Taal, Batangas, the Philippines
April 30, 2011
What better way to make history come alive than to wear it? I couldn’t pass up putting on the past when I got the chance.
The heritage town of Taal lends itself to a little historical cosplay. A few hours south of Manila, the town could well be a century away after a quick costume change. Generally regarded as the center of Tagalog culture, Taal has preserved its tangible and intangible heritage, such as ancestral houses, traditional local cuisine, cottage industries, and one Baroque church, the largest in Asia.
One such heritage house is Villa Tortuga. The name was derived from the Spanish word for turtle, which thrived at the banks of Pansipit River that flows behind the house. Built in the 19th century, this bahay na bato (stone and wooden house) has been restored and converted into a bed-and-breakfast by fashion designer Angelito Perez. As an added attraction, he established the Villa Tortuga Colonial Tour, a day-long affair that includes heritage house hopping, a traditional luncheon, and a period photo shoot.
Lito, as he is fondly called, rolled out racks of colonial-era costumes he had amassed in his decades-long career in the fashion industry. He picked out a white suit for me, the fabric starched to crease-free perfection. I gamely donned the turn-of-the-century outfit, which was stiff, stuffy, and preposterously ill-suited to this hot and humid country, especially at high noon in high summer. The voluminous fabric effectively restricted movement of the typically free-spirited Filipino.
A jabot tie (a ruffled bib secured around the neck) and a color-coordinated Panama hat completed the ensemble. The attire and accoutrements ascertained that only my face and hands were exposed. Such clothing dictated by Western decorum fit for frigid European weather felt rather stifling in tropical summer, despite the air-conditioned sala of Villa Tortuga. I would only cover up in this manner for special occasions, but turn-of-the-century Filipinos concealed their discomfort – and their skin color – on a daily basis. Our loincloth-clad ancestors must have felt likewise sartorially smothered in colonial clothing!
Fellow bloggers Joel and Ian, the Brown Man, played dress-up with me. Ian was a study in anachronism in his all-white number and Mohawk ‘do with an unwieldy DSLR strapped to his neck. Joel portrayed a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing friar to the hilt, cloaked in a shimmering red robe and brandishing a cross over the devilish grin on his face. Another tour group joined us in the period pictorial. The women dressed up as Maria Clara, the quintessential Filipino woman, in that distinctive striped gown and embroidered chemise, coyly hiding their smile behind their calado fan. A trio of men was practically incognito as monks in brown hooded robes. It was a virtual dress rehearsal for Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere.
After the photo shoot, the group gathered at the comedor for a luncheon of local cuisine: pork adobo contained in a hollow halved pineapple and gourmet tulingan (mackerel) in sliced tomatoes, among other scrumptious dishes. Dessert came wrapped in banana leaf – suman sa lihiya (a kind of glutinous rice cake), which went down well with a cup of tsokolateng binatirol (hand-whisked chocolate). At Villa Tortuga, we not only wore history, we also ate it.
A special shout-out goes to Rogie Reyes, one of the prime movers in Taal Active Alliance Legion, who cooked up this celebration of local cuisine and history. Even the servers’ uniforms were consistent with the period theme.
It was the weekend of the first El Pasubat Festival in Taal. All of the town’s heritage houses were buzzing with activities. I found myself flanked by flappers in Villa Severina and regaled by barong-clad young men serenading a damsel under the watchful eye of her mother, both wearing baro’t saya, in the Villavicencio House. Young couples in Filipiana garb performed traditional dances at the front lawn of the Agoncillo Heritage House.
In all these houses, I was a witness to the past, as it were. But only in Villa Tortuga was history a sensuous experience, where the past took on texture, taste, and volume; where our cultural tradition felt like second skin.