Sunday, January 18, 2015

"Lakbay Norte 2010: Part 2"

Day 2: relationships
The frenzied pace of our first day at Cagayan set the tone for the entire Lakbay Norte tour. From then on, it was a race against time to meet tightly woven schedules so we could see many of North Luzon’s best tourist sites in just seven days.

Without time for proper introductions on the bus as it began its 1,800 km trek from Quezon City on Jan. 24, however, each of us was left to make new friends on his own. That we were either writers or photographers—kindred creative spirits—helped us morph from seatmates into mates quite quickly.

During this tour, Victory Liner bus no. 2121 (a MAN coach made in Germany with 900,000 km on its odometer) was our “motel” where we first rested after checking out all those North Luzon destinations. The toughness of this machine made me again appreciate why the world associates the phrase, “Made in Germany,” with high quality. The bus never failed us on the trip; the worst it encountered was a leaky oil line easily fixed. Its air conditioning was sub-arctic and that was a good thing during blistering afternoons.  

We made friends with one another during our “extra vehicular activity,” mainly over deliciously alien meals (think of huge and meaty red crabs, a lot of red crabs) or exploring out-of-this-world tourist sites such as a dry river bed outside Baguio with a romantic table for two—and a butler!

But the evening “Karaoke” sessions were my mates’ most cherished memories of Lakbay Norte as I found out later on. Without these crazy sing-alongs, our 1,800 km trek would probably have been intolerable. Surprisingly, our girls were the most avid “karaokers.” And strangely for these single young ladies in their 20s both scared of, and intrigued by men, love songs—very sad love songs—were their favorite fare.

Travel bloggers
The first real chance we got to know each other beyond the polite smile stage was at the Callao Caves along the Pinacanauan River in Cagayan during the afternoon of our first field day (Jan. 25). Our previous morning stop on this tour (the Basilica Minore of Our Lady of Piat) was more of a quietly religious rather than a boisterous lay experience.

Curiously, the first three persons I got to know were fellow travel writers from other airlines. Margie Francisco is editorial assistant for Seair Inflight Magazine of South East Asian Airlines (Seair). Ida Calumpang writes for Mabuhay, magazine of Philippine Airlines while Monica Barretto is a photojournalist for Smiles, the magazine of Cebu Pacific Airlines. These ladies were also among the most daring: they weren’t scared to try out “guy things” such as a new sport called “sandboarding.” And I never expected the competition to look this great.

The photographers among us had a field day at Callao since the site is visually striking. A digital picture here is, quite truly, worth more than a thousand digital words. Following our guided tour of the cave, I noticed our sole female professional photographer, Nina Fuentes, photographing her tiny Anime plastic doll named Sayuri against a backdrop of “The Cathedral,” the largest chamber at Callao.

Nina said she does this most everywhere she goes (it’s her “signature”) and Nina has been to a lot of places in the country, Asia and Australia. An inveterate tourist, Nina records her vast journeys on her blog at She describes herself as a “backpacker. blogger. babysitter.”

Nina goes by the Net alias “Evil Martian” or the “Evil One.” I never found out why she chose a name so diametrically opposite her real personality. Too polite to ask. Accompanying her on her many trips are her cute doll pals, among which are a cute Darth Vader, a non-menacing Star Wars’ Storm Trooper and Sabrina (another cute doll).

Callao also saw me make the acquaintance of that new breed of professional writer/photographer/adventurer/tourist/entrepreneur spawned by the Internet: the online travel blogger. Nina is one of these new media professionals. She and the other five other travel bloggers in our group (all men) had, among themselves, visited practically all the worthwhile tourist spots in this country.

Truly awesome for a group of people mostly in their 20s and 30s. And these bloggers make a living by arranging guided tours to those sites they’ve been to, offering photo seminars and creating buzz about places, events or people through mobile and online marketing.

A well traveled travel blogger is Estan Cabigas from Cebu.  His blog at shows the extent of his “conquest” of the Philippines: from a few places visited in his native Cebu and northern Mindanao in 1974, Estan’s newest map on his home page shows his having visited practically the entire country.

We first got to talk while watching a lovely Izah Morales, a reporter for, online edition of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, rappel from a height of about 20 feet at Callao. We jokingly remarked the girls seemed the braver of the species, an observation that would be confirmed in the coming days.

On his blog, which won as Best Travel Blog in the 2009 Philippine Blog Awards, Estan describes himself as “. . . an inveterate traveler” who “. . . enjoys the freedom that going to places entails, both the trip itself and the destination, reveling in the many things that the act of travel offers: the sounds, the sights, the people and the flavors. I’m more into going off the beaten path but am equally comfortable in tourist traps too.” It’s a pretty good description for someone who’s always a willing victim of the travel bug. His business is conducting photography seminars and he takes a lot of photos wherever he goes.

We were joined later on by another famous travel blogger, Ferdz Decena. His travel blog at is a mine of helpful information and photos about his never ending journeys. Like Estan, Ferdz came to Lakbay equipped with those four pieces of equipment essential to any pro travel blogger: a state-of-the-art digital SLR camera (Nikon, Canon or Minolta), a digital movie camera, a notebook or netbook computer with wireless Internet and a celphone or smartphone. Our bloggers lugged around this heavy gear so they could quickly update their blogs. Real time information builds click through readership at their blogs and our bloggers never stop feeding their readers’ appetite for information.

From Cagayan, we rushed to Ilocos Norte, hoping to make it by 3:00pm so we could experience first hand a new sport called sandboarding. This six-hour drive to Ilocos first saw us stop over at the famous Blue Lagoon at Pagudpud for lunch at the new Hannah’s Beach Resort. The cuisine at this refurbished resort was fantastic: giant lobster worth thousands of pesos in Metro Manila, steamed shrimp, dinengdeng and crunchy, deep fried bagnet, among other fare.

Screams in the night
We got to the Ilocos Norte Sand Dunes at Suba at around 6:00 pm. The light was fading fast and we were in unknown territory facing what could have been a terrifying first experience—in the dark! Yet, we bravely boarded four toughened 4x4 jeeps and roared towards the sand dunes, 10 minutes away.

Crowded at back of a blue and white 4x4 with me were Estan, Ferdz, Poch, Cha Fernandez and Michelle Co, two quite pretty ladies from NPVB, Lakbay’s organizers. And, as was to be expected, one of us, Ida in this case, did a Leo de Caprio, “I’m king of the world!” pose in the jeep ahead of us. Our jeep tore along a dirt road at 60km/h as it headed towards the dunes, trailing a monstrous dust cloud. I hadn’t eaten so much dirt in a very long time.

The girls started screaming their lungs off as our jeep plunged down one sand gully. We held on to the thick roll bar and its supports for dear life. The screams reached terror pitch when our jeep reached the top of a tall sand hill, then plunged almost vertically downward, still at speed. I thought to myself as the ground rose up to meet us: “Is sand as rock hard as water if you hit it at high speed?”

Fortunately, I never got to test this hypothesis as our driver steered us out of danger. The girls never stopped screaming and I knew that was a great way of easing tension. As we plunged down our second hill at speed, I decided to scream my lungs out, as well. To my surprise, the other guys with me started screaming, too. We were all laughing loud and nervously as the jeep screeched to a halt amid a spray of swirling sand. “I’m going to take a long, hot shower tonight,” I promised myself.

As we stopped, I could hear the screams of the girls in the three other jeeps. They were having the time of their lives. I looked out across the Laoag River, a glistening black ribbon beneath a brilliant Blue Moon. The race wasn’t that dangerous or else the drivers wouldn’t have taken us out on this evening joy ride. Since it was now almost pitch black, the bosses decided to continue this experience at 6:00 am the next morning. And the girls never stopped screaming as we roared along the dirt road back to the safety of Victory Liner bus no. 2121.

Poque Poque Pizza anyone?
The bus quickly took us to our next destination: the new Robinson’s Mall at Laoag City where we were serenaded by Ilocano folk songs (including “Pamulinawen”) and entertained by Ilocano folk dances. Then it was on to dinner at the nearby Saramsam Café for a taste of their famous Saramsam Pasta and other cuisine.

One customer favorite at the café is their curiously named “Poque Poque Pizza.” Poque Poque is an Ilocano dish made from eggplant. The flavor of a pizza dominated by natural foods such as eggplant, tomatoes and onions, however, takes some getting used to for persons more familiar with the oilier taste of Pizza Hut or Greenwich.

Saramsam Pasta, however, was the group’s favorite as best dish of the day. It’s basically pasta with a lot on it: shrimp, Parmesan cheese, diced green mango and peppers. Karlo de Leon, Lakbay’s official videographer and an instructor at the College of St. Benilde in Manila, became a Saramsam pasta fan. “The best food experience so far is Saramsam. The dishes were uniquely local and yet the flavors stood out,” he said.

Margie with her to-die-for legs went gaga over Poque Poque Pizza and Saramsam Pasta. “Definitely a must try when you get to Ilocos Norte! It's my first time to try it and these two dishes just made my palate long for a lot more pizza and pasta.”

Sad love songs
Poque Poque, Saramsam Pasta and all the other Saramsam dishes constituted a delicious first encounter with Ilocos Norte. What completed the great food, however, was Karaoke and our girls were first on the scene. I was surprised at the gusto with which our girls constantly attacked the mike. Surprisingly, Margie, Izah, Monica, Ida, Cha, Michelle, Ella Fortez (a writer for the magazine Asian Traveler) and Sol Racelis (Editor of the travel magazine, Sidetrip) chose to sing sad love songs. Whatever happened to light rock, MOR and disco?

It’s as if it were easier to sing about one’s personal pain in front of strangers who wouldn’t ask you why than in front of close friends and family who knew why. Or do Filipinas remain unrealistically romantic in this age of non-committal, two-timing men? Some of the men did sing, but it was definitely girl’s night out. The singing went on for hours and we had to pry the mike from the girls’ hands so we could head to the hotel at 1:30 am.

I did take that long, hot shower, and it was great seeing all that brown sand and dirt cascade off my soapy body into the metal floor drain. If there’s one thing I learned in all my other trips, it’s the therapeutic value of a hot shower. My arm and shoulders muscles kept complaining, however, but I knew a good night’s sleep and a paracetamol tablet would take care of that.

Our room at the new Mira de Polaris hotel at Laoag City had that “healthy” clean smell I always search for in strange hotel rooms. If a room “smells healthy” to me, it most always is and I can sleep well. My bunkmate for the night was Bong Bajo, a professional photographer for Sidetrip.

A handsome rake who could be mistaken for celebrity Ogie Alcasid, Bong was at Lakbay with Sol, his boss. The pro that he is, Bong cleaned his Canon, recharged its battery, took out his HP notebook and downloaded his photos before taking a shower. We talked quite a lot before calling it a night.