonding seems too tame a word to describe the intense emotional ties formed by creative people packed in a bus for a whole week.

Looking back, I guess I felt like that apocryphal clueless tourist who strives to blend in with the locals but who winds up looking like a tourist to everyone but himself. Perhaps the ever present digicam is a dead giveaway. Or like that out-of-town businessman who drops by for a convention and loads up on souvenirs to prove to himself that he’s been somewhere.

I mean, I would have liked to stay longer at each of those spots we visited. But this was a voyage of discovery and I think many of us did discover enough to want us to return for more. And now, I guess we realize we aren’t tourists any longer but citizens of another world—the world of tourism.

Day 1: Cagayan (Jan. 25)
The distance from Quezon City, the jump off point for Lakbay Norte to Tuguegarao, capital of Cagayan, is some 340 km. That’s a tough 10-hour drive for a first leg, which is why we left at 8:00 pm on Sunday, Jan. 24 so we could sleep most of the long way north. Our host, the people from the North Philippines Visitors Bureau (NPVB), welcomed us as we drove along NLEX into the northern night.

Vince Araneta, NPVB executive vice president, noted this first ever Lakbay Norte was organized to show media that North and Central Luzon are now more tourist friendly, hence the tour’s theme, “Rediscover the North.” Tourism infrastructure is in place or is building, he said. Local tourism offices are ready and willing to assist tourists.

NPVB, which is leading this rebirth of tourism in Northern Philippines, is being supported by a growing number of corporate sponsors including Smart, MacDonald’s, Robinson’s, Dizzytab and the Manila North Tollways Corporation, and by the convention and visitor bureaus (CVBs) in the provinces we visited.

We rolled into rustic Tuguegarao at around 6:00 am: dawn had yet to rise over the imposing Tuguegarao Cathedral in the heart of the capital. The trek to Tuguegarao was uneventful, which is saying a lot since traveling to this northernmost city in Luzon could take up to a day in the old days. My father, an Ibanag born and raised in Aparri, Cagayan, resisted taking us to his hometown because the roads north were alternately muddy, dusty and cratered. The roads were bad for one’s back and temper.

As it turned out, Cagayan was the appropriate choice as our first destination on this trek. The trip north was ho hum, which gave me and most of my mates a good night’s sleep.  I awoke for the first time in Nueva Ecija (where we had a “piss stop”) and for the second as we entered Tuguegarao.

The Cagayanos later lavished so much attention on us they won my vote as the most hospitable province in Lakbay Norte (my ethnic roots notwithstanding). My thanks to the Tuguegarao city government and the Cagayan North Convention and Visitor’s Bureau for this fulsome display of Ibanag hospitality.

Ibanag cuisine: deliciously “dry”
The most delightful surprise in Cagayan, however, was re-discovering authentic Ibanag cuisine. Ibanag food is noted for its lavish use of garlic, which is abundantly grown in Cagayan, and a resulting “dryness” when compared to the “sweeter” cuisine of say, the Pampangos.

Our first encounter with Ibanag cuisine on this trip was during the breakfast served barely an hour after our arrival at dawn on the 25th. After close to half a day on the road you’d expect anything to taste great, even a bowl of instant chicken mami soaked in tepid water.

The buffet set before us by the city government, however, was representative of the best in traditional Ibanag cuisine. It was “alien” cuisine for most of my travel mates (mostly Metro Manilans), except for a few of the bloggers and NPVB people who’d visited Cagayan before. You can tell how a stranger likes “foreign” food by the way he winces: more winces don’t add up to a good review. Leaving a dish practically untouched on his table says volumes about his reaction to a foreign flavor.

There weren’t that many untouched dishes this cold morning, however. The ManileƱos gushed over the lingering flavor of “sinanta,” the Ibanag soup made from Ibanag dry miki (or “dinaddit”), sotanghon, shrimp and chicken in a distinctive orange “atswete” broth.

The large Tuguegarao garlic longganisa (dry, crunchy, non-oily and non-fat), “carabeef tapa” and “pansit batil-patong” (scrambled quail eggs, ground pork, crushed chicaron and minced liver) created a delightful impression on us visitors. I returned for seconds. Sinanta was our choice for the best of the lot.

The Ibanag or Ybanag, by the way, are the dominant ethnic group in Cagayan and number some 500,000 persons or half the province’s population. The word Ibanag is derived from the Ibanag word for river: “bannag.” In this case, the river is the Cagayan River, the lifeblood of the province and the longest in the Philippines. Ibanag means “People of the River.”

Exploring Cagayan
This satisfying introduction to Ibanag cuisine carried us through our first sightseeing trip of the tour. First up, of course, was the Basilica Minore of Our Lady of Piat, the miraculous patroness of Cagayan. “Piat” is the Ibanag word for grace. The town of Piat also houses a museum showcasing Cagayan’s religious artifacts.

It was also at Piat where our group had its first taste of “pawa,” a glutinous Ibanag “kakanin” made from flour and filled with crushed peanuts. Chewing on “pawa” felt as if you were chewing bubblegum, except for the peanuts.

The other tourist attractions on our fast paced first-day included the very popular (the Callao Caves and its many humorously named “rooms”) and the relatively unknown (the “Kalingkingan Festival” in PeƱablanca town. This festival along the banks of the Pinanacauan River is named after the Kalingkingan, a local bird whose abundant droppings enrich the soil). Kayaking along the river was a delight for those among us who were more daring that afternoon.

The Callao Caves rest along the banks of this river, a tributary of the even larger Cagayan River. Callao (pronounced “kal-lao” and not “kal-yao”) is Ibanag for, you guessed it, the “kalaw” or hornbill, a bird that once flourished in the area of the caves but that has since migrated elsewhere.

After some five hours exploring the environs of the Pinanacauan River on foot and by kayak, we headed back to Tuguegarao for a dinner consisting of more Ibanag fare. My roommate was Poch Jorolan, a jolly travel writer and tourism official from Pampanga. Both of us had a well-deserved good night’s sleep at the cozy Las Palmas de San Jose hotel at San Jose Village, which is five minutes by car from the city center and 10 minutes from the airport.

Unlike the larger hotels where most of our fellow travelers were billeted, Las Palmas looks and feels like a huge mansion. An ongoing expansion will add 34 more rooms to this growing hotel, said Myrna Guzman, general manager.

“Nanna” and “iffun”
The following morning saw another sumptuous Ibanag breakfast, but even more lavish than that of the previous day. In addition to the sinanta and Ibanag longganisa we had gotten used to, our palates now had to contend with the formidable Ibanag “kakanin.”

Our breakfast host, Bles Diwa, tourism director for the Cagayan Valley Region, egged us to partake of “nanna,” the special Ibanag bibingka.  Made from a special strain of millet grown in the Sierra Madre mountains, nanna looks almost like melting vanilla ice cream and tastes somewhat like bibingka but sweeter. We were told that making nanna is a closely guarded secret known only to six families in all of Cagayan.

There was also “pinnakkufu,” a delicious rice cake made from upland glutinous rice. A demi tasse of Tuguegarao’s famous chocolate drink made from special cacao complemented these offerings.

Our attention was then drawn to a rare Ibanag delicacy called “iffun.” It would have been just another dish made of ground small fish spiced with ginger, onion and tomatoes if we weren’t told this miniature fish makes its appearance only once a year, hence iffun’s reputation as a rare and pricey delicacy at P3,000 per kilo. Fit for a king, most certainly. The dish disappeared in an instant.

Following this welcome start to the day, we toured some of Cagayan’s most famous historic churches on the road south to La Union, the next provincial stop on our trek. First on “church road” was the St. James Church at Iguig and its famous Calvary Hills featuring life-size sculptures depicting the 12 Stations of the Cross. We then stopped to admire the Saint Philomene Church in Alcala, the oldest church in Cagayan, built from red brick made from a rare red clay called “fulay” indigenous to Cagayan.

The road then took us to the San Jacinto de Polonia Church at Camalaniugan and its belfry housing the Philippines’ oldest church bell (forged in 1595 and named Sancta Maria). Also visited were the ruins of the old Camalaniugan Church and a “horno” or kiln used to bake the red bricks so popular among builders during the Spanish era.

A most interesting historic town is Lal-lo, which in Spanish times was famous as Ciudad de Nueva Segovia, one of the first four cities in “Las Islas Filipinas.” Lal-lo became the capital of Cagayan in 1839.

Also at Lal-lo is the oldest road in the Philippines, Calle Real, which spans the length of this old town on the banks of the Cagayan River. What also made our sojourn at Lal-lo memorable was the welcoming show staged by the town. We were treated by school children to ethnic and cultural dances and warmly greeted by the townspeople.

Thank you, Cagayan
Most of us probably associate the Pamplona Church with “dinobong,” which is rice mixed with coconut milk steamed inside sections of bamboo. The paste like delicacy has a wonderfully sweet taste and we were told it could stay fresh for up to a week with refrigeration. Mine made it home in good enough condition to be eaten.

We then bade goodbye to smiling Cagayan and graceful Tuguegarao, the “Premier Ibanag City,” as we left Pamplona for further adventures at the popular beaches of La Union and in disciplined Ilocos Norte.