cagayan calling

tuguegarao used to be a mysterious place that i would hear from my mother and her three sisters every summer, when we would fly to manila to be with relatives. over cups of coffee, they would talk in tagalog and ibanag (a local cagayan dialect), reliving their childhood and teenage years, before they all got married and moved elsewhere.

because i never learned to speak ibanag, i would ask my cousins for translations every time the conversation turned interesting—that is, their voices would become a bit louder, or they would all talk at the same time, followed by a hearty laugh.

my favorite story was about a mysterious brown virgin mary, which has supposedly granted so many wishes and performed some miracles.

we once visited tuguegarao, where my mother was born, when i was about five years old. i vaguely remember riding in a calesa along dusty, rocky roads; kissing the tobacco-stained hands of countless lolos and lolas, aunts and uncles; being scared to look at a life-sized wooden bust of a dead christ, his head crowned with thorns and his face filled with blood, when we prayed the rosary during angelus; being warned about naughty spirits and encantos every time i refused to sleep during those balmy afternoons. yes, my mother and aunts are religious and, at the same time, superstitious.
other than these, tuguegarao, the capital of cagayan north, was a fog. a faraway place locked inside childhood memories. i’d always wanted to revisit it. unfortunately, i never had the chance—until recently. along with other journalists, i was invited by a government agency to travel to cagayan north in celebration of a month-long festival showcasing the many sights and sounds of the philippines that evoked its long-cherished culture and vanishing traditions.

according to brochures given to us at the cagayan airport, tuguegarao boasts of a lot of interesting places to see, such as the callao caves, the calvary hills, centuries-old churches, including the shrine of the miraculous our lady of piat, the same one my mother and aunts used to talk about.

the tuguegarao that i saw upon our arrival was a ghost of the one i visited many summers ago. instead of the sleepy town, with patches of empty lots covered with cogon grass, and where carabaos frolicked the whole day, what greeted us was a city bustling with activity. empty lots have given way to buildings: supermarkets, fast-food chains like jollibee and mcdonald’s, hotels, bars, even a spa.

the streets have been widened and cemented and calesas could now only traverse a certain route. cars, jeepneys and motorcycles were now the new kings of the streets.

after a brief stop-over at donald tapan’s photo exhibit of cagayan’s mesmerizing sights, we headed straight to callao ecotourism zone. the brochure described the seven-chambered callao caves as a spelunker’s paradise. it was only half-true; it was, in fact, more than that. to get there, we climbed a steep 184-step concrete stairs, with trees lined up on its sides.

our  guide, a precocious 11-year-old boy named jeremy recruited by the local tourism office, helped us while the time with his funny stories and witty answers to our questions. he told us that former u.s. president roosevelt used a baging to reach the caves. when asked how many calories we would burn climbing the mountain, he said it depends on our speed and body mass. if it were a beauty contest, he would have won a standing ovation and loud cheers from the audience for sure.

halfway through the climb, we rested to admire the picturesque pinacanauan river and the surrounding mountains. we forgot how tired we were when we reached the first chamber of the callao caves, which has been converted into a chapel complete with benches and an altar. it was cold, a bit dark and quiet inside, perfect for meditation. or fleeing from the city’s chaos, no matter how fleeting.

now, I can hardly spell nor pronounce spelunker, but being inside the cave was quite an experience and i understood why some people are into cave exploration.

it was raining when we got out of the cave. a planned trek to the other side of the mountain to watch the flight of bats at dusk and a cruise along pinacanauan river while having our dinner were canceled. we didn’t mind the rain and continued our trek downward.

the next day, we visited a number of antique churches and watched various cultural presentations by local students. 

the best part of the two-and-a-half-day trip was saved for the last day. we finally went to the our lady of piat shrine in piat, a 45-minute ride from tuguegarao. though it was a sweltering day and the electric fans inside the church could hardly diffuse the heat, i felt refreshed inside. there was something calming just looking into her image encased in a glass above the altar. and just like my mother and my aunts before, i also made a wish.

originally from macau, her image first arrived in the country in the 17th century. she was also known as the miraculous brown madonna of cagayan because of her color and the miracles she had performed. it was believed that she was first kept by the dominican friars in intramuros in manila before she was brought to cagayan in 1604.

then we headed to the nearby town of iguig for two things: to witness a pottery-making demonstration in barangay atulu and to visit the calvary hills. atulu, where 85 percent of its 1,148 population are engaged in pottery and bricks making, produces every month approximately 40,000 pieces of flower pots, rice pots, fuel stoves, jars and bricks.

calvary hills is breathtaking both for its view and the larger-than-life size of the statues depicting the 14 stations of the cross, a suffering christ before his death at mount calvary, and his resurrection. located in a sprawling four hectares of rolling hills overlooking cagayan river, calvary hills is a must for pilgrims both locals and foreigners.

after a quick lunch, we went straight to the airport to catch our air philippines flight back to manila. i felt light, knowing that a childhood promise had been fulfilled.

(a story that i wrote for a local paper in my past life as a lifestyle writer. all pictures were taken from the internet. no copyright infringements intended. so pls don't sue the poor, jobless me. if you want your photos deleted, please inform the blogger. thank you.)


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